Gaming headphones used to be a niche catered by primary gaming peripheral manufacturers such as Razer and SteelSeries. Of late, larger entities such as Sennheiser, Asus and Corsair too have jumped headlong into the gaming headset segment. To be honest, the sudden rise of manufacturer interest in this unlikely niche is no secret. Gamers have increasingly embraced headsets because obtaining accurate positional audio through speakers in a desktop or laptop gaming setup is quite expensive and, most importantly, rather inconvenient as well.
With elaborate multichannel speaker arrangements out of the question, hardcore PC gamers are willing to spend big bucks on headsets fine-tuned to deliver positional accuracy. Their deep desire to gain an edge in competitive multiplayer FPS games and even deeper pockets have quickly turned this niche into a hotly contested battle between scores of gaming headsets from various manufacturers.
The Gamer's Dilemma
A major chunk of the gaming headset sales can also be attributed to those who aren't as hardcore, but still need a headset outfitted with a microphone for in-game communication in multiplayer games. This demographic, however, doesn't exclusively seek great positional sound from such headsets. These gamers want their gaming headsets to perform just as well with music and movies. Unfortunately, the very act of attaching a mic to any headphone seems to give manufacturers an unspoken licence to deliver pathetic audio fidelity. For a long time, gamers had to choose either between great sound quality of regular headphones and the inbuilt microphones found in gaming headsets.
The circumaural headset is quite comfortable despite its heft
That was until Asus unleashed the ROG Vulcan ANC, which delivered a large enough soundstage and excellent imaging for gaming, while also incorporating an enviable tonal balance and a deep yet tight low end. It boasted of great positional accuracy without compromising on aural fidelity, making it one of the rare headsets that perform admirably in gaming, music and movies. The Vulcan ANC's lack of an integrated USB audio solution, however, made it look inadequate when compared to the Razer Banshee headset, which delivered the same at a lower price point. Having said that, the Vulcan ANC did make up for that with superior performance and active noise cancellation, which is pretty good value at this price range.
Nevertheless, a discrete portable USB audio solution can be crucial during LAN parties, especially for gamers who want to maintain the same aural performance across different machines. Dubbed as the Asus ROG Vulcan Pro, the successor to competent Vulcan ANC packs in its own USB audio solution marketed as the driverless ROG Spitfire USB audio processor. This is Asus's attempt to bring its premium gaming headset on par with the competition.
Looks Like a Supercar, Built Like a Tank
Cosmetically, the Vulcan Pro looks exactly the same as its predecessor. It's essentially the exact same chassis, albeit with the unsightly faux carbon fibre accents on the earcup housings replaced with those bearing a brushed gunmetal finish. This lack of change is a good thing, because the Vulcan Pro looks gorgeous with its all-black finish and an earcup fashioned out of shiny, blood-red plastic. This isn't a case of all form and no function either. Despite its 375-odd gramme weight, it is one of the most comfortable headsets this side of the blissfully gentle Audio Technical ATH-AD700 headphones.
The carrying case is classy and quite convenient for LAN parties
The headset's excellent ergonomics can be attributed to generous padding found on the headband as well as the ultra-soft circumaural cushions (they cover the entire ear). The delightfully supple earpads are composed of high-quality memory foam wrapped with leatherette material. The leatherette pads are known to improve bass, but the material also tends to make one sweaty in the bargain. Asus claims that the earcups themselves provide an impressive mechanical noise cancellation of 30dB. While I can't verify that figure, these headphones indeed seem to block out noise quite well.
The headset incorporates an active noise cancellation (ANC) circuitry that's powered by a single AAA battery. It's pretty effective at significantly attenuating low-frequency hum emanating from system and ceiling fans. Just don't expect it to completely drown out dynamic noise such as someone speaking loudly on a cellphone in the vicinity. Having said that, like all ANC implementations, Vulcan's the noise cancellation system tends to adversely affect sound quality and subjects your eardrums to unnecessarily high sound pressure levels. Use it only when absolutely necessary, as the cushions themselves provide decent isolation.
If there's one thing more impressive than the Vulcan Pro's ergonomics, it has to be its build quality. It features a sturdy construction replete with steel height adjustment bands that allow it to fit crowns of any size. The driver enclosures exhibit an impressive range of articulation, thereby allowing them to conform neatly to the contours of your head. This is achieved with a ball-and-socket construction that connects the headband to the ear cups. The materials employed are pretty good for the price, with high-quality plastics used all around.
Such sturdiness is especially impressive considering the fact that this headset collapses into a manageable footprint thanks to a pair of tough, yet smooth hinges that click into position and retain their orientation well. Such portability makes it ideal to be lugged around at LAN parties. Asus even provides a rather handsome carry case for that purpose. The headset's superior build quality is evident in little things such as how the detachable microphone snaps snugly into its socket with nary a wiggle, or how the device exhibits low construction tolerances and play despite its collapsible design. It's clear that Asus almost didn't cut any corners while making the Vulcan Pro. Well, almost, because the ANC button seems cheap, fiddly and out of place on an otherwise well-made product.
Gold plated interconnects and braided cables are reassuringly upmarket
What I like the most about the product is its fastidious attention to detail. Little things such as the fine red cloth shrouding the drivers, usage of foam for optimum noise isolation at the earcups' ball-and-socket joint, or the nifty cable management point towards a no-holds-barred approach to superior fit, finish and design. Asus also throws in a detachable cable, replete with gold plated 3.5 mm TRS connectors and a braiding that prolongs longevity as well as makes the whole shebang classy and tangle-free. These headphones justify their asking price with judicious use of quality materials and clever design.
An Enhanced Gaming Pedigree
The Vulcan ANC Pro's gaming performance benefits from its ability to resolve higher frequencies well, which endows it with greater positional precision. The soundstage is sufficiently large, whereas the imaging is accurate enough to pinpoint foes in FPS games. Just don't expect the headset to outperform the Audio Technica ATH-AD700 and you'll be fine. The inbuilt noise cancelling mic does a good job at relaying commands to your teammates as well.
The ROG Spitfire USB audio processor lies at the heart of the Vulcan Pro's major revision to the last model. It's essentially an external USB sound card capable of processing 16-bit, 48KHz audio in a stutter-free manner. It even features a competent headphone amplifier that gives it a definite edge over onboard audio solutions. However, don't get carried away and expect the ROG Spitfire to sound better than aftermarket sound cards that pack in higher resolution and offer better fidelity. The USB audio processor's main party trick is a one-touch, driverless control of Surround and FPS enhancements tailormade for gaming. To be honest, I was never a fan of quasi-surround gimmicks, as I believe that does nothing more than ruining sound quality. This is no exception either.
The ROG Spitfire USB audio is a definite step-up from onboard audio, but still no match for discrete sound cards
The FPS button is a glorified equaliser setting that attenuates certain frequencies to make voice and gunfire more prominent. While the mode did make enemy footsteps more audible, I found that it tends to completely filter out sounds such as distant gunfire and ambient details that may put you at a disadvantage. Most gamers owning decent sound cards are better off not using the ROG Spitfire at all. That's a cause for concern because the Vulcan Pro is a little over a grand dearer than its Spitfire-less predecessor. Since the updated headset is essentially the old one with cosmetic changes and the Spitfire USB audio, the opting for the Vulcan Pro over the older Vulcan ANC doesn't make sense if you already own a good soundcard or a headphone amplifier. However, it's not like you have a choice here. Unfortunately, the older model has been phased out to make way for the Vulcan Pro.
A Worthy All-Rounder
Like its predecessor, the Vulcan Pro is a brilliant performer in the non-gaming spectrum thanks to its impeccable tonal balance. While the updated model will not blow you away with its infrasonic capability, the bass extension is good enough to render deeper notes. Bass is tight for most of the frequency range, with just a slight looseness evident in the deeper notes of the kick drum. In a nutshell, unless you solely listen to hip-hop, these headphones deliver just the right amount and quality of bass.
The analogue volume control surprisingly doesn't affect channel balance adversely
I personally love this headset due to its emphasis on clear and detailed mids. This makes vocals and guitars a delight, which forms the framework of most forms of music. Combine that with an excellent timbre and tonality, and you have a pair of headphones that handle diverse genres of music with consummate ease. Being a gaming headset affords it with a large soundstage and good imaging capability that serves impeccably in music and movies.
The Vulcan Pro is the rare all-rounder that's fit for gaming, music and movies. With a price of Rs 8,100 (plus taxes), it does come dangerously close to the Audio Technica ATH-AD700 territory. Having said that, unlike the AD700, the Asus headset packs in a microphone and a USB audio processor. Having said that, you'll be hard pressed to find a gaming headset offering the best combination of positional accuracy and musicality. Just like its prececessor, the Vulcan Pro justifies its asking price with commendable performance, and it therefore comes highly recommended.
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