Are you listening comfortably?
For years, I’ve only needed a single set of headphones: a pair of SoundMagic PL11 earbuds. They cost barely £20 but have more than paid it back in superb quality sound, decent passive noise cancellation, and total chuck-in-back-pocketability.
And that’s fine for walking about town listening to tracks. I've never needed a pair with a microphone because, on the rare ocassion I actually make a phone call with my phone, I’m perfectly happy holding the thing to my ear. And I've never really needed beefier, over-ear headphones, because I generally play music from my Mac out loud on speakers at home.
A few weeks ago, however, I started a job at civic hacking agency mySociety. Perhaps the defining feature of the job—apart from the awesome colleagues—is the fact that every one of us works remotely. Frequent online meetings and hangouts, combined with my habit of listening to chillout and jazz while I'm working, could easily see me wearing a pair of headphones all day.
It was time to buy a proper headset – with a microphone, and, most importantly, comfortable enough that I could wear them all day in my office without wanting to rip my ears off.
The problem with “Skype headsets”
I initially started my search focussed on “Skype headsets” (unsurprisingly the terms “VoIP” and “Internet Telephony” don’t seem to have caught on). There are loads out there, ranging from £20–£100. The marketplace is full of technology gimmicks, stupid mute buttons you’re guranteed to only ever press by accident, and, much to my annoyance, thoroughly uncomfortable designs.
Headset manufacturers simply don’t expect casual Skype users to wear their cans for more than a few minutes at a time. And God forbid they should also expect enough dynamic range to actually listen to music.
I knew I had to look elsewhere. I wondered: Who wears headphones for hours at a time? Who needs to talk as well as listen? And who, above all else, doesn’t want the distraction of uncomfortable ears?
Gaming headsets to the rescue
Computer gamers! Of course! Now we’re talking. These guys spend hours plugged in. They want headsets that transmit their voice clearly to teammates in other continents, that are light and soft enough to wear all night, and that plug into everything from consoles to crazy custom-built machines with the minimum of fuss.
After a quick scout around, I’d found the ideal headset for me: Razer’s Kraken Pro. Yes, Razer: The company that makes those ridiculous, over-designed mice. Turns out they also make headsets, and when it comes to headsets, they ain’t messing around.
The Kraken Pro is an upgrade of the basic Kraken, to include a microphone. Everything else is the same. On first taking the set out of its packaging, you’re struck by the weight of the thing. It feels substantial, especially compared to your typical, plasticy VoIP headset. The ear cups are super padded, and pivot on two axes (both left–right and up–down) to ensure a snug fit against your head and even pressure around your ears.
Note I said around your ears, not on your ears. The key to the Kraken Pro is that your ears fit inside the cups, not under them. Not only does this make the headset comfortable, it also cancels out a suprising amount of ambient noise. Ear cups like this aren’t anything new, and certainly aren’t unique to Razer, but the Kraken’s strike the right balance of being solid but light, flexible but sturdy, and, importantly, small enough that you don’t look like you’ve got a Princess Leia hairdo on.
Everything about the Kraken Pro has been thought through. The microphone tucks into a modest little niche in the left ear cup, and pulls out with a tug, exposing its cheeky neon green stalk.
(That said, I’ve taken a number of calls with the microphone kept in its “stowed” position, and the other participants have heard me perfectly, suggesting, like mobile phone antennae in the 80s, the pull-out mic is more for display than necessity.)
Sound-wise, the Kakens are a little muddy around the middle, with a seriously strong bass that sometimes leaves vocals lacking. They’re not the worst headphones I’ve ever worn (indeed, they rather suit the deep, ambient tones of the sort of music I listen to) but I’ve no doubt that audiophiles would find them lacking. I can see how gamers, on the other hand, would appreciate the hearty, jaw thumping bass and piercing treble. But I’m perfectly happy with them.
There are other niceties – like the earcups which fold inwards when you’re travelling, rolling the headset up into a compact, and much less cumbersome, D-shape.
But the killer feature for me was the connection method. A refreshingly sturdy and tangle-resistant cable extends from the left earcup and ends, about 1.5m later, in a single 3.5mm headphone jack. No tedious USB cables, just a combined jack like you’d see on a set of iPhone earbuds.
Indeed, like an iPhone, my Mac also has a combined headphone and line-in audio port, meaning I can just plug the Krakens straight into my MacBook Air and enjoy seamless audio input and output, without drivers, audio preference switching, or even using up any of my precious USB ports.
I don’t think Mac headphone jack compatibility was a key concern for Razer when they were making the Kraken Pro – the combined 3.5mm jack is probably there to allow the headset to function as a perfectly serviceable (if slightly large for typical streetwear) iPhone/Android headset. But it just goes to show that, by bucking the trend for complicated USB plugs and proprietary wireless dongles, Razer has made their headsets literally zero-hassle. Plug in and go. Simple as that. It’s a nice touch.
Since the Krakens arrived, I’ve been so pleased with them—so refreshed by a simple, well-designed piece of equipment doing its job with absolutely no fuss and no gimmickery—that I’ve just got to tell people about it. If only so that other remote workers in my position might stumble across this review and realise there’s no need to endure painful Skype calls or tinny background music ever again.
If you’ve got suggestions for other, equally excellent headsets, drop me a line @zarino on Twitter, and I‘ll add them to the bottom of this post.