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Astro’s Reinvented A50s Are Impressive

I walked into an appointment with gaming headset and accessory maker Astro at this year’s E3 with a specific chip on my shoulder. I own too many headphones already.

In fact, I own five pairs of Astro’s headphones already.

I have a pair of Astro’s A40s from 2013, including the controller-based “mixamp” that shipped with them at the time, as well as a 2013-era pair of the company’s wireless A50s. Then, a few years later, I acquired a new pair of Astro’s A40 TR set, a performance version of their older line with a revamped mixamp, more customizable colors, and a slightly retooled headband, along with its second-generation A50s, which used a charging base station for the first time. I also own a Bluetooth powered pair of A38s, because clearly, I have a problem.

Astro’s headsets have been a pricy but very popular option for gamers since the company began selling the A40s more than 10 years ago, but the thing about being the pricey nice option is that it makes upgrading a more difficult proposition. A hundred dollar headset is just a drastically lower sunk cost than $300 or more on something better. So as someone who already owns much of Astro’s output, I needed to be impressed today in order to feel like I might need to keep up with what the company is doing.

Unfortunately for my wallet, I am tentatively impressed.

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Astro took the time to show me the just-released Astro C40 TR, a pro-grade PC/PS4 controller that retails for a sweat-inducing $199. For that price, you get a controller that really tries to justify every penny of the cost — there’s nothing about it that doesn’t vastly outshine everything about the Dualshock 4. The onboard audio for the controller — meaning the headphone jack on it — works similarly to the DS4, but the audio is uncompressed, greatly improving on the quality in comparison. The battery lasts considerably longer than the DS4’s notoriously brief battery life. The wireless signal strength is leaps and bounds better. The sticks have adjustable tension. And, most importantly for me, you can reconfigure the position of the C40 TR’s analog sticks by removing its front plate, and moving their positions — meaning you can have a PS4 controller with offset sticks, as with an Xbox controller.

The stars of the show, however, were Astro’s revamped A40s and A50s. First of all of this should be taken with appropriate skepticism, because I’m operating entirely on the feature set and build of the new headsets — review hardware is not yet available and I didn’t have a chance to spend any time with the new kit. But the new features are quite appealing, in large part because things seem to have changed almost explicitly toward my use cases.

First, the base stations for the A40 and the A50 have changed considerably. For the wired A40s, the mixamp box, where the headset plugs in and you can adjust your volume levels and such, has been reconfigured. Its inputs and outputs have been all moved to the back of the box, which has a new horizontal layout and a flat finish. This is, according to Astro, because while previous generations of A40 were often used with consoles, resting on coffee tables or the floor, many players are using them now on their desks. This new mixamp is designed to take up less space, both with footprint and with cord layout, on a desk, and it’s greatly appreciated.

With the A50s, similarly, the footprint size has been reduced, and the cradle for the headphones to sit and charge has been changed up to sit more deeply and to hold more firmly, and charge more reliably. It’s also designed to take up less square footage on a desk, which is appreciated.

But the big difference for both headsets is an entirely new set of audio drivers, designed and tuned to provide support for spatial headphone audio in the form of native Dolby Atmos on PC and Xbox One (the PS4 does not support Atmos at this time). Just as importantly, the A50s for Xbox One include a two-year license for Dolby Atmos, which is critical — because the Xbox One was not initially designed for Atmos, Microsoft’s license is not universally applicable, and in some case, you’d have to pay to use it.

Two years might not seem like a long time, but there’s a good chance that this point is moot on next-generation consoles, both of which are highly likely to natively support Atmos (meaning Microsoft and Sony have properly arranged licenses for their platforms). Two years gives you enough wiggle room to enjoy the headset now and be ready for next-gen, where, with Microsoft’s announcement that Project Scarlett would be backward compatible with all of the Xbox One’s accessories, all of Astro’s gear should just work.

Meanwhile, I’m excited to find out just how Atmos performs in these new headphones. Spatial audio is a phenomenal addition in games that properly support it, and headphones are much easier to set up than seven or nine speaker configurations (though I do have that setup).

Other changes are quality-of-life related. Astro has rearchitected the A50’s wireless radio, switching to 2.4 GHz from 5.8, which should lead to better range and more infrequent dropouts. The company has also improved mic performance, eliminating mic audio compression and adding sidetone/mic monitoring options. The new radio draws less power than the 5.8 GHz version, which means Astro has been able to reduce the size of the headset’s batteries, which, in turn, means lighter headphones.

It’s a lot of small things, and a couple of big things, that adds up to a headset that might actually manage to justify the price, once again. The only really bad news is that existing mods for A50s will not fit the new model, due to the change in shape of the drivers and earpieces.

We won’t have to wait long to see if this litany of changes will lead to something truly special. The next-gen Astro A50s will ship to stores “soon.”

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