Making wireless headphones is an especially tricky affair: You’ve got issues of interference, of wireless compatibility, of surround sound tech, of range and power sources and battery life – not to mention materials and weight and other ergonomic issues. There are just a lot of opportunities to get things wrong. With Sony’s latest effort, it has managed to not only avoid (most) pitfalls, but make a very worthy multimedia-centric headset for not a lot of money.
The PULSE Elite is noticeably sturdy, and has a fantastic build quality that far exceeds what you’d expect from a typical gaming headset. Despite their heft, the cans themselves fit comfortably around the ears and became almost unnoticeable in use. We also like that the various control buttons (mode, virtual surround sound, and mic mute) are all extremely well hidden from an overall aesthetic point of view, yet well-placed for ready access when you’re actually wearing them (including some handy sliders for volume and bass). And unlike many headsets, Sony managed to tuck the microphone away instead of having a stem that sticks out – it’s mostly an aesthetic concern, granted, but who wants to walk around looking like an air traffic controller (no offense)?
Sony opted to use a 2.4GHz USB transmitter dongle instead of Bluetooth, which means you can plug it into your PlayStation 3 (PS3), as well as a PC or Mac for wireless audio use – think not only watching movies or playing games but also Skype calls or just listening to music (there’s also a standard 3.5mm audio cable for use with non-USB devices, like phones and iPods). Setup on the PS3 is extremely easy as you simply plug in the USB transmitter, turn the PULSE on and you’re ready to go with your mix settings, which are adjustable directly on the phones (battery life is also displayed on-screen at the touch of a button). To use the headset with a PC or Mac requires only minimal setup as well via an audio control panel/settings menu. The internal battery, which for our test lasted over two hours with the settings jacked all the way up (we’ve heard others get four to six hours) is recharged via a USB cable. This presented us with the only real headscratcher: Sony doesn’t bother to include one, and with a brief two-hour battery life you’re going to need one early and often. We assume that they presume we all have extra ones lying around the house, which, fair enough, we do, but still it’s an odd omission considering it’s the only way to charge the darn things.
In addition to standard volume and mic controls, there’s an option to control the PULSE Elite’s signature feature, what Sony calls BassImpact. More than simply extra-low lows, the idea is that it punctuates deep, resonating rumbles with pronounced jabs that appropriately shake the phones themselves, making everything from delicate footsteps to heavy explosions a truly visceral experience, whether it’s ‘Assassin’s Creed 3’ or ‘The Bourne Legacy.’ The effect adds serious dimension to movies and games, though at full tilt it will be simply too much for many people – and for music, especially, you’ll want to turn it down or low voices can end up triggering the effect.
While we thought the 7.1 surround effect still doesn’t compare with a full-fledged speaker setup and felt artificial (and it only works on the PS3), overall audio quality was crystal clear, and we found ourselves picking up on several details that we had missed previously from our display’s standard output. Things like whispers, slight breezes, and faint musical elements that we had no idea were even there revealed themselves and definitely made for a richer, more rewarding experience. Besides, it’s the only way to keep from subjecting your neighbors or anyone you live with to home theater’s inevitable loudness, especially at night. Considering the PS3 is six years old it’s a bit confounding as to why it’s taken this long for Sony to deliver such a quality headphone experience, but in our experience, the PULSE Elite was definitely worth the wait. [$149; us.playstation.com]