“You know, I’ve never really heard of Plantronics”. This was the question I asked, an embarrassing one in retrospect. Did you know Plantronics, electronics company that specialises in headsets, supplied NASA with the equipment that would be used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and allow us to hear “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”? I didn’t. Hence the stupid question.
While their presence in the Australian market is largely focused on communication equipment for businesses, Plantronics are globally recognised for their work in gaming headsets too. A number of their products are currently available in Australia, but the big one on the horizon is the Plantronics RIG 500 series. Built on the idea of configurable physical hardware, I got to go hands-on (ears-on?) with the sets, poop a little while playing Outlast, and tinker with this surprisingly affordable and audibly pleasing entry in the gamer’s headset market.
The RIG 500 series is technically about five different packages, each geared towards different prices ranges and needs. Entry level sits at the basic RIG 500, while enthusiasts can grab the RIG 500E, and the products as a whole span compatibility with consoles to PCs. I’ll get into the specifics in a bit, but the major selling point of the RIG 500 series is the interchangeable parts between packs. As most people are aware when you buy a set of headphones you’re pretty much locked to the look, technology, comfortably, and functions.
The RIG 500, on the other hand, is almost completely modular, allowing you to pull apart the various pieces almost like an audio-electronic LEGO set. The ear cups can be removed, either to be replaced with a different set and/or slot into higher/lower tiers of the headset frame for adjusting comfort. Mics can be detached, if flipping it up (which auto-mutes) is still getting in the way. Higher end models have a detachable Dolby Surround Sound module (again, more on this later). And headbands can be adjusted and replaced with new styles and patterns. You’re obviously not going to be pulling apart the headphone speakers themselves, but the package as a whole is customisable and modular, and that’s very much the point. Want to start at the bottom and buy fancier headphone speakers later? You can. Headset setting a little to high? Lower the cans, adjust the band. Want to replace your standard black headband with a neon pink Hello Kitty variant? They’re not selling one yet, but if they were you could and should.
And there’s really no need to go into detail on how and where the pieces slot in, as having tinkered with a model myself it’s all straight forward and simple. You’re not going to accidentally plug the mic into the headband.
I got to go ears-on with one of the higher end models, which on PC comes with a 24-bit 7.1 Dolby Headphone module. This was a great point of curiosity for me, as my current home PC setup is a pair of Audio-Technica headphones (not specifically built for games, mind you, so no mic) and a specialised sound card that sends a 5.1 Dolby Headphone signal. I love it to bits, how it decodes a 5.1 signal in real time, sends it over stereo speaks, and successfully emulates the sensation of spacious 5.1 directional sound. But naturally this wasn’t cheap. This RIG 500 variant however has an encoding dongle placed on the cable (which, being modular, can be removed and toggled on/off), and with the appropriate software supplied emulates a similar effect right out of the box. Having a point of comparison (I love my headphones) I was surprised at how accurate the effect was to what I experience at home. Playing Outlast the Dolby Headphone directional audio emulation was extremely convincing and spacious, instantly noticeable for what it was and for what I consider a significant improvement over standard stereo frequency in video games. A suitably horrifying pleasure for the ears.
Plantronics is obviously not the first company to include Dolby Headphone technology in their headsets, but it’s nice to see them continuing the high end standard and including it all in the one box. And that’s in addition to providing a far more economic solution to the combination of Dolby Headphone technology and a great set of headphones than buying both separately, like I did.
The sound quality as a whole was great too. I often find gamer-specific headphones to either have totally busted treble and bass levels (usually lacking the latter), or a gross, tinny quality to the treble audio. The set I was listening to had neither of these issues. The bass could have been a little bit thumpier, but I put that down to personal preference (and could be equalised higher by software anyway), as the bass frequency still had a presence alongside a crystal clear treble. The mix and levels definitely met a strong standard I’d hold for a set of gamer headphones, which made the Dolby Headphone 7.1 all the more appreciable. The earcups themselves come in a couple of variants, the most noticeable differences being either noise isolated or vented, and material use of a nice leather or memory foam. The highest end set (RIG 500E) comes with both a leather isolated and memory foam vented set, but the earcups are perhaps the easiest example of technical improvements via the modular design. You can grab the standard RIG 500 set and later on purchase more luxury earcups later.
I was also impressed by the weight. At around 200g these cans are light. My Audio-Technica set weighs in at almost 300g, which doesn’t sound like too much more, but is noticeable given things must sit on your head for lengthy sessions. There’s a lovely weightless, airy feeling to having the RIG 500 on your head, which I’m sure will go a long way to making long gaming marathons easier to endure. To quote The Simpsons, it feels like I’m wearing nothing at all.
I’m not going to state that the Plantronics RIG 500 set will replace my current setup. After all, mine is already paid for. But if we were to step back in time before I spent my money on a set of cans and sound card, what Plantonics is offering here would be a very attractive and perhaps far more affordable alternative. You can find out more about the Plantronics RIG 500 series here, and grab yourself a set when it hits local retailers in a month or two.