For movies and TV, surround sound has become the norm. Most new games support spectacular 7.1 surround, but too many players still rely on cheap stereo headphones or feeble 2.1 speaker systems. They're only getting half the intended experience.
Building on its audiophile heritage, Sennheiser has been making moves in gaming for some time. In addition to several gaming headsets, the company has produced what may be the best solution for PC gaming audio. The GSX 1000 and GSX 1200 Pro are essentially USB-powered DAC/amplifiers, but they incorporate the ability of virtualizing 7.1 surround sound for two-channel headphone output.
This approach unlocks the potential to use a good pair of audiophile headphones for gaming, yet still have full positional audio. The question is, can Sennheiser's GSX approach deliver on the promise? I've had a chance to find out first-hand, and the short answer is "yes, it can."
Audio in Depth
Gaming presents unique design challenges. Headsets have to be comfortable for long sessions. They need to have an integral boom mic, for voice chat. And, though many gamers still don't realize it, they really should provide positional surround sound.
Unfortunately, surround headphones have had a rather checkered history. Early virtual surround systems did not have a great reputation, and many gamers became disenchanted with the concept. More recent designs place multiple drivers in each earcup, adding to complexity, weight and expense - without necessarily solving the basic problem of delivering surround information to just two ears.
Meanwhile, those who've experienced really good virtual surround know that it can work extremely well.
Razer's Megalodon headphones were a great early example. They used an in-line USB-powered DAC/amp, incorporating a virtual surround engine developed by the French air force to give fighter pilots situational awareness. Over years of use, I've been blown away by the Megalodons' ability to create a positionally-accurate surround field. They let me easily target approaching enemies by sound alone, with an accuracy within 5 or 10 degrees.
Unfortunately, the Megalodons are no longer available. Newer virtual-surround solutions have shifted to reliance on software running on the user's PC: one more thing to complicate a Windows configuration, and one more task to steal processing power from games themselves.
Sennheiser's GSX 1000 and GSX 1200 are a more-logical alternative: universal USB DAC/amps with built-in virtual surround processing.
Trying it Out
I tested the GSX 1000. Its sibling, the GSX 1200 Pro, adds just one notable feature: the ability to provide hard-wired audio chat between up to 8 units. This will be significant for gamers who frequent LAN parties and e-sports tournaments, but most Internet gamers will be perfectly happy with the GSX 1000, coupled with the online chat software of their choice (Discord, TeamSpeak, Steam, etc.).
Out of the box, the Sennheiser GSX 1000 is both eye-catching and fondle-friendly. The plastic case feels solid, and includes a sturdy flip-out foot to angle the top display toward the user. The huge volume ring glides smoothly, and the included bright--red USB cable has a quality feel to it.
Documentation consists of a downloadable PDF, sufficient given the minimal setup required. Just plug in headphones and microphone, then connect to your PC via USB. A second output jack optionally allows connection of stereo speakers.
There's no software to install: like most headphone DAC/amps, the GSX 1000 uses the now-standard USB audio interface. However, users will need to fiddle with some Windows settings, from the Sound option in the Control Panel, or the corresponding Tray icon. The GSX 1000 needs to be set as the default ‘playback' device, the microphone as the ‘recording' device. Also, the GSX 1000 needs to be set as the ‘communcation' device, to handle chat.
GSX controls barely need any explanation. The big surrounding wheel controls volume. A small dial set in the right edge of the box separately controls incoming chat volume. Everything else is handled by touch-sensitive icons, which glow red when you hover your hand over the unit. Users can select headphones or speakers, as well as DSP settings for gaming, movies or other types of use. Output can be set to either 7.1 or 2.0 - handy for switching between surround and stereo content. Big red numbers show volume level.
A little wave icon alters the ‘spatial' quality of the sound, with settings for "confined space" and "open world" game environments. Another icon allows the surround effect to be shifted ‘in front' or ‘behind' the user. Personally, I found the ‘flat' defaults to be bang-on, and stuck with those. Another icon controls the amount of microphone input that's fed back into the headphones. This can make speaking into the mic feel a bit more natural.
There are also four small LED bars at the corners of the GSX 1000. Touch and hold one until you hear a ‘boomp!' sound, and all current settings are saved. Touch the bar and it turns white, recalling the saved settings. Neat. I found two presets sufficient: one for 2.0 and one for 7.1 content.
Holding all four bars simultaneously restores factory settings. Holding the front-right and left-rear bars sets Tournament mode. This adds "aggressive" noise reduction to the mic input, and decouples GSX 1000 volume from Windows software volume. It's an interesting option, but casual gamers probably won't need to mess with it.
For testing, my setup included an older pair of Sennheiser HD 570 headphones (now discontinued), plus an Antlion ModMic stick-on boom microphone. The HD 570s are good-sounding, for their price and vintage, and possibly the most comfortable headphones I've ever used, so they were an obvious choice.
To give the GSX 1000 a workout, I used a range of software. I started with Minecraft: a simple environment I know extremely well, and which includes superb audio effects. Using the GSX 1000, I had no trouble locating zombies underground, an important way of discovering resource-rich caverns. Ambient sounds and mood music were perfectly rendered, enhancing the dreamy feel of the game. Overall sound quality through the HD 570 headset was notably superior to my best gaming headphones.
In the more recent No Man's Sky, there's little pressure to locate enemies by sound. But alien planetary environments were enhanced by the clarity and feeling of open space I got with the GSX 1000 and HD 570s. When I was joined by a couple of gaming buddies, voice chat worked perfectly, and benefited from improved clarity via the ModMic.
Rounding out my gaming tests were a couple of long co-op multiplayer sessions in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. In encounters with fast-moving groups of noisy enemies, I was again able to target enemies by sound. Also, when computer-controlled characters occasionally delivered extended dialog, I was able to walk around them and clearly hear their voices coming from ‘in front of' or ‘behind' my head.
The ability to control chat volume was an unexpected bonus. Using the GSX 1000, it was easy to set game effects to a comfortable level, then adjust the chat volume so that my teammates' voices were clearly audible yet not overbearingly loud.
When playing movies with surround sound, my previous headphone systems have not given a particularly convincing 3D effect. The GSX 1000 delivered a much better movie-theater ambience, without sounding unnatural. Listening to two-channel Internet news videos in surround mode made the sound seem to come directly from my screen, again without distortion or distracting reverb effects. At times, I wasn't sure if I was hearing the headphones or my 5.1 speakers.
The only aspect in which the GSX 100 might do better is support for high-impedance headphones. The GSX 1000 does offer 24-bit processing in 2.0 stereo, and produced excellent sound quality with my low-impedance HD 570 headset. However, when paired with my high-impedance Sennheiser HD 600 audiophile headphones, the GSX 1000 couldn't rival the punch and depth delivered by my dedicated stereo DAC/amp. It would be great if Sennheiser did a GSX model with beefed up amp capability, but the target market might be somewhat narrow.
Too many ‘gaming' headsets are marketed on the strength of geeky design, while providing disappointing sound quality, poor ergonomics and inadequate durability. Adopting audiophile headphones for gaming is clearly a better option, but won't satisfy gamers who've awoken to the benefits of positional audio. The Sennheiser GSX line does a good job of closing the gap.
The chief sticking point for most gamers will be the price: currently hovering between $260 to $275 on Amazon.ca. (Oddly, the GSX 1200 Pro is a bit cheaper than the GSX 1000 right now.) However, the cost is justifiable, for the right customer: someone who a) needs new gaming headphones, b) understands the benefits of virtual surround, and c) has older stereo headphones that can be re-purposed for gaming.
In exchange for a higher up-front investment, acquiring a GSX 1000 and add-on boom mic gives a gamer a great surround sound solution, with total flexibility in choosing future gaming headphones. GSX opens the door not only to greatly improved audio quality, but also potential cost savings given that audiophile headphones are a better value than ‘gaming' models.
Bottom line, gamers should give serious consideration to the GSX 1000 and GSX 1200 Pro. And retailers should seriously consider the logic of up-selling gamers, from the purchase of gaming headphones to a step-up device that will free them to use any headphones they like.