Plantronics GameCom 777 7.1 Surround Headset

We go ears-on with the latest gaming-focused headset from Plantronics.

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While headsets might not be the most exciting piece of hardware to shop for, being able to accurately hear where guns shots of your opponents are coming from is invaluable in shooters like Modern Warfare and Counter Strike. With those gamers in mind, accessories manufacturer Plantronics has released the GameCom 777 7.1 surround headset for the PC and Mac. Though it's marketed as a 7.1 headset, in truth, it's a simple stereo affair, with the surround magic taking place in an included USB dongle. Can mere trickery replicate the feel of a true 7.1 system? We've been giving the headset a thoroughly good ears-on to find out.

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The GameCom 777 is packaged in a surprisingly understated box, which forgoes many of the garish graphics often seen on peripherals aimed at gamers. Also pleasing is the lack of blister packaging that manufacturers like Sony often use, making the headset easy to access without having to hack at it with a pair of scissors. Inside you'll find the headset itself, a USB dongle, and a quick-start guide. What you won't find is a software disk, as thankfully the USB dongle uses standard plug and play drivers on both the PC and Mac.

On first impressions of the headset is impressive. Though it's not the most stylish of units, the chunky construction and soft cloth padding around the earpieces and headband give it a quality feel. One nice touch is the retractable microphone, which folds away discreetly into the headband for when you're just listening to music or tired of endless smack-talk. Also worthy of note is the cabling, which is reassuringly thick, and with a 6.5-foot length, it's long enough for a spot of late night movie watching too.

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Near the top of the cable is an in-line volume control and microphone mute switch. Like the headset, it's suitably chunky, and the large rotary control is easy to use in the middle of a firefight. The cable terminates into two standard 2.5-mm jacks; one for the microphone and one for the headphones. This allows you to use the headset with any device with a headphone jack, so you're not forced to use the USB surround dongle. The dongle itself is very small and light, so you'll have no problems leaving it dangling from USB socket. There are two 2.5-mm jacks on the bottom for hooking up the headset and a sliding switch on the side. This activates the Dolby surround effect and lights up a thin blue LED strip in the centre of the dongle.

Putting on the headset, we were impressed with how comfy it was. The earpieces cover the ears completely rather than rest on top of them, which, when combined with their thick padding and cloth covering, meant we had no trouble wearing them for extended periods of time. The earpieces also feature an open back design, which is intended to give audio a more natural feel. However, this does have the disadvantage of leaking some audio to the outside world, so these aren't a great choice if you listen to your audio particularly loud and have irritable spouses or coworkers.

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To test the headset, we set up a number of sources, including music, DVDs, and of course games. Before we jumped into any surround-sound craziness, we checked out how the headset handled a standard stereo source, and happily, we found the Plantronics sounded pretty good. They aren't the most accurate cans out there, but they avoid the exaggerated bass and low mids that are common on many headphones, which muddy the sound. There's plenty of bass on offer, but it's controlled, allowing the upper mids and treble to ring clearly. Music sounded nicely balanced, with a clear separation between the instruments, meaning we could happily to listen to an album or two on them without any problems.

Switching to DVDs, we tried out the surround feature on the dongle. It works by implementing Dolby's Pro Logic IIx technology, which can take any stereo or existing 5.1 sources and up convert them to 7.1. However, as the dongle only outputs to the stereo headset, the effect is a little hit and miss. It's not a true surround experience by any means, but it does widen the sound stage, making sound effects like bullet shots and explosions sound like they're happening in the distance. It works with some films better than others, though. For example, action films with tons of explosions really benefit from it, while quieter dialogue-heavy films are actually a little harder to watch. This is because the surround effect also widens the sound stage of dialogue, losing detail and making it harder to hear.

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Though the surround effect sometimes works well in films, games are a different story. The loss of detail with the effect enabled is a real hindrance, and unless you really crank the volume, footsteps and bullets are harder to track. There is a striking difference when turning the effect off; dialogue is easier to hear and explosions and bullet fire are much more direct. With surround being merely an effect, little is lost in terms of positioning, as audio rarely sounds like it's coming from behind anyway. The microphone fares much better, with fellow players reporting that we sounded clear when speaking. The shorter length of the mic is also a plus, as it rarely gets in the way of your actions during a heated game.

As a stereo headset, the Plantronics GameCom 777 7.1 Surround Headset is very good. The solid construction, comfort, and well-implemented mic and volume controls are excellent, and the audio quality is a cut above the norm. Sadly, the surround effect is just as we feared--merely an effect. It can make some movies sound great, but the way it diminishes the detail from audio sources means it's not always wise to use it when playing games. Thankfully, switching it off is as easy as sliding a switch, so at least you have the option if it's interfering with your gaming. At £79.99, the Plantronics is reasonably good value, too, particularly when compared with rivals, such as Logitech's G35, which uses similar technology and retails at about £100. If you go in knowing that the 7.1 surround is just an effect, then the Plantronics is a good choice; just don't expect to be re-creating a full-blown 7.1 experience on your head.

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