The Hardware Review – Sennheiser GSP 550 Gaming Headset
Sennheiser GSP 550Out Now
Sennheiser. Just the name should be enough to send tingles down the spine of any real audio buff. The company behind a complete line-up of offerings for the audio fan with everything from relatively cheap but good quality in ear buds to replace the rubbish that came with your phone all the way up to the legendary and downright audacious $55,000 Orpheus.
Yes, you did read that right, Sennheiser actually made a pair of headphones that cost more than a car. In a day and age of publicly traded companies and boring sounding business phrases like “return on investment” Sennheiser is one of the few privately held firms that takes a longer term view of things like this and from time to time will go completely bonkers with an offering like Orpheus to simply show what it can do if it lets its engineers loose to just make the best headphones they can with the expectation that halo products such as this may contain technologies, innovations and learnings experiences which will eventually filter down to more mainstream products.
Before I get too carried away with just how good an audio company Sennheiser is then, let’s calm down a bit and look at the state of play in other areas. For a long time, Sennheiser ear/headphones were the mainstay of many a person wanting decent audio from something in a personal space. In some respects however, one aspect of the personal audio market slightly seemed to pass them by and that was the gaming space. In an area dominated by companies with little to no provenance in serious audio, Sennheiser seemed involved, but perhaps not overly interested. Early model criticisms about the lack of the ability to change between audio setups geared towards positional audio, explosions, dialogue and all the other things that make gaming involving from an audio perspective gave way to some finding them frustrating to use under certain gaming scenarios.
I’ve had a few different gaming headsets since I came back to PC gaming in earnest 5 years ago, mostly with varying degrees of “semi-lapsed audiophile geeks shouldn’t buy gaming headsets” conclusions. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are not bad, but there’s a lot of very average, overpriced kit out there which sells because someone got a pair of bog standard mediocre headphones plugged a mic in and slapped the tag “Gaming” on them with a snazzy logo and maybe some RGB. Razer Tiamat 7.1 discrete, HyperX Cloud II and of course the never materialised Ossic X which collapsed after crowdfunding have all graced my personal “gaming audio” story. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a proper amp and hooking it up to my PC but haven’t had the time so I’ve generally stayed somewhat disappointed with gaming audio headsets.
Non-gaming headphones and earphones however have been a different matter and several pairs of high end Sennheiser, AKG (before they went all mainstream), Beyer Dynamic and others have given me excellent listening experiences over the years.
Sennheiser’s Gaming offering has been around for a good few years now and I’ve managed to get my hands on a pair of the latest high end offering they have, namely the open GSP 550, so let’s dive in.
Sennheiser GSP 550 – In the Box
Sennheiser shipped me not just the headphones themselves, but the free mouse mat they’re currently offering on their site, along with the GSA 50 headset hangar which mounts on desks up to 3.4cm thick. Pulling open the box you get the well packed headset itself with a small box at the base containing the USB cable as well as the Dolby 7.1 surround connector which plugs into the headphones themselves, along with some instruction pamphlets.
Not for Sennheiser the stickers with logos, also (slightly) oddly not for Sennheiser, the option to use the GSP 550 with a 3.5mm jack (at least out of the box). This is truly a gaming headset (sans RGB of course) and USB is where it’s at. The headset has a couple of flourishes which mark it out as a “gaming” offering, most notably the flourishes of olive green which adorn the sides and microphone boom.
Specs break down as follows:
- Impedence: 28 Ohms
- Connector: USB
- Microphone frequency response: 10 – 18,000 Hz
- Headphone frequency response: 10 – 30,000 Hz
- Sound Pressure Level (SPL): 107 dB
- Cable length: 1.7 m dongle, 1.2 m USB
- Weight: 358 grams
- Pick up pattern: Bi-directional ECM
- Microphone sensitivity: -47 dBV/PA
- Headphone type: Open
- Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): Less than 0.07% (1kHz, 100 dB SPL, 200 mV RMS)
Ok, first of all. Holy cow, when I looked at the Sennheiser website I was slightly worried because it didn’t list THD. This is a huge annoyance for me when it comes to gaming audio products because NONE OF THEM EVER LIST IT! Either because they’ve tested it and it’s so bad compared to real audio products that they don’t want to publish it or because they didn’t test it. Both are bad. Thankfully, upon looking through the documentation included with the GSP 550, it actually lists a very respectable THD.
Build quality is typically excellent and I’m pleased to note that ear pads and the green side covers can be replaced. The boom microphone has an inbuilt switch which enables or disables it as you drop it down or lift it up so if the NSA, China or James Bond happen to have hacked your gaming PC, they won’t be able to pick up audio from it while it’s in the up position. A subtle volume dial caps the right cup with a nice bump to disable everything. The open backed nature of the headphones is slightly limited and encompasses approximately the top third of the headphones.
Sound and Hearing Brief Intro
A lot of audio kit will tend to focus on or around what I refer to as the “standard” 20-20 range. This is talking about the frequency response from the low end to the high with 20 Hz to 20 kHz. “High definition audio” will tend to try to extend that range somewhat, going from as low as single digit Hz up to 40 kHz or even more (100 kHz for the Sennheiser Orpheus).
Realistically, as people age, their ability to genuinely hear the more extreme ranges disappears, low ends probably start at about 50 – 60 Hz for most people and will top out somewhere around 20 kHz. Below this it is more about “feeling” rather than hearing the bass and above the top end you may get a bit more range in ideal conditions with no other background noise etc but this, coupled with the fact that many people will be listening to lossy audio formats on a range of variable quality phones, sound cards, speakers etc mean that if you want a serious high definition audio experience, you’re unlikely to just look at buying a set of speakers or gaming headset for a PC. That much said, the GSP 550 does go beyond the normal generic gaming headset ranges and into more of a high definition audio territory. Worthwhile given that these are aimed at gaming, not somebody who had a bad 128kbps mp3 rip so the extra range is appreciated.
On the off chance that you’re not aware of how much you lose in the conversion to mp3, I encourage you to visit:
Where you can listen to what gets lost in the compression process of Tom’s Diner (one of the control songs for the development of the original mp3 standard). You’ll obviously realise from this that you lose quite a bit.
Sennheiser GSP 550 for Music
I’m glad to note that Sennheiser didn’t give out a review guide with the GSP 550. Seemingly trusting in the enthusiasm of their reviewer base to understand audio as well as confident enough in their product to let it be thrown at whatever the reviewer wishes to try. Usually when I get audio products with a review guide, I look it over and tend to chuckle a bit to myself before immediately consigning it to the bin. I have my standard set of sources I use for testing audio products so I’ll dive right in.
First off, I’ve installed the Sennheiser software and try it out with everything off. We’re listening to stereo music here so Dolby surround gets disabled (for now) while I throw my favourite, particularly tricky piece at the headphones. I usually start with this piece because it’s so precise that it tends to easily trip up gaming headphones which are tuned for booming bass with lots of explosions so Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #6 Allegro Molto Vivace (the third movement as recreated by Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1964 if you must now) is usually a disaster for gaming headsets, but also something I’m expecting the Sennheiser’s to do well at.
The quick, delicate and precise instrumental piece is reproduced in default settings with excellent accuracy and brightness, as it should. The recording is quite neutral and if heard playing properly you can tell it’s recorded in a concert hall, setting the Sennheiser software to “Music” mode changes that a bit. Bass seems stronger and the overall piece sounds less bright. Esport mode dials the bass back to the point of almost non-existence and makes the top end sound too shrill while Game mode sounds quite similar to Music.
First test passed with flying colours, time to move up to another instrumental piece, but at the opposite end of the spectrum. Eddie Van Halen’s ode to the electric guitar that is Eruption. Eddie rips through the guitar as I’ve heard countless times and once again, precision and audio reproduction in default settings mode is excellent. I try Music mode again and notice a slightly heavier bass but the song doesn’t have much given that it’s mostly Eddie on the guitar with occasional drum backing. Overall it sounds like it shifts the frequency response range downwards so the top end is definitely less bright and the bass is stronger. The GSP 550’s come across excellently again and I’m really getting into having decent headphones connected to my PC for… oh probably the first time.
On to the last audio piece. Pink Floyd’s Echoes. 23 and a half minutes of glorious audio experimentation encapsulating a huge range of different audio styles and sounds. I lock the family out of the study and prepare to listen to the entire thing twice, once with no specific equalizer setting and once again with Music selected. “Off” again turns out to be the best setting and I’m finding myself wondering exactly what kind of music the “Music” setting should be used for.
Experimenting a bit throughout my music collection, there’s actually a reasonable amount that sounds better in Music than not including such diverse tunes as Led Zeppelin’s When the levee breaks, Leftfield’s Phat planet, Daft Punk’s Get lucky, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck and 50 Cent’s In da club, while conversely, Aerosmith’s Eat the rich, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Venice queen and Smashing Pumpkins’ 1979 all work better with default settings.
I’m pretty pleased, I’m the kind of guy that if given an equalizer with lots of options will spend years trying to find the best combination for different songs I like while actually not enjoying listening to them so the ability to just click through a couple of options in a GUI and know that one of them should be pretty much on the money is nice. Dolby 7.1 surround for stereo audio is as poor it should be.
Sennheiser GSP 550 for Games
So we’ve effectively answered the question of how are the Sennheiser’s for stereo audio with a resounding yes. So far so standard (although it had to be done of course). Now to try its hand at gaming. My standard line-up slightly changes here as Alien Isolation (despite its great use of audio to create a soundscape) is getting a bit long in the tooth now so Assassin’s Creed Odyssey steps in to the breach along with Doom (in 2016 guise) and Star Citizen (3.3 PTU for some voice action). I flick the Dolby 7.1 to enabled via the USB dongle (also available in the software tool) and switch to “Game” equalizer mode.
Odyssey is the first Assassin’s Creed game I’ve gotten into in a while. It’s a decent living world which is constantly changing with audio cues to what’s going on throughout. In game positional audio is excellent and some experimentation reveals decent reproduction from the two speakers for location with the sense function in game and the little twinkle sounds which hint at where the game has found something relative to the player’s position. A thought strikes me as a friend of mine recommended Dolby Atmos for the PC. I’ve got it on my phone, but never thought to get it on the PC. Unfortunately looking into it, game support for Atmos is extremely limited. It’s also somewhat surprising to find that many games don’t particularly list their supported audio formats in any particularly easy to find location. I suspect that most games are probably using some 5.1 mix, maybe 7.1.
Walking around the game and interacting with people, battling Athenians and Spartans the sound which comes from the GSP 550 is startling for its clarity, accuracy and punch at the low end. Yes, Game mode does seem to expect a thumping baseline and delivers it with aplomb. There is a but coming however. In cinematic storyline cut scenes, speech is a little quiet. It’s a bit of a surprise to me initially but when I think about it, perhaps it shouldn’t be. In general, when I’ve had 5.1 or 7.1 systems for home cinema I’ve always tended to find I needed to pump up the centre channel somewhat to get speech that really matches the volume level of the rest of the movie, it seems to be the case with game based multi-channel sound too but there isn’t an ability to control the channels individually via the software.
Playing around with other modes, I finally settle on “Music” as actually the best sounding for centre channel cinematic scenes and also enjoyable for general gaming since it also boosts the low frequencies somewhat.
Doom is a great game and perhaps more importantly for this review, it has excellent audio. Here, the GSP 550 truly excels. Sennheiser is a great audio company not only because it makes excellent purist/audiophile grade equipment but also because it caters to what its customers want. My long serving pair of IE 80 earphones with adjustable bass are excellent and for those that want a slightly bass heavier setup to general neutral sound, Sennheiser delivered it in those. The same is true here. As much as audio purists may scoff at the bass heavy sound which comes out of videogames, we play a lot of these games for action and, explosions, heart-pounding moments which scare us half to death and we love them.
Sennheiser has done a great job of delivering what gamers want with the GSP 550. Downtown Demonville is very effectively populated with all of the audio cues you’d expect and weapons all sound larger than life, as do the accompanying gory effects. Samuel Hayden’s voice comes through sounding as amazingly grizzled and robotic as it ever did if not more so. Doom feels like the kind of game the GSP 550 was made for.
To Star Citizen then. Friends aren’t around to play while I’m testing. Some will obviously call me a fanboy but I love this game for its variety, both in playing as well as audio. Lumberyard (aka CryEngine, Amazon forked edition) had a good starting point for audio in the first place as an established game engine of course but Star Citizen itself delivers a large variety of audio both in terms of music as well as effects in ship and on foot/EVA. Assault rifles, whether ballistic or energy sound great and positional audio works as it should.
Software, Voice, Open back and Non-Sound Factors
I was slightly nervous upon installing the software. It’s no great secret that many excellent hardware companies fall down hard when it comes to making software and I was kind of expecting this to be another of those situations. Thankfully, Sennheiser has done a good job with a simple and intuitive interface that lets the user focus on what they need to. Do I wish there were more options? Sure, but at the same time it’s easy to just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks while at the same time giving the user a terribly complicated, unintuitive and difficult to use system.
Voice using the microphone from a few calls was excellent (as my family can all attest to!) Noise reduction takes some of the sharp edge off what the microphone picks up and the “Sidetone” settings of Off, low medium and high let you hear what you’re saying as part of the audio that comes in via the headphones or not as you wish.
It’s been ages since I had a pair of open headphones but now I’m remembering why I loved them in the past. Audio just sounds more… right somehow. There are downsides of course. Sound filters in from the real world and if you’re sitting next to someone, they’re also going to be able to hear what you’re listening to but in terms of audio quality.
So to the final point that is incredibly important for any gaming headset, comfort. Wearing headphones for an extended session can be a pain even if the sound is excellent should the manufacturer not do a good job here. Thankfully, Sennheiser have done. I need them at the extreme level of reach to fit my head and was a bit worried as some headphones I’ve work like that can be too tight but Sennheiser have put some sliders in the headband which stiffen up or loosen the contact pressure of the headphones on your head so they’re easy to adjust and comfortable for probably most head sizes. The other good thing is the material on the pads isn’t too hot or sweat inducing, as well as the open nature helping to cool inside a bit.
A braided cable would have been nice but realistically isn’t that big a deal.
So I’m in a slightly difficult spot. These are excellent headphones and deliver stereo audio in a way that no gamer brand I’ve ever tried could ever hope to deliver. They’re also extremely capable for in game audio and comparably priced to flagship headsets from gamer companies that make audio products tuned explicitly for as much bass as they can possibly thump into an eardrum. So as a gamer, I love these headphones and would part with my hard earned for them without question. My difficulty arises in that I also know what Sennheiser is capable of having owned a lot of their non-gaming products over the years and I feel like they can do better than this.
At the same time, it’s also a question of what kind of price point the market will bear. $250/£220/€250 is a reasonable amount of cash for a lot of people but I’m willing to bet that Sennheiser can do more in the gamer space, charge more for it and still shift units. It’s perhaps unfair of me to hold Sennheiser to a higher standard because they’re Sennheiser but at the same time, you can see a car magazine that gives a Ferrari 9/10 and will also give a Prius 9/10. Horses for courses is an appropriate phrase and nobody is expecting a Ferrari to return Prius MPG or a Prius to do 0-62 in 3 seconds.
As such, the GSP 550 earns a thoroughly deserved Recommended award from me but with an 8/10 to go with it. I know Sennheiser can do more than this and I completely hope they will. Gamers deserve it.
An excellent gaming headset, just as at home listening to stereo music or 7.1 mix surround.
- Excellent stereo music reproduction
- Excellent in game positional audio
- High build quality
- Mic turn off if pushed up
- Built in volume
- Replaceable pads, cable
- Open backed
- Adjustable tightness
- Intuitive software
- Software could have more tuning capability
- We KNOW Sennheiser can do better (hello Orpheus Gaming Edition?)
- Braided cable would be nice