Provided free of charge by Sennheiser for review.
Alright, so you’ve gone and got yourself a fancy headset capable of delivering sound to your ears that’s so good you might just orgasm right there on the spot, horrifying anybody who is unlucky enough to be in the same room as you, but somehow something still isn’t right. Cue the GSX 1000, an external DAC (Digital Analog Converter) and amplifier combo that replaces your computers onboard audio in order to give your headphones all the love they truly deserve.
The little box of wonders definitely looks the part with a clean, black finish and a silver volume control that turns fantastically smoothly. The silver ring is accented by gentle red LED lights that circle it, and in the middle there is a touchscreen for adjusting a small selection of settings. Finally, a little stand at the back lets you angle the whole unit for when it’s sitting on your desk. It looks and feels like a premium piece of kit, and considering the £220 price-tag that’s good news.
So what does it actually do? Well, inside the GSX 1000 is a sound processing unit as well as an amplifier. Once you plug it in via the USB connection to your PC and then point Windows toward it as your chosen audio source the GSX 1000 will use its own processing unit to deliver the sound coming from your games, music and movies in as high a quality as it can before shoving it along the line to your headphones or speakers, while the amplifier lets you ramp up the sound, hopefully maintaining clarity in the process. Essentially, it’s the same as a sound card or even your mother board’s audio system, but it’s also external and thus should hopefully be free of potential interference, and given the £200 price-tag the components are also considerably better than you’d find on most motherboards or even sound cards. The result is awesome.
There’s no software on the PC which means this is truly a plug and play system, but that does also mean you can’t play around with the sound outside of a few basic options located on the GSX 1000’s little touchscreen. There are four preset sound options that tweak the EQ such as eSports, which drops the bass in favor of emphasizing certain mid-tones with the aim being to let you pick out footsteps amidst explosions, gunfire or other bass-heavy noises. To me, the amount of bass dropped resulted in a lifeless sound, but it’s possible some hardcore players might find a tiny competitive advantage here, though I honestly doubt it. Meanwhile, Music mode goes the opposite way by boosting the bass, an option that could prove helpful if your headphones don’t have great low-end by themselves. The final mode is for movies and again strengthens the bass, albeit not as much as the Music setting, while also emphasizing a few of the upper mid-range tones to help bring out speech. Of the three available modes this final setting is probably the most balanced, but if you’re already using a good set of headphones then it’s best to leave the EQ on neutral.
You can also play around with the reverb if you like, but honestly, even the lowest setting made it sound like I was standing inside a very echoey building and everything became fuzzy.
Finally, there’s an option for tweaking which direction the sound seems to be coming from, with options for having it coming more from the front or the rear. For the life of me, I could not find a use for either of these and never touched it again.
There are four little touch buttons located at the four corners of the unit itself, and these can be used to save and select setups if you want to have a few different presets ready to go. They are a tad prone to being too easily activated and because there are only a few options anyway I barely ever used them, but it’s nice to have the option.
A huge bonus is that you can hook up a set of speakers to the GSX1000 as well using the 3.5mm connection, and by using the touchscreen you can instantly swap between headphones and speakers instead of having to faff around in the Windows settings. The only downside is that you can’t plug in any speakers using USB, such as the Logitech G560s that I’ve currently got in for review. However, USB speakers aren’t all that common, so this shouldn’t be much of a problem.
The key to things like this is that the audio will only ever be as good as the weakest link in the chain, so for the majority of testing I used Sennheiser’s own GSP 600 which I reviewed previously and loved. Surely the best headset to go with the Sennheiser GSX 1000 would be Sennheiser, right? Still, I also used the Arctis 7 in wired mode, as well as a cheap pair of Sennheiser headphones along with an even cheaper set of Venom headphones that came with my subscription to PC Gamer, because after all it’s handy to know how much of a different £200+ of tech will make to even the cheapest pair of cans.
Running on stereo mode it’s also important to head into Windows and ramp the sample rate and bit depth to 24-bit / 96 kHz so that you get the very best audio possible. You’ll know it’s turned on when the touchscreen’s 2.0 options switches to 2.0 HD. There’s a lot of argument about how much a person can truly differentiate in terms of the sample rate and bit depth, but at the end of the day if the option is there you should use it.
To put it simply the sound was simply brilliant. For comparison, I tested it against my onboard audio on my Crosshair VI Hero motherboard, my SoundBlaster Z soundcard and even against the Creative G5 DAC and amp system which I’ll be reviewing next, and noted an improvement over all of them. None of these are slouches in the audio department, though, so I also tested the unit against the on-board audio of a budget motherboard, too, the name of which escapes me but that was bought brand new for about £40.
What I found is that in stereo mode the GSX 1000 delivers a rich, warm sound full of detail that is a considerable step up if you’re coming from a lower-end source. If you’re upgrading from a good-quality motherboard or sound card the increase won’t feel as impactful but it’s still appreciable. Even the cheap Venon headphone still got a reasonable bump in quality, though unsurprisingly their general crapiness held the GSX 1000 back massively.
The big selling point is Sennheiser’s own 7.1 virtualization engine that promises to take the standard audio being sent to the GSX100 and use it to create a virtual 7.1 experience in your headphones, mimicking having multiple real speakers using a combination of things such as delays in the noise. Lots of headphones and bits of software promise this, and the results tend to vary quite wildly because it’s actually a difficult thing to do, but Sennheiser might just have done the best job so far. Use the touchscreen to activate 7.1 mode and suddenly the audio opens up, introducing a much bigger sense of space. There is still a slight loss of detail which I’ve come to expect from virtual 7.1, but it’s less noticeable than normal and in exchange you get brilliance. Pinpointing even the smallest sound is wonderfully easy, nothing sounds absurdly echoey which is a problem often faced with virtual 7.1 and the sheer level of detail in the sound is still impressive, even if it doesn’t quite match the stereo. The Witcher 3’s world came alive with gorgeous ambient sound, as did Hitman’s hunting zones. I also ran through other games like DiRT 4, Rise of the Tomb Raider and DOOM, marveling at the chunky boom of the bass and the warm mids and highs. I might have drooled a little.
But surely this thing must have a weakness!? Well, yeah, it kind of does. There’s a port for plugging in your microphone and an option for adjusting the amount of side-tone, which is to how much of your own voice is relayed through the headphones themselves, stopping you from accidentally speaking at a volume so loud even enthusiastic Italians would find a bit too much. The issue is that there seems to be quite a bit of compression going on which muffles your voice and makes it sound too flat. There’s no way of adjusting it, either, which is a real shame.
But the true weakness is the amplifier which is surprisingly weak and incapable of properly driving certain headphones of about 30ohm or more. On headphones with lower than that it does work fine and maintains clarity as you ramp up the volume, but if you were hoping for something that would let you turn up the sound so loud it makes your neighbour’s ears bleed then this isn’t it. It can get pretty loud, but maybe not as much as some folk would like.
For £200 or more the GSX 1000 is arguably overpriced, regardless of how damn good it is, especially for your average consumer who can pick up great audio for half the price. But if money isn’t a huge obstacle and you like to have awesome stuff then Sennheiser’s little box of wonders is for you; it delivers detailed, punchy, vibrant audio provided you’ve got the headphones to handle it all, and has some of the best virtual 7.1 you can find which can really help bring you into a game. There are a few flaws such as the microphone being overly compressed and a lot of the options actually feeling kind of pointless, but none of them are deal-breakers. It is quite simply, bloody brilliant.