Speed-Link Medusa 5.1 Home Edition [SL-8796] review

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This is an in-depth review and guide to the Speed-Link Medusa 5.1 Home Edition [SL-8796]. It is a high quality headset (with microphone) with 4 speakers built into each cup for true 5.1 surround sound. Hopefully this will be of some use to you, as well as a taster of what to expect if you decide that this is for you. Also, it should be noted that there are known issues regarding this product and most popular models of Creative sound cards (namely the Audigy and X-Fi series). I have also given information on how I was able to solve this problem, though my methods are not guaranteed to work for all.

This review/guide is split into 4 sections: this intro, a description of the amp and headset, the story of my purchase, impressions and fixing of the thing and finally my overall review.

Update: At the very bottom I have a 5th "follow up" section of how the headset is now after a month of usage.

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The headset connects to an amp which in turn connects to the sound card and/or home theatre amplifier.

The amp itself has two sets of 5.1 analogue inputs and a set of 5.1 analogue outputs at the back, as well as the AC power socket.  There are no digital connections at all, so this may be something to bear in mind, especially if you want to hook up a games console or DVD player with digital output.  The front of the amp has an input selection button (switches between the two inputs), an output selection button (switches between the analogue output at the back and the headset), a volume dial (the master volume for the headset), the power button, a socket for an external microphone and the socket for the headset itself.  The LEDs are present above their associated input and output selection buttons and change between blue and red to indicate which input/output devices have been connected.  On turning on the amp, the primary input and the headset are connected by default (i.e. the amp doesn’t remember the previous setting).

The headset is fully adjustable (complete with twisting ear cups) and has a removable microphone. The cable from the headset to the amp is approx. 4m long - this is great for me but may be too long for others. About 40cm down the cable from the headset is a remote with volume dials for the front, front-centre, rear and subwoofer speakers. I personally would have preferred dials for a master, bass and treble volume controls, but it's not that big a deal.

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I had been searching for a long time for a new pair of headsets, ever since my cheapy Trust USB headsets had been handed down to my sister when she went to university. After giving the issue some thought (and seeing what my bank balance could cope with), I decided to get a decent headset with in-built surround sound. I eventually came across the Speed-Link Medusa 5.1 Home Edition [SL-8796] and, after plenty of research, it seemed that this was practically a headset to die for, achieving ridiculously high marks in nearly all reviews I have read.

I purchased the headset on eBay from Medusa International and my headset had arrived by the very next day - I was most impressed. However, that moment of awe was nothing compared to when I first opened the box. The package itself is very, very big for just a headset, but it will all make sense when you take the box out from the plastic delivery baggy. The box - with a picture of the headset and amp, along with the specs, etc. - contained a close fitting large, black box. Two boxes, err? Anyway, within the large, sheer black box was the headset next to the amp rested in separate, black satin lined compartments, and secured in place by bow-tied red ribbons, visibly hand-tied. Without even plugging in the amp and trying out the headset, you can already see the extra effort that has gone into this headset (damn those enviously-efficient Germans). And following the amazing presentation of the mere packaging, the quality of this item doesn't let up (at least, once you get it working).

As the amp plugs straight into the sound card, no drivers are required.  As previously noted, the amp allows for two inputs that can be switched between at the push of a button.  Also, as previously mentioned, the amp allows for an alternative output; ideal if you already have some 5.1 surround sound speakers. Finally, there are two connections for microphones on the amp - one at the back next to the alternative output connections and one at the front. The one at the back will be activated when you select the alternative output (external speakers) and the one at the front will mute and override your headset's mic if one is plugged in.

After setting everything up, I had some trouble with the headset - the front-centre speaker within the right cup wasn't working so everything coming from the front-centre sounded like it was actually coming from the front-left. Medusa International directed me to the Speed-Link customer support and, after a few e-mails, they confirmed that my headset was faulty. I wasn't too happy about paying to return the faulty headset, but Medusa International were able to send the replacement the very next day and in a ridiculous amount of packaging to ensure it arrived safely. Actually, I felt rather guilty since I had merely sent the faulty one in a bubble-wrap lined envelope, compared to the box double the size of the replacement headset and generously packed in bubble wrap I was sent.

Anyway, the replacement sorted out the front-centre speaker problem so now it was down to some proper testing. Very quickly, though, I experienced the problems that Speed-Link had already warned be about regarding the Creative Audigy 2 ZS I was using. The one that was most obvious and annoying was the fact that only the front-side speakers were actually doing anything. Not even the subwoofer was doing what it was supposed to. By turning the volume for the front-side speakers, it was pretty obvious that the front-centre, rear and subwoofer speakers weren't even on. After going through everything suggested in the Speed-Link FAQs, I wondered if the amp was the problem. One of the cables included in the box connects an output device (in this case, my sound card) directly to the headset. This didn't solve the problem, so I was at least relieved that I didn't have to make more e-mails to Speed-Link to get a replacement sorted out.

Finally, after trying nearly everything I could think of software wise, I wondered if it could be the Creative drivers. After going from the latest Creative drivers for my sound card to the oldest one I could find, nothing worked and nothing changed. Then I decided to ignore Creative completely and try the third-party kX Project drivers. While I knew that the drivers didn't support EAX in games, I was willing to give that up if I could have true 5.1 surround rather than the CMSS thing that Creative drivers could only seem to give me.

After installing the kX drivers, configuring the settings to my liking and messing around with the equalizer, I decided to test it by watching the new "Halo Wars" trailer - the hi-def widescreen with 5.1 surround sound version - that had very recently been released.  I have just one word to say at this point: Wow!

With the subwoofers thundering and - at last - rear and centre speakers blazing away, I finally got a taste of what I had stressed over for so long for.  In another word: amazing!

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Now for the actual review.

The amp and headset are of very high quality, albeit the casing made entirely out of plastic as far as I can tell. Both headset and amp box are silver/grey and black with blue lights, which will match most modern computer set ups. The headset is incredibly comfortable, even for a glasses-wearer like myself. The padding of the ear cups is a very soft felt-like material, unlike the usual plastic leather-looking stuff they normally use - as a result, your ears never get uncomfortably warm as you normally would watching a long movie or during a gaming marathon using headphones. The microphone is flexible and keeps its shape fairly well, but rotates far too easily for my liking (that is it rotates at all).

I do have two major gripes about the headset. First is the difficulty in getting the blasted thing working with full 5.1 surround on the PC. Perhaps mine was just an individual case and I haven't tested this headset on any other sound card. I have heard very good things about this headset when used with non-Creative sound cards, so if that's your situation I say "go for it!" In any case, I would still highly recommend using the kX Project drivers if it is compatible with your sound card, unless EAX is an absolute necessity for you, as the sound quality produced by these drivers is incomparable to the Creative drivers – kX Project drivers are in a completely different league, as far as I’m concerned.  On the other hand, I found that there were none of these problems when I connected the amp to a home theatre amplifier and watched some movies with 5.1 surround. Secondly, the rear speakers have practically no bass at all, so they're very tinny.  If you put the volume up too high with them, their attempts to produce any loud bass will result in a lot of crackling sounds - the bane of all audiophiles. However, when played along side the other speakers - and the volume not turned up too high on them - there isn't any noticeable crackling and the tinniness can't really be heard unless you're intentionally listening out for it.  The subwoofer tends to take care of the deep bass, in any case.

Other than that, the sound quality is superb.  In fact, if you're not too bothered about 5.1 sound from your PC, then using it as a pair of stereo headphones is also more than liveable as the quality of the front-side speakers is amazing. The subwoofers are also very heavy duty - if turned up high enough, the vibrations are so strong that the headphones actually shake like some unintentional force-feedback system. While some people may not like this and find it distracting, I loved it and felt it really added that extra "oomph" to further envelope me in whatever movie I was watching or whatever game I was playing.

If you’re willing to go through a heck of a load of trouble and inconvenience to get these to work – or you have a different sound card and are willing to risk it - or you merely want a 5.1 surround sound headset for home theatre purposes, then you have no excuse but to get these!  On the other hand, if you’re not that bothered about 5.1 surround sound in a headset, the money could be better spent elsewhere, such as buying a pair of stupidly high quality stereo headphones.

For this headset, I’d give it an 8/10.  If I judged them as they are now I’d give it a 9.5/10 – loss of 0.5 due to the lack of bass in the rear speakers which aren’t really noticeable unless you’re really pushing them and for the rotating microphone – but the fact that it was so frustrating to get them working the way I wanted in the first place I felt that I had to drop the mark heavily.

Even so, I not only highly recommend this headset, I will swear by them and will confidently state that these are – at time of writing – the best 5.1 surround sound headsets money can buy.  Worth the money?  Hell yes!

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Follow up: It's been over a month since I got these headsets and I think it's about time for an update.

Since receiving my headset I have found one very annoying issue. I don't know whether this has developed over time or if it has always been there and I didn't notice at first, but there is a very slight rattle in the right cup of the headset.  There's a buzzing sound each time there's any moderately-deep bass. This isn't too much of a problem during gaming or watching movies, but my Gods it's annoying when listening to music. For an audiophile, it's like nails on a chalk board every single time the bass kicks in.  Rock music tends to drown the noise out so it's still okay with that genre, as will turning up the volume high enough, but for quieter, more subtle music (e.g. orchestral) or music that relies a lot on a deep beat (e.g trance, techno, etc.) it's very, very noticeable. While I have experienced this in other headsets before, this is the first time it has occurred after merely one month's usage.  This won't be much of a problem for most, but for people serious about their music this well be a big put off.  I haven't opened it up to take a look inside (and I don't plan to any time soon - this thing is still under warranty after all), but could this be an indication of poor internal construction?  I don't know - it could well be just an individual case.

I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect that the rotating mic is a little looser too - it seems fairly easy to rotate now. As before, though, this is just a personal niggle and shouldn't affect most people.

Other than those two generally minor points, I have to say that I'm still very happy with these headsets. As far as function goes, it still succeeds in fulfilling everything promised. In the case of most people, they will still be the best 5.1 surround headsets available. However, depending on whether the buzz-like rattling is inherent in the design of the headset or if this is just an individual case (which I'm pretty sure Speed-Link will assure me is the case if I enquired) makes me unsure if this really is the headset for someone who enjoys their music. For general purpose use they're still the best headsets I have ever come across.

Overall, I will maintain my score of 8/10.  For the average user, these will be great other than the known issues involving Creative soundcards and the trouble required to get around this while my new complains won't be an issue. It really would be unfair to throw in my personal bias this time around since I deem crystal clear sound quality such a high priority while most people wouldn't really notice nor care, adding the fact that I don't know if this is an individual case or whether a result of extensive use.  As such, I won't be giving them a rating for how I find them at the moment.

In the end I use these headphones for gaming and watching movies, but when listening to music I have to listen using my Sony MDR-EX71SL earphones via the Creative volume jack. Not ideal, but I'm odd like that. Again, most shouldn't find it a problem, though.
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