More than Tournament Ready.
One thing you can say about Astro is that they're committed to their look; which to me has always looked like medium-cool air-traffic controller headphones from 80's movies. As a matter of fact, it's caused them some minor problems launching the A40 TR (Tournament Ready) according to Technical Product Manager James Lang, since some users would open the kit, take a look at the Mixamp and say, "I already got one of those."
Well, not so much this time. The Astro A40 TR's mixamp has been redesigned completely with streaming and tournament features in mind. Lang told me they had a set of lists solicited from streamers and professional gamers for what they wanted, and it pretty much matched up with their own internal ideas of where to take things. It was no surprise that they had their launch party the night before Twitchcon, giving them the chance to play host to the streaming demographic they're directly courting with the A40 TR.
Part of this is that the A40 TR now has an onboard usb soundcard for PC and Mac users; allowing them to compete with brands like Kingston's HyperX series, where a huge part of the draw is that no special internal soundcard is necessary for a computer, since you're plugging one in with your headphones themselves. In the instructions, this manifests by showing a technical illustration of what looks like a macbook pro's usb port (plug-in here. etc.). This functionality has been folded into the TR's Mixamp, and proprietary software allows users to control the mix further.
For streaming this means having control of game and voice audio on a virtual mixer. For competitive tournament play, where the mixamps are traditionally daisy-chained together, it allows users to control the levels of individual players. This way if a player's input is too loud for the general mix, it can be turned down without having to mess with the hardware, mid-game.
The real value of the A40's has always been the mixamp, which takes the 7.1 Dolby surround, and mixes it for a two-channel pair of headphones to simulate the surround effect. As Lang explained to a group of streamers while I was in the room, breaking down the $250 price; "this is $150 pair of headphones with a $100 mixamp." That is, there are better headphones out there, but the combination of both pieces of hardware is an excellent value for the price paid.
What the headphones bring that's new is more functional customization than in prior A40 sets. By purchasing the Tournament Ready Mod Kit, players can convert the more open set of phones (optimized for streaming) to a closed-exterior set of noise cancelling headphones. This is achieved via the Mod Kit speaker tags, which have a seal around the rim that cuts off external audio filtering in, as well as swappable earphones. The trade-off, Lang told me, is a sound that's heavier in the bass range. The Mod Kit ($60) also comes with a directional microphone that only captures the audio when the mic is placed directly in front of their mouth, cancelling out ambient noise, intended for use in large tournament environments.
I tested the headset out on a number of games. I found it to have a solid range with rich textures, but that there were places where subtle differences in the audio profile got lost in the mix with the A40 TR Headphones. However, these were very subtle differences, and when I plugged a higher quality set of headphones into the mixamp's mini-jack I found that everything was coming through very clearly. At the launch event, while the Astro Gaming offices were hosting a party they had the headphones with the Mod Kit set up with a COD:AW multiplayer session; and I found both the noise isolation and directional mics to be very effective.
I found the Astro A40 TR's to be a step up from my last set of A40's, and that they had a clearer sound than the prior headset I reviewed—the Kingston HyperX II, which have been my go-to PC gaming headset. They may not be your perfect audiophile game set-up, but for the price they offer an excellent all-in-one audio solution for home gaming and streaming.
What you get with the A40 TR's is the mixamp—now with PC/Mac streaming capability—and a solid set of headphones that can convert from a home streaming environment to a noise isolating tournament environment by swapping out some components that are attached with magnets and easily transferred. This makes it versatile while maintaining the specific direction of Astro's core gaming market; competitive gamers and the growing ranks of game streamers looking for solid audio solutions, who don't want to break the bank with professional audio equipment.
Astro Gaming's A40 TR headset releases on October 8th, for $250 (with the Mod Kit at $60) for the PS3, PS4, Mac and PC.
The base A40 TR headset was provided for review by the hardware manufacturer. Mod Kit experiences were available at the launch event.