Gaming headphones are a weird breed; they're made for extended listening, voice chat and for daily harsh treatment. Gamers play on a wide range of different devices, but Astro's mid-range A38 is made for the gamers out there that don't have a console — if you're on PC, or more likely on tablet and smartphone, this is the headset for you.
What Is It?
- Headphone Type: On-The-Ear
- Bluetooth: Yes
- Noise Cancelling: Yes
- Playback Controls: Yes
- Battery Life (claimed): 20+ hours
- Charging: yes (microUSB 2.0)
The $279.95 Astro Gaming A38 is an on-the-ear, rechargeable Bluetooth gaming headset with integrated microphone and onboard noise cancelling. At 188g it's quite a light pair of headphones, and they're really quite compact as well, although carry around the included microUSB charging cable in the bundled fabric-wrapped hard case and you'll find them a little more bulky and heavy.
Astro promises 20-plus hours of battery life from the A38's integrated lithium-ion battery, which you can charge from PC or USB wall charger using any microUSB cable. The headphones don't have an integrated DAC, though, so you can't use that USB cable to play audio directly from your PC — you're restricted to wireless, because the Astro A38 doesn't have a 3.5mm input. That's right — wireless only.
This is the carry case, and what you get inside the box when you buy the A38:
A mostly-plastic design is complemented by a bit of synthetic leatherette on each earpad, itself covering some quite dense memory foam that conforms well to the wearer's ear. The headband is adjustable enough that these headphones should suit small and large heads alike — any child over the age of 5 or 6 should fit them, and at maximum extension they're more than large enough for my (sizeable) adult cranium.
The calling card of the Astro A38 is its removable, customisable and replaceable tags — the two rounded-square panels on the outside of the headphones' earcups. While you get two Astro-branded tags in the box when you buy them, you can choose from dozens of third-party designs for different games like Dying Light. Even if you prefer to go tag-free, there's an Astro logo on the grey plastic underneath.
What's It Good At?
Sound quality is good for music and gaming alike, depending on the titles you're into. These are cans well suited to the boom and crash and blasting of any first-person shooter blockbuster — I had a great time testing them out on Battlefield 4 and Titanfall. Similarly, they'll make the dulcet tones of Plants vs. Zombies and Hearthstone and Crossy Road sound great on the train to work. The A38's maximum volume is more than high enough for anyone but the most tinnitus-affected gamers; you definitely shouldn't need to use them anywhere near their full power for any extended period of time.
Despite being an on-ear headset, the Astro A38 is surprisingly comfortable even over longer than usual gaming sessions. A lot of that has to do with its genuinely light weight, at 188 grams — you don't feel restricted from moving your head about while gaming, which for me is the main cause of neck and ear strain. The earcups are easily adjustable too, swiveling over a slightly larger than 90-degree range from flat and with a little more than an inch of adjustment on the telescoping headband.
Since you can only use these headphones via Bluetooth, there's no easy way to assess whether there's a loss of sound quality over the wireless connection — you get what you're given, basically. It's great to see that Astro has integrated the aptX Bluetooth codec into the A38, though, so with any supported smartphone or tablet — or an aptX compatible Bluetooth dongle for your PC — you'll get the best possible Bluetooth audio quality from the headphones.
They're easy to connect, too. NFC makes it easy to connect any modern mobile device with a quick tap, and it's easy to switch the Bluetooth pairing mode on by holding down the power button. The multifunction button plays, pauses and skips tracks on any supported device, and the volume control changes audio output power on the headphones themselves rather than your connected PC, as well as on Android (on iPhone the two volumes are linked).
What's It Not Good At?
Not having a 3.5mm input restricts the Astro A38's utility to be used on PlayStation 4, Xbox One or the two older gaming consoles from the same company; these are headphones for the PC or mobile/tablet gaming crowd only. This is probably their biggest weakness, and there are more versatile gaming headsets out there for the same price.
Being an on-ear headphone, the Astro A38 doesn't do an incredibly good job of isolating you from the environment around you — the general everyday noise of your gaming environment. On-ear means the earcups themselves are a little smaller, and that's a good thing for portability, but they put some pressure on the cartilage of your ears rather than around them. The end result is that you'll have to raise the volume, and that means your marathon gaming sessions get a little shorter before you get fatigued.
The Astro Gaming A38's noise cancelling takes the edge off the environment around you, but it won't exactly coccoon you in a shroud of silence like the Bose QuietComfort 25 or Parrot Zik 2.0 does. It cancels out low-volume, low-frequency noises quite well, so if you have air conditioning running in the background the A38's noise cancelling will work to its fullest potential. It won't block out nearby conversations though, or the taps and clicks of your mechanical keyboard switches, so you'll have to turn up the volume slightly higher to compensate.
For $280, the Astro A38 faces a lot of strong competition from equally storied gaming brands like Sennheiser and more musically competent brands like Audio-Technica, whose ATH-M50X is a versatile pair of gaming headphones and whose ANC9 gives you both noise cancelling and an inline microphone for a $50 saving. At the end of the day, too, it's a lot of money to pay for a single pair of headphones primarily for gaming, so you'd want to get as much use out of the A38 as possible.
Should You Buy It?
The $279.95 Astro A38 is a competent, versatile, no-surprises gaming headset. Its noise cancellation isn't as good as proper noise cancelling headphones like the Parrot Zik 2.0 and the Bose QuietComfort 25, but that's in part because it's an on-ear model rather than an over-the-ear one. Its sound quality is more than good enough for casual or serious gaming use, although it's not the best choice for movie watching.
Crucially, the Astro A38's integrated microphone, even though it's not a swing-out boom one, is pretty damn good. It's more than versatile enough for in-game team chat or for Skype conversations — you could even record a low-budget podcast on it if you wanted — and just about its only issue is that its omnidirectional nature predisposes it to picking up environmental noise in a loud gaming environment.
Gaming 'style' is one of those things that has found a niche of its own in the past few years, and it's nice to see that the A38 continues Astro's simple but quite sleek and cool design language without becoming tacky or gaudy. Those removable plates on the earcups of the headphones give you the opportunity to customise your headphones as you like, although you'll have to pay for the privilege of doing so.
But for the business of gaming, and chatting with your friends while you're doing so, the Astro A38 is a great headset — as long as you're on a PC or your mobile device, at least. Console gamers should look elsewhere. Those removable tags are a nice extra, too.