Mad Catz has been making gaming headsets for a few years, but mostly products under its Tritton brand with products like the Tritton AX 180. The Mad Catz F.R.E.Q. 5 is surprising not only because it's a non-Tritton-branded gaming headset, but because it's a very well-made one with excellent bass response. At $149.99 (direct) it's expensive for a wired stereo headset for the PC and Mac, and its high-end suffers because of the powerful bass. But its great build quality, easy setup, and smartphone compatibility make it a solid choice if you don't mind spending some cash.
The headset is solid without feeling uncomfortable, consisting of "tough yet lightweight" (but unidentified) metal components, including a sturdy headband and light, matte arms connecting the cups. The white plastic shell and rubber and foam padding give the headset enough bulk to make it easy to handle without sitting too heavily on the head. The earcups turn to face flat and the microphone is flexible, but otherwise the headset isn't particularly portable. The earcups are vaguely pierogi-shaped, and fit comfortably around my large ears.
Like most other gaming headsets, the F.R.E.Q. 5 has controls on the earcups. The right earcup holds a volume wheel tucked on the lower side, and the left earcup holds microphone mute and equalizer buttons. The mute button turns on a light on the microphone itself so you know it's muted, which is slightly counterintuitive (you'd expect an active mic to have a light and a muted mic to be dark or blinking). The equalizer button toggles between Gaming, Music, and Chat equalizer presets.
For a gaming headset, the F.R.E.Q. 5 is easy to set up. It has a short cable with a mini USB connection on the end, which can then be connected to a two-meter cable with a full USB connection for hooking it up to your computer or a one-meter cable with a 3.5mm audio connection. The connector supports smartphones, and you can use the headset for phone calls as well as listening to music or playing mobile games. It doesn't work with game consoles, but the smartphone support on top of the PC support makes it a very useful headset.
The F.R.E.Q. 5 uses 50mm drivers in each earcup, quite large for gaming headsets. It's a stereo headset, so there's only one driver in each ear and you don't get any simulated surround sound. But this isn't a problem, as even surround-sound headsets with discrete drivers offer poor surround imaging compared to a speaker system. Without the acoustics to get directional audio sources to bounce around, you can't get a sense of direction that's particularly better than a well-tuned stereo headset.
I used the F.R.E.Q. 5 to play some Team Fortress 2, and I was generally satisfied with the sound quality. The three equalizer settings sound suitably different, with Chat bringing out dialog and Gaming bringing out bass. However, there's no easy way to see which equalizer setting you're on; the settings are flipped through with a button, and there are no visual or audio cues besides the game sounding slightly different in each mode. When playing, I tapped the button until I noticed the bass pump up to get a sense of the Gaming feature. Explosions sounded loud and full, but treble and dialog sounded a bit fuzzy. Chat and Music offered a flatter bass response, and more importantly a better sense of team chat thanks to more prominent treble (in Chat) and midrange (in Music). The microphone works very well for voice chat and phone calls. My voice came through clearly in a test phone call, and the mic picked up everything I said through the computer.
The equalizer settings don't seem to work with the 3.5mm cord and a smartphone, but the F.R.E.Q. 5 still sounds very good. Queen's "Seven Seas of Rhye" brought out very clear and natural piano sound in the intro, and while the vocals were overcome by the drums and guitar, it was still easy to make out the lyrics (and some equalizer setting changes on my phone brought them out further with some treble boosting). Our bass test track, The Knife's "Silent Shout," was reproduced with heavy bass that didn't distort at maximum volume, a credit to the headset's robust 50mm drivers. Overwhelming bass is unsurprising on a gaming headset, where explosions and action scenes are the emphasis over music playback. But the F.R.E.Q. 5 is still capable as a cell phone headset or media player headphones?if not $150 audiophile-quality headphones capable, if you were to spend as much on a dedicated, mic-free, non-gaming headset.
For a wired, stereo gaming headset, the Mad Catz F.R.E.Q. 5 is a flexible and powerful-sounding accessory for your PC or Mac, with the added and rare benefit of being able to use it with your smartphone (even if it is too bulky to wear on the subway without looking ridiculous). Its $150 price tag is hefty, but justifiable if you want a high-quality PC gaming headset that doubles as a smartphone headset. If you don't mind taking a hit in audio quality for the convenience of wireless audio, the Skullcandy PLYR 2 headset is $20 less. For an even higher-quality, surround sound wired headset, the Editors' Choice Razer Tiamat 7.1 offers better sound quality and a semblance of 7.1-channel surround imaging thanks to its discrete drivers for each channel in each cup. It's not as good as a surround speaker system, but it gives at least some directional sense.
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