JBL’s Quantum One delivers a VR-like audio experience, minus the immersion

The JBL Quantum One wired PC gaming headset has one really interesting trick that unfortunately isn’t worth the hype — or the $300 price. It uses a gyroscope to track your head movements while you play games in order to enhance the surround-sound effect. Compared to most headsets that use only software-based surround sound, JBL’s hardware can make you feel like you’re in the game itself.

Technically, the headset is effective at what it sets out to do. If you’re talking with a character in The Outer Worlds, for instance, and you turn your head to the side (not the in-game character controls, mind you, your actual head), the sound will adjust as it would in real life. Audio will be targeted toward the ear that’s facing who or what is talking to you. It’s an effect that I can appreciate on an audio level, but you won’t get anything from it if you aren’t moving your head around. How often will you be turning your head to the side while playing a game?

One could argue that this head-tracking feature might be useful in first- and third-person games where your character’s field-of-view is limited, or if you use an ultrawide monitor (or several monitors). However, the Quantum One’s normal surround-sound effect is more than good enough at cluing me into sounds I should be paying attention to without the need to move my head. Plus, I’m much more apt to move my mouse or joystick to adjust the perspective and investigate the source of a sound. Frankly, I think JBL is generally overestimating how little most people move their heads while they play.

What’s worse is that the gyroscope frequently requires recalibration to achieve the ideal effect. Unless I remain completely motionless, it’s almost guaranteed to drift away from being centered. And in order to fix it, you need to Alt + Tab out of your game, recenter the gyroscope in the software, then go back in. Nothing takes you out of the experience more than exiting the game window

It’s easy to pile on the problems with JBL’s first high-end gaming headset, but the idea behind its biggest feature does deserve some commendation. JBL’s approach works similarly to the binaural audio that makes virtual reality so immersive, while eliminating the need for a VR headset. But the head-tracking function offered by this headset makes very little sense when your head can’t actually control your in-game perspective the way that VR allows.

Thinking that the headset might make for a good pairing with VR, I tried it with my Oculus Rift. The results weren’t great. It gives the sound performance a hearty boost over the small on-ear headphones that Oculus includes with the Rift, but because JBL’s gyroscope tracks independently of the VR headset’s IR sensors, it became extremely jarring when the audio didn’t match what I was seeing. It works on a technical level, but it’s not the set-it, forget-it device I was hoping for.

There’s more to this headset than just its optional gyroscopic tracking. It has large, over-ear cups full of frenetic LEDs that really put on a show. You can customize the lighting pattern and color for three different sections: the outside-facing logo at the side of each cup, the trim of LEDs wrapped around it, and a small section near each side’s bottom. It’s possible to make the lighting arrangement look truly bizarre and flashy, and while I usually despise LEDs, these are fascinating to watch and fun to customize using the Windows 10 app.

The Quantum One is powered by a USB-C port, into which you plug a thick, braided cable that features an in-line game and chat audio mixer. While the cable is durable, it’s stiff and cumbersome to manage. JBL could learn a lesson from the smooth, flexible Speedflex braiding that Razer uses on the cables for its latest gaming mice.

The headset also has a headphone jack, and JBL includes a smaller, portable 3.5mm cable that can be plugged into any audio source, be it a phone, iPad, Nintendo Switch, a PS4 controller, or something else. Though you won’t get to use the headset’s head-tracking audio, since it can’t be powered by this cable.

If you’re looking for a gaming headset with capable sound quality, active noise cancellation, and plenty of customization options via its LEDs, this isn’t a bad option on those merits alone. At $300, it’s an expensive one, though. This is an intriguing start for JBL in the gaming headset space, and I applaud the company for trying something bold. However, you’d be better off spending this kind of money on a headset that offers more features, and one that doesn’t over-promise and under-deliver.

Photography by Cameron Faulkner

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