I spent enough time with the new 2019 Astro A40’s to offer up some basic impressions, but not so much time that I would ever call dream to call this a review.
What follows is the skeleton of what would have been my review, based on one day of usage.
I repeat, this is not a full review, more of a blog about my initial impressions and the hardware issue that forced me to return them.
WAIT, AN ISSUE?
Yes. Sadly, the optical audio port on my new MixAmp didn’t work…at all. In order to connect the A40 to my Xbox (I bought the Xbox version), it needs a USB cable for the chat functionality and an optical connection for the game audio. You’re meant to set the Xbox to output Dolby Digital over the optical connection, but when I did that I was greeted with silence. If I set the console to output uncompressed stereo, I would get a very occasional blip of audio and nothing more.
Astro shut down their support forums a while back, but they still have a subreddit where their community hangs out. Scrolling through pages of discussion that’s mostly about the new C40 controller, I did manage to find a couple of posts where folks had the exact same issue.
The only solution they’d found was to try and exchange it for another unit at the store.
Undaunted, I contacted Astro support, and was given the usual boilerplate recommendations about plugging it all back in again, trying different cables and machines, etc. I was also advised to connect the MixAmp to a computer and update the firmware.
That would have been my first stop…but unfortunately, as of this writing, the PC software for the new 2019 MixAmp is not available to download. It’ll eventually be distributed via the Windows 10 Store, but there’s no time frame for that other than a “COMING SOON” button on Astro’s web site.
LACK OF SOFTWARE
Without that PC software, you can’t change the settings on any of the included EQ presets, and you can’t take full advantage of the MixAmp in PC mode.
And you can’t install any firmware updates.
I’m sure that this software will launch at some point, but it’s a bit of a misstep that it wasn’t available in time for the wide launch of the headset this week. The Arctis Pro went through a similar software delay challenge, though to its credit, the GameDAC included with their bundle does offer EQ customization without needing any extra software.
With no way to update the firmware and no working audio on my Xbox, I returned my unit. My local Best Buy didn’t have any other units in stock yet for me to exchange it with, and Astro themselves are backlogged with orders, so a return was my best option.
It’s a shame, because I think the improvements here show a clear attempt by the company to give Astro fans one last big dose of hardware virtual surround (Something I wasn’t expecting) before all the consoles swing hard in the direction of object-based 3D audio. Microsoft has already made impressive strides with Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos, and the recent PS5 “announcement” included a lot of talk about object-based audio as an included feature.
The time of the external processing box is nearly over, and this could be a great way for it to go out.
The Astro A40 2019 is a new revision of the venerable Astro A40 headset. I really liked the previous version. This new version still comes in a variety of bundles, including the MixAmp+Headset bundle for $249 at the top end.
Both the headset and the MixAmp got a visual overhaul, and some hardware changes also. The drivers in the headset are completely new and have a different, more neutral tuning. By default, the headset ships in an open-back configuration and you can buy an extra Mod Kit to convert it to a closed-back design.
The MixAmp has the latest version of Dolby’s hardware and software audio suite inside it, now contained under an umbrella named Dolby Audio. But it more or less works the same as the older models did.
It can decode a Dolby Digital signal and output a simulated 7.1 signal to headphones through Dolby Headphone. It sounds a bit less tinny and hollow than the previous version, and in my brief PC testing I also preferred the way it upmixed stereo sources. Also, the four included EQ presets have been re-done to better match the new drivers in the headset.
Here’s what I actually liked about the product before I returned it. I managed to listen for a few hours on my PC through a USB connection, and I tried out all four EQ profiles a bit.
THE NEW LOOK
Astro kept the same basic frame for the new A40, but cleaned up the overall look to make it a bit less “Gaming Headset” and a bit more “Pro Audio.” Both the PS4 and Xbox versions use a black base color now, and the metal headband adjusters have a nice, premium-feeling chrome trim. The branding on the removable ear cup backs is more subtle than it used to be, and the only thing that calls out the two versions visually is the accent color: Red for Xbox and Blue for PS4.
That’s right, they’ve broken the industry-standard “Green for Xbox” color scheme that practically every other headset maker uses. I’m…I’m not really sure why they did that, but there you go.
I also like the horizontal design of the MixAmp, and the dramatically larger game/chat balance wheel. Some folks might hate the lack of a dedicated power button, but the hardware toggle switch for modes is a nice touch and both dials feel very smooth and premium.
THE NEW SOUND
Since the release of the last revision of the Astro A40 in 2015, Steelseries and Logitech both fired shots in the premium priced headset space, with the Steelseries Arctis Pro and several Logitech Pro-G Driver products. And HyperX landed a big hit with the dual-chamber system powering the HyperX Cloud Alpha and Cloud Mix.
All of them offer an accurate, “audiophile-esque” sound experience that competes strongly with Astro’s older offerings.
So they needed to make a change to keep things interesting.
(This is a little weird also because Logitech owns Astro, but they’ve been left to their own devices. The new A40 does not use the Pro- G drivers from Logitech’s lineup, and I think that’s a missed opportunity).
Fortunately, with the new drivers and new tuning here, Astro has stepped things up and the new A40 offers a nicely balanced sound signature for 2019’s more competitive gaming audio market. There’s just enough extra oomph in the bass and treble to let you know this is still an Astro product, and the “Astro” EQ on the mixamp offers a good bit of extra bass thump…but I think the hardcore audio purists out there will be very pleased with the improvements to fidelity here.
Market competition was good for this product, and the tweaks to the audio are smart without sacrificing what made these good before.
Even from my short time with it, this is the best-sounding Astro product I’ve used. It’s not as outwardly “fun” as some of their past efforts, by default, but I’d wager its pro look and more balanced sound will appeal more to today’s gaming audio consumer. And once they actually release the software, you’ll be able to make full use of it on a PC and customize it to your hearts content.
If you buy one, I hope that your optical port actually works.
These hardware issues are possibly just early release kinks that’ll get sorted out. And I get it. Launching a product is tough. I know that defects are part of the process, but that doesn’t make me any less bummed to be missing out on the launch discussion of these new A40’s. I was surprised to see that at least five other folks online had already run into this just a day after launch.
Assuming you can get a working copy, this is a good option to have on your list alongside the other premium headset packages out there…if you need a hardware surround decoder.
A SHORT BONUS FOOTNOTE (4/20/19): The software is available now, a few days after this was written…but it seems to be causing a whole new round of issues with the USB port chat functionality, at least on the Xbox model.
It seems like this new MixAmp might not have been 100 percent ready to go?