Acoustic Research's ARW200 USB 5.1 surround sound headphones aim to recreate home-theater sound, even when you're not at home. Meant for gamers and movie buffs, these $99.99 headphones provide decent sound quality. But the design could be sturdier, and these headphones don't block outside noise.
The ARW200 headphones sport a compact, lightweight, foldable design and come with a protective carrying case. However, they reminded us of the headphones that came with our first cassette-playing Walkman. The headband is a thin piece of metal surrounded with plastic; two equally thin plastic arms connect to the headphones and click up and down for size adjustment. The headphones themselves swivel on a slim metal mount; while allowing us to fold the headphones and adjust the fit, this makes the entire headset seem fragile.
One of the nice features of the ARW200s is that they work right out of the box. Plug them into a USB port, set up your PC DVD player for 5.1 audio, and you're ready to go. For Macs, the headphones require a few basic adjustments to the Audio Midi setup in the Utilities folder.
The ARW200 headphones also come with optional PC software that can be used to further fine-tune the 5.1 audio by tweaking the individual speaker settings. The software, which installed quickly, didn't noticeably alter the 5.1-channel listening experience, although it did stop our traditional headphone jack from working. Since these headphones perform well regardless of the software, we would skip the installation.
The earpieces have three speakers each: a center channel, a surround, and a subwoofer. Despite their flimsy appearance, the ARW200 delivered strong audio performance. While watching Anchorman, off-screen voices in the office scenes actually sounded as if they were coming from behind us. In the same scene, the on-screen conversation was front and center, with the score rounding out the sound. While larger earcups would allow for greater sound separation and distinction, these headphones definitely hold their own.
Non-5.1-channel music played through the ARW200 sounded good as well. While listening to "No One's Gonna Love You" by Band of Horses, the high guitar tones were crisp and the bass was clearly present in the mix without being overpowering. The headphones sounded the best with 5.1 sound pumping through them, but 2-channel stereo sound also sounded pleasant. We didn't experience any of the unpleasant line noise that sometimes occurs with traditional headphone jacks.
Unfortunately, our excellent listening experience quickly deteriorated as soon as a conversation started near our cubicle. The small earcups don't block noise and barely muffle nearby sounds, which can be very frustrating.
Acoustic Research's AWR200 headphones create 5.1-channel surround sound very well, and they're easy to set up and affordable. However, the flimsy design and lack of noise cancellation give us pause.