Plantronics Audio 90 headset review

We’ll let you into a little secret: I’ve been enjoying this headset too much to get round to reviewing it in its own right, although it was used for comparison purposes with Sennheiser’s PC 155 set (reviewed here) last year. Frankly, Plantronics’ only problem is when to discontinue this classic, wallet-friendly headset with the killer noise cancelling microphone and cans that compete with - and beat some - hi fi headphones in the same bracket. If I’m being brutal, any other set underneath the 90s other than the 60s, could be axed and I wouldn’t really care as long as the top of this range survived.

The cable is a nice, long and true 3m and the 3.5mm jacks are similarly strengthened in rigid plastic. The volume control can be fixed with a handy shirt clip and features a mute for the volume. There have been some complaints about the cabling online but I’ve been placing my full weight on a single metal chair leg along various parts of the 3m wire for the past year or so as well as dropping the headset at various angles more than ten times from just under a height of 3ft - and they’re still working, although the rubber inner balancing band for the headphones has had to be re-attached. For our review sample anyway, it’s fared much better than the DJ-targeted Sennheiser HD 200s which needed to go for repair after a single drop. So, the Audio 90s are, from my experience, ready for a good battering unlike many modern gadgets. The fact that they look functional (or to iPod fans, ugly) and you’ll never take them out of the house also helps the lastability in a big way.

In essence, that’s it…until it’s time to use them. The rubber inner band allow the 90s to adjust to a wide variety of head shapes, helped by the deliberate choice to let the headphone stalks to be pushed by your ears out to a width of around 8in - much like the Sennheiser PC155s but for spending £60 less, it uses two bands. Starting with the microphone we were happy to find we could talk to our friends in Canada and they commented that we were quite clear and had to ask to turn the television off as they could hear the news- up until then they were struggling to hear us on cheaper analog headsets.

Start a game and the sound effects will immediately pound your eardrums, so for repetitive stabbing sounds like explosions and gunshots in Counter-Strike Source, or any other wargame, care must be taken not to have them up too loud. We’ve worn them for hours at a time for just working at the PC and listening to music though.

It’s with music that the Audio 90s are a revelation - lacking the refined stage which the Sennheiser PC155s will create (and not really expecting one for £30 as opposed to almost £100), the Audio 90s will instead give you bass - more bass than you’d expect for the price, although once again, not more than a set of headphones without a mic, dedicated to DJing. The Plantronics set is often helped by having a wider outer fur pad covering the earpieces (by half a centimere in circumference), making them more open-backed and airy than the Sennheisers though.

This means that the higher frequencies aren’t necessarily drowned out as you’d expect, giving you a much more laddish, upfront, attacking sound for music. Even so, when required, such as on Christopher Young’s Entrapment soundtrack score, the Audio 90s can be shockingly subtle. However the headset’s better with strings and guitars than piano. In the track where it switches from score to guitars though, the attacking power of the 90s is at its peak, so film soundtracks with equal amounts of synth and drums could still be appreciated. The 15th Century Ave Maria by Calli from Donnie Darko finally defeated the 90s with its multiple layers of choir singing. However for The Replacement Killers soundtrack, the two sets were about equal with Harry Gregson-Willams’ mixture of synths and sampled orchestra. While you wouldn’t listen to classical-based soundtracks through the Audio 90s all the time, for music accompaniment in games the headset’s balanced enough.

For the Bond song test, the Plantronics set separated Shirley Bassey’s overpowering voice and those subtle bongo drums in the final chorus teased out by the digital remastering, while the clipped 80s sound of Duran Duran on View To A Kill was suitably tight. It gave weight to overproduced pop like Madonna and Britney, made the horns in Jay-Z’s production of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love even more funky and her voice (including the “O-O” vocal break) was balanced with the background track, again not allowed to take over the whole song. The guitars and slap of the snare drum on Justin Timberlake’s Like I Love You, once again, stood out well from the singer’s voice.

Verdict

Ultimately we just ended up feeding the headset more of the music it liked- bassline-driven dance or rock, or anything with bass (for example, Spitfire by The Prodigy or the Master And Commander soundtrack’s two main themes)- and it was consistently good on playback. To be fair, we were deliberately pushing it to its limits, and another £20 would of course buy you something better. However for computer use you may want the microphone, so if you’re on a budget, it’s here that the Audio 90s continue to rule unless you have unlimited funds and small ears, in which case the Sennheisers are beckoning.

If you thought you might want to listen to music on a PC headset as often as play games or chat with it, and prefer that music without reserve, then look no further - grab a set before Plantronics bring down the axe. It’s unusual to have an enduring Hot Product at pocket-lint.co.uk but for the money, there’s little else to touch it aside from a newer headset from the same company, or the Audio 60s for around £5-10 less.