Not content with bringing its AV and console know-how to bear on a new pair of dedicated Inzone gaming monitors (the flagship model of which is reviewed here), Sony has also just announced a new trio of Inzone gaming headphones.
Full details of this new headphone range will be found in a news story I’ll be posting later this evening, but I’m happy to say that Sony sent me a set of the new £269/US$TBC H9s to try ahead of the Inzone news embargo lifting. So I wanted to get straight into a look at how Sony’s new flagship gaming cans shape up.
They look cool, for starters. A striking combination of matt white for the outer cans, outer headband and the built-in flip on/off mic, and black leather and trim for the ear and headband pads. There are also thin LED circles around the points where the headband attaches to the cans that can give off cool LED lighting effects if that’s your sort of thing.
The H9s’ look makes them a pretty tidy match aesthetically, of course, for the PS5. For which, unsurprisingly, the H9 has been specifically designed – along with PCs. A USB dongle is included with the headphones that carries a PS5/PC slider switch on its side enabling the headphones to work with your gaming source of choice.
Note that, perhaps also unsurprisingly, there’s no support on the H9s for the Xbox Series X or S. The only one of the new Inzone headphones that can be used with Xbox is the entry-level H3 series, courtesy of their 3.5mm jack. But even then the H3s will only be able to deliver Xbox sound in stereo.
Also provided alongside the headphones is a USB charging cable, with the H9s rated to be capable of delivering up to 32 hours of use on a full charge. Though if you listen as loud to your games as I tend to, this is probably a slightly optimistic figure.
Handily you can use the headphones while they’re charging, or you can ‘quick charge’ them for impromptu game sessions, where just plugging them in for 10 minutes from flat will give you around one hour of play time before they’ll need charging again.
The boom mic design puts the business part near your mouth so that it can capture your cussing nice and clearly, and since the mic is bi-directional it can that while the wearer’s voice is captured well, external noises are reduced. The mic is apparently Discord Certified.
As well as the inevitable power button, the H9s carry a rotating volume wheel, a button for adjusting the balance between game sound and chat, a Bluetooth button if you want to go that route for team chats, and a button marked NC/AMB that’s associated with one of the headphone’s coolest features: the ability to toggle between a full noise cancelling mode and an ‘ambient sound’ mode that allows you to still hear external sounds such as the doorbell or the voices of any young children who might want to impinge on your gaming time.
I might as well say right away that both of these modes work superbly – especially the noise cancelling, which achieves its immersive shut out of the outside world without the results sounding unnatural or claustrophobic as they can with less cleverly tuned NC systems. Note that using the noise cancelling features will shorten the headphones’ battery life.
This being Sony, the H9s are designed to support 360 Spatial Sound rather than the Dolby Atmos sound supported by many PC games. I remain not entirely convinced that it was a great idea for Sony to go its own way both musically and with the PS5 in developing its own unique 360-degree spatial sound format, but at the same time there’s no doubting that these spatial sound systems can sound seriously good.
If you’re using the H9s with a PC, you can use ‘360 Spatial Sound for Gaming’ software to apply a personalised hearing profile to your H9s. This assesses the individual properties of your ears and adjusts the effects of the virtualiser processing to deliver a more accurate and realistic spatial effect.
The headphones themselves have been developed leveraging technologies from Sony’s acclaimed high-end music headphone range to hopefully deliver plenty of serious sound quality to go with the sense of three-dimensional space that’s so important to an immersive gaming audio experience.
Aside from hopefully sounding great, the next most important thing about any set of gaming headphones is how comfortable they are. And here, I have to say, Sony has smashed it out of the park. The H9s’ earpads are made of a gorgeous soft-fit leather that never starts to feel clammy or sticky, and rests so tenderly on your ears that you almost forget they’re there. For hour after hour after hour. In fact, they are essentially the same earpads you get with Sony’s much-acclaimed high-end WH-1000XM5 Hi-Fi headphones, complete with a wide face-contact area to help distribute pressure more evenly.
The headband cushion is beautifully thick and delivers just the right amount of give not to feel either too tight or too loose, while the cans and their support hinges have been specially designed to deliver the ‘optimum’ side pressure, whereby they don’t feel like they’re about to fall off, but also don’t feel like they’re squeezing your head or ears. And having used the H9s for a few foolishly long stints on Elden Ring as part of my, um, really, really tough life testing them out, they’re among the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever used, for gaming or music. Including many other models I’ve tested for ‘work’ over the years.
Happily the H9s sound fantastic, too. The first thing that hits you is how immensely but also effortlessly powerful and dynamic they sound. The opening menu score of Call Of Duty: Cold War instantly makes you feel like you’ve woken up in the middle of a full on orchestra, as your head – not just your ears – is filled with and enwrapped by a stunningly rich, clear but also realistically dense mix of drums, synths and strings.
There’s no harshness or ‘rolling off’ with even the most high-pitched trebles, and even more impressively bass extends phenomenally deep without losing its nimbleness, becoming baggy, drawing too much attention to itself, or sounding hemmed in.
What’s more, the mid-range expands immaculately to fill in the colossal space between these stunningly handled treble and bass extremes, creating a fantastically organic and enormous soundstage that reels you right in to COD’s militaristic atmosphere.
Things get even better when you actually start playing. The walk to the helicopter at the start of COD: Cold War’s Fractured Jaw level delivers a mind-bending showcase of what Sony’s 360 Spatial Sound can do, with sound effects both big and small placed with absolute precision to the left, right, in front, behind or even, most spectacularly of all, above you (especially when the two helicopters take off and fly overhead from right to left).
You gain an all-new appreciation for the sound design of any premium title you play through the H9s, while also, more importantly, actually being drawn into the gameplay more.
The accuracy of the effects placement is completely unphased, too, by any movements you might make as you play. Spin round during the Fractured Jaw opening ‘walk’, for instance, and every one of the carefully placed effects continually tracks precisely to the correct aural position, with totally seamless transitions in every direction.
It’s worth just spinning around in various locations during your first few hours with the H9s, too, to appreciate just how well they create a sense of different three-dimensional location sizes.
Dialogue is beautifully handled, always sounding clean but well contextualised and accurately placed, while voiceovers actually seem to be coming from inside your head rather than some external speakers or random locations.
Actually, although it’s hard to describe, it’s the H9s’ ability to create a seamless sense of space both inside and outside of your head that makes them such a phenomenally good set of gaming headphones.
Their precision in terms of effect placement and location scale is also so helpful when locating nearby enemies or the direction of gunfire that it almost feels like cheating. Or in my case, gratefully accepting an extra bit of badly needed help.
While the H9s feel at their absolute best with game audio, they’re also mostly excellent headphones for listening to movies on. The Dolby Atmos track on the It 4K Blu-ray played from the PS5’s 4K Blu-ray drive again enjoys phenomenal 360 Spatial staging, despite the headphones not supporting native Dolby Atmos playback. Sounds pan artfully to left and right, rainfall comes from above your head, the soundtrack’s huge drones and rumbles swell with a sense of height as well as expanding volume, and different elements of the mix seem to exist at different distances from your ears, creating a sense of width far beyond the onscreen action. Just as the mixers intended.
Onscreen vocals are locked in your head, and again the sense of different spaces being created is as intense as it is technically remarkable.
If I had a complaint about the movie performance it would be that voices can sound a little artificial and over-emphasised, but it’s a small point that to some extent is merely a factor of the headphones’ stunning clarity.
The H9s complete a clean sweep of awesomeness by being excellent music headphones. Maybe even better than excellent, actually. Especially by the standards of the gaming headphone market, where tuning will have been performed first and foremost to suit gaming audio. Sony’s claims to have delved deep into the tech of its music headphone division in putting together the H9s appear to be much more than just marketing hype.
With stereo tracks, vocals are artfully staged, bass of all levels is expertly delivered with excellent timing and no sense of detachment, subtle effects are always delivered with exactly the right amount of emphasis, and stereo effects are placed wide but never so much that they sound like they’ve lost cohesion.
As you might expect, this musicality goes to a whole other level of audio dazzlement if you can feed the H9s some tracks that have been mastered for the 360 Spatial Audio format.
I’m probably duty bound to report that my likely pre-production H9s suffered with a slight buzz in the right can when running deep or ‘hard’ sounds at very high volumes. Since this wasn’t remotely repeated in the left can, though, I am 99.9% sure that this issue was caused by a slight flaw in my particular sample rather than being something that anyone else buying these mighty headphones would hear.
Which means, basically, that anyone else buying a set of H9s will get to hear pretty much nothing but even more unadulterated awesomeness than I got to experience myself.
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