Review: NOX Specialist Audio Headset

I once managed to get a set of Panasonic RP-HTX7 headphones (cream colored, natch) run over by a car. I don’t need to discuss the Wile E. Coyote-esque set-up, but it has become my new litmus test for audio hardware. If it still works after getting run over by my brother’s Oldsmobile, you’ve got quality.

I doubt I could run the NOX Specialist over with a car and still use it, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you’re not in the market for a gaming headset, feel free to move on. I understand that we’re all busy dudes and that you’d rather look at a batch of screenshots than read a review for a product you’re not interested in. I’m a man of the people, after all.

But, on the off chance that you got here by Googling “NOX Audio Specialist review,” I welcome you, wayward time-traveler.

Specialist Audio Headset with Negotiator Universal Gaming Adapter
NOX Audio
Now available
MSRP: $79.99 (headset); $69.99 (adapter); $99.99 (bundled)

The Specialist, by NOX Audio, is, as I may have mentioned, marketed as a gaming headset. That’s probably a bit deceptive, though — the Specialist is a perfectly functional set of all-purpose headphones that happens to have a retractable (and flexible!) boom-mic attached. Even if they didn’t sound as good as they do, extending and retracting the mic over and over is probably worth the $79.99 price of entry.

Well, no, it’s not, but the retractable mic is cool.

And not to harp on the mic-dongle, but I do appreciate the mechanism: the speaker casing on the left cap houses a tiny little crank attached to the mic; the right side houses a volume dial. It’s a small touch, but the Specialist is remarkably compact for a catch-all headset — I hate having a volume mixer hanging off the power cord. Another triumph of simplicity: the Specialist can be easily folded and contorted to fit into a hard clamshell case. It’s portable and self-contained, and I already know I’ll be leaving my bulkier Panasonics at home when I do my traveling this holiday season.

All-in-one Skyping, too, is a breeze, thanks to the myriad splitters NOX includes with the Specialist. 

Unfortunately, this simplicity doesn’t extend to actually using the Specialist for gaming — you’ll need a special adapter for your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 controller, access to your console’s optical port, a spare USB port, three salamander eggs, and one of Steve Balmer’s hairs, plucked at midnight. To get started, I consulted NOX’ own FAQ and this video, and exchanged a dozen-odd e-mails with a PR rep. A set of instructions would’ve been nice.

Once you get your panoply of wires in the right place — and, Christ, don’t forget to change your audio settings! — the Specialist actually works really well. The Negotiator is a proprietary attachment that balances in-game audio with chat which, coupled with the Specialist*, allows for a very specific audio quality. The unintuitive set-up aside, the Specialist works best when used as a gaming headset — the mic is flexible enough to keep out of your face while still picking up your voice; the Negotiator makes it easy to simply turn off in-game chat if things get too trolly, and the Specialist is comfortable enough to use during your marathon sessions.

Be aware, though, that the Negotiator isn’t included with all the headsets — you can buy the attachment separately or buy them both bundled.

My online Pepsi challenge between the Specialist and the standard issue Microsoft headset produced mixed results, however — some couldn’t tell the difference while others found marked differences in audio quality. That’s not to say the mic is entirely crummy — in my experience, it holds up pretty well on Skype, for example — but it seems the weakest part of the offering. For what it’s worth, the Specialist won’t be replacing the Blue Snowball I use for podcasting, despite the former’s aforementioned ease of use.

And that is perhaps the larger theme of my experience with the Specialist: It’s a fine piece of hardware, but it won’t change any of my audio preferences. The headphones have a warm, rich sound, and do a good job keeping noise out and audio in, but they struggle with the lower register. This is mitigated somewhat by the Specialist’s specificity and the strength with which it carries out its tasks.

The NOX Specialist has several things going for it — simple design, portability, comfort, and attention to detail, especially in terms of online gaming — and they’ll be invaluable when I’m away from home, but these fragile little road-warriors aren’t convincing enough to oust the big boys of audio. However, if you’re still rocking those iPod earbuds from middle school and are looking for a headset that does music, podcasting, and gaming in one neat package, the Specialist isn’t hard to recommend. 

Specifications for the Specialist headset:

Drivers: Dual 26mm Mylar
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz
Noise Reduction: 6 dB @ 1 kHz
Sensitivity: 104 dBSPL @ 1 kHz
THD: <0.5% @ 1 kHz; <2% from 40 Hz to 20 kHz
Input impedance: 32-ohms
Microphone: 4mm Omnidirectional
Weight: 0.30 lbs

Specifications for the Negotiator adapter:

Frequency Response: 20 to 20 KHz
THD: < 0.5%
SNR: 95 dB
USB 2.0 Compliant
FCC/CE Certified

*Jason Statham and Bruce Willis are actually working on a buddy-cop movie called Negotiator and Specialist.

[Full disclosure: NOX Audio provided me with a Specialist+Negotiator bundle for review.]


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Joseph Leray
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