There was nothing really wrong with my cheapo USB headset, complete with blue lights and a long, braided blue USB cable. It worked, but I decided it was time to free myself from some wires and reduce my headphone switching for better audio. I’m not a fan of Bluetooth audio (connection issues, not sure all my computers even have Bluetooth) so I looked for one with a USB wireless adapter.
But while researching a good wireless headset, I found things uncertain in Linux land: everyone advertises their Windows compatibility and special audio software, but would the hardware work on at least a basic level outside of Windows? What would you miss out on?
This is the plight of a Linux gamer. Though not all hardware may be a good fit, if you have that fancy mouse or keyboard there’s community projects like libratbag and ckb-next to help you get set up, if your device is supported. If not, a lot of peripherals’ basic functionality should “Just Work” on modern kernels. But this information, of what works (fully, or not), is scattered and sometimes you just need to guess.
The Corsair HS70 Pro
Despite being a well-known brand and model from mid-2018 (updated late 2019), I wasn’t sure how well it would work on Linux. On Reddit you’ll find mixed results, or elsewhere reports of some fiddling needed. And of course there’s no official support; they won’t even say if it would work or not.
More on software support and headsets on Linux more generally, but first a quick review:
The HS70 Pro is solidly constructed, made of hard and soft-touch plastics and metal (like the underlying headband). No creaking or looseness, with movement where you’d expect it: adjusting the headband, slight twisting where the headband connects to the earcups, and tilting of the earcups themselves. It is not the lightest headset at about 341g (just over 12 ounces) on my kitchen scale (without the mic), but that’s to be expected with batteries needed for wireless. No flashy LEDs here, just a small green one to let you know when it is on.
I find the headphones comfortable, though the weight of any wireless set means I need to shift and adjust every so often as it tires on my head. Or maybe I’m just never finding the right spot right away. And, with a closed-ear set, it can get a bit warm. The earcups have a thick cushion (of a smooth, fake leather feel) that are comfortable, while the cushion on the headband is a bit thinner and firmer. The overall fit is firm without being tight, and I’ve worn them long into an evening gaming session without problem after a little adjusting.
The Corsair has a good set of hardware controls that are easy to reach and use, without being obtrusive or set off accidentally. On the left earcup you have a volume wheel (not too loose or tight) and mute button, while on the right you have an on/off button that needs to be held down. I use all of them frequently, preferring the hardware volume control to my keyboard or software.
I won’t do a deep description here, for one because I’m not an experienced audio reviewer, and more importantly because I don’t find that subjectivity very useful. While a broad sense of the audio is found in reviews, in the end I’d rather rely on some frequency curves (against some reference I know, like a pair of well-loved headphones). It’s just impossible to know what something sounds like without listening to it yourself, and even then it is very easy to be fooled (for example, the famous loudness wars).
But fine, my overall impressions on the audio of the HS70? Pretty good. It is not a very flat (neutral) response you’d find in, for instance, studio monitors, definitely more what you’d expect for casual listening and media cans. The sound is more relaxed and boomy than any pair of Sennheisers I’ve owned, definitely not as clear as my Etymotic in-ears. It can certainly get loud enough, and the over the ear design gives some slight decrease in outside noise without much leakage of what you are listening to. There’s a very faint hiss when the headphones are on if you aren’t listening to anything, but that’s true for basically anything when powered on. In sum, good for what they are meant for as gamer and multimedia headphones.
A strong element of the Corsair is the mic: easy to adjust, removable (looks like a standard ⅛” plug), comes with a windshield foam, and sounds decent. I frequently take the mic on and off, as I prefer to not have it in the way when I don’t need it, though it can also bend easily to move where you want it. Despite doing this frequently over the last 5 months, I’ve see no signs of wear or looseness in the mic jack. Many of us have found audio jacks to be the first point of failure in just about anything that has one, usually a very cheap part with cheap soldering. Hopefully this bodes well for the longevity here.
Battery, Wireless, etc.
The battery life is rated at 16 hours, which seems possible, but haven’t done a detailed measurement. I tend to use the headphones for maybe a few hours a day, and lasting a week is not out of the question. You get a low battery beep, and can charge (through the included standard USB Type A to Micro cable) while still listening. Annoyingly, there’s plenty of battery left when you get the beep (around 20% I think), and it repeats every minute or so. I’ll reach for the charging cable as soon as I hear it, and at least the provided cable is about 1.5 m/5 ft long.
The wireless connection has been very solid for me, without any dropouts near my computer and connecting within a few seconds (if not right away) when turning it on. No audio hiccups or signs that this is a wireless not a wired set (unlike even my best experiences with Bluetooth headphones, on mobile devices at least). I don’t have the best environment for testing range, as my computer is upstairs in a smaller room. No problems within 10 or so feet of my computer, and mostly fine the floor below once I moved the small wireless adapter (the size of a USB thumb drive) to the front of my computer instead of behind the monitor. So it is hard for me to estimate the range you might have on a single floor, and definitely small positioning changes in the adapter can make a big difference.
Overall, I like the look of the HS70, no flashy lights or “gamer aesthetic.” In other words, I don’t mind wearing them for the occasional work meetings.
Finally, let’s get to software. If you look at the official product page, you’ll see it advertised with 7.1 surround sound (virtual), sidetone control (so you can hear yourself through the mic directly, without delay), equalizers…stuff that relies on software.
Windows only? No problem you say, that’s what Wine is for!
But then you look up iCUE (Corsair’s software for peripherals), and see a rating of “garbage”, not exactly promising. Still, I tried, pulling up my trusty terminal emulator and typing
wine msiexec /i iCUE.msi after using
winetricks for Dot Net and all that fun stuff. It hung. So I killed it, yet it did install. iCUE ran and looked okay, but did not detect the headphones.
Maybe there was more I could do, but it wasn’t worth the effort for me. I don’t care for virtual surround (always crappy), there were no lights to control, and if I wanted an equalizer that can be done in many other ways system-wide.
Still, would be nice to know the battery level (there’s no outside indicator), sidetone would be nice too. Luckily, GitHub and open source deliver again.
Enter a nice little utility to do some of what you would need the Windows software to do: HeadsetControl. At the time the HS70 was not officially listed, but was easy to add. Since then, HS70 support was recently added. HeadsetControl officially supports many headsets, like the Logitech G533, G930, G633, …, the SteelSeries Arctis 7 and Pro (very popular gaming headsets as well), the Corsair Void, and others. The software is available in many official repositories, by building it yourself (of course), and even on Mac and Windows (why not!).
So, what can you do from your trusty terminal with the HS70?
- check the battery level
- turn off the small LED (there are claims it improves battery life, but I haven’t tried any systematic measure)
- set sidetone volume
- play a notification sound
Since the headset is wireless, it needs to be on and connected, and then you simply do something like (and yes, I plugged it in after this):
$ headsetcontrol -b Found Corsair Headset Device! Battery: 39%
Headsets on Linux
Looking more widely at headset support in Linux, what can we expect? Unfortunately there’s a dearth of information, especially once you get away from the most popular models. Analog headsets will of course be fine (the joys of analog!), and Bluetooth should also work well, as long as you have that working. Though note that some Bluetooth audio devices prefer mobile, like some Jabra wireless earbuds that have spotty records of connecting to computers in general.
Otherwise, though, there lacks any central database or way to find out what the support is like for a device you are interested in. You’ll have to rely on your search skills, maybe GitHub, and probably sorting out random forum or Reddit posts to figure out any issues. The Arch Wiki tends to be a great hardware reference, but here there’s just a page for Bluetooth headsets.
These days it seems quite likely that your random USB audio device, even wireless, has a decent chance of working. But maybe not, and if you rely on any features that may require software or special drivers (controlling the device beyond volume, sound virtualization, etc.) it is still is a bit of a guessing game. At least HeadsetControl provides an indirect way of knowing if something will work, as they list many models of headsets which I assume means all the standard audio works already. When in doubt, make sure you check that return policy!
Coming back to the Corsair HS70 Pro, let me wrap up by saying it is a solid, no fuss, good-sounding wireless headset that I use every day. You can certainly find cheaper and much more expensive options, but the Corsair is a very nice option without breaking the bank (typically around $80). The wireless freedom is great, whether it is just to be able to swivel in my chair unencumbered, chase the cat around, or continue talking on Discord while roaming around, it has been a welcome change from being tethered.
The only part “lacking” is any of the software you’d use in Windows. But HeadsetControl works well when I (rarely) need it, leaving just virtual surround sound missing by default. I prefer my audio unfiltered and uncut, but I’m sure there are general virtual surround sound options if you wanted it. As a bonus, I don’t have to trust any proprietary driver or bloated software, or even install anything to have the headset work.
HeadsetControl also highlights a strength of the Linux and open source community, putting the power back in the hands of consumers. There are also other projects on this front, like ckb-next (an RGB light controller for Corsair devices on Mac and Linux), which is also working towards some headset support.
Now imagine what we could do with more open source hardware and support from vendors…