When HTC launched the Vive last Spring, it was lauded as the greatest thing to happen to VR. Since then nothing has adequately challenged the Vive in its surreal VR experience, but the single weakest link has been the design of the headset itself. As the biggest and heaviest of the big-name VR headsets, the HTC Vive's cloth and Velcro straps left a bit to be desired in the comfort department, with some users complaining that it made the headset too heavy. In addition to this the Vive ships with a pair of earbuds instead of built-in speakers on the headset itself, a point of contention for users as it made for one extra annoying step when strapping the headset on, and the earbuds could easily be pulled out of ears. The Deluxe Audio Strap attempts to address all these concerns and more for $99, but is it worth the extra investment over the already steep entry price? Let's take a look.
Unboxing and Installation
The contents of the box are fairly slim; the headset itself is prominently placed on top, with a set of manuals, a pair of small flat screws, and a small Velcro strap for holding the cord in place. Installation is quite simple, though you'll definitely need to follow the directions if you've never taken the headset apart before. The piece that covers the cords on the top of the Vive headset slides forward, revealing four cords that need to be unplugged. The old cloth straps are removed via the two rotating prongs on either side of the Vive headset, and swiveling them down 90-degrees will allow you to pop them off with ease. The new cords then need to be plugged in and cables routed through the Deluxe Audio Strap's holster, finally being strapped on the back to keep it off your head. The side prongs can then simply be snapped in place without worry about the orientation. Watch our video review to see this installation in action.
Hardware and Design
Gone are the loose cloth straps that serve as a pack-in for the HTC Vive, and in are more rigid rubberized components, replete with padding all around. Images of the headset itself make the Deluxe Audio Strap look like a rigid plastic headset, but the actual materials used here couldn't be further from that. The unit itself is designed to cradle the cranium in a way the pack-in cloth straps can't, and provides additional support and different weight distribution than those straps. The outside of the Deluxe Audio Strap is a matte rubberized material that's soft to the touch, and slightly flexible too. The rigidity here adds a layer of security and stability that the cloth straps don't have, all while offering more flexibility and comfort than hard plastic. The main strap wraps 180-degrees from ear to ear, with a supporting half circle to encapsulate the cranium below. Above is a cloth Velcro strap much like is found on the pack-in cloth straps for adjustment on top.
Inside is a super soft foam material, very similar to the material that's installed around the eyelets on the headset itself. This cushions the head and provides for weight distribution, pairing with the lower cranium support that the cloth straps simply didn't provide adequately for. The downside of course to having soft foam on something like this is hygiene, and these things can get pretty gross. Users who sweat a lot will likely find the material soaking through after extremely long play sessions, especially users who are bald and don't have hair to absorb the sweat first. These foam pieces are thankfully easily removable via some more Velcro straps inside though, and line up perfectly inside the headset via a handful of tabs that also work to keep it in place. The material here is similar to the foam face guards that come with the Vive, and can be cleaned the same way.
Around back you'll find a sizable knob that uses a lighter colored rubber material to differentiate it visually from the rest of the headset. This knob adjusts the length of the side supports, which help not only aide in making it easier to put on the headset, but also keep it more firmly attached to your head. Another huge feature is the inclusion of built-in headphones on the Deluxe Audio Strap, a big part of how it was named in the first place. You'll find a pair of over-the-ear headphones on each side of the headset, both featuring a moving mechanism to better fit them onto many different sized users. Each headphone features a hinge that allows it to rotate outward about 45 degrees, with snap-points at the end to keep them retracted. This also aides in making it easier to put on the headset, and also makes the headset easier to take off as well. Each of these headphones can adjust vertically about 2 inches, giving significant room for variation among users' head sizes and ear location. These headphones plug in with the rest of the cords on the 3-in-1 cable, and route seamlessly through the headset's holster on the right side.
What's not evident in pictures is the material used on the headphones; a super soft leather-like material that features nearly ½ inch of cushion, making them ultra comfortable. They also are designed to simply sit on the outside of the ears, not cup them or hold them in any way, again making things more comfortable than some other over-the-ears headsets out there, especially for long play sessions. The headphones themselves are of the utmost quality too. They are plenty loud and provide more than ample volume, all without distorting even for loud blasts and other common video game sounds. Audio quality is superb, with good bass levels and a super wide range of audio that sounds nothing short of excellent. There's nothing to toggle to get them on, you just turn on the Vive and the default audio output moves to the newly installed headphones. Volume is adjusted via the Steam VR control panel, which is toggled by pressing the home button on the controllers at any time. Users who prefer other headphones can remove these built-in ones, strap and all, and instead use their favorite pair if desired too.
Comfort and Usability
One of the biggest selling points of the Deluxe Audio Strap is comfortability, particularly when compared to the pack-in cloth straps. While the cloth straps are in no way uncomfortable, the weight distribution can leave some users with red cheek bones and a sore neck after a while. Vive has attempted to better distribute the 555 grams of weight that the face unit weighs by providing significantly better cranial straps that are rigid enough to accept more weight, all while still being flexible enough to properly fit different sized users heads. Application of the headset itself is as simple as it goes, and feels very similar to the headset Sony designed for the PSVR. The face unit is placed on first, followed by lowering on the Deluxe Strap down onto the top of the skull and around the back of the cranium. From here the knob in the back can be used to pull the face unit closer, eventually snuggly fitting it to your face and around your head. Finally the headphones can be snapped into place on your ears, and adjusted vertically to fit best.
The difference in weight distribution and overall comfort is massive to say the least. Immediately the weight is moved from the cheekbones and nose to the top and back of the head, giving your neck a break from the original design. The extra padding on the inside helps this feeling, and it makes the whole package feel like a better fit overall. Even using third party slim face guards feels better, although I noticed that the snugger fit of the headset, when used in conjunction with slim face guards, produced more fogging up of the lenses for the first couple of minutes than I had noticed with the cloth straps.
Moving around with the Deluxe Audio Strap is a world of difference too. Because it can more tightly grip the head, particularly around the back of the cranium, the likelihood of it slipping off during an epic play session of Super Hot is almost improbable. With the original straps, folks with long hair could often find the face unit falling to their feet when quickly looking down, as the straps themselves slip on the hair they are trying to grip. Now that the back of the unit is more rigid and is better curved to grip the shape of the cranium, the skull is being gripped instead, keeping the unit where it should be. You will find a slight jiggle when moving around quickly though, something that can be remedied with a tighter fit of the knob in the back. The tighter fit could lead to more fogging up of the lenses though, but this generally goes away once they warm up.
The new strap also fits kids better, and it's far easier to fit it to smaller heads by a long shot. The pack-in cloth straps had the ability to wrap around the headset, but this often became lopsided, as one side would be tighter than the other and create some discomfort. The Deluxe Audio Strap, on the other hand, adjusts on the front of the sides, as well as the top strap. This leads to far greater levels of adjustment than were offered previously, as the straps will extend almost 6 inches out from the side. The new straps fit as perfectly on my 3 year old's head as they do on my head; a significant size difference to say the least, and one in which comfort or usability was never sacrificed.
Another significant leap in usability comes in the design of the headphone hinges and their use while playing. The headphones can easily be lifted up and outward, which makes it easy to hear what's going on outside of the virtual world. Anyone who has used headphones on their VR unit knows how annoying it can be to try to take off the headphones and have to place them back on, having to re-route the cables, or worse yet become entangled in them. This solves both problems elegantly, and provides better and quicker fitting than a loose pair of headphones would. They also won't fall off like headphones do, and unlike earbuds won't slip off the ears either. The hinge itself is tight enough to keep from bending outward, even with quick head movements. This hinge locks into place easily, and has a number of different points that it snugly sits to keep the sound from escaping your ear drums. They also help filter out outside sound thanks to the thick cushioning, keeping you enveloped in the virtual world when you want to.
The new Vive Deluxe Audio Strap is a thing of glory, and it's really a shame this strap isn't included with the Vive from the get-go. Every user who has had comfort issues, found the face unit to be too heavy, or has found the Vive falling off their head during a particularly active play session should consider getting this new strap. Users who have issues with the included earbuds, or with their own pair of headphones falling off or getting tangled in the cords will love the new built-in headphones. The comfort of the new headset is simply stunning, especially when compared to the original, and it fits a wider range of head sizes than the original cloth straps do, all while providing more stability and better weight distribution than those. $99 feels a bit steep at first, especially given the entry price of the Vive and the related hardware, but those who have already put this much investment into the product will likely find an excuse to splurge, and at the end of the day it feels absolutely worth every penny.