Alienware AW988 Wireless Gaming Headset Review – Software powered sound
The gaming headset market is a largely crowded one with a ton of options ranging from sub $50 to well over the $500 mark. The new Alienware AW988 Wireless Gaming headset joins the fray and is unmistakably an Alienware product.
Its distinctive design with glowing Alien head flanked by two signature angled lines make it stand out. But with a premium price of $350, can this new kid on the block compete with the established likes of Razer, SteelSeries, Logitech and Astro?
Let’s find out.
Alienware AW988 Wireless Gaming Headset Review
The Alienware AW988 is unabashedly a gaming headset and comes complete with AlienFX RGB lighting which, to be fair, is more elegant than most. A sturdy headband made with soft-touch plastic holds two gigantic ear cups together. A foam cushion underneath helps this bulky headset sit comfortably on your head with no unwanted pressure.
The ear cups easily cover even larger ears for a very good sound seal. The cushions are fabric and I found my ears got sweaty very quickly in the Queensland summer heat. Some cool gel cushions would have been nice as long play sessions are hampered by constantly wiping off your ears. The cups can rotate which makes them easy to hang around your neck when not in use.
Each ear cup has Alienware logo with two angled RGB light strips. These are configurable via the Alienware Command Center app. The left ear cup has the main controls for the headset and the flip-up mic. Additionally, the logo cleverly doubles as the power switch for wireless mode. Controls include the main volume, chat mix, Mic mute, EQ settings as well as a 3.5mm cable connection port for wired use. You will also find a USB Type C for charging.
The right ear cup is pretty barren except for a nifty cubbyhole where you can store the wireless USB dongle. The wireless USB dongle is a tiny, unobtrusive affair with a thin RGB strip that lights up whenever the AW988 is connected. It’s a neat addition that when paired with other Alienware peripherals to make some good lighting combos.
Overall the headset is well built and feels sturdy. However, it is quite bulky for my tastes, literally swallowing my head. Thankfully, the AW988’s are fairly lite in spite of their gargantuan size.
Alienware AW988 — Software powered sound
Nothing matters more in a headset than how it sounds and the Alienware AW988’s sound very good though not mind-blowingly so. The sound is very crisp and neutral in its overall profile. The separation of audio is very good with highs and mids being the star. Bass is decidedly lacking in normal use.
However, things take a dramatic change for the better when connected to the Alienware Command Center app.
The Alienware Command Center (or Headset Center if you aren’t using an Alienware PC or laptop) software truly brings the Alienware AW988’s to life in impressive fashion. The change is immediately noticeable with vastly improved bass response. Also, the 7.1 virtual surround is only available via the software and you can tweak various settings to get a wider, boomier sound of your liking.
Turning to some games, in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice the Alienware AW988s do an incredible job of making you feel Senua’s mental disorder. It’s stunning how life-like the tormenting voices sound. It’s as if they are all sitting around you on the couch, bickering incessantly while you play.
In Resident Evil 2, I was acutely aware of every buzzing fly, clanging pipe, flickering lightbulb and groaning zombie. It made the entire play through that much more frightening and intense.
In Destiny 2, voices from NPCs were incredibly sharp and nuanced. The spatial positioning was so good that I could swear Tess of Eververse was standing at my kitchen counter. In Crucible PvP sessions, I could easily hear the racing footsteps of other players and the dreaded sound of a blade barrage moments before my inevitable death.
Gaming performance is generally excellent across the board with the virtual surround sound being quite pleasurable. But how about music and video?
Here too, the Alienware AW988s score high marks, thanks to the excellent software EQ. Selecting a movie or music profile really alters the output of the AW988’s.
Ludwig Goransson’s Killmonger from the Black Panther soundtrack is a favourite to test low-frequency range. It’s a demanding track that cripples most headsets and indeed, in wired mode, it was quite uninspiring on the Alienware AW988. Turning on the music profile with bass boost and it sounded exponentially more heart thumping.
Watching YouTube and movies with the Alienware AW988 was overall positive. Once again, the excellent sound separation in the mids and highs makes voices sound sharp and clear. The software profiles really add depth and richness to any media you are watching.
In a nutshell, the Alienware AW988 sound incredible with the software enhancements and just good without them. What this means is, if you use them anywhere besides a compatible PC or Laptop, you won’t get the ideal audio experience.
Alienware AW988 — Noise Cancelling Mic
The Alienware comes with a retractable boom microphone which I was surprised to discover only works with the wireless connection. Thankfully, it works great. Here’s a clip of me basically whispering into the microphone. It picks up my voice very well and you can’t even hear the rickety ceiling fan right spinning above my head at the time of recording.
The microphone also has some audio profiles in Alienware Command Center which also enable noise cancellation which works quite effectively.
When the mic is active, a red light on the tip of the mic shows you if audio is being transmitted or not which I thought was a cool little addition. The AW988 also has chat mix built-in meaning you can adjust the volume of audio chat versus the game sounds. A handy mix volume dial on the left ear cup allows you to quickly do so.
The mic can also be muted with a simple button press or by flipping it back into its retracted position. When using the wired connection, you are limited to an inline microphone which surprisingly, has no controls. All you have is a mechanism to reveal or hide the mic. This mic serves mainly for phone calls and isn’t nearly as good as the boom mic.
Alienware AW988 — Connectivity and battery life
As advertised, the AW988 is a wireless gaming headset that uses a 2.4GHz connection via USB dongle. You can use the USB dongle PC and being plug and play it should work on PS4. We have not been able to test the headset on a PS4 though. However, you won’t be able to access the Command Centre on PS4.
Sadly, the dongle simply won’t work on your Xbox One. For Xbox One, you will need to use the bundled 3.5mm cable.
In my testing with a PC, setup was painless with windows automatically install the necessary driver. The headset then immediately worked with a simple change of Windows 10 audio output device. Alienware says the AW988’s have an effective range of 40 feet. I had no problems with leaving my laptop downstairs and going upstairs to do the weekend vacuuming. The signal remained strong.
Battery life was just as advertised. I got anywhere between 13-15 hours of use. I never found myself out of juice in the middle of a play session. A critical omission is that nowhere on the headset shows how much battery life is left. Instead, you have to rely on the battery indicator in the Alienware Command Center.
Battery life can be stretched by running the AW988’s in dark mode which turns all the RGB lights off. This can eke you some precious extra juice. When the battery does run out, any Micro-USB cable can be used to charge it back up.
Alternatively, you could simply use the 3.5mm audio cable to continue your gaming session. As already stated, the AW988’s don’t sound as good in wired mode because you can’t have the software magic. However, this does mean console players, tablet and smartphone users can use these headsets.
Alienware Command Center – software magic
I’ve already spoken quite a bit about the Alienware command centre and how it brings the AW988’s to life. Not only can you modify your audio profiles but you can also customize the AlienFX RGB lighting on the headset. You have access to several lighting options which include static colour, pulse, rainbow. You can mix and match the 16.8million colours and varying brightness to your heart’s desire.
The two angled strips and Alien head can be customised individually or together to create lighting profiles. These profiles can be saved for quick access in the future. You can also turn off the lights altogether and run in Dark mode. This can save you some battery while also removing the obvious “Look at me, I’m a hardcore gamer” vibe.
The Fusion section of the Alienware Command Center lets you select from several preset EQ profiles or create your own. You can choose between gaming profiles or multimedia profiles. Further more, you can adjust bass boost, reverb, voice clarity and more.
Microphone input can also be adjusted for Noise suppression, voice shape and voice levelling. The 7.1 surround sound is also adjustable so you can find your sweet spot.
One thing to note was the Alienware Command Center on my Alienware 15 R4 laptop simply failed to install the necessary audio controls. This meant the headphones weren’t showing as a device in the Command Center. Several re-installs, registry edits, deep dives in Reddit and emails with Alienware support yielded nothing. This went on for a week until, mysteriously, it started working, as if by magic.
It was an oddity that I mention because a premium product like the Alienware AW988 should just work out of the box and not require users to fiddle around to get key software working. Especially considering how much the software changes the headsets for the better.
Hopefully, it was just my bad luck and not the norm for the majority of customers as that could be a huge spoiler.
Alienware AW988 — Verdict
The Alienware AW988 is a well-built headset with incredible sound when used with its software suite of audio enhancements. Both games and media are brought to life and the flip-up microphone is fantastic with its noise cancellation.
However, the ear cups that make you sweat after short periods and the lack of the software enhanced audio on the console make this less desirable especially when you consider its price. Speaking of software, my experience showed the danger of relying on software enhancements to prop up the value of a headset.
At $350, the Alienware AW988 competes with the excellent LucidSound LS41, Razer Nari Ultimate, Turtle Beach Elite Atlas 2, and the multi-award winning SteelSeries Arctis 7 with its Hi-Res audio. Very tough competition. All of which just work out of the box, not relying on software magic to make their headsets sound great.
While as a package, the AW988 is better than we expected it to be, the competition still easily beats it for value for money and flexibility.
The Alienware AW988 was loaned to us by Alienware ANZ for the purpose of this review.
Alienware AW988 Wireless Gaming Headset
Product Name: AW988
Product Description: Wireless gaming headset
Software powered sound and audio profiles are incredible
Looks like a gaming headset but RGB is elegant
Comfortable but ear cups get warm
Great battery and solid connectivity
Value for money