A Thoroughly Considered Purchase: The Gaming Headset (aka the AD-700 mic mod)

To kick off the rundown of my little computer how-to/the tale of my new system, I will start with the only external component of the system and one that applies almost exclusively to semi-competitive gamers. That is, of course, the gaming headset.

When I had finally decided to save up the dough to build a dream system, I chose early on to include a new headset in the budget. Although it is often overlooked amidst the performance stats of PC hardware, having a good headset can make gaming both easier and much more enjoyable. Over the years, I have gotten by with a jumbled combination of audio devices. In the beginning, I used the free mic that came with SOCOM for PS2 for voice chatting with the clan and a crappy set of headphones for audio. Over time, that gave way to an actual headset with an included mic that broke after a few years, and then pretty much nothing for a while. When I decided to start gaming online again last spring, I picked up a Logitech desktop mic to use in conjunction with my Sony MDR-V6’s.

This setup was pretty decent, but suffered from a few increasingly annoying issues. First, the Sony headphones are very nice for music, but have a limited depth of field that is very apparent in gaming. They also don’t seem to fill out the nuances of sound effects as well as they do music. Next, the desktop mic had a habit of pissing off clan members by picking up loud keystrokes on the keyboard and the rumbling and wailing of buses and police cars outside my window. I live in Baltimore, what can I say?

Unfortunately, if reviews around the internet are to be trusted, there’s no such thing as a single, great headset. Seriously, go read around for a bit. While one person may insist that a set has the single best audio they’ve ever heard in their life, there is inevitably another to give the headset a serious lashing, claiming that the audio lacks depth, clarity, or any semblance quality. Of course, when you’ve budgeted enough for a high end headset, it is incredibly frustrating to not be able to simply throw money at a problem. When professional reviews and Amazon ratings fail to clarify, the savvy 21st century consumer has to get creative.

With mounting frustration, I began to read massive threads on gaming and audiophile forums alike, searching for the best available options. It came to a point where I decided to just give up and buy the most expensive headset available, the Astro A40. At $250 they cost a pretty penny, especially considering their wildly mixed (but mostly positive) reviews.

What's that weird echoing noise? Oh, it's the cavernous, empty insides of my wallet.

I actually went to go purchase them at one point, but they were completely sold out. Over the next few days I waited for them to come in stock and continued researching here and there. Then I made a breakthrough.

In all of my searching for a headset, I had neglected to look into headphones. After all, I wanted to get away from using my desktop mic. This negligence led to me completely overlooking a universally praised set of cans: the Audio Technica AD-700’s. I initially was turned onto them on some forum where a reader was reviewing a different headset and mentioned how they didn’t even compare to the famous AD-700’s. Several searches later, it became apparent that these headphones were extremely popular amongst the professional gaming crowd for their insanely large depth of field, spectacular audio positioning, and wonderful comfort. Even better, they were only $90.

Once I had decided that I was sold on the AD-700’s, I started to look into microphone solutions. As it turned out, there was an entire community of modders who had worked out various ways of adding a mic to the headphones. The simplest involved cutting apart a cheap headset and velcroing the mic to the headphones. The nicer ones involved adding a mic-jack to the headphones for use with a removable mic. I went with this approach.

In spite of countless threads showing pictures of these mods, I found a very limited amount of how-to information on the topic. I will therefore describe the step-by-step process of converting the AD-700 to a headset. Please note that I made one major mistake in the process that could be remedied by purchasing replacement parts, but I’m happy enough with how it turned out.

First, make sure you get all the components you need for the mod. These are:

  1. A cordless drill with some bits
  2. AD-700’s
  3. Some high-density sleeving for organizing the cables
  4. A microphone with a 2.5mm of 3.5mm jack (I bought a replacement Turtle Beach X-41, which has a 2.5mm jack, for $8 here.)
  5. A 2.5mm or 3.5mm panel-mount jack, depending on the mic you bought. I bought this one from Vetco. PLEASE NOTE: My mod ran into a problem because the threading on this jack was not long enough to reach through the hole I drilled in the headphones. A longer jack, or some fancy drilling, may be needed for a cleaner mod.
  6. A 3.5mm cable of sufficient length (about 9 feet to match the AD-700’s cable is good). This will be used to plug the mic into your soundcard.
  7. A solder gun and solder

With all your supplies in place, begin by removing the padded earcup from the left side of the headphones. This is achieved by slightly stretching the faux leather portion of the cup slightly to remove it from it’s groove. Once removed, it will look like this:

Using a small screwdriver, remove the screws that you see spaced around the now-exposed left-headphone. Removing these will allow the driver and it’s molding to lift up, giving access to the innards of the casings where our mic-mount will go. When removed, it looks like this:

Once inside, you’re going to want to locate a good position to drill a hole for the 2.5mm or 3.5mm jack. I personally chose a spot on the front, bottom portion of the headphones, just next to the one screw-hole. Be careful not to drill into the screw-hole, or else reassembling the headphones will be difficult. Also notice that the purple-mesh is covering where you need to drill; however, it can easily be drilled straight through and into the plastic. Making sure to pick a drill bit that will accommodate the slimmer, threaded part of the panel-mount jack (but not the thicker part), carefully drill a hole straight through the mesh and the plastic.

Insert your jack and screw on the securing bit from the outside of the headphone casing. This will lock the jack in place (unless your jack doesn’t reach, like mine). You’re now ready to bring in the 3.5mm wire and fit it through the existing headphone-wire hole. First, cut one of the 3.5mm jacks off the wire (you will only need one male connector left attached). With this bit cut, carefully strip the wire to expose the wires inside. For a stereo cable, you will find two shielded and one unshielded wire. The shielded wires should also be carefully stripped. Since we only need mono sound for a mic,  the shielded cables can simply be twisted together; just make sure to keep the originally unshielded cable separate.

These are each mono cables, but stereo are the same but with red AND white shielded cables.

Next, you’ll need to remove the bit of plastic holding the headphones cable in place. I personally whittled it down a bit with a knife, being careful to not nick the audio cable, until it was pretty thin near the headphone casing. Then, I yanked out the bit of plastic completely and finished cutting it out. It will look like this once removed from the casing:

In the extra space now vacated by that piece of plastic, pull through the stripped end of the 3.5mm cable. You can also take this time to pull some high-density sleeving and shrink wrap up on the outside of the headphones to keep the mic and headphone cables nice and organized.

On the inside of the phone, it’s time to solder some cables. If you bought a stereo-jack, it will have three prongs. If it’s mono, it will only have two. As an example, here is the jack I am currently using:

For this jack, you’ll want to simply use the two short prongs. Solder the combined previously-shielded cables to one of the posts. Solder the unshielded cable to the other. I personally worked out all of my soldering business before putting it in the headphones and tested the mic to make sure I knew what to solder where. When everything is nice and soldered, it’s time to close up the headphones. There is limited space inside, so it will take some shuffling to get things to close up completely. Don’t worry, there is a way, it just takes some trial and elbow grease. Once in place, screw things back together. If you used sleeving and shrink wrap, go ahead and shrink that up now. Mine looks like this:

Finally, you’re basically done. I will now shamefully reveal my ugly drilling incident that I used to make my jack fit through the casing. I still may go back to fix it later, but this is how it currently looks.

Hideous, I know. But it works! Here it is with mic attached.

So far, it has been working nicely in Teamspeak and is easy to remove the mic when not needed. The lack of space inside the cans keeps the jack nice and secure, even without the threading screwed into place. I’ll talk more about my full PC setup tomorrow, but when paired with Creative’s CMSS 3D on my X-Fi Titanium HD, they have beautifully detailed sound with pinpoint accuracy in games. Not too shabby!