While the rest of the UploadVR team jetted off to E3 earlier this week, I remained behind at base camp to keep things in order. That meant frantic news writing and press conferences that start at the ripe old hour of 5am (thanks, Bethesda). It also meant I got to spend a fair bit of time inside my HTC Vive, accompanied by its new friend – the Deluxe Audio Strap.
If you’re a PC VR enthusiast chances are you’ve already heard of this nifty new accessory for the SteamVR headset. In fact, you might already own one; they went on sale last week but quickly went out of stock. HTC supplied us with a sample, though, and instead of rushing to get a review out I thought it would be best to spend the week getting used to the kit and making it a true member of the VR family.
As someone that’s never been especially bothered by Vive’s lack of integrated headphones — or all that taken with the Rift’s built-in solution — I have to say I’ve been surprisingly impressed with how much the audio strap adds to your VR experience.
Before we start, it’s worth noting that I have a lot of hair and I’m not an especially sweaty person, so I haven’t seen the strap deteriorate as many others have after multiple hours of use. If you tend to take your headset off and find yourself drenched in your sweat you might want to steer clear of the device.
With that said, I’ve otherwise had a pretty enlightening week with the strap. This is more than just an audio enchancement; the Vive’s original strap has always given me a lot of trouble when it comes to looking down. Unless I have the thing fastened so tight that it hurts, I’ll find the headset swings up a little from my eyes, causing constant and frustrating adjustment when ducking down to work on fine details in apps like Tilt Brush.
The Deluxe Audio Strap does away with that. In fact, this thing feels less like a strap and more like a comfortable helmet when it’s in place. It does a much better job with weight distribution than the original strap did (in other words, none at all), and the ability to tighten and loosen the strap by twisting a dial on the back of your head makes it the most accessible and convenient head wear for a VR device yet.
It’s just a shame I still can’t manage to bring the Vive up to rest on my forehead like I can do pretty easily with my Rift and PSVR. The device pushes down into my eyes, making quick transitions to type on the keyboard or grab a drink uncomfortable.
Installing the device is a pretty scary experience too. You’ll find parts of your Vive that you never knew existed, like the detachable cicruclar plates at the side where the new strap fits, or the compartment housing cables at the top of the device that feels incredibly uneasy to remove. Given that the Vive costs $799, it’s hard to follow instructions that tell you to push on the device until you hear a snap. I was gritting my teeth throughout, but I was ultimately delighted to be able to move the Vive’s three normal wires off of the top of my head and head them round the side of the device, where I barely noticed them.
With everything in place, though, the Deluxe Audio Strap works wonders to enhance your VR experience. Having the headset feel that much more secure on my head and having one less dangling wire to think about does away with the worries of the real world and connects me to the virtual one that bit more. Upon booting up the new SteamVR home section with the strap attached I found myself instantly immersed; I even ducked when I thought the silhouette of a bird meant that one was flying right over my head.
To test the audio itself I’ve played a few things. Its release is conveniently close to Charm Games’ Form, a brilliantly triumphant puzzler that revels in its surreal shapes accompanied by atmospheric audio. Resembling a dreamlike take on Inception, Form is a master of the unpredictable, and I found the clear positional sounds emitting from the headphones leading me around its world with a sense of discovery and fascination few VR apps have captured so far.
The strap also served to make the derelict remains of Dead Effect 2 VR’s spaceship that much more terrifying. Hearing the ship hum and whir as I edged forward made me feel like I had awoken in an Alien movie. Other apps that employ great use of sound like Audioshield or even Fantastic Contraption are that much better to experience with the audio strap.
Even at $99 I think the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap is a pretty essential purchase for headset owners. On a purely structural level it erased many of the distractions I find when wearing HTC’s headset and by extension brought me much further into the virtual worlds I love to explore. It’s a shame this isn’t a built-in feature for every Vive owner already, but here’s hoping HTC makes good on that omission next time around.