Review: The HTC Vive Deluxe Audio Strap dramatically improves the Vive experience
HTC made a number of exciting Vive announcements at CES earlier this year, including big reveals of wireless functionality and the Tracker peripheral, and amidst all the shiny new toys it would have been easy to overlook the Deluxe Audio Strap. But as just about anyone who has worn a Vive sporting the new strap will tell you, it makes an instant and immediate difference in terms of fit, feel, and function. Once you've experienced the improvements the new strap offers, you'll never want to go back.
The Deluxe Audio Strap costs $99 and will be widely available in early June.
Taking off the original Vive strap and putting the Deluxe version in its place is a simple procedure, though the instructions included with the strap feel as though they are leaving out a step or illustration or two. Most Vive owners have probably never removed the strap that came with the headset, so might not be aware of how easy it is to do. Here it is demonstrated in a twelve-second video:
That's all. Just twist the side connections until they come off, then undo the velcro fastening the top strap on, open the top panel on the headset and unplug the cords so you can thread them out of the strap, and you're done. It's really easy, but the Deluxe Audio Strap instructions don't tell you how to do this part.
Putting the new strap in place is almost as easy. First you'll press the new connectors into place on either side of the headset (just push them and you'll hear a pop and they'll snap in). The top strap involves velcro once again, and there are some minor differences in terms of cord management that the instruction guide demonstrates fairly well. As long as you don't get off on any wrong tracks, going from the original strap to the Deluxe shouldn't take you more than ten minutes.
Once you've made the change you can put your original strap in a box somewhere and forget it forever, because you're never going to need it again.
Improved fit and performance
Though it's hard to argue with Vive's dominance in 2016, the beginning of the consumer VR era, that dominance came in spite of the fact that it was probably the least comfortable of the big three VR headsets to actually wear. Oculus and PlayStation VR both offered a more streamlined and consistent fit and feel than the Vive's velcro and elastic strap solution, which needs to be made tighter than most users first realize (or are comfortable with) in order to stay in the proper position in front of the eyes.
All of that changes with the Deluxe Audio Strap. Putting on the Vive with the new strap is a different sort of experience, and involves twisting the dial on the back to loosen or tighten the fit. You pick up the Vive, move the strap into position behind your head, then twist the dial until the fit is comfortably tight and secure. You may want to do some small adjustment of the velcro strap that goes along the top of your head, and while I would recommend making that a bit tighter than it is out of the box, further adjustments probably won't be necessary (even when different people are using the headset).
So the new fit is great, but that's just the start of the benefits of the new strap. This better fit offers both proper placement and lasting stability, which in turn lead to improved visual clarity and focus. While it's very possible to get the Vive in the exact right position in front of your eyes using the standard strap, sagging and slipping is inevitable when you're doing the kind of moving around involved in the best experiences on the Vive.
A few small twists of the stylish new dial is the difference between a headset that's loose enough to slip off easily and one that will stay solidly in place no matter how long you spend in VR. In fact, the only real drawback of the new fit is that it makes it tougher to pull the headset away from your face for a quick look at your monitor or cell phone.
Watch the Deluxe Audio Strap in action here (though sadly the Hi5 gloves are not yet available):
I found that I had to adjust the pupil distance knob on the Vive quite a bit to get things just right with the new strap, but once I had it dialed in everything was as crisp and in-focus as it ever was using the standard strap. And, critically, that clarity lasted long term, offering a secure fit without the need to regularly lift a sagging headset or re-tighten the velcro straps. Interestingly, the rear dial adjustment device functions similarly to the custom Samsung Gear VR headstrap used on the New Revolution roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain, which should give you some idea of the level of secure fit we're talking about here.
I enjoyed a solid hour and a half walking around in room-scale Google Earth VR with the Deluxe strap and barely had to touch the headset at all after the five minutes I spent at the beginning getting everything just right. It can't keep things perfectly in place no matter what, especially if you're rolling around on the floor in something like Space Pirate Trainer, but it's an enormous and inarguable improvement over the standard Vive experience.
Rather than running along the top of your head, which can lead to pulled hair or difficulty adjusting the overhead velcro with the standard Vive strap, the headset's large 3-in-1 cable now twists to the right side and clips in place above your right ear. This sweeping cord looks either elegant or sloppy depending on your perspective, but it's another major improvement over the default Vive experience.
The official Vive site for the Deluxe Audio Strap shows the cord trailing off to the right side after going through the clip, but using the headset this way leads to issues with the cord constantly bumping against your right shoulder, and I wouldn't recommend it. Instead, the new strap comes with a small velcro strip that attaches to the back of the headset, channeling the cable down along your spine, providing a similar placement as the standard strap.
The new clip and velcro cable management eliminates the awkwardness of the overhead cords that previously plagued the Vive, and will work with either the standard 3-in-1 cable or the newer slimmed down version. As long as the clip's grip remains strong over long-term use (something we'll have to monitor over time) it's hard to see any drawbacks with this new style of cable control. If the clip starts to slip or fail after some accidental cord tugs (a common VR hazard) then the cable rubbing against the side of your head could be an issue—but that's a purely hypothetical problem, and the clip is made out of a sturdy material which doesn't feel as if it will be prone to this kind of failure.
The headphones included with the Deluxe Audio Strap offer a similar look and feel to those that come with the Oculus Rift. They can be moved vertically, folded in or out to rest comfortably against your ears, slid backwards to leave your ears free if you prefer to use an external audio source, and can even be removed entirely if you would rather use separate headphones (though this seems like it would be a pretty complicated process, and we haven't tried it yet).
Aside from offering an integrated audio solution for the Vive and cleaning up one of the dangling cords that would previously protrude from the headset (the headphone extension cable), the Deluxe Audio Strap headphones aren't much to write home about. The sound quality is fine, but it can't hold a candle to what you'd get from a decent gaming headset. They don't do much to eliminate external sounds, either, since they only rest lightly against your ears and can easily get nudged out of place. You wouldn't pay $100 for these headphones if they were just headphones, but as part of the larger Deluxe Audio Strap package they get the job done.
The coiled audio cable that runs from the left earphone to connect to the headset itself is an odd look, and clearly feels like something that would have been eliminated if this strap could have been part of a single unit with the headset itself. As it is it just kind of dangles out there, looking oddly unfinished and exposed. In practice I never noticed it while wearing the Vive and it's not in a place where it's ever likely to cause any troubles, but if there is an aesthetic shortcoming of the new strap this cord is it.
The surface of the headphones that touches your ears is a leather-style material, which remains cool and comfortable once your head inevitably starts sweating (that's VR for you, folks). The headphones offer a very light touch, and will likely be most appealing to those looking for convenience and comfort, rather than dedicated audiophiles.
Is the Deluxe Audio Strap a must-buy?
If you own a Vive, you're going to want the Deluxe Audio Strap. If you are the main user of your VR headset then you'll appreciate the improved fit and associated clarity boost, while if you're the kind of person who spends a lot of time demoing VR to friends or family the benefits are even greater. The new strap makes it much faster and easier to get the headset on and properly tightened for a VR newbie and eliminates the need to wrangle with a separate pair of headphones. If you've ever been a VR virgin's first-time chaperone you already understand what a huge improvement to the experience this all amounts to.
For those who don't already own a Vive, the headset is absolutely worth the purchase on its own, and still offers the best total experience among the big three VR headsets even with the standard strap.
It's useful to compare this add-on to the Oculus Touch controllers, $100 add-ons to a $499 headset I'd call absolutely essential if you're going to buy an Oculus. With the Deluxe Audio Strap it isn't quite to the point where you should automatically add $100 to the Vive's $799 price tag, but once you have the headset itself you're going to want to make the audio strap one of your next big purchases. This places the Vive further above the Rift in terms of total cost for the best possible performance, and it will be interesting to see how that affects adoption of the competing headsets through the rest of the year.
In the end, the biggest criticism of the HTC Vive Deluxe Audio Strap is the fact that it hasn't been included with the Vive from the very beginning. It offers an enormous improvement to the Vive experience in terms of comfort, performance, and convenience, and once you've tried it it's hard to imagine ever going back.