Interview: PA alum discusses A40 audio for competitive gaming

Josh LaTendresse has a long and storied background in the gaming and audio world. He worked at Monster before coauthoring Gaming Hacks from O'Reilly Books, and he wrote a popular column about the world of audio-visual products and wiring for a little web comic called Penny Arcade. Now he's working for ASTRO Gaming, a company that wants to redesign your gaming peripherals. HangZhou Night Net

Its first product is the $250 A40 Audio System. A combination headset and "MixAmp" that allows you to control your gaming volume and voice chat independently. A40s can also be linked together to create a lag-free audio environment for competitive-level play. Also, the headset is comfortable as hell. LaTendresse was nice enough to give us some of his time to talk about this work, and the A40.

Okay, tell us your background, and how you got into product design.

I'm an unapologetic techno-junkie gamer, home theateraficionado, and gadget freak who cut his teeth during the heyday of the arcade and personal computer revolution. My first computer used floppy discs that were actually, well…floppy and my first gaming console experience involvedwood grain. If you are reading this and nodding your head right now, then you know just how few useful products have been created specifically for our subculture outside of a pure, pragmatic hardware standpoint. Where do you put all of your expensive technology? How do you interface with it? Where do you store, organize, and display it?

These are the questions I asked myself a while ago, and being the
pragmatic, handy guy that I am, I started designing and building a few
things that made my life easier and better. But this only opened a big
can of worms and led to more and more ideas which I knew were way
beyond the small-scale thinking that I'd done thus far. It was around
this time that I got connected with ASTRO Studios—which was just
then finishing up the design of the Microsoft Xbox 360. I had a meeting
with the 360 designers and the CEO of ASTRO, Brett Lovelady—and
literally gushed out about 20 ideas for things I thought that gamers
couldn't live without. A couple of these ideas became the seeds for a
company that we started called ASTRO Gaming.
Explain how you became involved with
Penny Arcade. Did that connection help you get people interested in
your more recent exploits?You also used to work for Monster Cable, correct?

My time at Monster Cable and with Penny Arcade is actually pretty
closely related. I'd been a fan of Penny Arcade since nearly the very
beginning, and one day I came into my job at Monster Cable and saw this
on the PA site: The Monster IT guys thought we were suffering a DDoS attack—and I had to explain to them that we were only being wanged. I
dropped a note to Mike "Gabe" Krahulik explaining that I was a fan and
loved the lampoon of Monster. He quickly called me back to say that
since they'd put up the comic he was buried in mail from gamers who
really didn't understand how to best wire and set up their home theater
systems, and wondered if I could help him out.Thus, my column called "Hook Up" was born, and I ended up writing
quite a few articles for PA over the next few years (and I think a
couple of people actually read them). This was really the seminal shift
in my career from consumer electronics into gaming. I began with
writing for PA, and that eventually led to helping with Gaming Hacks published by O'Reilly, to being a full-time pseudo-journalist for and PC Gamer.I think that if there is something interesting about my career, it is that I came in through the very, very, back, back
door. If you think that you want a career in gaming, get your education
and then find a toehold wherever you can. After that: network, network,
network. Every single person you meet is important, no matter how
junior they may seem today. Get to know every secretary, intern and
staffer that you can—in five or 10 years, these will be the
managers, producers and directors at companies you'll want to work for
or partner with.

Walk us through what the A40 Audio System is, and what you're hoping it's going to do for gaming. Who is your audience?We've designed the A40 Audio System to be a solution for
both professional gamers and hardcore enthusiasts. In a nutshell, the
A40 Audio System combines Dolby Digital/Dolby Headphone
surroundtechnologywith whatever voice communication system you prefer—be it Xbox Live, Skype, or Ventrilo-based VoIP. Furthermore, two or
more A40 MixAmps can be daisy-chained to activate the embedded,
high-quality, zero-lag voice communication network. And you'll just
have to hear it to believe how good the quality is.

What we hoped to do for gaming is really already happening. We've
been working with the premier gaming league, the Major League Gaming
Pro Circuit, for over two years in order to directly address the needs
of the world's most demanding gamers while developing our product. Our
prototypes worked so well last year that they were actually banned
after a big win, which is lifted now that the retail product has been
released for all teams to freely use.
But we are already back on top—just this past tournament at MLG
Orlando we watched (and cheered!) as every single first place team used
the A40 Audio System. So we really feel our products give players an
advantage that is much more than hype, and enable players to
communicate freely and play their best game possible.
For someone who once sneered at people who describe their TV
size in inches, using the A40 on your gaming consoles requires many
cables, and won't work if you're using an HDMI connection. Have you
thought of making a headset-only wireless version?

I see that you were one of the 17 people that read my old column!
It's nice to see that we both have less time on our hands these days.

Seriously though, the A40 Audio System was designed to fit the
needs of the very demanding tournament environment, and today this
means 'wired.' Tomorrow's technology may enable us to cut the cord, but
we'd need to have hundreds, if not thousands of headsets operating in a
very confined space and play nice with each other—and that
technology hasn't yet reached the consumer market.Most devices that attach to an HDMI connector also have an output
for digital audio after the video is stripped out. This is where you
should be attaching your digital audio cable. Connecting digitally is a
real benefit for the A40 Audio System—the noise floor just drops to
zero compared to most of the junky analog connections you see on most
devices today.

We spoke at PAX last year, and you seemed like someone who takes
design and quality very seriously with your personal rig. So dish: what
peripheral or piece of hardware lately has made you gag a little?
What's the last peripheral for gaming you've bought where you were

I'm a little obsessed, and I'll be the first to admit my
personal space is a bit out of control. But ever since ASTRO became
involved with the design of the HP Blackbird (ASTRO Studios was the
design consultancy of the Blackbird project), its been really hard to
walk into the PC section of Fry's and not feel physically ill at the
sight of the utterly horrible state of the PC tower industry. Since I
started building my own PCs, I've always gone the rack-mounted server
route for my rigs, rather than wade into a cheap plastic and
tastelessly lighted children's computer. ASTRO designed all three
generations of the Alienware PC towers and laptops, so we are equally
guilty—and obviously they are not my cup of tea, either.

But the HP Blackbird went in a completely different direction and is absurdly
well-designed and built. Not only in form, but in specific function—slot loading drives, HDD docking bay, simple access and tool-less
upgradeability, in addition to an extra dimension in cooling due to its
lifted chassis. And what a chassis!

Do you ever wonder why we don't see more high-quality
peripherals for gaming on the consoles? It seems like there are things
like the official controllers, and then cheap knock-offs. Things are
slightly better for the PC, but the A40 is one of the more notable
pieces of high-end equipment dedicated to gaming I've seen in a while.

Many of us have grown up with our Atari, Nintendo,
Coleco, Sega, and Sony game systems that were—rightfully at the time—very oriented towards the children's toy marketplace. But as we've
grown up, much of the hardware, and nearly all of the accessories
created for gamers, hasn't. On the flip side, there are many
products that are oriented toward the older generation of gamers that
come from "hopelessly corporate," office-productivity companies.
Despite being higher quality, their products are extremely
conservative, and don't embrace the fun irreverence and true identity
of the gamer subculture — not to mention the specific features and
functionality that fit our needs.
So now that the A40 is shipping, what's next on your plate?

ASTRO Gaming will stand astride the lack of products
that I've previously mentioned. I can't go into detail about what we
have in store next, but rest assured, we aren't a "Headset company," or
even an audio-centric one. ASTRO is a high-end gaming equipment and
accessories company.

As I'm sure your readers will agree: gaming is cool, incredibly
social, and anunmistakablyvital component of today's digital
lifestyle—and it's about time we had access to products that
reflected that.