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When I reviewed the HTC Vive last April, I wrote that Valve and HTC had created “the most forward-thinking VR headset on the market,” with one huge exception: design.
The Vive had its sole competitor, the Oculus Rift, completely beaten—this amazing room-scale experience, motion controls, Steam integration—except that the Rift was simply more comfortable to wear for long stints of time. “The Vive is in line with the Rift’s second-gen developer kit,” I wrote, and I stand by it. The Vive felt like a work in progress.
But not so much anymore. The first change came early on, when HTC replaced the thick ribbon cable of the launch Vive with a lighter three-in-one cable, similar to the Rift. Now, about a year into the Vive’s lifecycle, HTC’s making another change and releasing the Deluxe Audio Strap—essentially its take on the Rift’s rigid plastic headband, built-in headphones and all.
Even better, you don’t need to buy a new Vive to take advantage. The Deluxe Audio Strap’s on sale for $99, and you can easily replace your launch Vive’s elastic headband in two or three minutes.
I think you’ll want to. I know, another $100 on top of the Vive’s already expensive $800 price is asking a lot, especially given that every Oculus Rift ships with this sort of headband installed. But if you’re a big Vive user it’s worth it.
With the Deluxe Audio Strap installed, the HTC Vive finally feels like a finished product. It feels like Vive 2.0 actually, despite none of the internal hardware having changed—the experience is that much better.
Better even than the Rift, actually. Once again we see the leapfrog pattern so typical of VR at this stage, where Company A invents something, then Company B implements it a bit better, Company A folds in those improvements and adds a few more for good measure, and so on.
So the Vive “borrows” the Rift’s idea for a spring-loaded, rigid plastic headband. The Vive’s is better padded though, with a generous layer of foam cushioning the top and sides of your head. It feels great to put on.
The Deluxe Audio Strap tightens by way of a dial on the back, similar to a bicycle helmet or (if you’ve tried it) Microsoft’s HoloLens. Adjusting the Vive for different head sizes now takes a matter of seconds, where before it required a deft hand to get all three elastic straps in place. And while the Rift uses a rigid plastic headband, that legacy three-strap system is still in place, and it feels clunky by comparison.
Adjustments aside, I can’t overstate how much better a rigid plastic headband feels versus the Vive’s old elastic straps. Google Earth VR is a great example, because it entails a lot of looking down towards the ground. With the old elastic band, the Vive’s weight would pull the headset away from your eyes, causing you to over-tighten the straps to keep it in place—and, over time, causing soreness on your cheekbones and around your eye sockets from the pressure. With the more rigid design of the Deluxe Audio Strap, the Vive is always the same distance away, kept firmly in place while you stare at the miniature Grand Canyon or whatever.
This also applies to any active VR games, like Holopoint or Space Pirate Trainer. Before, I had a hard time keeping the Vive in place without cinching it so tight it dug into my face. I feel a lot more secure leaping around the room with the Deluxe Audio Strap. The headset’s weight is better balanced, it sits firm (but not tight) on my head, and I don’t notice nearly as much wobbling as I duck, bob, and weave around.
Then there are the headphones, a feature I thought was gimmicky when Oculus introduced it but which soon proved its worth once I had the Rift and Vive in my home. With the Rift’s built-in headphones, VR is only ever as far away as “Put on the headset.” Everything else is ready and waiting.
Next page: Audio quality continues, installation, bottom line