Varjo Aero Review: Powerhouse Headset With Question Marks

When it works, the Varjo Aero offers a tantalizing glimpse of the future of VR. But a prevalent issue makes it hard to recommend right now. Read on for our Varjo Aero review.

The Varjo Aero arrives much sooner than I thought it would. A recurring theme in my tech event calendar (back when that was a thing) was an annual stop to one of the Finnish company’s booths to gawk at its latest, ridiculously impressive and equally expensive enterprise-focused VR headsets. I’d then ask the team if this was the year they planned to bring these devices to a consumer market, they’d say no, and we’d do it all again 12 months later.

Well, this year is a little different.

No Varjo booth, obviously, but there is the Varjo Aero, a new high-end PC VR headset that the company is aiming at smaller commercial markets and — crucially — VR enthusiasts. You don’t need to be a business to order one and you don’t need to sign up to the company’s expensive subscription software either.

In truth, I thought we’d be waiting many more years before Varjo would make its tech available to anyone and, in a sense that’s still the case. The Aero is an eye-watering $1,990 for just the headset – VR controllers and the required base stations aren’t included. It’s not ‘Varjo For All‘ so much as ‘Varjo For Those With The Biggest Wallets’.

But the specs show where your money’s going; on paper the Varjo Aero is nothing short of a VR powerhouse. The dual mini LED displays deliver a monstrous 2880 x 2720 resolution per eye with a 90Hz refresh rate and there’s eye-tracking and automatic IPD adjustment too. With those specs and that price, you’d be well within your rights to assume the Varjo Aero offers nothing but the very best in consumer VR headsets today. And in many ways it does, but there’s one important area that — currently at least — it falls short in. Let’s get to that first.

Resolution & Clarity

Normally in a review I’d talk about the comfort and design upfront, but there’s a sticking point to what I’ve experienced with the Varjo Aero that I thought was vital to highlight to give you context going forward.

So let’s start with what has been my biggest issue in my time testing the headset. Yes the Aero is impeccably clear and I’ll touch on that in a second, but over the past four weeks using the headset I’ve noticed significant peripheral distortion when rotating my head. As I look away from a virtual object or surface, it appears to warp as if not entirely solid. Only the very center of my view looks stable. It’s incredibly distracting (which, ironically, is only enhanced by the clarity of the display).

In pretty much all the apps I’ve tested, including big-budget titles like Half-Life: Alyx and The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners and indie projects like Gorn and Sweet Surrender, it’s been a noticeable issue.

Crucially, Varjo itself knows about this. I’ve been on multiple troubleshooting calls with the company over the past few weeks to talk about it and have been repeatedly assured that this is a software issue it’s aiming to fix with subsequent updates. In fact, the company says it expects to have its Base software fully ready for the Aero in December, which is when it also expects the first units ordered today to arrive.

I’m in a bit of a conundrum on this front, as my review loaner has to go back to Varjo, but I have asked for the opportunity to test the kit again around the launch of this latest software and, if that happens, I’ll update this review. For now though, all I can say is that if the issue persists it would be incredibly tough to recommend the Varjo Aero given its pricing. There’s really very little room for error in the enthusiast scene and this is too big of an issue to overlook.

And that’s a real shame because, even if there are other issues, the fidelity the Aero otherwise provides is second to none. The 2880 x 2720 per eye resolution beats out the Oculus Quest 2, HP Reverb G2, and even the current leader (and just a few months old) HTC Vive Pro 2. I haven’t tested the latter headset, but the difference over the Quest 2 and Reverb G2 is nothing short of remarkable. For the first time in VR, I could line up the sights on a gun in Alyx or recent releases like Sweet Surrender and see a crisp, faultless and completely solid weapon model that gave me pinpoint precision when aiming.

When I reviewed the Reverb G2 I said that, for the first time, I got a sense of sharpness from something like an arrow tip but, inside the Aero, I’m even noticing the tiniest of imperfections that are lined along the arrowhead itself. At times it’s so clear that I genuinely felt like I was staring at real-life objects. It’s an incredible experience to say the least.

Lenses And Performance

There are other nice perks to the display system too. The IPD adjustment, for example, is entirely automatic, using eye-tracking to read your distance and then shifting the lenses itself to get the right fit. It’s pretty impressive to see in action although very much a luxury feature that I could have done without if it meant simplifying the device and bringing the price down.

Less impressive are the lenses, which offer a 115-degree horizontal field of view or 134 degrees diagonally. They’re a bit of an odd shape compared to basically any other VR lens design I’ve encountered, with a rigid horizontal line at the bottom. When wearing the headset your field of view has a distinctly noticeable, unnatural shape compared to basically any other headset I’ve used. You can clearly see a staircase-shaped diagonal edge at the top and a shadow-like horizontal line at the bottom. Both UploadVR’s Zeena Al-Obaidi and David Heaney both said the same upon testing.

I’ve found this to be less of an issue once I dive into a game and start focusing on the experience, but it’s always one of the first things I notice when I boot up the Aero and jump into the Base environment.

Obviously, to power all of this high-fidelity decadence, you’re going to need a good PC. Really good, in fact. Varjo recommends an RTX 3070 if you’re going to be using the Aero but, as I mentioned, I’ve been using the 3060 Ti supplied by Varjo itself most of the time and had good results in most titles, with more demanding experiences like Alyx requiring me to lower the render resolution as far down as 40%. I saw yet another jump with recent testing on a 3070 Ti but, even then, there have been regular technical hiccups trying to fire the headset on all cylinders. ‘Can it run Varjo’ might become the 2021 equivalent of ‘Can it run Crysis?’.

The headset also has onboard cooling, which does cause some noise from within the visor, including a quiet rattle when moving your head, as if a fan was coming into contact with something as I turned. The air also gets blown into the lenses, which didn’t cause an issue for me but others that tried it found it distracting.

As for tracking? Well, this is a SteamVR headset so you should already know what to expect; near-faultless positional tracking using at least two external base stations and either the Vive wands or Valve Index controllers.

Design & Comfort

If there’s an area where the Aero really succeeds, it’s with the comfort. The kit features a halo strap design, with an adjustable back dial to fit the ring around your head. But the design then goes an extra step with a small, padded plate to rest on top of your head. This leaves very little of the 487g visor weight resting on the front of your face, and I could wear Aero comfortably for hours without much hassle.

There are two head-mounted buttons for basic interactions and summoning a menu, though you have to imagine those are more for simple commercial applications or interfacing directly with the headset when using a steering wheel or HOTAS in a similar experience. There’s also a 3.5mm jack for headphones and Varjo does include a pair with a microphone in the package, though these weren’t made available for review. Overall the headset build is quite solid, even if the materials used don’t feel as premium as, say the Valve Index.

Software & Compatibility

The Aero is tracked by SteamVR base stations and thus all its software runs through Steam too. Despite this, Varjo has its own Base launcher, where you can tailor your experience in specific ways. Base allows you to set a fixed IPD, enable performance-boosting options in supported software and much more. It even has a camera display of the user’s eyes when in-headset.

Eye-tracking, meanwhile, brings two distinct possibilities. The first is a form of input, like aiming where you’re throwing or selecting menu options, and the other is foveated rendering, which improves performance by only fully rendering the area of the display the user’s eyes are directly looking at. Both are promising features not just for Aero but the entire industry, but software compatibility is extremely limited right now, and I’ve only tested the features in the two demos the company itself supplied. Varjo itself pointed out to me that it hopes to see other headsets with similar functionality release over the next 12 – 24 months that will help expand that list.

Price

Okay, let’s get to it. At $2,000, you’re probably not buying a Varjo Aero. Commercial market aside, that price puts it squarely in the range of only the most dedicated of VR enthusiasts – the type that probably already bought the $799 base Vive Pro 2 a few months ago and wouldn’t bat an eyelid at then throwing down thousands more to replace it. I wouldn’t exactly expect this thing to be storming the Steam Hardware Survey charts in the next few months.

Oh, and that’s just for the headset. Varjo is assuming you already have SteamVR base stations and either the Vive wands or Index controllers. Add those onto the price and you’re looking at over $2,500. And you thought HTC headsets were expensive. And then there’s the top-end PC you’ll need to own too. You already know if you’re putting this down on your Christmas wishlist or not.

So, aside from smaller businesses that will likely have the lion’s share of sales, who exactly is the Varjo Aero for? Well, if you’re reading this review from your simulation racing chair on a motorized motion platform, staring up from your top-of-the-line steering wheel with our webpage in the center of your three ultra-wide monitors, powered by the high-end GPU, then you’re probably in Varjo’s target market. But for pretty much everyone else, the Aero is a tantalizing glimpse of what the future of VR holds.

Varjo Aero Review – Final Impressions

It’s important to remember that, while anyone can buy the Aero, it’s still primarily a commercial product, and it ticks pretty much all the boxes for delivering incredibly powerful VR experiences in that context. It’s when you come to judge the Aero as a consumer product that the issues really come to pass.

On the one hand, the Varjo Aero offers unmatched visual clarity in VR. In terms of raw specs, the headset delivers a powerhouse experience, with per eye resolution that will have you marveling at the tiniest details of virtual worlds that you’d simply miss in any other headset. Testing the device, I constantly caught myself off guard as I inspected creases in garbage bags in Half-Life: Alyx, for example. It really is that big of a jump. But, in its current form, this enthusiast headset has issues that its target market simply wouldn’t accept, the biggest of which being the very noticeable distortion when turning your head. If Varjo is able to address this issue like it says it will, it’ll be a real turnaround for the Aero and we’ll update this review accordingly. But the prosumer market is (quite rightly) an unforgiving one and, at $2,000, there’s little room for error with the Varjo Aero. As it stands, the blemishes are too tough to ignore.

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