It is no lie that when this generation of consoles launched, the first-party audio equipment was sh*t. If it didn't break quicker than your Xbox 360 could red ring, then the audio quality was poor and it was made for people with oddly-shaped heads. Recently the audio peripheral market has caught fire and console gamers have more audio options than ever. Ranging from the super cheap to the "need to re-mortgage" variety, it's a market I am becoming obsessed with.
The great audio debate once again kicked off at the Destructoid Europe HQ when the latest piece of audio equipment from SteelSeries arrived on our doorstep. SteelSeries, originally an European-based company that markets itself as a manufacturer of pro-gaming equipment, already has an large catalogue of PC equipment. Now they have finally presented their first Xbox gaming headsets, the Spectrum 5XB and Spectrum 4XB.
This hands-on will be looking at the Spectrum 5XB running through the following set up: an Original Xbox 360 20GB and LG Flatron HDTV.
The Look and feel:
A Dtoider once told me "... you never know when a LAN-party will turn into a photoshoot.", a quote that highlights that it is okay to want your headset to look good, and that style and substance obviously need a balance. The 5XB comes in classic black with lime green detailing and smooth rounded cups in a high shine finish. The headset itself is of a simple design which I personally find to be one of my least favourite from SteelSeries. The Spectrum range makes me feel more like the Prince from Katamari than anything else.
However I feel while wearing them, one thing I can't argue is comfort. The headset remains light at only 590g and the padded cushions around the ears are so comfortable and keep the sound in amazingly well. Which is great considering that I love my volume up past what any otologist would ever recommend. It also helps keep the noise from the rest of the world out, My flatmate could be bleeding to death in my living room while screaming for help and I wouldn't have a clue. Awesome.
SteelSeries really keeps durability in mind when designing this headset. The cable is braided and Kim Rom, the company's CMO, always seems to take great delight in tugging at the cord as hard as possible in any interview to prove his point. The headset also breaks down into three separate pieces for traveling and can take a large amount of torsion to the main headband without it feeling weakened. Finally the microphone is easily retractable which is great if you want to use your headset without the mic floating in the corner of your eye or if like me you have the ability to "misplace" those detachable ones far to easily.
The set up:
I hate clutter. Previous headsets have seen my computer desk become a spaghetti junction by the time I plug in the millions of wires and gadgets that are required to make headset work, but SteelSeries have kept wires to a minimum with the 5XB. Now as Kim Rom has previously mentioned, they would love to make a wireless headset but sadly this is something that is still out of their hands and technology still doesn't allow for the same high quality of sound and reliability obtained through wired systems. Below are the before and after shots of my desk without the spectrum plugged in on top and with them plugged in on the bottom. It isn't perfect and there are still wires on my desk and stretching across to my bed when I play. But when compared to other headsets, it's a great improvement. The RCA jacks remain in the back of my TV at all times, the USB remains plugged into my 360 and when ready to use I simply plug the audiomixer into my controller and then connect the headset to the audiomixer and everything is good to go, surprisingly little fuss.
So before we get into how they sound, let's talk about how they work; the Spectrum 5XB uses the SteelSeries Audiomixer, a small device that is connected to the TV and powered by the USB port from your Xbox 360, which plugs into the base of your controller. The small audiomixer, which is light and doesn't throw the pad balance off, gives the players access to game volume, mic volume and a mute button. The volume controls are ergonomically placed where you don't end up knocking them with your hands while playing. The mute button even comes with a green/red LED light to avoid those embarrassing moment when you have ended up screaming into a muted mic unbeknownst to yourself.
Underneath the audiomixer is a small on/off switch to what SteelSeries call Livemix, which is rather clever indeed. When you switch it on, Livemix will automatically balance voice chat versus game noise. And no, it doesn't just increase the volume of voice chat to the point of giving you a burst eardrum. So no more loud explosions from the opposing team's rocket launcher interrupting you while you try to command your team to victory.
Now here is the really important bit, sound quality. I have to give it to the 5XB: the sound is beautiful. The spectrum gives off a deep and rich sound that feels heavy on bass, something I personally like in my audio equipment, that avoids distortion even with the volume up to maximum. Despite the sound being heavy on bass, more delicate noises are not lost. Considering that SteelSeries design for pro-gamers, where hearing every footstep counts, I would expect no less. Playing through games like Enslaved I can hear every fire crackle and the gentle hum of every orb. In Gears of War, I can hear the empty bullet cases hitting the floor and instruments playing in the background music that I didn't even know where playing. I was however really disappointed to find that my iPhone did cause interference with my headset while playing, sadly relegating my iPhone to another part of my room.
The microphone gets a good response from the players in my team speak with the majority finding my voice to come across as clear and crisp with nearly no distortion. When I get myself into some Horde mode in Gears of War 2, Livemix works brilliantly as I desperately relay instructions to my team mates to help us prepare from the incoming flank attack of Maulers and Boomers. It was easy to adjust the levels without fuss and without having to get up and walk over to my desk to use a different type of audiomixer provided by other headsets to get a better balance, everything is exactly where I needed it to be. I got used to flipping the switch to access Livemix on the underside relativity quickly. However, if you leave Livemix on expect to find sound levels changing constantly, it is best to only turn it on when you have something really important to say.
Over all, I have to admit I am really impressed with the new SteelSeries Spectrum 5XB, the sound is deep and rich and the microphone works well. The Audiomixer is a brilliant design that keeps the pad balanced and is ergonomic to use, the Livemix being a fantastic bonus. The design is as "no fuss" as possible, and it makes the headset easy to plug in and easy to use to help avoid confusion with wires running everywhere. However this design is sadly not for me, but it isn't like I plan on wearing them out; even though they do play audio files brilliantly as well. Above all is price, $90 is never cheap and parting with that kind of cash is never fun, but many people who have tried other console headsets will realise you are getting a fantastic bargain. Go cheaper and you will lose quality, yet even more expensive headsets will fail to provide your gaming experience with what the 5XB can. To top it all off the headset is light, comfortable and designed to take some pretty heavy rage throws.
The SteelSeries Spectrum 5XB can definitely be recommended to anyone who is looking to have the fullest experience possible from their Xbox360 and you don't have to be a professional gamer to enjoy the amazing build quality, sound, and technology that SteelSeries has brought to the table.
Specifications and price:
SteelSeries Spectrum 5XB:
Headphones Freq. response: 16 – 28.000 Hz
Impedance: 40 Ohm SPL@1kHz, 1Vrms: 110 dB
Microphone Freq. response: 75 – 16.000 Hz