Sound – could it be the most overlooked aspect of video gaming where the home gamer is concerned? I have a rather nice set of headphones that I treat with far more care and attention than I do other things in my life (you should see my car, or garden for that matter) and I use these headphones for listening to music, podcasts, audio books or even movies. But only on my iPhone, Blackberry or one of the other numerous MP3 players I have accumulated over the years.
Yet when it comes to gaming, I make no effort at all to improve the audio experience. I don’t even have surround sound or external speakers. I just rely on the somewhat questionable quality of the TV’s built-in speakers and, let’s face it, they really are not very good.
But, thanks to SteelSeries, I have seen the light. Or heard the light. Or heard a noise. Or something.
For the past couple of weeks, I have been indulging in my Xbox360 gaming with a SteelSeries Spectrum 4XB Headset and what a difference it has made. Now, SteelSeries are known for their PC accessories and, more specifically, their quality PC headsets. The new XB range of headsets are designed with the Xbox360 in mind, although they can still work very well with a PC or Laptop simply by plugging in to the headphone and microphone sockets. The 4XB headset that I have been using is placed towards the “more affordable” end of their range, although if these are the budget version, I am not sure my ears could take the top of the range headsets!
The headset itself exudes quality when taken out of the packaging. The headband is nice and solid, offers some padding for comfort and increases in size to fit any size head. The large earcups managed to fully cover my ears, another bonus on the comfort front, are again nicely padded and are vented to prevent any of those awkward moments when someone taps you on the shoulder during a particularly tense gaming moment. It has attached about three foot of cable which ends in the headphone and microphone jacks, which may not seem like a lot and may cause some problems if connecting to a PC. But these are designed primarily for use with the Xbox360 and thus only have to reach as far as the controller, which should be fine unless you are a particularly animated gamer. Hidden within the left earcup is a rather impressive retractable microphone which can be pulled out and positioned with ease. The headset is well built and seems quite sturdy across all aspects.
Also in the box, you will receive the SteelSeries Spectrum AudioMixer unit, which is where things get interesting. This unit comes with a massively long cable as it needs to be plugged into both the TV and Xbox360, as well as the controller. This is likely the one thing that will put people off the headset, as you will now find that your wireless controller is wired and you have lost your freedom to move around whilst wearing the headset. Wireless headsets are obviously preferable, but they come at a premium price point which many gamers may not be willing to pay.
Anyway, at the end of the cables is a USB plug to go into your Xbox360 and either a headphone plug to go into your TV Audio Out socket, or you can attach the included RCA Audio Splitter Cable which include pass through RCA plugs. Setting it up was relatively straight forward, if a little bit fiddly as I had to move the TV forward and nearly knocked over my Kinect unit. However, if using the RCA plugs, the fact that they are pass through means I can just leave them there without any more faffing around.
The other end of the wiring can be found the small Spectrum AudioMixer unit itself. This plugs into the headset socket on the controller. I found that, with my unit at least, it was quite a tight fit and took some manhandling to be sure that the unit was properly plugged in. However, after plugging it in and taking it out a few times, it all seemed to fit okay. This little box of tricks holds many surprises.
First up is the easy to access mute button, placed comfortably on top of the unit allowing the microphone to be turned on and off without any problems. On the left and right you will find the game and voice volume dials, which all seem to work exactly as the should. On the underside is the LiveMix switch, which is where all of the magic happens.
Enabling LiveMix brings a new level of comfort and simplicity to your online gaming shenanigans. I am sure that the actual process is way more complex, but in simple terms that I can understand, it lowers the surrounding game volume whenever other players are talking, allowing you to hear what they are saying with ease. Especially useful in the middle of a violent firefight. This all works incredibly well and offers a substantial improvement to the quality of the gaming session.
In fact, it was like a different experience. The quality of the microphone ensured that other players could hear me clearly, and I could hear them no matter what was going on in the game world.
But the real shocker for me was the difference made by having decent quality audio for my gaming. A lot of my time using the headset was with Crysis 2 and Shift 2 Unleashed as they were both games that I was reviewing. The sound of the cars and the additional layer of immersion that was given in Shift 2 was really quite amazing, and I had to watch the opening sequence from Crysis 2 twice, once with and once without the headset, just to prove to myself what a difference it makes.
I understand that there are other, more expensive headsets around that can offer wireless connectivity and various different types of surround sound that will likely blow my mind. But for anyone, like me, going from the TV speakers to a decent headset for the first time, I cannot emphasise enough what a massive difference they will make. Priced at around £40 from various outlets, these are a worthwhile investment for any gamer.
The excessive wiring and tight fitting Spectrum AudioMixer unit may be slightly off putting. But otherwise, the quality of the headset, the quality of the sound and the impressive AudioMixer function certainly make these an ideal entry level headset for any gamer. There may be better headsets out there, but the cost/quality ratio puts this headset into a very desirable position.