For a good while, we stayed away from gaming peripherals because they were ostentatious. For whatever reason, the powers that be decided blaring red and jagged edges embodied gaming, and the whole market just went with it. We’re actually pretty far removed from those days, with LucidSound and Tesoro being two of many examples of companies moving away from that image towards something more acceptable to the mainstream — reflecting the shift in gaming as a whole, no less.
But, gaming headsets remain tricky. Even if they’re more attractive, they need to justify their existence when consumers can simply buy regular headphones and mics, both of which often are of higher quality. Longtime gaming peripheral maker SteelSeries might have done the best job of that yet — besides including promising audio quality and a bi-directional boom mic, their new Arctis line of gaming headsets include some convenient gaming-specific features that could win over many.
The Arctis line will include the Arctis 3, 5, and 7, but when I met with Brian Fallon, category manager of audio at SteelSeries, he stressed that all three will provide a certain baseline of performance. All three feature the drivers that were previously used in the premium version of their Siberia headset, plus a new bi-directional mic that uses what they call ClearCast technology. You can expect virtual 7.1 surround sound, too, although this is rapidly becoming a standard feature in gaming headsets. I didn’t get a chance to listen to anything using the Arctis headsets yet, but Fallon told me that SteelSeries has decided to tune them for balance, instead of going bass-heavy. The mics have narrower directionality than those of most gaming headsets, cutting down on the amount of background noise that gets in. In other words, if you’re shouting commands in-game and no one’s doing what you’re saying, it definitely won’t be because of the mic.
The trio will also share the same design, and it’s a far cry from the sort we saw in the early days of gaming periphals. The headsets come in either black or white, and are made mostly of plastic (with the high-end 7 being an exception). There’s a nice matte finish on the exterior of the cups, but the most interesting design touch is on the elastic band. A lot of headsets include an elastic band under the headband to better spread tension across the head, allowing gamers to wear headsets comfortably for hours. For the Arctis headsets, SteelSeries decided to use the same kind of band used on ski goggles — after trying them out briefly, I can tell they’ll be more effective than the bands on a lot of other headsets. On the inside of the cups, SteelSeries has used memory foam covered by a breathable mesh fabric instead of leather — admittedly, there’s some cost to passive noise blocking, but they won’t get as hot after extended use. If the seal becomes a concern, the pads can be removed, and SteelSeries plans to sell leather pads, as well.
Like usual for SteelSeries, the boom mic is retractable instead of removable, sliding back into the left earcup. It’s a good design — not only will the mic not get lost, it’ll always be facing the proper direction, so you don’t need to worry about twisting it around to get the mic to face your mouth. Meanwhile, there are physical controls on the cups, including a one-button toggle for mute and a volume dial. The headsets will come with a detachable cable that uses a proprietary connector and either a single headphone jack or a split jack for separate audio and mic connections, if you’re plugging it directly into your PC. Although the included connector has a proprietary cable, the headset does have a regular audio-in port, too.
The Arctis 5 and 7 add RGB LED lighting (you knew it was coming), although the lighting is limited to the outline of the earcups and the brand name, located near the bottom of the cups. More helpful is a small LED light on the mic that will turn red when muted. The two headsets also have DTS audio, which should allow for more effective surround sound — if you’re concerned about knowing which angle you took fire from, that’s the feature you’d want. There’s a detachable cable with a USB connector for use with that feature, which opens up interaction with some PC software that SteelSeries has prepared. In addition to adding DTS sound processing, the software can split chat and gaming audio into two streams. The cool part is that you’ll find an in-line dial called ChatMix that can sit on your desk — that dial can control balance, allowing you to turn down chat audio or in-game audio as necessary. So, if you get one of those guys in your pick-up group, you can turn down chat volume without affecting the audio from the game without diving into settings.
The Arctis 7 then adds a metal headband with a ski goggle band that wraps all the way around the top and bottom, plus, surprisingly, wireless connectivity. The good news is that SteelSeries had the sense to avoid Bluetooth, which would almost certainly be too laggy, in addition to the costs to sound quality. Instead, they’re including a dongle that can establish a dedicated 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi connection with the headset. That dongle enables all of the features that the USB cable on the 5 does, but with the ChatMix dial now located on the headset itself. The Arctis 7 will have a range of 40 feet and a battery life of about 15 hours.
The Arctis line sounds pretty promising — the ChatMix dial is a pretty cool feature, and if the mic is as good as they say, it’ll be a big step up over most competing gaming headsets, especially because the Arctis headsets aren’t being priced very high. But, we haven’t had a chance to test sound or mic quality yet, so we’ll see — at the very least, we can say they’re awfully comfortable. The idea seems to be that gaming and streaming culture has really ballooned in the past couple years, but the equipment needed to stream at a high level is really, really expensive (not so much good headphones, but more so a standalone mic). SteelSeries is putting the Arctis out as a sort of entry-level streamer headset for anyone who doesn’t quite have the subscriber base to pay for all that high-end stuff yet.
The whole Arctis line will be available starting today, priced at $80, $100, and $150. For the first few weeks, they’ll be exclusive to Best Buy (online and in stores), but will be widely available after that. In addition to selling alternate pads, SteelSeries plans to sell alternate ski goggle straps, and I’ve been told that SteelSeries is working with some street artists on a designer series. We’ll keep our eyes open for those, and we’ll hopefully have a full review of the Arctis headsets out soon!