Rating: ★★★★☆

Pros:

  • Light and comfortable for hours
  • Excellent for travel

Cons:

  • Doesn’t cancel outside noise
  • No included travel bag

Headphones and game consoles aren’t especially compatible. The method used by Logitech with their F540 was ingenious and worked great as a stereo headset, but most of today’s headsets rely on long cables, specialized connectors, and a lot of twiddling things around to make them work. It doesn’t matter what console you’re on, this is an ongoing concern. SteelSeries, a PC-gaming peripheral maker, has dropped into the console field to simplify the headset market. Can they break into the market?

What SteelSeries is doing with the Spectrum 5XB is its first big step into the world of console gaming. Bear in mind, while many PC-gamers are considered “hardcore”, the console game environment is much more laid back, and many players are more interested in having a good time than winning. So for SteelSeries, this is a big step.

The 5XB connects in two ways, via two 3.5mm audio jacks for stereo sound and a microphone, and RCA and a USB cable to the Xbox (or PC) for audio and power, respectively. For anyone who plays on both the PC and 360, the 5XB can go from featherweight to welterweight almost instantly. This instant class-changer works easily enough: for the PC or music, use the 3.5mm jacks. For the Xbox 360, plug those jacks into the included Xbox controller adapter, which then leads to a USB cable and two RCA female to male connectors. That way, the USB powers the headset and the RCA cables transfer stereo sound to the 5XB, without “stealing” it from another audio source.

The Spectrum 5XB does this without ruining your current audio setup (thus the female to male connectors), and installation is very simple. If you already use the RCA audio cables – or even if you don’t – they’ll output to the included adapter, and thus the headset. Switching between your current speakers and the 5XB is easy. To use the headset, plug the Xbox controller adapter in and keep the speakers off. For speakers, just unplug the Xbox adapter, and voila.

That Xbox controller adapter is pretty powerful for such a junky looking piece of plastic. It controls volume for both the game and voice controls (audio from the console and coming through the microphone) through two separate dials. There’s a mute switch on the front, and a light which turns on when you’re muted.

What SteelSeries is excited about is their LiveMix technology. A switch on the back of this adapter turns LiveMix on, which then discriminates between sound from the console and from your friends online, and lowers the volume of the game when your teammates talk, so that the game’s audio doesn’t drown out the important message you may get from a teammate. The technology works well, but I’m not too happy with it.

It’s too similar to how my car changes the volume of the radio when I speed up or slow down. It does this because the car gets louder and quieter at different speeds, and I can’t stand it. It’s too much to deal with changing volumes, especially when anyone can just tune out the ambient sound and focus on their music. After all, the most complex audio system in the world is in our heads.

With LiveMix, I have the same problem. I don’t want the volume automatically adjusted. It’s more distracting than not hearing what someone said. I don’t want a situation where suddenly I can’t hear where gunfire is coming from because the one idiot on our team is singing Lady Gaga. It ruins the realism of the whole experience – that’s not how combat really work. No, I’d rather rely on my own hearing and focus, and choose what’s more important to listen to.

And SteelSeries has smartly acknowledged that there are people like me playing, so LiveMix is a switch, not a requirement. It works great, and won’t ever raise the volume one way. For more “pro” gamers who actually do communicate, LiveMix is a huge benefit because frankly, it’s just hard to make out what people say on Xbox Live. At the same time, it can easily be ruined by just one person.

Stereo sound quality is crisp and clear, and users I played with said my voice came in clear as well. Sound good, but not great, which is expected from $85 headphones. They’re certainly good enough for music and gaming. Sound isn’t too sharp, and I’ve certainly never needed to throw the headset off my ears because LiveMix made something too loud.

As for the hardware itself, the 5XB is very light, which in the hand feels flimsy but on the head for hours is great. Most headsets become uncomfortable because they’re just too heavy. The 5XB doesn’t get uncomfortable easily. The cushions are soft and sit over the ear, but they don’t act as a good sound barrier against outside noise. The Spectrum 5XB is not great to use loud environments because of this. The adjustable microphone is retractable, which is great for travel.

What’s even better for travel is a nice surprise: the 5XB can break into three parts for easy storage, as pictured above. This feature is easy to miss; onlookers won’t notice it. I didn’t notice until I started playing around with it for photographing. It’s an excellent feature, one that could be fully realized with a proper travel bag included with the headset.

For a gaming headset, SteelSeries has done a pretty good job with the Spectrum 5XB. For just $90, players get something that’s easy to store, works for the 360 and PC, is easy to set up for home use or away without constantly shifting cables, and even includes some interesting tech for better communication. While I, as a lone-wolf gamer may not appreciate it, the LiveMix system works well and serious teams can benefit greatly from it. It looks like the PC-peripheral maker is now a bona fide console manufacturer.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.