Provided free of charge by SteelSeries for review.
Damn, but do I love me a good headset! Don’t get me wrong, I adore my speaker system, but there’s something awesome about slipping on a headset and tuning the outside world out, revelling in the sense of isolation that padded ear cups can provide. Not to mention a good pair of cans can help you appreciate one of the most under-appreciated aspects of videogames – the sound design.
So today we’re tackling the SteelSeries Arctis 5, the middle-child that sits between the Arctis 3, which doesn’t come with the small controller for balancing in-game audio and chat, and the wireless Arctis 7. Currently sitting at £85 this headset arguably sits in the sweet spot of performance vs cost, and has a hell of a lot of competition. Indeed, near the start of the year I reviewed the HyperX Cloud Revolver and declared them the best stereo cans I’d tested.
Steelseries have gone for an understated design for the Arctis lineup. There are no extraneous angles or bulging bits or anything else, just plain black ear cups that house what SteelSeries’ refer to as their 40mm S1 Speaker Drivers, which I believe are the same ones that power my beloved Siberia 840. The only touch of flashiness comes in the form of the lit up SteelSeries logo and the two thin bands of RGB LEDs that run around the edge of the earcups. Using the SteelSeries Engine software you can customise each ear cup’s lights to display a solid colour of your choosing, or have an effect like pulsing, breathing or colour change. They are, of course, completely redundant since you can’t see them one they are on your head, but I can’t deny that having them illuminated while sitting on my desk was pretty cool. All in all I love the simple design here. It’s elegant, and feels like something I’d have no problem using in public where regular “gaming” headphones can feel out of place.
The left earcup is home to a volume wheel that doesn’t have much travel but feels nice and smooth to use. You’ll also find a mute button for the microphone which . Unfortunately muting the microphone activates a bright red light on the end of it, which is hugely distracting if you like to play in the dark. I mean play videogames. Obviously. You bloody pervert. There doesn’t seem to be any way of disabling it, either.
Connection is handled firstly by a USB dongle that plugs into your computer. This dongle has a dial that lets you adjust the balance between the normal audio and voice chat which is rather handy, although it’s very small and light which means it moves around too easily for my tastes. A double-ended mini-USB cable then connects the headset to the dongle, providing the sound and the power for the LED lighting. There’s also the option of hooking the Arctis up via a standard 3.5mm jack, but you won’t get fancy LED lighting this way. Still, it does mean that you can hook up the Arctis to a wide variety of things, including a sound-card if you want to get the best audio possible.
Fitting is handled by an elasticated fabric band that’s anchored to the plastic body of the Arctis 5 that automatically adjusts the headset to settle over your ears. Those with a….um, size-challenged head might find that there isn’t enough room before the solid plastic headband comes into play, but for myself the fit was spot-on.
On your head the 305g of weight feels exceptionally light. Couple that with the soft, breathable padding and relatively little pressure the headset exerts over your head to stay in place and you end up with a very comfortable set of cans that you could almost forget are even sitting on your head during those long sessions. The only problem is that I would like to have seen slightly tougher padding in the middle of the cushioning to help ensure your ears never come in contact with the internal drivers that deliver the sound. It’s a small complaint, but I do wonder over time if the padding will shrink just enough for that to happen. Regardless, though, these were seriously comfy.
As for the build quality, the lightness of the headset doesn’t quite make it feel like a premium, durable product. With that said there’s no creakiness or obvious weaknesses that I can spot, although I still wouldn’t feel happy putting them in a bag for a journey or something without some good protection.
But what of the all-important audio? Well, I have to say I’m impressed, largely because SteelSeries have focused on creating a refined, balanced experience rather than cranking up the bass to stupid levels and calling it a day like so many other companies do when making “gaming” headsets. What you get is a more natural feel across the board that perhaps lacks some warmth. Voices, gunfire, footsteps, explosions and everything between comes through with an impressive degree of clarity and detail, with frequency feeling overwhelming or underwhelming.
If there’s one flaw with the audio it’s that the soundstage is quite small, by which I mean the Arctis doesn’t manage to create a big sense of space. However, despite this the Arctis has amazing positional audio, letting you pick out the sounds of a player’s footsteps a level below you, or the direction of gunfire. That isn’t even mentioning how the level of detail in the audio combines with the positional abilities to create much more immersive ambient soundscapes to get lost in when playing something like The Witcher 3.
If you head into the SteelSeries Engine there’s an option to enable DTS 7.1 Headphone X. This has the effect of widening the soundstage, creating a much stronger sense of space for those open world games, but it comes with a massive sacrifice in terms of audio quality. When enabled things lose their clarity, becoming murkier and less detailed. Frustratingly even the positional audio becomes worse, with things like footsteps and unfire becoming much harder to pinpoint. My advice is to never, ever touch the Surround Sound option. Forget it exists.
Speaking of the software, let’s talk about what you can play with in there. A bunch of basic presets can be flicked between, and there’s a Live Preview slider so that you can hear all of the changes in real-time. More users who want a bit more you can go in and start playing with the equalizer, but the adjustment isn’t as fine as I’d like to have seen. Still, there’s enough room to tweak the sound in order to get something better. You can also alter compression if you want. The point is that if you’re willing to spend some time mucking about with the settings the Arctis 5 can be fine-tuned for each game that you fire up, the software automatically loading up your preferred profile whenever you open a specific app of your choosing.
Like the QCK Prism mouse pad I reviewed the Arctis 5 also supports apps that use the RGB lighting in unique ways, like displaying health in CS:GO. Just like the mouse pad, though, there are currently only three games supported (CS: GO, League of Legends and Minecraft) and it’s ultimately a pointless feature. Sure, with the mouse pad you could conceivably glance away from the screen to view your current health or some other stat, although I can’t imagine why you would do that, but it’s even more useless on a headset. The only use for this that I can think of would perhaps be E-sports where the camera could get a quick glance of a player’s stats purely based on the headset LED lights.
As for the microphone the software lets you adjust mic volume, noise reduction and side-tone. Speaking of the mic the quality is surprisingly good. With the noise reduction kept fairly low, because it can become overly aggressive on higher settings, my voice came through loud and clear with only a small amount of crackle. Obviously, for professional work you’ll still want to invest in a standalone mic, but for streaming or just general chatter in multiplayer this does the job just fine.
The £100 price point is a competitive area, and for good reason because it seems to be the sweet spot for performance. SteelSeries has created one of the best headsets available in that price range, though. And yet the fact that the 7.1 mode so horribly mutilates the otherwise superb audio quality is a massive black-mark against the Arctis 5. If you’re looking for a headset with virtual 7.1 tech then look elsewhere. However, if you want a damn good stereo set that happens to sound awesome and sports a bit of RGB bling then these are for you.