For at least a year now -- maybe two -- we've kept Plantronics' GameCom 780 headset at the top of our peripheral referral list. It's affordable, now priced firmly at $55, powerful, well-equipped for stream-quality broadcast, and durable.
As much as we've come to endorse the 780, it's still a mid-range headset; there's an entire spectrum of quality out there, as with all components, and we've yet to explore the top-tier headsets in any officially-published capacity. That changes today, courtesy of SteelSeries' new Siberia Elite headset.
We had a chance to get a hands-on with the new SteelSeries Siberia Elite headset and its accompanying software revamp while at PAX Prime last weekend. Let's hit the specs before further discussion:
SteelSeries Siberia Elite Headset Specs
|Siberia Elite Headset
|50mm @ 32 0hm, SPL@ 1KHz, 1V rms: 112dB
|1.2m; 3.5mm with adapters & DSP
-38 dB sensitivity
|September 17th (pre-orders)
SteelSeries Siberia Elite Hands-On Preview & Impressions
Probably one of the most immediately noted features of the newSiberiaheadset is its massive, memory-foam-packed ear phones. This design feature is a fusion of a few primary objectives by SteelSeries: Comfort, differentiating the source of audio, and aiding in blocking external sound.
From a comfort and usability standpoint, the headset uses memory foam in an almost pillow-like implementation in its ear phones and supporting head strap. Similar to the previousSiberiaiteration, the headset uses a dual-bar support structure (for flexibility and durability) with an attached, foam-equipped head strap. The almost modular-like execution of the headset's design theoretically improves its durability when in travel scenarios and other abusive environments, further improved by the lack of excessive plastic molding. This adherence to product endurance is somewhat expected from a company like SteelSeries, given their sponsorship of several of the world's most renowned eSports teams and players (EG, for instance).
SteelSeries noted that they've opted to move the audio controls to the ear phone housing, with input and output dials located on the outside of the ear phones. I find this design approach preferable: With the expansion of PC gaming over the past decade, we've finally seen a somewhat global shift away from on-cable I/O, which is the first in line to get run over by a chair. And speaking of roadkill USB cabling, the Siberia Elite uses a thin cable that runs to the in-line DSP; this makes the cable more tangle-resistant and is seen used in some high-end PSU cabling kits.
Functionally, the larger padding distances the speakers slightly from the user's ear. SteelSeries claimed that this aids in differentiating the directional source of the audio (e.g., hearing if footsteps are up and right or down and left). It's tough to say whether this is true, given our limited hands-on time and the speed at which sound travels (will a millimeter or two really be noticeable?), but the concept is still interesting and noteworthy.
The headset uses one 50mm driver per ear and makes use of virtual positioning to simulate directionality to the user -- a common practice in modern headsets. A few years back, it became somewhat of a trend for headset manufacturers to use numerous small drivers per ear to accurately simulate sound positioning within games. The sacrifice of this venture came in the form of decreased clarity and range, as one would expect from smaller sound drivers; in some instances, particularly with 7.1 headsets being used in native 5.1 games, the multi-driver setup added more to confusion and disorientation than to the audio experience.
Most of the major headset manufacturers have moved away from this and have instead opted for single, larger hardware drivers with software drivers to simulate the origin of sound.
Then there's the mic.
Microphones are fairly standard across the industry, but the Siberia Elite's retractable mic has a removable receiver, soon replaceable with a broadcast-quality mic. If you're a streamer or doing professional recordings and media production, this added functionality has obvious gains: Rather than purchasing a standalone condenser mic, which may be overkill for most gaming streams, a threaded broadcast mic can be screwed into the Siberia Elite.
What does the Siberia Elite sound like?
It's tough to provide previews and reviews of audio equipment. This is something I discussed with SteelSeries: "I can test thermals on CPU coolers all day long and it ultimately doesn't matter what I think -- it's either objectively good or objectively bad." With a headset, because the human ear is so enormously complex and individually-configured, it's tough to truly provide a sample of the experience without having each of you try it for yourselves.
We only had a few minutes with the Siberia Elite. The demo movie/audio came fully-equipped with deep, resonant booms, doppler-like sounds, and a showcase of all channels being put to use independently and cohesively. Without the chance to properly test the headset in a gaming environment, it's impossible to comment on the real-world execution of design (full review impending), but if the fidelity of sound in our demonstration track is any indicator, it's promising.
Through use of software, users can expect equalizer control over different frequency ranges (similar to Turtle Beach's SEVEN headset, but with less complexity and depth); this means you'll be able to amplify footsteps and reloads in a competitive FPS, for instance, or bolster the bass in RPGs for creepier dungeon experiences.
The sound was powerful enough to drown out the echo chamber-like effect of PAX, so if you're a fan of blocking out external sound, it seems that SteelSeries has accomplished that. In terms of pure sound blasting, we were informed that the drivers are rated for 120dBA output -- enough to use the headset as makeshift speakers (or seriously damage your hearing) -- so "loud" isn't a problem.
As for comfort, well, the big, plush pads work. I'm skeptical as to how they feel after wearing the headset for an entire day -- it almost seems like they'd get warm (insulating) or heavy, but we'll discuss that in full testing and analysis of the headset.
If you're researching high-end headsets, some competing options to consider are the Turtle Beach SEVEN (though Turtle Beach has had a history of questionable build quality), the Astro A50, and Creative Sound Blaster EVO. Keep in mind that there's no such thing as a "universally-good" sound system: If you're gaming, buy a headset specifically marketed for gamers. If you prioritize music quality, buy a headset built for music (Sennheiser and Audio-Technica).
The Siberia Elite headset is targeted at $200 and will be available for pre-orders starting September 17th.
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.