The SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB Silences Doubts About High-End Wireless Gaming Headsets

I've often wondered what drives a person to shell out upwards of two hundred dollars for a high quality gaming headset instead of simply plugging in a pair of cheap ear buds or turning the television down really low. As one might imagine, I'm not much of an audiophile.

In the span of a couple weeks, the SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB wireless Xbox 360 headset has taught me that a quality pair of headphones can deliver a much richer and more personal gaming experience than mere television speakers or ear buds, crafting an auditory illusion that merges with a game's visuals to create a more immersive whole.

And they also drown out the screaming.

Unboxing the SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB for the first time really drives home the myriad hoops that Microsoft makes its third-party peripheral developers jump through in order to perform what should be a relatively simple task. I've got the headset itself; the Spectrum Transmitter, a powered hub for the headset which feeds off the console's USB port and broadcasts; an RCA audio splitter cable; a 3.5MM audio cable; and a mini-USB cord that goes from the headset to the bit that plugs into the 360 controller's microphone port.

Unboxing the SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB for the first time really drives home the myriad hoops that Microsoft makes its third-party peripheral developers jump through in order to perform what should be a relatively simple task.

In an ideal world, I'd simply plug in the Spectrum Transmitter to the console and be done with it. Instead I'm piggy-backing off my television's audio out and plugging in the headset's microphone into my controller. On the plus side, that means any sound coming from my TV can be piped through the 7XB, be it from my Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or my Retro Arcade Pac-Man TV Game. The downside is I feel silly having to brave the tangled jungle of cords behind my television just to get sound to come to my ears. Perhaps the next generation of consoles can implement the sort of high-tech, futuristic USB audio devices I've been using on my PC for the past five years.

So the slightly convoluted setup is not SteelSeries' fault, and to their credit the 7XB is a much more elegant headphone solution than many others I've tested. Once all is said and done, I've got another small box with blinking lights in my entertainment center and a powerful pair of relatively lightweight headphones resting lighting about my neck, ready for whatever auditory adventures I may take it them on.

Matte black with silver accents and pleasingly clunky, the 7XB are nice enough to look at, if you're into that sort of thing. I've been through so many headsets in my gaming career that I've stopped caring about what they look like. Once they're on my head, it's all about extended wear comfort. As long as my ears aren't going sore, the headset could resemble a majestic mallard, wings spread wide as it attempts to have vigorous relations with the back of my skull. Now that I picture that in my head, I'd probably pay extra for that. While the 7XB lacks an impressive wingspan, it does feature a pair of thick leathery, ear cups (cloth cups can be purchased separately) and a fair amount of padding on the band, keeping things comfortable for hours at a time despite my glasses and fashionable ear jewelry.

The left side of the headset houses a retractable microphone and a connector for the cable that hooks into the Xbox 360 controller to enable chat. The right side is where the real magic happens, housing the two AAA batteries that power the unit, volume controls, and three buttons: power, ExactSND, and LiveMix.

It bears mentioning that the 7XB breaks down into four pieces for easy travel storage, but only because I can't imagine a situation where space would be at such a premium you'd have to field strip your headphones.

All it takes is a press of the power button to bring the 50mm drivers to life, converting electrical energy into sound like a champ. The default audio is rich, meaty, and almost completely free of distortion. I say almost because if you crank the volume control on the base unit up past 75 percent the audio begins to crackle and a definite humming noise can be heard. There is a solution to this problem: Don't turn the volume on the base unit up beyond 75 percent. Once I figured that out, the 7XB was a joy to listen to.

But no one is paying $179.99 for a wireless headset for mere joy. They want to be blown away. That's where the ExactSND button comes in. Pressing it cycles through three preconfigured settings that tailor the sound to the games or media being played. Watching a movie? Flip to the Entertainment setting for deeper bass and enhanced environmental sounds. Exploring a lush open world game? The Immersion preset draws you deeper into the setting, drawing out the background noise and game music.

But no one is paying $179.99 for a wireless headset for mere joy. They want to be blown away. That's where the ExactSND button comes in.

Where the 7XB really shines, however, is in a first-person shooter with the third mode, Performance, enabled. Performance is optimized for direction sounds like footsteps and gunfire, giving an expert Call of Duty: Black Ops failure like myself a much better idea of who was killing me and from what general direction they were killing me from. I suppose someone better at the game than I might really benefit from such a thing, and his buddies would all be extremely impressed.

Or they'd call him names, which he'd hear more clearly thanks to SteelSeries' LiveMix feature, which balances voice chat so it isn't drowned out by game music and sound effects. I am not sure this is a good thing. Thankfully it can be switched off, allowing me to imagine my fellow players being drowned by waves of crystal clear sound.

The sole problem I ran into during my time with the SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB was an issue with some sort of interference intermittently interrupting the sound streaming from the Spectrum Transmitter to the headset. The transmitter is designed to avoid interference, intelligently frequency hopping up to 344 times per second. Apparently the mass of electronic equipment operating in the general vicinity of my entertainment center was enough to overwhelm it, but the problem seemed to subside once I powered down some non-essentials. Still, for $180 I'd rather it work flawlessly in the midst of the wireless signal anarchy of an Apple press conference, let alone the tiny cluttered confines of my apartment.

That annoyance was balanced, however, by the SteelSeries 7XB's greatest triumph. While sitting in my recliner playing through Captain America on the Xbox 360, my partner turned to me and said…something. Her mouth moved, but I could no sound reached my ears. "I can't hear you," I mouthed in response, which elicited the international gesture for "take your fucking headphones off." I did so, my ears suddenly assaulted by the piercing cry of an eight-month-old infant seated in his infant swing not two feet away.

I can't recommend the SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB enough.

That is, I'd definitely recommend the SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB wireless Xbox 360 headset to serious sound hounds with serious money to spend on a luscious audio solution that doesn't involve waking up the entire neighborhood with the sounds of explosions at two in the morning. I'd recommend it for new fathers, but they probably can't hear me.

The SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB Wireless Xbox 360 Headset is available now at the SteelSeries shop. Suggested retail $179.99.


You can contact Michael Fahey, the author of this post, at fahey@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.

The SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB Silences Doubts About High-End Wireless Gaming Headsets

Picture your head here. Might want to open it a little wider first.

The SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB Silences Doubts About High-End Wireless Gaming Headsets

When you're not talking, the bendable microphone spools neatly back inside the ear cup.

The SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB Silences Doubts About High-End Wireless Gaming Headsets

The controls are neatly arranged on the right side of the headset, with a raised bump to help your fingers find them

The SteelSeries Spectrum 7XB Silences Doubts About High-End Wireless Gaming Headsets

More blinking lights to place on your TV stand!