Spending $300 (£254.66, AU$399) for a dedicated gaming headset is no small commitment; after all, that's not far off from the price of a current-gen console. The Astro A50 gaming headset has been the standard thus far on the wireless end of the premium headset pool, with killer sound, great range, and wide device compatibility, despite inconsistent battery life and challenging interface.
SteelSeries makes a strong play for the throne with the H Wireless Gaming Headset, another $300 offering that's understated in design, but nicely refined and fits comfortably during long play sessions. And it addresses our complaints with its aforementioned competitor, offering not one, but two interchangeable 20-hour battery packs and a host of cables for setting up its OLED display-toting transmitter with a slick visual interface.
Luckily, the SteelSeries H also lives up to its premium designation when it comes to audio quality, with clear, powerful 7.1 Dolby Digital virtual surround sound. Stellar mid-range performance and crisp highs are a highlight, only offset by slightly subdued bass power and the occasional wish for a bit more volume on the high end.
No doubt, SteelSeries' wireless headset has an "everything but the kitchen sink" kind of feel to it, bundling in an array of niceties and perks for its rich asking price, but if you're willing to spend the cash, it delivers a superb gaming experience.
The SteelSeries H Wireless Gaming Headset isn't the sleekest headset we've used, but we like that it's less fussed-over than the Astro A50's design (with its open slats and exposed wiring). Call it utilitarian, but the understated design here makes a nice impression, and it feels lighter than your average large headset, which helps in the long run.
It fits snugly and stays firm in place on your head, but that's thankfully not due to a severe, uncomfortable shape. In fact, the circular, donut-like cups fit well around the ears, and the cans tilt and rotate a fair bit to fit nearly any kind of dome.
The ear cups turn 90 degrees towards you, so they'll lay flat when the headband is around your neck or stored in a messenger bag. And they tilt inward when not being worn; that way, when you put the headset on, the cups give just enough to accommodate your head and stay there.
Initially, however, the bendable nature of the plastic arch is disconcerting. Where other sets' headbands are often rigid, this one can be twisted and turned much more than expected – but it's reinforced with metal, says SteelSeries, so bend away. Ultimately, that lets you wear it a little atypically, if desired, and that's not a bad thing. And the five cushioned leather pads up top help it sit comfortably during use.
The cans feel great around your ears, and the orange fabric inside the leather-padded circle is a nice contrast to the black-heavy aesthetic. However, the complementary orange stitching around the cup looks fuzzy and frayed up-close, which – while not visible from more than a foot away – is a muddled detail.
SteelSeries opted for a largely minimal design with headset functionality, as well, rather than adorning it with a mass of unnecessary buttons and knobs. There's a small volume dial on the back of the right can that blends in well with the build, and can also be clicked in once to scroll through settings on the transmitter screen.
On the bottom of that same can is a dual-purpose power/mute button – hold to turn on or off, or simply tap to mute your microphone. Next to that are small plugs behind an attached rubber cover: one for an Xbox 360 chat cable, and another for a cable to share sound with another headset. The latter can also be used to plug in a headphone jack and use the headset with an MP3 player or other audio device.
And the microphone itself is well concealed on the left can. When stored within, all you'll see is the little head of the mouthpiece – a few millimeters jutting out. When you need it, simply pull gently and it extends out a few inches, with a bendable arm that lets you position it exactly where you want in front of your mouth.
The transmitter itself proves one of the more unique and interesting parts of the SteelSeries H experience. It's a little black box with rounded edges, which looks similar to a Roku 3 or Apple TV. What makes it so distinct is the aforementioned OLED display, which lets you tweak various settings of the experience whether you're turning the dial at right or using the volume click-wheel on the headset.
That makes it easy to make quick adjustments on the fly and see the changes from average couch distance. It's a small display with white text on black, yet it's crisp enough to read even from afar.
And the transmitter serves another purpose: when plugged into a wall outlet, it's also the charger for the included battery packs, thanks to a little slot on the right side. Simply pop out the spent battery from the left ear cup, swap it for the charged one in the transmitter, and you're good for another 20-or-so hours.
For $300, you expect top-tier sound – and that's thankfully what you get with the SteelSeries H Wireless Gaming Headset, which delivers rich 7.1 Dolby Digital virtual surround sound with games and movies alike.
The clarity of the signal really blindsided me in Battlefield 4, with each distinct round fired delivering a startling, satisfying impact against our eardrums – it's really one of the best examples of how brilliant sound design and a high-quality headset can coalesce to pull you deeper into the experience. It made a believer out of me.
Not every game is primed to showcase premium tech like this, but across all of the titles we played with the virtual surround sound engaged, we found the audio to be very stellar, with consistently clear mids and great performance on the high end. The bass performance is solid, but not especially powerful or impactful – we found ourselves wanting a bit more oomph.
Playing with the Equalizer settings lets you select from a few presets to find the best balance for each game, movie, or other piece of media. The Immersion setting, for example, emphasizes the low end for a slightly thicker sound, while Performance maxes out the highs. Music, Voice, and Entertainment presets are also available, plus you can generate your savable EQ settings presets.
While designed for games, the SteelSeries H also plays nice with movies, especially Blu-ray flicks with 7.1 support included. Every superhero smash in The Avengers is strongly felt, particularly on the Entertainment EQ setting. Listening to hip-hop, rock, and electronic pop tunes (via the headphone jack) also delivered full, satisfying stereo sound, though you don't need a $300 (£254.66, AU$399) gaming headset just for that.
Most of the time while gaming, I found myself rocking the volume either at or just below max, which sounded just right – but with less bombastic titles, we couldn't help but feel like another notch or two higher on the register would've been helpful. With something like NBA 2K14 or Battlefield 4, though, it gets plenty loud on the top end of the scale – and the SteelSeries H emits a fair bit of sound beyond its cups to those within earshot, as well.
You can use the ChatMix feature on the transmitter to manually tweak the balance between game audio and online chat, or have the LiveMix option automate the process and kick up the emphasis on chat whenever your allies or enemies start talking. Being able to alter the interplay between those competing signals is a great perk.
Battery Life and Connectivity
The two 20-hour battery packs included with the SteelSeries H Wireless Gaming Headset let you play on and on with rare need to swap them, and no need whatsoever to wait for your headset to amass a charge. And while including two packs of such high capacity might seem excessive, they live up to the advertised billing, and really do stretch out for upwards of 20 hours apiece.
Due to the transmitter's connectivity to anything with an optical port, the SteelSeries H headset works wirelessly with a range of devices. It functions seamlessly on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3, as well as PC and Mac. On Xbox 360, you'll need to hook in the provided chat cable to converse online, however. And unfortunately, the Wii U's confounding lack of an optical-out means it misses out on making the most of this stellar headset.
And as of this writing, you can use the headset to hear games and listen to others chat on Xbox One, but the microphone is useless. That's the case with all unlicensed headsets right now, unfortunately, but Microsoft's Headset Adapter is due out shortly, which should make it possible to use the SteelSeries H in full – albeit via the help of a pesky cable and another small peripheral investment.
Multiple connectivity options are available for various devices. On PlayStation 4, for example, you can connect optical and USB cables between the console and transmitter, while also using a power cable for the transmitter. Or you can go without the power cable if you prefer, or even hook your TV directly to the transmitter with the included analog cable.
For audio devices like phones and MP3 players, you can use the included audio cable to connect the headset to a device via the headphone jack. However, the volume dial doesn't function without the transmitter in play – you'll need to use the device's own controls.
Unfortunately, the very slim booklet included with the headset doesn't detail out the various connectivity options or even show all of the basic functionality for the headset – including the fact that the volume button clicks in for access to transmitter settings (though the functionality is hinted at on the box).
In service of being ultra-minimal, the manual leaves out a lot of helpful information that you'll need to track down on SteelSeries' website – like how two connections (say, optical and USB) are needed to use the ChatMix and LiveMix features at all.
Everything you'll need (aside from maybe the Xbox One Headset Adapter) is bundled with the box, including optical, analog, USB, and mobile (headphone) cables, the Xbox 360 chat cable, and a power cable and wall adapter, the latter of which also includes international plug adapters. Unlike the Astro A50, the SteelSeries H truly is ready to go out of the box.