Gaming headsets are a dime a dozen nowadays, with a tone of options available to consumers at all times. While that's a nice thing in and of itself, the abundance of choice can make it pretty hard to find the right headset for your needs. Well, get ready to consider yet another option with the Arctis line by Steelseries, which promises the best performance money can buy at a reasonable price, and throws in some neat extras to sweeten the deal.
The Arctis line is Steelseries' new headphone flagship and comes in three distinct flavors: the Arctis 3, 5 and 7. While we might take a look at the 5 and 7 at some point in the future, we'll be looking at the entry-level Arctis 3, which promises performance that goes way above and beyond the expected quality for the relatively low cost of $79.99.
SpecsThe Arctis 3 comes equipped with everything you'd want for a headset targeted at gamers: lightwight design, large cups made of comfortable fabric with 7.1 surround and a microphone using Steelseries' propriety ClearCast microphone, which is said to deliver high-quality voice comms with built-in noise cancelling so your buddies will be able to communicate with you without having to listen to that pesky background noise that makes your games hard to hear. Every set also comes with a ski goggle headband that is designed to be flexible and comfortable. The headset also has a special dial on one of the cups to control the volume and a switch to mute or unmute yourself without having to do that in a third-party app like Mumble or Teamspeak.
The BoxIf you've read my previous tech reviews, you'll know that I love a good unboxing experience, and the Arctis 3 sure has a nice box not dissimilar from Apple's packaging, although Steelseries has a less minimalistic approach than Apple does. In the box you'll find a manual, some extra aux cables (one for use with your phone/iPod/whatever you use to listen to sound on the go, the other one for use on your PC's mic and speaker ports) and a bunch of stickers you can use to customize the Arctis 3 (or any other surface in your general vicinity). The box feels smooth, well-crafted and, for all intents and purposes, premium.
In the box you'll also find a little card that tells you to go to Steelseries' website to enable the 7.1 surround support built into the headset. If you want to make use of this feature on your PC, you'll need to register on their website. While I get that Steelseries wants to get as many people as possible into their ecosystem, it doesn't feel right that features of the product you bought need you to register first. You will also need to register if you want to configure the Arctis 3's sound via Steelseries Engine 3 proprietary app. It's not a big no-no, but it's something I felt I needed to note.
DesignFirst things first: the headset is very nice to look at. The headset uses a variety of different materials that give it a consistent aesthetic, with matte finishes on the cups and the plastic headband giving it a sleek look that doesn't really attract fingerprints, which is always nice. The cushions in the cups are made of airweave fabric, a relatively new kind of tech that has thus far been used in mattresses used by Olympic athletes to optimize their sleep. This material is mostly filled with air, which makes them very light as well as comfortable, and the airweave cups in the Arctis 3 are a godsend because of that. They're very comfortable to wear even after periods of extended use. They are rather bulky, but not in an unpleasant way, and the honeycomb pattern on the cups make it feel a little futuristic, which is something I like a lot!
The Arctis 3 also comes equipped with a second headband made of the same materials as ski goggles. This material stretches and contracts easily so the headset will never put pressure on your head. These headbands can be swapped out for new ones if you want to customize the look a bit further. You can buy those bands from Steelseries' online store.
Since the Arctis 3 is a headset marketed towards gamers, a microphone is to be expected. Because these things usually sit right in front of your face, taking the headset with you out in public can be a bit weird, but not with the Arctis 3. The headset's microphone can be almost completely retracted into the left cup, which in turn makes the headset feel more like a regular, non-gaming, headset. The microphone's arm can is flexible and can be bent so it's in a more comfortable position.
The microphone, like the rest of the features in the Arctis 3, is really decent. Don't expect to use it for any professional kind of recording (the larger condenser mics are always the better choice if you're looking for a great mic), but the sound is clear and the Engine 3 app has a few functions like noise gating and noise reduction, so you can tune it to your environment. The app also offers dynamic range compression, which is a feature used in music and radio that normalizes the sound's volume range, meaning that your mic sends out your voice at a consistent volume, boosting softer sounds and reducing louder sounds.
Something I don't like about the design is more of a personal gripe, but it might be yours too: analog buttons. While I think it's great that you can replace the aux cable the Arctis 3 comes with, the same can't be said of the volume wheel built into the headset. I don't expect it to break easily, but if it does, it'll be game over for your headset, and this wheel cannot be replaced if it breaks. The placing of the wheel is also a bit unfortunate as I found that I used it on accident while putting them on or taking them off, which led to the volume being way louder or softer than I expected. It would've been nice if that wheel were placed somewhere else on the headset so you can avoid this problem entirely. There's also a little button you can press to mute or unmute yourself, which might work better for you than doing it manually in your VIOP client of choice.
PerformanceFor an entry-level headset, the sound leaves most of its competitors in the dust when it comes to the sound quality it produces.The headset is able to produce crystal clear highs and punchy mids but is somewhat lacking in the bass department. Luckily, this is nothing some additional EQ'ing can't fix.
While the sound itself is really good for a headset at this price point, there is a problem with over-the-ear headsets: they have to cater to the largest ear size possible so everyone can use the headset without a problem, regardless of how big their ears might be. Now, my ears sit somewhere between small and big, so while the headset definitely fits, the large cups have a bit of wiggle room and can slide around your ear while you're doing anything other than sitting still. I would've liked the headset to have a way to make the headset a bit tighter.
Because of this, the stereo balancing can be a bit tiresome. I've had the headset slide around on the side of my head, pushing my ears to a different part of the cups. Whenever this happens, the sound that gets pumped into your ear is a little different from the other side of the headset, meaning you'll have to readjust the headset sometimes. Not a dealbreaker by any stretch, but something to consider regardless.
The Arctis 3 also comes equipped with simulated 7.1 surround sound. While that's certainly a nice option to have and enabling the option in the Engine 3 app gives your games a wider sound, I wouldn't factor in the 7.1 feature when you're looking for a new pair of headphones. The long and short of it is that the headset is a stereo headset and the simulated 7.1 surround is something you can get for every headphone by downloading some software of the net (Razer Surround does something similar. Dolby Atmos, which is an option in games like Overwatch, also does this when you enable it). The simulation is fine but don't let this feature be the reason you're buying this headset.
VerdictThe Steelseries Arctis 3 is a wonderful piece of technology that exceeds expectations on nearly every level. The sound quality is great, and the headset is one of the most comfortable I've ever had the pleasure of wearing. I also appreciate the proprietary app giving you some additional options to play with so you can get the sound you're looking for. I'm kind of whiny when it comes to audio (blame my musical education for that), but the Arctis 3 managed to convince me. It's not the best thing ever, but it comes quite close.
The Steelseries Arctis 3 was provided by Steelseries for the purpose of this review.