Page 3 - Subjective Audio Analysis
Reviewing audio devices require extensively trained ears and lots of experience. Even for audiophiles, it may prove challenging at times to obtain an accurate evaluation of a product without a thoroughly familiar product to use as a simultaneous reference. While I am not going to even try to claim that I am the only trustworthy or best reviewer for sound, it is fact that most computer review sites have editors that are insufficiently trained in reviewing earphones. Give them practically anything and all you will read about goes along the line of "good bass, nice midrange, awesome treble, really clear sound, 10/10". While there are many knowledgeable audio reviewers at various respected online media outlets, these are by far the minority.
As I have mentioned in my past audio reviews, there are really no true objective measurements for earphone sound quality. As the reviewer, however, I'll put it through a series of subjective tests to try to come up with the most objective rating possible (Yes, it's quite a paradox haha). The tests were conducted primarily with the Auzentech X-Fi HomeTheater HD sound card with the SteelSeries H Wireless plugged in directly to its S/PDIF optical output with Dolby encoding enabled. This sound card is probably the best consumer/prosumer computer sound cards out there in the market today, but it should not make a difference if we are talking purely audio quality, since we are using a digital connection. The Auzentech X-Fi HomeTheater HD provides advanced encoding features and signal processing, which is the primary benefit of using a high end sound card in this evaluation.
After over 50 hours of break-in time (Well above typically required period), we put the SteelSeries H Wireless to the tests. All tracks are uncompressed CDs, FLAC, or LAME encoded MP3s at 192kbps or higher. For gaming, I played Counter-Strike: Source, an older but still awesome first person shooter game.
Now, I don't normally start one of these analysis pages with soundstaging, but with these headphones, I really have to. In Page 2 of this review, I have mentioned how SteelSeries spent a lot of time encouraging users to go with an optical link, so you can enable Dolby on the H Wireless. Personally, I have always been a fan of listening to my audio equipment with flat, unaltered output, so I did not give that much thought, and went ahead and started my testing procedure with everything set to default.
To be honest, my first impression of the SteelSeries H Wireless’ soundstaging performance was “meh”. It was not particularly terrible, but it was not impressive at all. I then remembered the Dolby setting on the transceiver. For curiosity’s sake, I turned it on, and even to my surprise -- my initial “meh” instantly transformed into “holy crap”. Suddenly, the soundstage went from disappointingly narrow to beautifully wide. Imaging became excellent with the soundscape perfectly painted across the stage; and the depth, perception, and direction of each instrument can be perfectly heard. At this point, I have to tell you, this is not marketing hype. This is the real deal. I agree it may not be entirely realistic, but the effect is quite pleasing.
With the virtual surround sound set up and working, what does this mean to you? If you like to listen to music, good soundstaging and good imaging is essential to your listening experience. The SteelSeries H Wireless is something you really need to experience to believe in this context. But we need to keep in mind the SteelSeries H Wireless are gaming headphones. Therefore, I fired up Counter-Strike: Source, and the results were simply phenomenal. The direction and distance of every footstep, every gunshot, and every bit of shattered glass could be heard with perfect precision. As I have mentioned in my SteelSound 5H V2 review back in 2006, “if you have some good instincts plus great hearing with these headphones, it makes wallhacks obsolete.” Needless to say, I am very impressed by the SteelSeries H Wireless in this regard. This is awesome.
As far as the frequency distribution and balance is concerned, I would say these are fairly neutral headphones, with slight variations in distribution across the range. Much to my surprise, the bass is pretty reasonable, which is pretty rare for gaming headphones. The quantity makes footsteps easier to pick up, especially if you have a hard time hearing lower frequencies. Despite being a bit on the boomy side, the bass is relatively solid, round, and smooth where available, but you might run into the risk of bottoming out the output if given the right conditions. In my opinion, it can definitely be tuned to be a bit deeper for a more accurate listening experience.
On the other end of the spectrum, the treble is slightly recessed, and does not carry a whole lot of depth. It sounds a bit attenuated. Ideally, you will want your treble to be wet and immediate with a sharp and distinct reproduction. I found the SteelSeries H Wireless to be able to produce treble with sufficient distinction, but it gets messy on the higher end of the spectrum, which reduces its sharpness and immediacy. This, combined with a dry signature, makes it sound more artificial than necessary. If you are into music with a lot of percussion instruments, the SteelSeries H Wireless, while being able to pick up and reproduce the minute details, ironically, will make it sound messy at the clashes. My best example of this is a high resolution camera with low quality lens -- all the details are there, but it does not look that good if you zoom in full way. It will be nice if SteelSeries can clean up and increase the upper frequencies for gamers who would like to play music in the background. While playing Counter-Strike: Source, clicks from guns and zooms from lenses will be clear enough for most gamers.
In the midrange section, we can see the engineers that made the SteelSeries H Wireless traded a bit of lower midrange for a more emphasized higher midrange. This means vocals will not sound as thick as the original, but the slightly boosted upper midrange will make voices easier to pick up over other instruments. At the very least, it is easy to pick up, albeit sounding slightly unnatural at times. On the other hand, guitar strums, which fall into the same frequency range, are reproduced really well. As far as gaming is concerned, gunshots are very sharp and distinct, which is an extremely crucial strategic element of any first person shooter game. Overall, I would say the SteelSeries H Wireless are fairly neutral sounding headphones with a small upper midrange boost.
Frequencies are separated acceptably across the range until you reach the higher frequencies, and its layering transitions are done pretty smoothly -- again, until you hit the higher notes. This makes the sound pretty cohesive, even with Dolby enabled at the transceiver. I am generally quite happy with the precision of the SteelSeries H Wireless; the sound is mostly acceptably clean and detailed. Of course, for the third time in this page, this is all until you hit the upper range, which gets messy as aforementioned. On the other hand, you can still pick up the individual details despite the upper frequency shortcomings, which are rather surprising, and even sound like a paradox, haha.
The SteelSeries H Wireless are not designed with active noise canceling in mind, but the large leather padding on each cup provided a good seal for me. For its wireless range, it is rated for 12m line of sight, and with walls and other items in between, this range will obviously decrease. For some real life testing, I walked all the way around my house, and I had little problems receiving signal in my basement. If you ever need to make a quick trip the washroom, your music probably will not cut off while you pee (Make sure you mute the microphone though). Each battery lasts about twenty hours on a full charge, but it comes with two -- you can charge one while the other is in use. Latency is also not an issue at all during my tests.
All in all, the SteelSeries H Wireless is an incredible piece of equipment optimized well for the gaming enthusiast -- now with the luxury of wireless freedom. It would be excellent if the H Wireless can produce better bass, more balanced midrange, and higher treble with cleaner upper frequency reproduction for music lovers, but at the end of the day, I am very happy with what the H Wireless does as a gaming headphone. Let me reiterate: Its incredible ability to pinpoint the location of your enemy in a FPS game is simply jaw dropping.
1. Introduction, Packaging, Specifications
2. Physical Look - Hardware
3. Subjective Audio Analysis