SteelSound 5H Review

Review by Jonathan Kwan
Gaming tests by Tysei Luong
April 22, 2006

We all heard of this phrase: Time is money. If time is really money, then I'll be a lot richer than Bill Gates! If time is money, then is money time? I am sure many will hope so!

Bad sound kills you. Following the logic above, does good sound make you live? Unlike the conclusion we came up with in the previous paragraph, the answer is... yes it does! Not only does it make you live, it makes you win as well!

When playing a first person shooter game, having a good mouse and mousepad is one thing. Having good sound is a necessity to pinpoint where your opponents are. Want to warn your teammates of the noob on the other team that just caught your attention? Without a microphone, the "noob" might just be the one to pop in your face ten seconds later.

Today on APH Networks Reviews we'll be having a look at the SteelSound 5H gaming headset. Our review unit came with a USB sound card, so we'll see how that performs as well.

Our review unit came quickly and safely in retail packaging. The plastic case was damaged at the top, but that's alright. It's not hot glue plastic packaging, you can simply open it at the top and slide your new equipment out.

The 'stand' makes the SteelSound 5H pretty high-class. It deserves a photo of its own!

Out of the box, you'll get a mini driver CD and extension cable in addition to the headphones itself. An USB sound card will also be included if you purchased the USB version. When you connect your SteelSound 5H to the included extension cable, total cord length will be approximately three meters -- long enough for most people.

At this point there's one thing I must confess: I am writing in very stubby sentences today (I wrote this review's introductory paragraph a few days ago), so please pardon me. Anyway, moving on...

One good physical attribute of this product is its ability to be dismantled into three separate units for your convenience. While this is a great idea and feature for the LAN party crowd, no carrying case is included with the SteelSound 5H, so you'll have to figure out a way somehow to travel with this pair of headphones without losing a piece or two. A better implementation would be the ability to fold these headphones, or at least an included carrying case.

I cannot find any technical details regarding this product on SteelSeries' website. Fortunately specifications of the SteelSound 5H were included with our review unit. Let's have a look over some information on the headphones itself as well as its microphone.

- Frequency response: 16 - 28.000 Hz
- Impedance: 40 Ohm
- SPL @ 1kHz, 1 Vrms: 110dB
- Cable: 1m + 2m (Extension cable) = 3m total

- Frequency response: 75 - 16.000 Hz
- Pick up direction: Uni-directional
- Sensitivity: -38 dB
- Impedance: 2K Ohm

A closer examination of the accessories. From the left: SteelSound 5H's remote, USB sound card, and the two meter extension cable. Located on the remote is a little wheel for fine tuning output volume, and a separate switch for turning on and off the microphone. There are two settings for the microphone besides 'Off'; and that is 'Low' and 'High'.

I really appreciate how they made a USB version and a standard version. Our review unit, the USB version, is essentially the standard version with a separate USB sound card module. This implementation allows a broader range of use for these pair of headphones. If you want to USB-ize the SteelSound 5H, just run its standard 3.5mm headphone jacks into the USB sound card and connect it to your computer. If you want to connect the SteelSound 5H to any other input source, say, a digital audio player, you can do that as well. The USB sound card that comes with the SteelSound 5H can accommodate other headphones and microphones that utilize standard 3.5mm headphone jacks as well.

On the standard version of SteelSound 5H, no USB sound card will be included. That's the only difference as compared to our USB version. Of course, the non-USB version will not include any driver CDs.

There is a single wire that runs from SteelSound 5H's left cup to your sound source. Less wires are better, but how can sound signal travel to the right cup, especially when this product can be fully dismantled into three different units, and that there are no wires running directly to the right cup from the sound source? The trick is revealed if you look closely at the joints as shown in our photo above.

I find it kind of cool that they added a "Do not dispose" sticker on the right cup, again as shown in our photo above. I am not sure what's the exact purpose of this, but hopefully no one will throw away the right cup thinking it's... garbage?! lol

Wait a second... I forgot, no MSN language in reviews... :D lol (Oops) This kind of reminds me of my recent English midterm exam. I don't remember what my topic was about, but what I do remember is that I used "1337" somewhere in my essay. How did the teacher read it? I don't know. What I know is that I received a relatively high mark. Isn't that 1337?

My point is that the use of internet language has really influenced our daily lives. I was at a large local grocery store yesterday and I came across a very interesting brand of sunscreen. Name of product? 'got2b gone'. Really, there are a lot of brands and names that uses non-standard English words. What's more, even names of certain songs are based off instant message shorthands. Since U Been Gone (Kelly Clarkson) is a good example. That's not the only song that has a 'U', but seriously use 'j00' 'You' instead of 'U'...

Anyway, I think we got a little carried away. Yeah, just a little. Back on topic...

The SteelSound 5H's microphone is located on the left cup of this headset. Thanks to its flexible cord, you can easily slide it out and adjust it to your desired position and location. The microphone hides pretty well and isn't very noticeable when it's hidden inside the left cup. This implementation allows the mic to be available when you need it and out of sight when you don't. Thumbs up!

The SteelSound 5H's USB sound card was quick and easy to install. Windows Vista Build 5342 instantly detected the device as a C-Media audio device. It works, but the software that tags along with this product weren't, therefore I ran the rest of my tests under Windows XP Professional SP2. After a quick reboot after driver installation, everything was good to go. One thing that really annoys me about the configuration software is that when it's opened, it does not appear on your taskbar. You'll end up going through your system tray and double click its icon to bring its configuration window back in focus when it's not.

First tab of the configuration software. This allows you to adjust and control your virtual 7.1 settings as well as turning it on and off.

The mixer is located in the second tab.

In the Effect tab, you can set and adjust environmental effects to create a virtual environment. A ten-band equalizer is also present here in addition to a dozen of presets.

The last tab appears to be pretty interesting. The first section controls microphone echo. In the second section, it allows you to control key-shifting and voice cancellation. Key shifting enables you to have some fun, for example, changing a female voice to a male voice.

Want to sing your favorite songs to the music? Vocal cancellation allows you to cancel out the singer's voice out of the music. Great idea, but doesn't work as well as I expected. From my tests, the software had much better luck (But not even close to completely) taking out voices in songs such as Ocean Avenue (Yellowcard), Shut Up! (Simple Plan) and Numb (Linkin Park) than in Because of You (Kelly Clarkson) which had virtually no effect on the voice, but instead significantly distorting sounds produced by music instruments in the background.

The Tests

Here are a few things I shall note before we begin the tests. First of all, the SteelSound 5H is huge. It looks extremely bulky (and weird) if you look at yourself wearing these headphones in front of the mirror. So scratch the idea of using these for portable audio. In addition to what I just mentioned, the SteelSound 5H does not block out any external noises -- so if you are in an unfortunately loud LAN party, then you are pretty much out of luck. If you are using these at home for gaming, no problems. If you are in a noisy environment, all I can say is... nah. Of course, some people want to hear the environment around them instead of having sound isolation. It's your personal preference.

In terms of comfort, they are generally good around my ears but I find it a bit tiring for the top of my head after a while due to its narrow headband design.

Let's move onto the tests. I'll be covering music and movie performance, while Tysei (ty8131990 on the forums) will take a look into how good these headphones are for gaming.

Before giving this pair of headphones to Tysei for his testing, I gave the SteelSound 5H a first try. It wasn't too surprising that the SteelSound 5H stressed heavily on bass and treble. Bass is very important for tracking footsteps and lots of treble is necessary for hearing reloads and scopes. You get the idea.

The next day I gave the SteelSound 5H to Tysei so he can do his gaming tests. Gaming tests were run on his computer, with the following specifications:

AMD Athlon 64 4200+ X2
Shuttle FN25 motherboard (nForce4 chipset)
OCZ EL Platinum 2x1GB 2-3-2-5 @ stock
ATI Radeon X800XL 256MB
NEC 3540A Multiformat DVD Burner
Shuttle SN95P barebone
SteelSound 5H USB Soundcard

After two days, Tysei finished testing, and I had a little instant message interview with him to see what he thinks about the SteelSound 5H.

Me: Hi Tysei, have you tried out the SteelSound 5H?
Tysei: Yes, I tried the headphones and its pretty good.
Me: What do you think of the treble, midrange, and bass?
Tysei: The treble is… 'meh', midrange is not bad for a gaming headphone. I find SteelSound 5H's bass pretty responsive and Articulated. Treble wasn't as clear as A8, but again this is purely a gaming headphone.
Me: How about sound separation?
Tysei: Pretty good.
Me: I know the headphones supports virtual 7.1 surround sound. What are your thoughts on this?
Tysei: It's actually pretty good with the USB sound card. It's adjustable, and the 7.1 really sounds like 7.1. It's more "virtual" and "3D" than other non-gaming headphones.
Me: The SteelSound 5H is designed specifically for gaming purposes. Did they really help you out in games?
Tysei: Detail is pretty good. For example, I could hear somebody walk on the tile (short A) when I was at long A. Besides that, on one level in Half Life 2 where you fight choppers and gun ships, I was able to tell exactly where the helicopters were, including how far! Thanks to the virtual 7.1 sound.
Me: How about the microphone?
Tysei: The mic is "OK", nothing too special. I didn't hear any feedback; it's not too different from my Logitech set. The mic is a nice add on, and I like the flexible cord.
Me: Any other thoughts?
Tysei: Well, the con is people who’s used to the higher end headphones might find treble bothering because it gives a nice spatial definition. The treble sounds a bit dry too.
Me: What are your final thoughts?
Tysei: Just get them. This is what I call a "wall hacker" headphone. This is what I would say as well, "This gives a new definition to cheating".
Me: Thanks for your time and your thoughts, Tysei.
Tysei: And thanks for lettin' me try them!

For music tests, I ran the tests with the following equipment:

- My computer (Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2, SteelSound 5H USB Soundcard)
- Creative Zen Micro 6GB
- MobiBLU DAH-1500i 1GB

Throughout my tests on my Audigy 2, Creative Zen Micro 6GB, and MobiBLU DAH-1500i 1GB, I noticed similar things to what Tysei noted earlier. Treble was a bit overpumped and dry, but bass was solid, clean, rounded and very responsive. Mid-range is where these headphones are lacking in; the voices of singers in most of my songs sounds dry and flat in a way. Sound separation between treble and bass were pretty good though. I am not saying that these headphones are bad for music entirely, it's just not really intended for music and definitely not music audiophile quality. For movies, voices were dry and flat as well. Sound effects of the boom and bangs were excellent, but it's the voices that bothers me most.

After completing the above tests, I re-ran the tests on the included USB sound card. They did say 'optimized for gaming' for the sound card, and it's good at doing what it's designed for -- gaming. As Tysei claims, virtual 7.1 surround and all the gaming features were essential for... gaming, but SteelSound 5H's USB sound card wasn't very good for music and movies. I heard unwanted noises in the background -- an indication of bad signal to noise ratio. In my music tests, the sound it provides wasn't very clean.

In conclusion, the SteelSound 5H is a great gaming product -- and designed for gaming only. Don't expect it to provide impressive performance music and movies because voices sounds dry and flat, but it does an excellent job of what it's specifically designed for -- gaming. Overall design is decent (But a bit uncomfortable), and microphone is nicely implemented. Unfortunately, it's a bit on the chunky side and does not block unwanted external noise. It's great that it can be dismantled into three separate units, but no carrying case is included; the ability to be folded for transport would have been better. Configuration software is buggy to a certain extent and some features aren't as effective as others. On the other hand, although the USB sound card module does not create clean sound for music, it does create a great virtual 7.1 environment which is essential for gaming. If you want to really 'pwn some noobs' tonight in Counter-Strike: Source or whatever first person shooter game you happen to play, look no further than the SteelSound 5H. Quoting Tysei, the SteelSound 5H is a pair of "wall hacker" headphones and that it "gives a new definition to cheating". Even though it does not perform very well for music and movies, I'd still give it an APH Recommended -- since these are gaming headphones, optimized and designed specifically for gaming, and does what it's designed for very well.

Special thanks to Thomas over at Soft Trading for making this review possible.

Note: The number ratings below has been adjusted accordingly to comply with our new Number Rating System.

Update: The APH Recommended award has been given to a revised version of this product; the SteelSound 5H V2.

Rating: 7.5/10
What do these ratings mean?

Excellent pair of gaming headphones that "gives a new definition to cheating". Don't expect great music or movie performance or for it to be very comfortable, but these are gaming headphones and do what it's made for extremely well -- gaming.