It’s something that’s impossible to get away from: getting the best audio setup possible is expensive, and even that comes with a few compromises.
I have a reference pair of headphones (ones that reproduce sound accurately enough to be used as a baseline for comparing to others, which is handy for reviewing headsets) and an internal sound card. The end result is fantastic audio on my PC, but not a whole lot of comfort. The headphones pinch, the card takes up space that could’ve been used for other hardware, but it’s a compromise I’ve chosen to make.
SteelSeries’ Arctis Pro + GameDAC is, much in the same way, a compromise, but is a much more palatable one. It’s expensive and has a few annoying design quirks, but in return you get a feature-filled gaming headset, none of the frustrating configuration tools other gaming tech comes with, a huge amount of choice in customisation. And, of course, audio quality that is remarkably close to a reference setup.
A compromise, but a much more palatable one.
The Arctis Pro + GameDAC is the wired version of two enhanced edition of SteelSeries’ flagship Arctis range. The Arctis range was particularly notable when it launched in 2016 because it was the first line of headsets since its classic favourite, the Siberia V2, to receive such positive reviews to be considered a worthwhile successor. Although I do still argue my green V2 I had when I was 16 was the most beautiful piece of hardware ever designed, fancy LEDs or sleek surfaces of the Arctis be damned.
This year’s Arctis Pro duo – a wireless and GameDAC edition – have a few new design improvements over the Arctis, such as a nice looking gunmetal finish and new, softer coating on the speakers. The Arctis Pro + GameDAC looks sleek, doing away with a lot of the bulk and garish angles many gaming headsets seem obsessed with. The LEDs are tastefully done too, with just a slim outline gently fading between colours (except for the handy microphone LED, which is bright enough to be an easy indicator of whether it’s muted).
I don’t feel embarrassed being seen in [it]. Which, for any piece of gaming kit, is a rarity.
It’s stupidly comfortable too. At first, I thought it was too small for my big ogre head, but the elastic headband it easily adjustable and completely removable, letting the padded cups sit snugly over my ears. It’s just all-in-all a very, very nicely-constructed piece of kit that I don’t feel embarrassed being seen in. Which, for any piece of gaming kit, is a rarity.
While these improvements over the original Arctis are nice, there are a few choice areas where the overall feeling of luxury could have been improved. A lack of braided cables, for example, gives the wires connecting you to the DAC (we’ll get to that), and the DAC to the PC, a flimsy, worryingly delicate feeling.
These things are going to take some punishment in normal use, so a sturdier feel to the cables would’ve been greatly appreciated. The on-earcup volume controls also feels overly sensitive, as just readjusting the positioning on my head was enough to turn the volume either way down or way up. They’re minor things, but for this price-point it’s attention to detail that matters.
Aesthetics aren’t the main selling point for the + GameDAC, though: SteelSeries claim it’s the first “complete gaming audio system” to receive the Japanese Audio Society’s Hi-Res certification. This means it’s designed for better sound quality with high-fidelity audio, such as .FLAC files or music streamed through Spotify competitor Tidal.
SteelSeries claim it’s the first “complete gaming audio system” to receive the Japanese Audio Society’s Hi-Res certification.
It does this through the DAC, or digital-to-analogue converter, that serves as the interface between the headset and your device. A DAC does exactly what it says on the tin – takes a digital audio signal and converts it to an analogue signal before passing it on to the speakers. Most devices that output to audio already have one, but there are a few massive benefits to having an external one like SteelSeries’ GameDAC. The one in your laptop, or PS4, or even your gaming PC, might not be up to scratch for many formats, meaning having a device dedicated to it is going to be a bonus.
There’s also the question of interference. By having the signal converted in its own device away from other components, there’s less of a chance of signal interference that can cause annoying buzzing noises. This is a problem I’ve had in the past with USB headsets, but the GameDAC successfully cut out buzzing at all but the absolute highest volumes. Normally I have to go back to my usual audio solution after a few hours of testing because of headaches caused by a constant “bzzzzzt”, but I’ve been going for a few days now with absolutely no problems.
The other big bonus to the external DAC is it works as the suite to control equalisation, inputs and illumination, cutting out the need for a poorly-designed and wonky configuration program constantly running on your PC and sapping up resources. There’s even a neat feature of letting you independently control voice chat volume and game volume without tabbing out and changing it through software solutions.
The GameDAC is a mighty fine piece of equipment. It not only helps improve audio quality, it doubles up as a handy, unintrusive configuration sweet and supplies you with all the inputs needed to connect to devices through standard line-out, USB or optical cable without mucking up the sleek design of the headset itself. I wasn’t sure I’d be a fan of another device on my desk taking up space and flashing at me, but after just a few days I’m sold on it now.
It not only helps improve audio quality, it doubles up as a handy, unintrusive configuration sweet and supplies you with all the inputs needed to connect to devices.
None of this is particularly important though. The most important question about the Pro, after gunmetal and DACs and interference and all of that, is how does it sound?
Normally when reviewing headsets I use a Spotify playlist of songs I know like the back of my hand to compare, and then play some Left 4 Dead 2 and Devil Daggers to test audio positioning in-game, but here that feels inadequate, and so I busted out the .FLACs instead. My primary test was the standard soundtrack for Bastion and its high-fidelity .FLAC counterpart, which encompasses a decent array of musical genres and sounds that make it a good fit for testing sound quality.
Using the Hi-Res Audio preset on the DAC, I found the overall sound of the Pro to be great, but not quite up to studio reference headset standards. As expected, there is a great range to the sounds it can reproduce, especially higher ones like cymbols and snares, which are crisp and clear (relatively) when normally they’d be muddled in a song’s mix. Effects, like subtle echoes and reverb, are much clearer too, giving music and games the much more textured feels that were originally intended.
For games it works an absolute treat, too. Bassey tones and gunshots sound great without sacrificing those all-important high tones. The microphone sounds fabulous too; not dedicated microphone standards, but certainly getting close to it – good enough for streaming, maybe not quite there for podcasting, and certainly great for voice chat.
SteelSeries is aiming at high-fidelity headphones with this, and compared to dedicated headphones plummed into a PCI-E sound card, the muffle is most definitely there.
The big problem, though, is there is a level of muffling present over the entire output. Lower-quality audio sources such as Youtube videos and lower-budget games are particularly impacted by this problem, with dialogue sometimes sounding dodgy. It’s not much, and especially compared to other gaming headsets it’s almost unnoticeable. But SteelSeries is aiming at high-fidelity headphones with this, and compared to dedicated headphones plummed into a PCI-E sound card, the muffle is most definitely there.
There is one absolutely crucial thing to take into consideration – this thing works with the PS4 via optical out. Having a DAC with this level of configuration available on a PS4 is a huge deal, and, if anything, this should probably be considered the headset for PS4 players from now on.
The SteelSeries Arctis Pro + GameDAC is pricey, that’s impossible to deny. But, even with the seemingly mandatory added premium of any “gaming”-branded hardware, you get what you pay for here, and what you get is a remarkably comfortable and stylish piece of kit and almost studio-grade sound quality backed up by a versatile DAC, with support for a whole host of devices. With this, SteelSeries has definitely cemented the Arctis as the true successor to the Siberia, and it didn’t even need to release a radioactive lime-green variant to win me over this time!
A sample unit was provided for the purposes of this review.