Steelseries Arctis Pro + GameDAC Review

An Expensive Arctis with a few nice extras…and also Hi Res Audio support.

I had a…violent reaction…to last week’s surprise launch of the Arctis Pro. The marketing centered entirely around its hi-res audio certification over any other improvements.

I vowed never to buy one.

Then a few days later, I bought one at Best Buy. I realized that it wasn’t the fairest thing in the world to criticize an audio product without listening to it, and I‘m sorry for being so off- the- cuff before.

Having spent a few days with the Arctis Pro, I still think the marketing is bad.

I understand the appeal of having an all-in-one hi-res audio kit for the same price as an Astro A40. But there’s other good stuff here that’s much more relevant to gamers.

And some issues.

EDIT 3/21/18: I’ve updated my review with some thoughts on the software! It works well, and a new firmware update fixes a few things too.

OVERVIEW

The Steelseries Arctis Pro + GameDAC is $249. I paid less thanks to some rewards points and that helped me feel better about it.

It includes the Arctis Pro wired RGB headset (available by itself for $179) and the USB-powered GameDAC, in a kit clearly designed to evoke comparisons to Astro’s products.

I have… many thoughts about the GameDAC, which I’ll get into in a moment.

There’s also a wireless model for $329, designed to replace the old Steelseries 800 headset. It includes two batteries, and all the features of the wired model except the RGB lighting.

The Arctis Pro comes in black, black, and also black. The included headband strap is black, and less fun-looking than the headbands on the cheaper Arctis models. The cables are also black, instead of the gray used on the older models. You get one headset cable, with a USB-mini B end that’ll connect to the GameDAC, and an optional 3.5mm attachment for mobile/other use.

SOUND QUALITY

This sounds better and different than the Arctis 3, 5, and 7.

Thank goodness. Otherwise this would all be a bit daft.

Steelseries is using new drivers with bigger magnets in the Pro.

Now, the old headsets sounded very good, with a slight bump in the mid bass and a nice bright signature overall compared to other gaming headsets.

The Arctis Pro is more neutral, and has a very satisfying and luxuroius sub bass extension that outclasses the old headsets. The mids are more prominent with a nice clean forward sound and no hint of scooping. And the highs are nicely accurate without any sibilance or fatigue.

Clean is the order of the day here. I can hear everything at a pleasing level and it all sounds good, fast, and accurate to the original sound, and the soundstage is nice and wide for a closed-back even without the DTS mode turned on.

Overall, as gaming headsets go, the signature sounds quite like the HyperX Cloud Alpha…which is only $99.

Ahem.

Even without the GameDAC, this does sound better than the older models. It sounds about as good as I’d expect $160ish headphones to sound.

The sound improvements themselves are probably not enough to make this a must-buy over other cheaper headsets for most users, including the old Arctis models…but again, thank goodness the more- expensive model sounds better even without any processing.

The GameDAC’s display in default PC mode. The display looks nice, and will dim after a while if you don’t touch the controls.

GameDAC, Hi-Res, and DTS Headphone: X 2.0

The GameDAC has a USB port, an Optical Port, a line out port for speakers, and a line-in analog jack for your mobile phone or other 3.5mm device.

Its sole headphone output is(buckle up)…a USB Mini B 8 pin connector designed only for the cable that comes with this headset. So they don’t want you to plug any non- Arctis Pro headsets into it.

This fits hand-in-hand with the notion of this being an all-in-one kit, and that way they can ensure that you’re using your new hi-res certified headset with your hi-res certified DAC…but it’s also a little skeezy.

The Astro Mixamp, which this is going up against directly, has a 3.5mm jack. You can plug any headphones you want into it.

The GameDAC is not without its merits. It has three input modes…PC, Hi-Res, and PS4. You can get surround or stereo audio into it via USB or optical cables, and it’ll send chat audio out through USB to PCs and PS4s. You could connect an optical cable to it from an Xbox if you wanted, but you’d only be able to use it for game audio and not chat.

So far, so good!

The hi-res mode allows you to turn on hi-res audio output from a PC only…and disables DTS and game/chat balance.

Ugh.

In the hi-res mode, you can listen to hi-res stereo audio and record from the mic in hi-res…but you can’t use DTS or game/chat balance. The little L and R are VU meters with bars that’ll extend above them to show the volume of your audio playback, so that’s neat.

This is weird and bad, considering that this interview on the Steelseries web site says that the new DTS Headphone: X 2.0 system that’s featured in this headset does support hi-res audio. But the GameDAC itself doesn’t do this. You have to choose between hi-res stereo, or “standard” audio with the option for DTS.

Could this change with a software update? Maybe…(We’ll get to the comical nature of the software in a moment). But right now, this is just how it is. It’s even called out in the manual.

The hi-res audio mode works and a logo lights up and everything. That licensing money went to good use I guess. I’ve never really heard much of a difference that I could directly attribute to hi-res audio in previous listening tests, and here it’s no different.

Oh, and then you have the elephant in the room that no games I know of actually output hi-res audio.

If you know of one, please share!

DTS Headphone: X 2.0 is the best feature of the GameDAC. It’s a brand- new virtual surround sound system that’s object-based, similar to Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos.

It takes your surround audio, and places it dynamically around you in a fully 3D environment. What makes it different from Atmos? Well, DTS is trying to mimic a specific reference room full of speakers, so it has a very surreal feeling at first. You’ll “feel” the subwoofer in the room, and you’ll hear artificial room simulation effects that you don’t get from the other systems.

Headphone: X 2.0 also adds a new near/far field system, where it’s actually simulating sound environments at different discrete distances, so that they can use volume and directional cues to make the sound travel further away from you, or closer. This stuff is really cool and pretty easy to hear the effect of.

The GameDAC next to a SoundblasterX G5 and an Astro Mixamp. And some other crap on my desk.

When first listening to the DTS mode, I found its forced EQ effects off-putting. They do some artificial boosting to the clarity of the mid and high frequencies, which can sound a little weird and tinny at first, and they further separate the bass off into its own realm to help simulate the presence of subwoofers.

But once I got used to it, I really liked it. (I hope they add the ability to customize the DTS effects in software at a later date, but I’m not holding my breath).

Now, how do you feed this system? With a USB connection to a PC, it’ll take surround data directly from your games. With an optical connection, it’ll accept…Dolby Digital signals?!?

Yes, like other systems that have used the earlier version of DTS Headphone: X such as the Turtle Beach Elite 800, if you use an optical connection to a game console you have to set it to Dolby Digital. That’s why there’s a Dolby Audio logo on the Arctis Pro box. It’s rare/weird to see these two competing sound technologies forced to work together.

This lineup of buttons and plugs is identical to the older Arctis models. Volume control, mic mute, cable attachment, and a weird Share jack that lets you plug in another set of 3.5mm headphones. I guess you could use that to demonstrate DTS Headphone: X to someone without letting them wear your headphones?

Also cool: the system will dynamically adapt to the number of channels you feed it. So if you switch from a surround sound game to a stereo one, or to some music, it’ll auto-adjust its virtual environment accordingly and not make your music sound weird. In fact, you’ll hear it going through this process during the first second or so of playback.

If I’d been in charge of the marketing for this headset kit, I’d have focused more on DTS Headphone: X 2.0 instead of hi-res. It’s a viable competitor for Atmos…that…that costs more than the $15 Atmos costs on PC/Xbox.

Hmm.

Have you noticed I keep saying that things about this headset are good but they also come with an unfortunate cost premium?

There’s no software for me to show you, so here’s a picture of the cable with the analogue end attached. You can pop that off to connect the headset to the GameDAC, kinda like how the old Arctis 5 worked.

SOFTWARE

Fortunately, the GameDAC includes everything you need to control the Arctis Pro. It has a 10 band EQ system built-in that has a variety of basic presets and a full customization option as well, plenty of options menus with settings for gain and mic monitoring, and full lighting controls that don’t require additional drivers. If you want to dive even more deeply into the lighting system or set up custom user profiles, you’ll need the new Steelseries Engine software…

Which didn’t come out until nearly two weeks after the headset.

Fortunately, the new 3.12 version of the Steelseries Engine works well. It allows you to set up different selectable profiles, and you can store any settings in them that you’d like, from microphone volume to default EQ.

The lighting controls are hilariously elaborate and more difficult to use than Razer’s software. I’ve been sticking to the default settings that are included inside the GameDAC…but I also don’t own any other Steelseries peripherals that I need to sync up.

Alongside the software update came a new firmware for the GameDAC that added a Gain setting, with selections of Low and High. The Low setting mimics the volume output of the original software, and the High setting boosts things by around 6dB or so. That’s just my estimate based on listening tests.

Some launch reviews complained that the volume coming out of the GameDAC was a little lower than they expected. I noticed myself using it turned up about 2/3rds of the way, which is higher than I normally go on other amps, so the reviews were probably right.

It’s neat to see Steelseries address this through software, and hopefully speaks of more good things to come in the future!

It’s like the Arctis 7, but with more curve to the headband.

DESIGN/BUILD

The Arctis Pro shares most of its design with the older Arctis 7. It has a metal headband, a ski goggle suspension strap that should fit most heads, and rubberized plastic ear cups. The metal headband is a little more curved than the old one, making it look a bit less stupid, which is good!

What’s new then apart from the headband curve? Well, you can now remove the rubber bits on the ear cups. They’re magnetic plates that come off. I don’t know what this is for. On the wireless model, it’s so you can change the battery, but on the wired model it’s…I guess it’s so they can sell you more plates later?

Because what this headset really needed was more potential cost.

The ear pads have a similar fabric and foam to the old ones, but the front is flat now which means they seal and isolate better.

COMFORT/ISOLATION

The original Arctis line had best-in-class comfort, and the Arctis Pro continues that tradition. The head strap is quite stretchy and holds the weight of the metal headband well. The ear cups have soft padding, and plenty of room inside them thanks to angled drivers.

The pads are made of the same AirWeave fabric the older pads were made out of, but the fronts are now flattened a la the HyperX Cloud Alpha. This helps the pads to seal better against your head, and makes these isolate better as a result.

Isolation was a little lower than the typical leatherette headset with the previous Arctis models, but this one has no such issues thanks to the new ear pad design.

The headset comes with this removable windscreen I’ll probably lose before ever using.

MICROPHONE/MIC TESTS

If you click here, you can hear loud and quiet room mic tests I recorded over on my other site.

The Arctis Pro uses the same great ClearCast(tm) microphone from the previous Arctis models.

That’s both good and bad. The previous mic was really great, and I’m not sure what they could do to improve it…but it’s also strange to pay more and get the same mic, right?

It has a natural tone and good background noise cancellation.

Oh wait there is one new thing! Ahem. There’s now a removable windscreen foam thingy in the box.

I don’t use the windscreen, because it won’t fit on the mic when it’s retracted.

The microphone is slightly more prone to clipping when plugged into the GameDAC, thanks to the processing they do inside the DAC. But it still sounds good.

The new headband shape fits my head more pleasantly than the Arctis 7 did.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Arctis Pro + GameDAC sounds cleaner than the original Arctis lineup, has the same microphone, slightly better ear pads, an awesome new virtual surround sound system, and a strange obsession with hi-res audio even though no games can really use that.

Is this worth the price premium over the original models? Honestly, for the typical consumer, probably not. Unless you really need a complete hi-res system, or you really want to try DTS Headphone: X 2.0…you could totally get by on a PC with a $79 Arctis 3 and a $15 Dolby Atmos unlock. You’d be getting the same microphone, the same comfort, and 80 percent of the sound quality.

You could buy any number of other ~$100 headsets instead of the Arctis 3 and get good results, too. As long as the sound card in your PC isn’t completely horrible.

On PS4, you’re a little more limited as far as surround options go. But both of Sony’s first-party headsets are cheaper than this, and wireless.

What about compared directly to the $249 Astro A40 Mixamp kit , which is the most direct competitor feature-wise? The Arctis’s DTS 2.0 does sound better/use more new tech than the Dolby Headphone implementation in the Astro Mixamp…but the Mixamp has a versatile 3.5mm connection. And, Astro has a version of that system that will output chat audio to an Xbox, which you can’t do with the Arctis.

If you’re interested in this solely for its hi-res audio capabilities…skip it. But if you’re looking for an Arctis that’s better-built, with cleaner sound, and a nice little DAC and don’t mind being limited in your connection options…there is indeed $250 worth of stuff inside the box.

It’s just so tough to evaluate the worth of this in 2018. When the old Arctis lineup launched in 2016, it was much more price competitive with the whole spectrum of gaming headsets, and Windows Sonic/Dolby Atmos didn’t exist.

The Arctis Pro seems designed to take out the Astro A40…in an era where Astro themselves now produce more affordable options(A10, A20) that are probably better for most gamers than their old flagship.

I don’t hate this product nearly as much as I loathe its marketing, and in fact I’ll probably use it quite often, personally. But I can’t tell you to run out and buy one without thinking about it carefully.

My other writing: Medium, Twitter, www.worldbolding.com