It almost feels like March has been the true and proper launch window for Microsoft's Xbox One. In less than a week we’ve seen the launch of the highly anticipated Titanfall, a comprehensive system update to add needed functionality, and an addition to the accessory ecosystem in the form of the Microsoft Stereo Headset and Adapter. Is it worth plunking down $79 to add this to your audio arsenal?
Microsoft once again chose a proprietary format for their headset and chat connections. Fortunately they’ve relieved much of the discontent stirred up by that decision with this week’s release of the Xbox One Stereo Headset, and a Headset Adapter which is bundled but available to purchase separately for $29.99.
The Headset Adapter itself allows you to use any standard pair of headphones with a 3.5mm audio jack, and a healthy assortment of chat-enabled headphones from companies like Astro Gaming, SteelSeries, and Turtle Beach. I can personally confirm that the Astro A50s and Astro A40s are working perfectly. Others may require firmware updates, or a visit to their respective support pages or FAQs.
Design & Functionality
Microsoft’s design aesthetic is right in line with the matte and glossy blacks of the Xbox One, with subtle branding etched into the left exterior. The iconic green is thankfully resigned to the inner cup and isn’t visible when you’re wearing them. The build quality feels cheaper than it looks, but I appreciate that they’re lightweight. The bottom line on appearance is that they aren’t going out of their way to look garish, nor do they have any notable fashionable qualities.
Will you want to wear them out on the town or walking around a campus? Probably not, especially since the cups don’t swivel in to rest comfortably on your neck when you’re not actively wearing them.
A highlight of the design is the Xbox One Stereo Headset’s retractable microphone — it’s discrete; practically camouflaged. When extended it doesn’t jut out over your lips or nose. Why is that awesome? Expect to hear significantly fewer mouth breathers over Xbox Live!
Another win in the design department comes courtesy of the foam cushioning around the cans. They’re insulated so well you’ll experience minimal sound leakage. A significant other or roommate will be grateful for that feature. But that insulation can be a double-edged sword. During intense sections of Titanfall when the system is kicking out dense layers of sound, you won’t be able to hear yourself talk to your teammates. That can be jarring for some people, and usually results in unconsciously raising the volume of your voice to compensate. Let’s just say my wife yelled at me a few times…
The headphones themselves aren’t proprietary — you can use them as you would any standard pair for listening to audio on your smartphone, tablet, or PC. Audiophiles will notice that the highs aren’t as crisp as premium headphones like the V-Moda M-100s, and the bass is a bit shallow. Listening to music selections as varied as Buena Vista Social Club and the new Nine Inch Nails album, I noticed the sound begin to distort as I approached maximum volume. I’d wager that these are not sufficient gripes for a $79 audio product, but they’re worth being aware of.
The sound quality truly shines when used in their native environment on the Xbox One. These were obviously designed with gaming at the forefront, and that’s reflected in the sound stage during gaming. Gunshots crack appropriately in Titanfall and the thud of approaching mechs comes across loud and clear with just the right amount of bass. Engine noise in Forza 5 sounds rich and accurate. These weren’t just cobbled together to make a quick buck; the equalization and balance of various ends of the spectrum were treated with care.
One very appreciated feature on the Headset Adapter is the means to adjust game audio and chat balance. I noticed on Titanfall that game audio was overpowering chat. I could have paused the game and reduced the master game volume, but a few quick jabs with my thumb on the chat button solved the problem. Astro has been doing this for years with their MixAmp, and it’s awesome to see this feature come bundled with the adapter at a mainstream-friendly price.
The Bottom Line
There’s also something to be said about ease-of-use here. They’re not 5.1 Surround, but they are plug and play. No messing with extra cables or software settings or wireless receivers. They do the job effortlessly and they do it well. They’re comfortable during extended gaming sessions, and they get just loud enough to be satisfying.
So do I recommend them? I have a few minor quibbles which I’d give more weight to if these cost north of $100. If you don’t have an existing pair of headphones for your Xbox One (the bundled chat headset definitely doesn’t count!), then Microsoft’s Stereo Headset is an affordable and even valuable solution. After all, they’re decent standalone headphones for the price ($50 if you factor in the cost of the Adapter).
Please stay tuned for a forthcoming review of Polk Audio’s 4Shot Headphones for Xbox One. They’re pricier than the ones I’ve reviewed here, but they left a very positive impression on me during a preview at CES.