When I had a look at the Razer Carcharias headset a while ago, I revealed that I’m stone deaf in my right ear, with what some people might consider a minor pitch loss in the left, as well as a visible issue with volume. I can only hear particular sounds once they cross a volume threshold and that meant two things: one; other kids in my class would constantly talk below 30 decibels once they figured it out to annoy me and, two: I have to be particular about the headphones I use because, as you may well know, not all headphones perform the same.
A set of cans that can turn the volume up to eleven isn’t always the best choice because even though some may seem to fit the bill for volume, they drop clarity and pitch range to compensate because they use smaller drivers and poor quality materials. Those crappy “lifestyle” headsets they sell at Mr. Price are really a ripoff because they’re not actually made that well, neither do they perform up to spec either. At least in the bargain bins the message is clear: you get what you pay for. If you buy a piece of rubbish, that’s invariably what you’ll land up with when you plug them in.
Going into the high-end is actually a little trickier because as manufacturers raise the stakes and the price, the various ways in which they choose to differentiate their product may help or hinder their aim to get you to part with your money for whatever they’re peddling. In the end, it’s the peddling that matters the most because you can have a substandard product but still sell it very well (Hey, Intel! Nice to see you’re paying attention). In the case of the Siberia, a second-generation Siberia, no less; none of that seems to apply.
The packaging is very nondescript and looks pretty normal, black cardboard with some shiny highlights here and there, a big picture of the headset itself and some info all-round to give you a clear idea of what you’re buying into. On the top there’s some name-dropping by Steelseries, listing a few of the gaming clans they sponsor worldwide. It’s all recyclable and ROHS compliant. There’s not much in the way of accessories inside the box, just a simple quick-start guide and a 3.5mm to 2RCA adapter for use with your console. That bit’s important, but we’ll get to that later.
Picking up the headphones, they’re light and weighty at the same time, with near-equal balance on both sides. Amazingly, there are 50mm drivers inside, surrounded on the inner side by soft, supportive pads with a sort of leather-like texture. They’re soft and nicely-sized out the box, they’re the same shape after four hours of continuous wear and they should even be in exactly the same shape a year into ownership, provided you don’t swim with them or something. Because if you do, I think you have bigger issues than a pair of warped ear cushions. They’re also easily removable, held in with clips and adhesive that sticks again once you put them back on. I wouldn’t advise doing that often, though.
The headband isn’t solid and is very, very similar in design to the one used on my Phillips. The main band that contains the wires is actually two plastic tubes in a light grey colour, but the band that rests on your head is a thin bit of plastic covered on the top with the same material as the ear cushions and adorned with the Steelseries logo and name in dark grey, with the bottom covered in the same soft, felt-like material that covered the Carcharias earpads. The headband extends to firmly rest on the top of your head, moving on two plastic-covered steel wires, almost making it seem, if you’re not looking carefully, like it’s actually stretching. The fit is snug and no sound appears to escape once the cans are on.
Moving down, the left headphone houses a retractable and flexible microphone, capable of bending in any direction you wish. Again, there’s twisted steel covered in plastic and it looks pretty good. The microphone cover is held in with a single screw and makes replacement really easy. Next to the mike is the headphone cable, rolling down for one metre and then splitting into two 3.5mm audio jacks, the familiar green and pink bands for audio and line-in. Those two jacks are good enough for plugging into a laptop or for use with something like a phone or media player, but you’re missing out by not plugging it into the in-line volume controls that house a small sound card and a USB amplifier.
Those are connected to a super-long four metre cable. At one end of that is the in-line volume controls that house a small sound card with a mixer for changing the volume of the game’s audio and that of your team mates, while the other ends in another 3.5mm jack and a USB amplifier which also handles the line-in from the microphone.When I first looked at the Siberia V2, I was pretty sure that the 50mm drivers on their own wouldn’t be capable of the magnificent sound I expected without some extra power and a heavy dose of black magic.
To a certain extent, I was right…
The first thing I tried was, of course, plugging the headphones in on their own. I played my usual tracks, Linkin Park’s “In my remains”, Maroon 5’s “Moves like Jagger” and Marylin Manson’s “Lamb of God”. On its own, the headset was at least as good, if not on par, with the Razer Carcharias. This wasn’t at all surprising considering that a bit of engineering did go into the Carcharias to make it sound as good as it did and it’s the sheer size of the drivers that compensate for the lack of any alteration that would benefit the Siberia on its own. There was no apparent distortion when running at full volume set in Windows and Windows Media Player and music was clear and pretty crisp. Bass was a bit lacking, but it was there. This is the first use-case the Siberia fits into – using the shorter 1m cord for listening to music from your iPod or phone, or a laptop. But that all changes once you plug in the volume controls on the LiveMix sound card.
Suddenly everything takes on a different tune. Bass is deeper and more pronounced, low-pitch sounds are clearer and audible at 30% volume and when I was playing a high-bitrate version of my favourite song, “Hello” by Amy Lee it was the first time I could play it at full volume without Lee’s voice sounding like its broken. Even though tracks ripped at 128Kb/s didn’t have the pitch I was expecting, it still sounded about twice as good as the Carcharias. FLAC rips at 320Kb/s were very, very good and I could literally find no distortion with any track I played up to 100% volume. Its possible that we’re actually hitting an artificial limit here – it could go higher.
90% was the limit where I was comfortable leaving the volume at for listening to any track, with extended use dropping down to 70% to save on me having insane amounts of tinnitus later (not due to the headphones, I have tinnitus naturally). Like the Carcharias, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by listening to tracks ripped at 128Kb/s or lower and I really recommend finding someone who has a pair of these headphones and testing out a 320Kb/s FLAC rip.
[Insert ear-crushing game sound effects here]
Games changed the most for me because I knew i was missing out on certain sounds by using my Logitech X-530 setup, or my older wireless Phillips headphones. Nothing prepared me for what the Siberia V2 did and I could, for the first time, hear everything clearly without having to raise the volume in cut-scenes in Borderlands 2. Playing through the levels where Mordecai sits on a high mountain and slags your enemies for you was a different experience this time round because you can hear the crack of his rifle before it slags whatever is attacking you.
Crysis 3 was even better. I could hear sounds I didn’t pick up that easily before and the chilling sounds in some levels, as well as the cut scenes and the sounds of everything from enemies moving in the grass around you; to the explosions all around you when the tower in Welcome to the Jungle spots you; it was something else altogether. I must say that I’ve yet to use a headset that immerses me this well into the game world. Sounds were never distorted, gunshots sounded realistic and I still love the way the suit talks to you when changing modes.
Moving to indie games, Bastion’s soundtrack was clear and crisp and it sounded great, no problems there. Obviously this isn’t the same experience that you’d get from a Sennheiser (I still have to try a pair) but this is definitely one of the best sound experiences I’ve ever had. Other games that rely on sound to create intense atmospheres, like Portal 2, were likewise good.
By this time I was thinking it couldn’t get better, but the microphone and LiveMix feature really came in handy. I played a few rounds of Team Fortress 2 and used the LiveMix settings. There are four to choose from, all of which affect the balance of the in-game sounds compared to the volume of your teammate’s chatter, ranging from 0% change, to High, which lowers in-game sound by 25db to make team orders much louder and clearer. In a Skype call test, the microphone performed well, keeping clarity and reducing any distortion. Using Windows’s built-in voice recorder, my singing didn’t sound as bad as when I tried out the micrphone from the Carcharias. Maybe that’s just me getting better, though.
But we’re not done yet, though…
Oh no, this thing can still plug into another thing, this time a PS3. The difference with a console is that invariably you have it connected up to one of two things – a sound system or home theatre setup, or the built-in speakers in your TV. Either way, in most cases you’re not getting the full range of sounds and having a good set of headphones really changes things. You plug it in using the 3.5mm to 2RCA adapter and hook up the USB end to the PS3’s USB port. It still acts as an amplifier and line-in for the microphone and the PS3 picks it up as a microphone without you having to change anything. I didn’t have any games where I could play online and chat to teammates (I have few friends who own consoles), so I stuck to offline games for the most part.
GT5 was my first stop and the Siberia allowed me to pick up sounds and individual notes that I’d never headrt before. Taking up the Bugatti Veyron to 410km/h at full volume ended up in my ears nearly exploding with joy from the whine of the turbos and the V16’s roar, as well as the low-rev growl the Veyron is well-known for. Everything sounded more authentic, more real and I could now comfortably stay in the cockpit view forever because I didn’t feel detached. Because I play racing games and enjoy them more than other genres it made more of an impact on me that I’d like to admit. There’s still room for improvement, but this is a big change for me.
Its times like these I wish I hadn’t traded in my copy of Shift.
In other games it was just as good. Far Cry 3 allowed me to hear everything that’s going on, as well as enjoy the background music, the cut scenes and the game in general. Other titles like Mirror’s Edge were more impressive because I wasn’t missing out due to lack of volume, or my distance from the speakers. In Far Cry 3, though, the amplification was more pronounced and I noticed that it was amplifying all the sounds in the game, rather than pushing the foreground sound rather than stuff that happens in the background. I’m guessing that this is because I’m using stereo sound here which only gives me two channels to work with, instead of something like 5:1 or 7:1 which allows for different sounds to be played at different volume levels. Still, a huge change from what I’m used to.
The RCA adapter is incredibly useful because it also just passes the audio along, meaning you can hook this up to a home theatre setup and have everyone else hear it normally through the speakers while you get the full blast through the headphones. That is very useful and the fact that it’s RCA means this can even be done with the Xbox 360. The versatility of the Siberia V2 is insane, it fits into so many use-cases that you’d have to buy separate headphones for.
In the end, it all comes down to…
The price. For just over R1000, its in the same price range as the Carcharias, but it performs better. In addition, it has longer cables, more versatility with different machines like consoles, laptops and portable music players and I don’t think I’ve ever had more comfy ear cushions. Over the course of a few hours there’s no head pinching, little sweating and I have great sound insulation.
For those of you who wear glasses and/or hearing aids, things might be a little different. Depending on the arms you use on your glasses, they may or may not get pinched on the side of your head due to the Siberia’s snug fit. Because the ear cushions cover your ears completely, there’s also an issue for those of you with hearing aids, because the cushions can’t seal themselves around your ears when they rest on top of the aid. there’s some sound leakage, although the cushions still work to block outside noise for the most part. There’s some scratching from the cushions that I pick up, so depending on how sensitive the microphones in your aid are, you may or may not want to have them adjusted to block that particular sound.
The performance is dulled a bit by the hearing aid and there’s some tinniness and loss of clarity, but overall it’s much, much better than what the Carcharias managed. Bass sounds like bass, everything sounds very similar with the aid on or off. Some caution should be exercised with the volume you use the Siberia V2 at if you have headphones, as the headset can overwhelm them and possibly ends up producing a smashing of noise at higher volume levels. Turning things down to 70% is more comfortable and still sounds great.
Drawbacks? I guess you could say that the four metres of extra cable provided by the Siberia V2 is more than enough for use with consoles in a lounge environment, but with a desktop or laptop it makes things a bit more chaotic. There is a tie-strap included which makes things easier, but it can get messy and clunky. Steelseries could seal the deal here by making a wireless version – I know the Spectrum 7XB exists, but this would be much better to build off, it’s just so good. Some extra weight wouldn’t be an issue here. 5:1 surround sound would be welcome here, but that would require some extra software tricks and more drivers, pushing up the price.
There’s really, not a lot to complain about here. I know I said that the Carcharias would be better-priced at R800, but this is pretty much worth every cent. Its versatile. supremely capable and it helps that it also looks good and is comfortable. In my experience so far, it’s probably one of the best headsets I’ve ever used. I’d be hugely surprised if anyone buying it wasn’t satisfied.
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Buy it now: SteelSeries Siberia V2 for PC + Xbox + PS3