SteelSeries 9H Headphones

By Jorge Figueiredo - December 30th, 2013


It seems as if December is the unofficial Toronto Thumbs headset round-up jamboree mega-party! We continue our string of reviews with one of SteelSeries’ latest and greatest: the 9H. Boasting a fairly large form factor, an optional USB interface, and SteelSeries Engine 3 integration, I wondered if the 9H lives up to its monstrous size. The answer? Yes. Yes they do.

Right out of the box1, the 9H is an impressive specimen. Smooth lines and a cool orange-and-black colour scheme are the first things that you will see – and you will be impressed. It’s not gaudy or too fancy; it’s just simply elegant. It is also apparent that SteelSeries has been hard at work on a really comfortable design. Gone is the headset that splits apart into multiple pieces. Instead, there is a solid-feeling piece of tech that is relatively light and comfortable. The headband is constructed of durable plastic (prominently displaying the SteelSeries logo) with a coating of soft padding attached to the underside of the band. This padding is segmented, with the four different sections dividing the weight by virtue of their distribution.

Box contents.

The earcups are large and comfortable. The soft leather coating is generous in size and are thick, allowing them to surround my ears and sit comfortably against my head without any pinching while effectively dampening external noise. The hard, plastic exterior is durable and appears to have ventilation; however, upon further inspection, it can be seen that these are merely decorative indentations in the sides. The earcups can both be adjusted by a fairly large margin, giving the 9H the ability to fit some pretty big melons. The solid metal band that holds them to the headband are quite solid, giving the unit stability when it is on your head. In addition to this, the earcups themselves can pivot slightly along two different axes, allowing for a lot of comfort and a snug fit. The left earcup also features a retractable boom microphone that is retrieved by using the ridged contacts and gently pulling with your thumb – otherwise, the microphone stays subtly tucked away, it’s outer shell flush with the outer side of the earcup. While I don’t particularly care for boom microphones, this one is surprisingly durable and is hidden enough to allow me the luxury of forgetting that it’s there when I’m not using it.

The double-braided braided cable is 1.2 meters long and features an in-line remote with a volume knob and a large microphone on/mute button. One end of this cable plugs into the left earcup while the other end can be plugged into multiple extensions, allowing for a fair amount of versatility. One of the cable ends is a split cable (2 x 3.5mm), allowing you to plug the headphones straight into the Audio Out and Microphone ports of your computer. The second cable end is a typical 3.5mm plug that you can use to jack into your smart phone or tablet (or other portable device). The third plug is actually a USB sound card that does a fair share of audio co-processing for the 9H (and also allows you to plug in a second set of headphones in to its 3.5mm jacks – audio and mic). If that wasn’t enough, the 9H also comes with a 2m-long extension cord, to give you some extra reach. I plug my headset into the back of my computer, and the cord has to be long enough to stretch around the side and back of my desk – believe me, the extra cable was a life saver.

The in-line USB sound card.

Using the USB sound card also allows the SteelSeries Engine 3.0 to manage the hardware. The SteelSeries Engine enables you to have a virtually unlimited number of audio profiles that can be tied to different games. It also has a ten-band equalizer and really great active noise cancellation and auto microphone gain. The latest and greatest Engine is really slick, simplifying the overall interface while still presenting a decent range of powerful customizations.

Overall, the audio performance of the headphones is great. The dynamic range while using the USB sound card is impressive, as is the bass response. Regardless of whether the sound was from a videogame, iTunes or watching videos, the sound card and headset combo delivered some really nice sound. With the USB sound card, I enjoyed using Dolby Headphone, which pumps 7.1 surround sound to the headset, giving an immersive experience in Skyrim and Battlefield 3. I was actually really impressed with how the sound field in each game was captured, as it felt like I was really in the middle of those environments. The headset presented practically every aspect of the noise with great accuracy.

What is really nice about the 9H headset is that it can also be plugged into a high-end sound card for great performance as well. I unplugged the USB sound card from the 9H and replaced the end wiring with the PC connectors. I ran the cables to my Asus Xonar Essence ST 7.1 sound card and ran the same tests. With the 9H plugged into my sound card, I found that the sound quality was even better than the USB card that came with the 9H – and that’s saying something. Bass seemed to be slightly deeper and the virtual 7.1 surround of the card played very nicely with the headset. Having the flexibility to use these different connections (USB vs direct connection) is pretty amazing. If you don’t have an existing sound card, the 9H USB in-line card is a pretty awesome way to go. I, however, like preserving my CPU cycles, and I found the quality of my own card slightly better, so I opted to keep it that way. Win-win, really.

Flexible boom microphone that is easily hidden away (see gallery below).

The only thing that I found was missing from my experience while using my own sound card was SteelSeries’ microphone additives. The active noise cancellation in the USB sound card did a really great job with minimizing background noise and making my voice front-and-centre while recording. The automatic microphone gain seemed to also really do a good job normalizing the input of my voice. That being said, the Essence ST comes with a pretty good smart volume; also, I’m a push-to-talk kinda guy and my office is a pretty quiet place, so active noise cancellation and recorded audio attenuation are not super-useful to me. Still, if you are in a noisy environment (like a LAN party or a tourney), it’s nice to have these options available to you.

When I first saw the price of these ($160), I figured that the USB sound card was adding a bit to the price. It would be nice if this headset were to come in a version without that feature – but then, not everyone has a high-quality sound card. When I checked the price recently, it was on sale for $120 – which is a really great deal considering what you get. So far, in my gaming-specific headset tests, these are pretty incredible – both relatively and absolutely. A great range of dynamic sound, nice positional audio (thanks to virtual surround drivers), and a fantastic level of comfort (and not too bad in the ear-sweat department) all add up to great value for powerful sound.

Click here to see the unboxing gallery for the SteelSeries 9H Headset. ยป

1 – I love SteelSeries’ eye-catching packaging – they really know how to whet the appetite!

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