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Xbox Wireless Headset review: $99 set with engineering wins, first-gen stumbles

Tomorrow, March 16, Microsoft will launch its first official, Xbox-branded pair of headphones—a far leap beyond the cheapo, one-ear headsets packed into original Xbox 360 consoles. Headphone expectations have changed a lot since those days, and potential buyers have to weigh crucial elements like sound isolation, microphone quality, voice-chat volume management, and device compatibility before spending $100 and up.

While the Xbox Wireless Headset isn’t my de facto pick for the product category, it’s certainly a solid option for its $99 price. Plus, I’ve been looking for a reason to catch up with other gaming-specific headphones I’ve recently tested. Hence, this review compares the XWH with a few options for PC and console gamers in search of versatile, high-quality headphones.

Nifty dials, dual source support

I’ll start with the Xbox-specific stuff, because this $99 headset isn’t just a matter of repurposing existing headphones with neon-green accents. The XWH includes built-in compatibility with the 2.4GHz wireless protocol exclusive to Xbox consoles and accessories—arguably a clearer and more stable connection option than Bluetooth, depending on your ideal gaming room. If you own any Xbox console dating from 2013’s Xbox One to today’s Xbox Series X/S, you can sync this headset the same way you sync a wireless controller. (Same goes for Windows 10 PCs, but you’ll need an Xbox Wireless Adapter to wirelessly connect the XWH to your PC.)

You’ll find the same built-in 2.4GHz option in other Xbox-compatible headsets. Unlike many of those, the XWH adds a nifty hardware option. Once synced this way, XWH users get access to two convenient volume dials, as braced on its outer earcups. The right-hand dial offers “master” volume control as synced with your Xbox. The left-hand dial controls “chat balance” to either emphasize in-game audio or voice chat. Both dials feel robust to turn on the fly, and the chat dial offers a clicky, nicely engineered “equal balance” position in the center. It’s certainly more convenient than having to tap the “Xbox” button, joystick through menus, and adjust headset volume and chat balance that way.

Additionally, unlike other Xbox-compatible headphones, the XWH offers a nifty simultaneous-source option. Its “wireless sync” button simultaneously searches for Bluetooth and Xbox connections so you can sync it with your smartphone or other Bluetooth devices (albeit, sadly, not PlayStation consoles as of press time). You might think of this as a way to take the XWH on a walk when you’re not using your Xbox, and indeed, that’s an option here.

But the best reason for this option is that you can have one Bluetooth device and one Xbox device connected simultaneously. And the XWH handles this nimbly, at least in my initial testing. Xbox consoles natively support third-party multimedia apps for the sake of background audio, which is great when you want to turn on preferred tunes while playing a game. XWH opens this use case up widely by letting you turn on any arbitrary app on your Bluetooth device. Podcasts, white noise generators, whatever: route that audio directly to your XWH.

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Additionally, when your Bluetooth device demands microphone control, either via a phone call or a voice-chat app like Discord, it takes priority. This is my ideal use case, but if you’re trying to keep your mic on with your native Xbox “party” while also calling Domino’s via Bluetooth, you’ve been warned: the pizza (or your Discord posse) will be prioritized over any native Xbox voice-chat option. Additionally, the chat balance wheel doesn’t natively let you adjust volume between your Xbox source and your Bluetooth one; you’ll need to manually adjust Bluetooth volume via its device controls. (The chat-balance dial also apparently doesn’t work on Windows 10, which is a shame.)

Impressive first-gen mic

The other unique aspect to these headphones, and one I haven’t seen in other Microsoft-branded headphones, is an automatic mic-mute option built in on the firmware level. What’s more, in my tests so far, it appears to be very well-engineered.

I synced the XWH to my Windows 10 PC and ran a few audio recording apps to verify how this firmware-level default works, while leaving the slightly bendy, 9cm microphone in its default “hovering near my left cheek” position. The mic has two behaviors: waiting between 3-5 seconds after speaking loudly to mute itself, and waiting between 1-2 seconds if it’s awoken by a loud sniff or sigh. I left it recording during average breathing without it triggering once. Whenever I interrupted that silence with random, low-volume speech, it woke instantly without losing nary a syllable.

With a podcast playing from a smartphone’s speaker 6 feet away, the behavior worked the same. The XWH’s dual-mic array constantly weighs the difference between background noise and up-close speech activation and does a pretty phenomenal job managing the difference. Building this monitoring into a headset’s firmware, as opposed to voice-chat apps like Discord flatly watching your decibel level, is a far more effective control for background noise, and anyone who wants such fine-tuned control in their Xbox or Windows 10 voice chat of choice might want to put XWH at the top of their purchase list for that perk alone.

(If you hate the idea of automatic muting and want your friends to hear every noise in your home at all times, you can disable this feature via the Xbox Accessories app within Xbox consoles and Windows 10 PCs.)

The XWH mic is otherwise serviceable. It doesn’t add background noise canceling to your speech, so if you’re calling out orders in a game, background noise will persist until you stop talking. Its sampling rate is noticeably meager—not low-fidelity, necessarily, but certainly not something you’d want to use to record a podcast. But voice quality is quite clear for such a small, unobtrusive mic, and the hardware does a fine job managing volume spikes without sending clipped audio to your online squad while you either shout in victory or defeat.

Better than the other console’s $99 option—but that’s a low bar

XWH’s sound profile, at its default “flat” equalization, sadly lands in the Beats camp of low-end dominance—not trunk-rattling insanity, but likely a matter of taste. I find it’s fine for the likely Xbox use case of video games, in terms of thick-and-meaty sound that doesn’t clip or appear muffled. Hilariously, you can go into the Xbox Accessories app and increase the bass response but not decrease it; my listening preference would land maybe one step lower than what XWH’s bass response scale currently offers.

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For a baseline comparison, this Xbox option sounds miles better than the other $99 “official console” currently on store shelves, the PlayStation Pulse 3D Wireless Headset. That’s not much of a feat; Sony’s 2020 headset is one of the flattest frequency-burying headsets I’ve ever tested.

When compared to similarly priced “gaming” headsets, however, XWH falls short enough on the sound-quality front to express caution. The issue isn’t sound clarity; despite the emphasis on bass, the rest of the sound profile leaves significant room for mids and highs, and I found it did well to contain the overwhelming sound profile of Mad Max: Fury Road, one of my favorite Blu-rays for testing things like frequency balance and dialogue.

The trouble begins once you test XWH in an action-filled video game, where audio placement and discernible directionality sometimes become key to survival. Gears 5 and Call of Duty: Warzone land on opposite ends of the headphone-surround spectrum, with Gears 5 offering native Dolby Atmos virtual-surround headset support and CoD:W shrugging its shoulders with a generic stereo headphone mix.

Yet, in the case of both games, XWH struggles to place the sounds in satisfyingly clear ways within the massive sound field. It sounded decent enough in terms of “enemy to the left, enemy to the right” indications, but other headsets did a much better job of illustrating finer-tuned hints of how far to the left or right, along with a clearer “dome” effect of exact 3D placement. This may be due to XWH’s abundance of bass or something else about its juggling of frequencies, but I got noticeably better sound-separation results from the $150 Razer Kaira Pro, which also includes native Xbox connection support.

Big fat reminder: It does not matter if your headphones are advertised with “virtual surround” or “Dolby Atmos” support! This stuff is never built into the headset. Virtual surround works by adding frequency tricks to an otherwise generic stereo signal. To prove this, plug any headphones into your Xbox controller’s 3.5mm slot, then toggle one of the console’s headphone surround options in an audio menu. Presto: You’ve got virtual surround.

A fit that might put you into a fit

I say this because my best sheer audio test results came from my favorite music-listening headphones, the PSB M4U-1s, as plugged into my controller’s 3.5mm jack. These receive the same 2.4GHz signal as the XWH—though that puts an extra battery drain on your controller, which is one reason a dedicated gaming headset can be an ideal choice.

Another reason is built-in controls, and XWH’s are about as good as you’ll find in the gaming sector. I’m a big fan of the “rotate the earcup” trick, which Microsoft uses in its Surface Headphones line, and it makes real-time adjustments to volume and chat balance much easier than gliding a finger over your headset’s sides to find a tiny dial at an urgent moment. XWH also puts its mute button directly on the microphone itself—and, gosh, why doesn’t every headset manufacturer do this? In bad news, however, the headset doesn’t include any modern button-tap options on its sides, so if you were hoping for a convenient play/pause shortcut for a Bluetooth device, you’re out of luck.

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No two heads are the same, so I’m hesitant to penalize the XWH’s fit on a universal scale, but it’s certainly not my favorite. At 310g, it’s only about 20 grams heavier than every other headset I tested that I like, which doesn’t seem like a dealbreaker, and its pleather earcups are roughly the same size and depth as my other headsets. But the weight distribution of XWH’s large, easy-to-turn dials feels like a first-generation faux pas; even though they use a low-weight plastic, their physical depth is larger than your average headphone, and that creates a minute tugging sensation. Additionally, the adjustable headstrap is not only shallower than most of my headsets but also has narrower curvature.

In all, the design clamps the earcups to the head more than I’m used to, even after I spent about five minutes flexing the headstrap to break it in. If you have a larger-than-average head or a mound of hair, you’ll definitely want to try before you buy.

Additional bullet points

Quality latency. I never noticed any desync issues with game or movie audio as connected via the 2.4GHz Xbox Wireless standard.

Seemingly solid battery life. I never recharged the XWH since I began testing it and have gotten to the 10-hour testing mark without needing to recharge it via USB Type-C. If I notice any particular battery issues in the future, I’ll update this bullet point.

High maximum volume. These things really kick, and in bad news for parents, the Xbox Accessories app does not currently include a volume-limiting option. If you are trying to protect your kids’ hearing, do not buy them these.

No 3.5mm jack. I do not own a USB-to-3.5mm adapter, so I could not test how XWH might connect to your favorite old iPod (or, lord willing, smartphone that still supports the standard).

No carrying case. I personally hate getting additional carrying cases with my headphones, so if that keeps the price low, great, but keep it in mind.

Non-removable microphone. It curls up into the left-ear molding pretty neatly if you’re not using the mic, and you can dim the “mic is on” light level via the Xbox Accessories app.

Enlarge / The rigid cups and short headstrap combine to make this around-the-neck use case too tight for my liking.
Sam Machkovech

Rigid cups. You cannot turn the earcups so that they rest flat on the top of your chest when you drop the XWH to your neck. Since the headstrap is smaller than other options I tested, that’s a bad one-two punch for anyone who likes to drop headphones to their neck. In other words: minus 400 points if you want an on-the-go headset.

No noise cancellation, no “pass-through” audio. Microsoft clearly expects you to use these in a gaming scenario in your living room.

Verdict: Priced right for a first-gen semi-success

For additional audio quality, head comfort, and on-the-go usability, you don’t have to pay much more for my preferred wireless gaming headsets. The Xbox version of the $150 Razer Kaira Pro includes the same dual-source option for Xbox Wireless and Bluetooth sources, along with a removable mic, a more comfortable fit (albeit with an earcup material downgrade from pleather to fabric), and better sound. HyperX’s $160 Cloud Wireless headset is even more comfortable with a smidgen better sound quality, but be warned: its Xbox version requires a dedicated USB dongle and fails to connect to Windows PCs. (Admittedly, my HyperX Cloud is the PS4/Switch/PC model, and I like having that platform flexibility.)

There’s always Steelseries’ series of wireless Arctis models, as well, which my colleague Jeff Dunn has recommended in recent Ars headset guides. I’d rank the XWH’s sound presentation about evenly with my own Arctis 7 headset.

This week’s new official Xbox option, meanwhile, is a bit cheaper than the competition, and it includes convenient native Xbox support, friendliness with Windows 10 PCs and dual-audio use cases, a cool pair of earcup volume dials, and that wonderfully engineered microphone. I had high-but-tempered expectations for the XWH, considering Team Xbox’s streak of solid design feats (particularly Series X and Series S), and that expectation was met. You’ll want to weigh its smart design decisions against its first-gen stumbles before pulling the trigger on a purchase.

Listing image by Sam Machkovech