Xbox Stereo Headset review: Punching above its weight
Quick verdict: Imagine the most reliable person you know who always gets the job done. This is the headset version of that person.
- Solid audio quality
- Comfortable enough
- Very affordable compared to other headsets
- It does exactly what it says it does and nothing more
- Could be more comfortable
- Dolby Atmos costs extra
Gaming headsets are a booming industry because not only can you use them to play games with friends online, but most can also be used for general music enjoyment and Zoom calls.
But given you can find headsets priced between $15 and $850, there is such a massive range in quality (and people slapping "gaming" on a regular pair of headphones and then charging an extra $50) that it's easy to see why so many people just buy a headset the same brand as their console and call it a day.
The thing is, you can technically use any wired headphones with a microphone on your console. It doesn't have to be a gaming headset. If you could hop into a time machine back to when you could get cheap earbuds with your phone, you could use those.
The only thing that sets a specific gaming headset apart is that it's more tuned for gaming audio – lots of bass, less focus on the high notes. They also tend to have a bit more of a focus placed on the microphone and the ability to mute it without going into settings.
If you do want a specific gaming headset, and would prefer to stick to the same brand as your console, the good news is that both Sony's $159 PS5 Pulse 3D Gaming Headset and Microsoft's $149.95 Xbox Wireless Headset are very good.
But what's surprising is that the $89.95 Xbox Stereo Headset is also quite good indeed. It might lack the Bluetooth connection, and be Xbox's entry-level headset (above the barebones Xbox One Chat Headset, best left forgotten) yet it punches well above its weight in terms of bass response and versatility.
Xbox Stereo Headset review: Design
The thing that hits you first when you look at the Xbox Stereo Headset is just how vibrant the Xbox green of the cable is. It's a bold pop of colour, but not overpowering, and immediately tells you what it is. The rest of the headset is a rather attractive matte black that blends into the background of everything.
I really like the design of the microphone, which kind of rolls up around the left ear cup in the same way that a toddler playing hide and seek kind of conceals themselves behind curtains. The attempt is there, even if it's not especially successful, but it's fine because it's still kinda cute.
The headband is a combo of steel and rigid plastic, with a suggestion of padding. If you get it at just the right angle on your head, it'll be comfortable for hours at a time before needing a break. If you get it at any other angle, I sure hope you're fully stocked with painkillers, because it's a one-way ticket to headache town.
After a couple of weeks you do start to find that right angle without thinking about it, but it definitely takes some trial and error. The pleather ear cups are quite comfy for a few hours at a time, even with my glasses and many earrings, so that's a positive.
That comfort level means these are best suited to casual gamers who would rarely exceed 3 hours of play time, and this headset is priced perfectly for that group.
As far as durability goes, I've only had them about a month, so I can't speak long term. But I did sit on them, and I took more damage than they did, so that's a good sign.
For usability, they are ridiculously easy to use: Step 1. Plug into thing you want to use. Step 2. Use them.
The controls are mostly good. The whole right ear cup spins for volume adjustment in a way that's very satisfying. I find myself absent-mindedly turning it when it's just sitting on my desk and deafening myself later, which is always a mark of a good volume knob.
I'm less enamoured with the mute switch on the microphone, which is at the very back of the microphone behind the ear. After years of other headphones training me that the switch is on the ear cup, it took a lot of adjusting. This is perhaps less of a problem for people who aren't constantly moving between dozens of pairs of headphones, but I found it extremely frustrating for the first couple of weeks. There are no other controls, so you'll have to adjust the chat mixer on the console.
Another thing I found irritating is that it doesn't fold up and the ear cups don't lie flat, which makes transport and storage more complicated. It's designed for home use on one console, but given its versatility, the ability to fold it up and put it in a bag would have meant it was easier to take to work for conference calls. Not to mention that it's nice to be able to store a headset in a more compact manner at home because apartments are small and storage space is at a premium.
Xbox Stereo Headset review: Performance
The most important thing with a casual gaming headset is that it sounds good, and the Xbox Stereo Headset mostly achieves that. It's very bass heavy, as you'd expect on a gaming headset. You can hear the engines rev, footsteps creep and slamming dubstep just perfectly.
However, the mid-tones and higher frequencies sound hollow. Everything sounds fine enough, but the details aren't there and music sounds a bit muddy. To use a technical explanation of the sound: the spine is there, but the organs have been picked at by vultures.
That means that while you can use them as everyday headphones for music, and certainly could if you can only get one pair of headphones and had a maximum of $90 to spend, you probably wouldn't want to use them for music if you had other options.
For example, Full Heart Fancy by Lucky Chops is easily the best song on the Forza Horizon 5 soundtrack. It's the kind of song you can't hear without instantly feeling happy and full of hope. On the Xbox Stereo Headset, you can hear the sousaphone, saxophone, bass drum and snare rim shots perfectly.
But on better headsets you can also hear that the drummer is occasionally doing flourishes on the ride and hi-hat cymbals, and these are surprisingly hard to hear on the Stereo Headset. The saxophone solo at the end also doesn't sound quite as rich because all the emphasis is on the lower tones.
That's mostly fine for the primary purpose of the Xbox Stereo Headset. Actually playing Forza, while the music is an enjoyable diversion, the high notes aren't what's important – it's the crunching of gravel, approach of your opponents, the crash of landing after a Danger Sign.
In other games it's the roar of the crowd, sound of bullets in the distance, and brain-shaking explosions. For all those things, the focus on bass is appropriate. I've also had much more expensive headsets that don't sound as good, so as long as it works for the appropriate purpose and punches above its price point, I think it's completely fine that it's not going to fulfil the dreams of budget audiophiles.
If you have the Dolby DTS subscription, you can use that. It's not amazing on the Stereo Headset, but you wouldn't really expect it to be.
The microphone is of surprisingly good quality. It's not at the level of a streamer mic, but it's about on par with using a regular phone microphone on a regular call, and that's much better than some headsets I've tried at twice the price. Heck, I'd say the mic on the $90 Xbox Stereo Headset is better for chat than the $900 Apple AirPods Max.
It's great that, because it's wired, it's compatible with PC, Mac, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS3, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, iPad and any other device with a 3.5mm jack. It felt vaguely illegal to use on a PS5, but performed very well on an obsessive amount of Fall Guys.
Should you buy it?
- Buy it if you want a multi-platform headset that does the job well without breaking the bank.
- Don't buy it if you want a fancy wireless headset, because this isn't one of those.
The Xbox Stereo Headset is a great buy for $89.95, and an even better buy when it's discounted. It's perfect for casual gamers who want to be able to use the same headset for gaming and then jumping on a work call. It just does exactly what it says it does, with good durability, for a cheaper price than similar products. That's pretty good in my book. I whole heartedly recommend it if you're looking for a gaming headset on a budget.
Xbox Stereo Headset review: Pricing and availability
How we tested
I played with the Xbox Stereo Headset on a variety of consoles and games (mostly Forza Horizon 5 and Fall Guys) on and off for around a month. I was sent this product by Microsoft PR.