SteelSeries Arena 9 Review

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Whatever happened to 5.1 surround sound systems? While they used to be the rage in top-of-the-line gaming setups, it’s now much more common to see a 2.1 system or a set of regular speakers hooked up to most gaming PCs. You’d be forgiven for thinking that 5.1 systems are strictly for home theater, and have simply become a thing of the past for gaming.

SteelSeries, however, disagrees. The SteelSeries Arena 9 is a full-blown 5.1 surround-sound speaker system, complete with a hockey-puck-style control unit with an OLED display and some nippy, gamer-friendly RGB lights. 550 dollars/550 pounds.

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Yes, I wouldn’t blame you if you did a double take. I did. Over half a grand for a set of speakers may not be a lot in audiophile terms, but when it comes to gaming audio? That’s a bit much. Especially since our current favorite gaming speaker set, the Logitech G560, can be found for around $150-200.

Still, you get a lot for your money, at least right out of the box. There’s a solid-looking center speaker, two sizable front left/right units with LED-illuminated base rings and semicircular backlighting, plus two slightly smaller rear satellites. It all connects to the back of a massive subwoofer with a front-firing slot-style port and a serious-looking 6.5-inch down-firing driver. Oh, and a hockey puck, along with a bunch of cables and adapters to connect it all.

SteelSeries Arena 9 Specifications

Illuminated 5.1 SteelSeries Arena 9 speakers lined up in a row on a wooden table

(Photo source: Future)

Communication: USB, Bluetooth, Optical, 3.5mm AUX
Speakers: Center Speaker – 2 x 2.75-inch woofers, 1 x 0.75-inch tweeter / Front Speakers – 2 x 3-inch woofers, 2 x 0.75-inch tweeter / Wireless Rear Speakers – 2 x 2.75-inch woofers, 2 x 0.75-inch tweeter / Subwoofer – 6.5-inch down-firing driver
Frequency response: 35-20,000 Hz
Libra: 15kg
Price: 550 dollars/550 pounds

One of the biggest drawbacks of any 5.1 system is simply the difficulty of setting it up. The two satellites connect wirelessly for sound, but they still require a cable to connect them together, as well as a separate power supply. The layout of my particular home setup (with my desk pushed up against the wall and the entire room in front of me) isn’t exactly designed for rear or side speaker setups.

Still, I set one up behind me on the bookshelf to my right, and the other on the folding table to my left, in roughly the right positions. They are, fortunately, lightweight, and fit well in my hands, out of the box.

Once all the speakers are set up and connected to the back of this solid subwoofer, you’re left with an impressive array of noise-making devices. The SteelSeries Engine software allows for a fair amount of initial tweaking, and also connects to other aspects of the set, like Prism for endless RGB adjustments and Sonar for tinkering with parametric EQ. More on that later.

The two front speakers have RGB lighting on the edges of their bases, as well as solid rear lighting that can act as a backlight if the monitor is floating above them, as mine is. At full brightness, they create quite the atmosphere and definitely add a wow factor to the proceedings.

As for sound, they’re pretty good for gaming. This subwoofer is incredibly powerful, so much so that I used the rear knob to turn the volume down a bit (a rarity for a bass fan like me). Explosions hitting your chest, soundtracks sweeping, and bullets flying past in COD Warzone are enough to give you chills. If you’re a fan of multiplayer shooters, 5.1 audio in this format makes a lot of sense in games that support it.

The level of detail on offer definitely adds to the immersion of any game with some sedate positional audio. Horror fans will also benefit, as there’s nothing like jumping on a crawling zombie that you’ve heard scratching the floor behind you.

There’s a lot to be said for a good 5.1 implementation, and these devices do a great job of correct positioning. For gaming audio? They’re great fun and look good.

Where these speakers fall brief, however, is when listening to music. There is a 5.1 upmix setting to convert conventional stereo audio mixed to the centre and rear speakers, but I found the effect to be insufficient.

Part of the problem is that awesome subwoofer. So awesome that if you take it out of the mix, the center speaker and satellites reveal that they don’t really do any work in the mids and lower mids. Some, no doubt, are very focused on the highs, allowing the subwoofer to handle almost everything else.

The test case for me with any speaker system is Tool’s The Pot, because it really covers the entire range, dynamics, and overall mix. While the drums are pounding, the bassline is shaking, and the vocals are crystal clear, the moment the ponderous guitars start playing, the Arena 9 sounds cluttered. The huge bassline AND crunchy guitars? What goes where?

Well, there’s some bass heft to those guitar riffs, so that has to be the subwoofer. But there’s also a lot of mids, so wind up the middle speaker.

I have a problem with the idea that someone would have to spend that much money to get the same results that you can get with many headsets, and for less money.

The result? The bassline quivers as the subwoofer driver tries to do multiple things at once, the center unit and surround speakers give off a slender impression of a ponderous rock riff, and the result sounds cluttered and oddly shaky.

It’s like the subwoofer is looking at the other speakers with a questioning expression on its face. “Come on, all of you, give it your all. I can’t do everything, you know.”

No matter how much I tweak the Sonar parametric EQ, I can never find a place where the center speaker provides some mid-range weight, instead relegating itself to the higher ranges. There’s a ton of balance in 5.1 games. In music? This mix setting leaves a lot to be desired and makes for a frustrating listening experience.

Also, the rear satellites have a strange background noise problem. Sometimes they are completely mute, other times they make a chirping sound between them, back and forth. The wireless connection seems susceptible to interference at certain volumes when placed near other equipment. It’s not a massive problem, but I had to reconfigure some of my other equipment to reduce the effect. A bit of a shame, for the money.

Yes, that price again. While the RGB lighting is nippy and the positional audio is great, I have a problem with the idea that someone would spend that much money to get an effect that many headsets can provide for much less.

Buy if…

✅ Want 5.1 cinematic sound: Arena 9 delivers incredibly correct positional audio that is sure to impress fans of multiplayer shooters or horror aficionados.

You want ponderous bass: The subwoofer is really great here, it adds a deep, ponderous sound that can make your interior vibrate.

Don’t buy if…

You listen to a lot of music mixed in stereo: Despite setting the mix to 5.1, the device struggles to achieve balanced stereo sound across the entire setup.

You are on a tight budget: At $550, this is not an option you would call inexpensive.

What’s more, a $500+ speaker system should be seriously great in every way. And while I had a great time playing through the Arena 9, this disparity between the subwoofer’s power and the other units’ lightweight upmixing means I’ve avoided them as my go-to speakers.

So what did I apply instead? Well, here’s a confession: I pulled out the Majority D80, a pair of speakers that cost just £80 (unfortunately, at the time of writing, shipping to the US is still a problem). Sure, you don’t get all the theatrics of positional audio from two speakers, but they still do a great job of correct sound and are capable of giving you a solid kick in the chest in the music department.

Those in the States looking for a pair of speakers that will do the trick should check out the Kanto Ora. They may be pricey, but they really do tick all the boxes, and you can hook up an optional subwoofer.

If you want the best surround sound for gaming, the Arena 9s are worth a look, but for the money, when it comes to music, I was hoping they would deliver something more balanced, more refined. More, well, sounding costly.

As for the sound itself, these are powerful, correct and good-looking speakers. But lithe has to go with shadow, and while 5.1 positioning is precise and the room-shaking bass is huge, the roundness of the package, the a-all-and-end factor, is simply lacking. And at this price?

It really shouldn’t be like this.

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