SteelSeries Arena 9 Review: Restoring 5.1 Surround Sound to Gaming PCs

Once upon a time, desktop speakers really did matter. It was over a decade ago, long before gaming headsets filled the earth and wireless Bluetooth headphones were good. In the early 2000s, more and more people also had desktops chained to their desks, so it was worth investing some in decent sound. The new Arena 9 surround sound PC speakers from SteelSeries reminds me of that era, a time when I was eager to unplug cables in my dorm room to plug in Logitech’s legendary Z-680 surround speakers. (Sorry to everyone who lived nearby. I tried to be polite, I swear!)

Fortunately, it’s not that hard to switch to surround sound today – though it will still cost you. The $ 550 Arena 9 connects via USB so you don’t need to worry about a specialized sound card and they feature wireless rear satellites that you just need to plug in and connect to each other. There is no need to connect anything to the front speakers. This solves a huge problem and makes Arena 9 a much more cost effective option for those who are averse to cables. But is it worth setting up a surround sound system when gaming headphones are cheaper, more engaging, and nicer to your neighbors? You have to decide about it yourself.

Pros

  • Excellent two-way speaker design
  • Fantastic sound quality for games and movies
  • Comfortable wireless rear
  • Bluetooth support

Cons

  • Built-in speaker cables can be difficult to fix
  • The subwoofer is small for a system of this size
  • No built-in surround sound processing
  • No 5.1 surround sound on PS5
  • Average build quality

Assuming you want to fill your room with speakers, Arena 9 is noteworthy in general. There aren’t many PC alternatives out there today, and most of them are several years old, like Logitech’s Z906 (released in 2011). You can of course set up an amp and plug in any speakers you want, but nobody who does this probably doesn’t have a standalone kit on the market. SteelSeries strikes a delicate balance between complexity and convenience – for the most part, I think Arena 9 is a success.

SteelSeries Arena 9 desktop speakers
Devindra Hardawar / Engadget

In the box you will find two front speakers (both with RGB lighting along the base and on the back), two wireless rear satellites, a center channel, a control module and a 6.5 inch down-firing subwoofer. The two-way speakers don’t feel high-end, but their matte plastic housing should connect with keyboards and other computer components. They’re also much lighter than I expected, which is rarely a good sign for audio equipment. However, my biggest problem comes down to the wiring. The front and center speakers are hardwired to the rear of the subwoofer. From what I can tell, there’s no easy way to replace these cables, so you’ll end up stuck hanging the entire speaker if something goes wrong (or you’re familiar with soldering). I would definitely prefer to have removable cables instead of redundant RGB lighting.

SteelSeries Arena 9 rear subwoofer
SteelSeries

I can understand why SteelSeries decided to place all the audio inputs behind the subwoofer. It draws more cables away from the desk and is a smart place to store your amp and power components. But it’s also the only place with an aux connection, so if you want to plug in other devices, you’ll need to plug in a long 3.5mm cable. Luckily, there’s also Bluetooth support, which provides an easy way to stream music wirelessly when your computer is turned off. For devices with digital audio such as PlayStation 5, they can be connected via an optical cable (there is also an optical out port for transferring audio to other equipment).

Unfortunately, the PS5 can only play 2.1 sound (two front speakers and a subwoofer) through the optical or USB connector. You can mix this sound on all the speakers using the control capsule, but it would still only be simulated surround sound. This is a shame for anyone who wants a system that can work seamlessly with their gaming systems and computers. It’s also doubly disappointing, as the Logitech Z-680 supported Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound processing from consoles and other devices as early as 2003 for just $ 400. For the price, I’m surprised Arena 9 can’t cope with its own decoding.

SteelSeries Arena 9 desktop speakers
Devindra Hardawar / Engadget

At least SteelSeries is not trying to push Arena 9 as the perfect surround sound system for your home theater. It’s notable that these are the first 5.1 gaming speakers to work over a single USB connection. Typically computer speakers rely on three 3.5mm jacks or a digital connection such as optical or coaxial. As it is USB based, setup is simple – even for laptop users who would normally need to get some sort of external sound card to use a 5.1 system.

It only took a few minutes to plug in the Arena 9’s front and center speakers, while the rear speakers found their homes on the shelves behind my desk. It took a bit more effort as I had to find an outlet nearby to power the right rear speaker and also run the cable across the floor to the left. (If you have a lot of space you can also use a very long RCA cable to connect these speakers.) On my desk, the Arena 9 looks cleaner than the huge KEF Q150 bookshelves I usually use.

SteelSeries Arena 9 desktop speakers
Devindra Hardawar / Engadget

But honestly, when it comes to speakers, I care much more about sound quality than aesthetics. Despite its relatively compact size and average build quality, Arena 9 sounds fantastic in games and movies. The opening monster attack in Netflix Sea beast they shook my office with explosions, the sounds of gigantic waves and the rumble of a pissed off monster. During the game An infinite haloI felt fully engrossed in each shootout, so much so that I could clearly hear the enemies sneaking up behind me through the rear speakers. One An infinite halo the match that equipped everyone with rocket launchers and skewers sounded like I was front row in a 15 minute firework show.

Arena 9 is best when you can turn up the volume to its maximum – making them unsuitable for apartments and smaller houses. (Do as I say, not like me.) They are energetic and energetic enough for games and movies with large soundscapes. However, I would like to see a larger subwoofer. The 6.5 inch port unit for such an expensive system just seems to be limiting. I had to push the subwoofer volume knob almost to the maximum to get a satisfactory amount of bass. A larger submarine would not have to work so hard.

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