When the SteelSeries Arctis 7X debuted in late 2020, I called it “one of the best gaming headsets ever made,” and the past two years have done nothing to change my impression. The Arctis 7X is basically everything I ever wanted out of a gaming headset: it's comfortable, feature-rich and compatible with just about every gaming system on the market.
What I didn’t know at the time, however, was just how useful it would be as a travel accessory.
After a few years of staying at home for the holiday season, my wife and I are finally traveling again. We trekked all the way across the country to visit my family for Thanksgiving, and we’re taking a more modest trip to see my wife’s family for Christmas. The Arctis 7X has become my go-to travel headset, which has proven to be a terrific idea — except the one time when it wasn’t.
The SteelSeries Arctis 7X on the road
In case you’re not familiar with the SteelSeries Arctis 7X, it was our overall pick for the best gaming headset for quite a while. (Its successor, the SteelSeries Arctis Nova 7x, is now on the list.) It’s an iteration on the SteelSeries Arctis 7, a wireless gaming headset that used an elastic headband rather than plastic or steel notches. This ensured a perfect fit every time. The good sound quality, robust software, clear mic and reasonable battery life helped bolster the overall package.
What set the Arctis 7X apart from most other wireless gaming headsets on the market is that it works equally well with PlayStation and Xbox consoles. To oversimplify a complicated issue, Microsoft uses a unique wireless protocol for the Xbox. This is great, since it means many Xbox wireless headsets can pair right out of the box, no dongle required. It’s also terrible, since it means that the vast majority of wireless gaming headsets work beautifully with the PC, PlayStation and Switch, but don’t work with the Xbox at all, unless you want to connect a 3.5 mm audio cable.
The Arctis 7X, on the other hand, has a USB-C dongle with a simple switch: “USB” or “Xbox.” While the Xbox Series X doesn’t have a USB-C port, it does have multiple USB-A ports, and the Arctis 7X comes with an adapter. I live in a house with a PS5, an Xbox Series X, a Nintendo Switch, a gaming PC and an Android smartphone. Having a headset that works with every single one is just as convenient as it sounds.
As such, when it was time to start traveling for the holidays, the first thing I reached for was the Arctis 7X. While it’s not a small headset, it was everything I needed for both work and play. It plugged into my laptop, so I could work while I was away. It plugged into my Switch, so I’d be able to hear my games on the plane. It plugged into my phone, so I could listen to music on the go. The earcups fold flat, so it fits easily into a backpack, and the long battery life would last a roundtrip cross-country flight, and then some.
During Thanksgiving, the Arctis 7X was everything I hoped it would be. The clear mic helped me effortlessly meet with my team via video chat each morning. The decent music quality was more than adequate for listening to music while covering our Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. After work, I jumped right into Final Fantasy XIV on the PC, or Final Fantasy Dimensions on my phone.
The night before my flight home, I plugged the Arctis 7X into my computer to charge. And that’s when things got weird.
A baffling battery
One reason why I like the Arctis 7X is because it doesn’t require a complex proprietary charger. Any micro-USB cable will do, plugged into any suitable power source. That’s why I was shocked when my Arctis 7X absolutely refused to charge.
I’m no stranger to finnicky cables, so I didn’t think much of it at first. I borrowed a cable from my aunt, and tried again. The Arctis 7X’s charging light still refused to illuminate. We went through an entire box of cables, until we’d tried three or four different micro-USBs. I tried plugging the headset into my laptop; I tried plugging it into a portable charger; I tried plugging it into a wall adapter. Nothing worked.
As a last resort, I performed a factory reset on the device (which is a neat trick; simply lift off the left earcup cover and press down on the little indented switch with a paperclip), which sometimes addresses battery issues. I also left the headset plugged into the wall overnight. The next morning, it still wouldn’t turn on for love or money.
I had come face-to-face with an immutable tech truth: The gadgets you own will occasionally break for absolutely no reason. I had taken good care of the Arctis 7X for two years, and never encountered any problems before. But the universe must obey Murphy’s Law, and it looked like I was going to spend two long, loud flights without any way to block out the thrumming engines, irritating chatter and screaming babies nearby.
I wish I could say that I discovered a miraculous fix just as the plane took off, but the truth is much more prosaic. I reached into my backpack and found that I had a pair of wireless earbuds that I’ll sometimes use during my commute. Since both my phone and the Switch support Bluetooth, I was in relatively good shape for my trip home, even if the sound quality was nothing special.
The oddest part of the whole story is that when I got home, I decided to dig up the charging cable that came with the Arctis 7X and plug it directly into my Xbox. This time, it charged right up, and has been behaving normally ever since with every cable in my home. Why the headset despised my aunt’s cables, I don’t know — and I have to wonder whether the problem will recur.
The lessons here are twofold. First and foremost, more headsets should follow the Arctis 7X’s example. We shouldn’t really need to carry two (or more) separate pairs of headphones just because various wireless protocols don’t play nicely with each other.
The second lesson, however, is that consumer gadgets — even relatively fancy ones from well-known manufacturers — are mercurial beasts, and they will occasionally fail on us when we really need them. There is good gaming hardware and there is bad gaming hardware, but there is no such thing as perfect gaming hardware.
In any case, I’m planning to pack my Arctis 7X again for my holiday travels next week — but I’ll definitely be taking my earbuds again as well. I’d rather have a backup plan than a whole day of travel with nothing to block out the noise.