Microsoft’s Big Xbox Audio Mistake

Want to use a wireless or USB-powered amplified headset with your Xbox Series X|S or Xbox One console? Then you’re going to need to buy one that is specifically licensed for compatibility with Microsoft’s proprietary Xbox Wireless protocol. And it’s going to cost more than similar headsets on the market for other systems.

Sony and Nintendo will let you use almost any wireless headset you’d like with their consoles, but Microsoft requires both manufacturers (and consumers) to pay up and move into their gated audio community. This is disgusting and sad, and means Xbox is a bad place to play if you’re into high quality audio and want a lot of peripheral options.

At the launch of the Xbox One back in 2013, it was even worse. Sony’s also-new PS4 launched with a standard non-proprietary 3.5mm headset jack on the bottom of every bundled DualShock 4 controller, allowing gamers to use any wired headset they already owned with their new console. In contrast, Microsoft shipped their controller without any sort of headset jack at all. They required users to pay an additional $24.99 for a little chunk of plastic that carried the port which clipped awkwardly onto the bottom of the controller.

This baffling and mean-spirited situation persisted until 2015, when Microsoft finally caved and added a headphone jack to the bottom of all new Xbox controllers — but their bitter anti-consumer sentiment persisted on the wireless audio side.

Microsoft uses a variant of Wi-Fi Direct called “Xbox Wireless” for the connection between controllers and the Xbox One (and Series X|S), and they insist that all third party peripheral companies do this as well and pay a fee for doing so. As a result, wireless Xbox headsets are few and far between, and tend to cost more than their counterparts for other consoles. They’re also frequently more prone to wireless interference from nearby routers than other wireless headsets as they use the same channels as in-home wi-fi.

This stubborn insistence on a proprietary system and the collection of licensing fees has left Xbox audio-enjoyers in the dust compared to gamers on other platforms. You can walk into any Best Buy or browse Amazon’s digital shelves and find a comical number of USB-based headsets that’ll work on Switch, PS4/5, and PC. None of these platforms put large technical restrictions in place between themselves and tech companies, and the result is a wide and healthy ecosystem of peripherals.

It’s a tiny bit better now than it has been in recent years with products like the Turtle Beach Stealth 600 Gen 2 MAX that supports everything…but the thirty dollar price premium of the MAX over the old non-MAX version is almost certainly due to Microsoft’s licensing fees.

Nintendo, usually more stubborn about keeping their platforms locked down than any other company, recently added full standard Bluetooth audio support to the Switch. If you’re doing something more arcane with your console than Nintendo, then you’ve got a big problem.

All of this might be a little easier to take if Microsoft had an official wireless gaming headset that was great — but they don’t. They took years to release their official attempt at such a product, and while the $99 Xbox Wireless Headset does offer an impressive features list for the price, it also offers a sound signature so bloated and ruined by bass that it’s my least-favorite-sounding name brand gaming headset.

I understand that part of the appeal of a console is that it’s a closed ecosystem without the fiddling and tweaking that comes with a gaming PC. But there’s no excuse for what Microsoft has done to lock down their headset selection other than greed. The Xbox family of consoles is built from off-the-shelf parts and its OS is not too dissimilar to Windows. The only thing stopping the USB ports from working with any headset, just like the ports on the Switch, PS5, and PC, is Microsoft’s desire for more money.

So if you’re a person that wants to experience great wireless or amplified gaming audio, Microsoft doesn’t really want you to have fun unless you pay a premium for their incredibly limited set of choices. A few higher end headsets are finally coming to the platform like the Arctis Nova, but they’re so expensive that most of the market won’t be looking at them anyway.

Microsoft’s arcane licensing procedures for audio hardware are anti-consumer in a way that the other companies didn’t even attempt on their modern machines, and it’s frustrating because Microsoft nails it in other ways. Sony used to lock down their 3D audio system to Sony headset customers, but the PS5’s Tempest 3D Audio is free for all users — probably because Microsoft offers a capable free virtual surround system on their platform.

The time has come for Xbox to support standard USB and Bluetooth audio. Xbox Wireless offers few technical benefits to audio customers, alongside increased expense and a limited selection. Right now, if you care even a little bit about audio quality, you’re so much better off with any other gaming platform that doesn’t have “Xbox” in the name. You’ll be able to get better hardware for less money that’s also more widely compatible.

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