When the Xbox 360 launched it was kind of novel at the time that it came with a wireless chat headset that plugged right into the controller. While the PS3 and Wii fumbled around for years with wireless communication standards, Microsoft made it clear from day one that Xbox Live needed a dedicated headset for online play. It is valid to argue that the 360 glaringly lacked built in Wifi while its competitors had it, and that its flimsy first party headset wasn’t all that great to begin with, but for the purposes of this review that debate is beside the point. The original 360 headset and later the 360 bluetooth mic set the standard right out of the box.
While there have been plenty of third party headsets made for the 360 over the past six years—some good, some bad—there haven’t been any officially licensed ones in that time. Mad Catz and Tritton are ending the dry spell with the Primer, the first wireless 360 headset officially sanctioned and co-branded by Microsoft. I’ve had the Primer for a few weeks and I’ve put it through its paces. Here’s my report on how it performs.
First, the aesthetics. The Primer looks and feels like a top-shelf gaming headset, similar to something you’d see SteelSeries release for the PC. It isn’t ostentatious or overly complicated, which I appreciated. Both ear cups are attached via pivot points to the main headband, which has two ratcheting sliders for size adjustment. The ear cups and the top inner surface of the headband are padded with soft faux leather which I found very comfortable. The ear pads might be a bit on the small side for some gamers and I admit, an extra pair of bigger pads would’ve been nice, but my ears are pretty enormous and I didn’t have any serious problems with the pads that are included.
The way Mad Catz has consolidated the Primer’s various features is nice and organized. The battery compartment is in the right ear cup, while everything else is in the left one. The left ear cup contains an adjustable swing-down microphone, mic and volume controls, a mic mute button and the power button. It took a little time to figure out by touch just what everything was, but having all the controls in one place is very convenient.
The way you hook the Primer up to your entertainment system is also pretty cool. The Primer comes with a wireless transceiver that you plug directly into your audio outputs; either through component or HDMI. The transceiver then plugs into your 360 via USB cable. The Primer includes all the necessary cables to get it set up, so you can use it even if you have the old, very first 360 model that didn’t have HDMI support.
The headset itself has a cable that plugs into the audio port on the bottom of your 360 controller, just like the first party headset. It communicates with the transceiver, which is jacked right into your audio outputs. A little complicated to set up, but an effective solution in the end.
The Primer’s performance is about what you’d expect for its price range, which is around $100. I tested it with a number of games and the stereo surround was excellent. Farcry 2’s African plains whistled with sandy winds and crackled in the heat of a rapidly spreading brushfire. Gunfire was crisp and powerful in Saints Row 2, Gears of War, and various Call of Duty titles. The surround was particularly helpful in shooters, giving me a much better idea of direction and situational awareness when I was under fire.
The Primer is very good at creating an immersive sound envelope and when the headphones are outputting at medium level or higher, it also does a good job at drowning out background noise. I’d even recommend switching the voice settings on your 360 dashboard to headset only and then muting your TV to get the full experience. That said, I did encounter one issue with the Primer.
The headphones give off a faint, constant buzz whenever the unit is powered on. I tried using it in a number of different locations, and then turned it on without any output from the 360, and the buzz was there no matter what so it’s definitely not my setup interfering with it. It’s not a deal breaker by any means and when there are explosions, gunfights and pretty much any other kind of ambient sound going on in the game it isn’t even noticeable, but I figured I should mention it nonetheless.
I wouldn’t say that the Primer is the standout, above-all-else solution for your 360 headset needs but at the very least it’s a strong new competitor on the market. It is priced comparatively to other options such as the offerings from Turtle Beach and offers much of the same functionality, and I appreciate how organized and straightforward the ergonomics are. If you’ve had your eye on a number of options I’d recommend finding a retailer that lets you try demo units so you can compare it to the competing headsets, just to be sure. I still prefer the styling of SteelSeries headsets, but that said the Primer stacks up pretty well to the 360 headsets already on the market and is considerably cheaper than SteelSeries highest offerings like the Spectrum 7XB. I give the Primer a tentative recommendation if you’re looking for a high-range 360 headset at a mid-range price point, and I’m curious to see what Tritton and Mad Catz come up with in the future.