Gaming is a hobby shared by hundreds of thousand of people worldwide on many different platforms. Aside from gameplay, audio and video are the 2 most important aspects of enjoying the multiple genres of gaming, to the extent that they make or break a game. Even so far that good audio and video design can enable gamers who are visually or hearing impaired to play games without one or the other. MegaTgarret being a good example of a blind gamer who completed Zelda Ocarina of Time playing only based on sound. A blind Street Fighter V player named Sven being another example who competes against non blind players in tournaments. This guide will focus on how to choose headphones or headset that best suit your needs.
What is a gaming headset
Most companies market a pair headphones with a mic as a gaming headset. And as a result, most gaming headsets in the market either have shoddy sound or the mic isn’t up to par. This is because combining a mic into a pair of headphones drives up manufacturing costs, so compromises have to be made. Build quality can also suffer as a result with headsets being made with cheap plastics that easily crack and break. Quality of the ear cushions and material used also makes an impact on comfort.
The biggest issues is the number of gimmicks companies add on to headsets to drive up costs that dont provide any discernable uses. For example, customizable RGB lighting on the head band or sides of the cups, 7.1 surround sound DTS (which some may think is a good thing in headsets, but we’ll get to that in a bit), vibrating cushions etc. All of these mentioned do not improve the sound quality and may even end up degrading it while still costing more.
A headset doesn’t necessarily have to be labeled “gaming” to be used for gaming. A dedicated headphones and mic setup works just as well, if not even better than, because both input and output signals are separated.
So how do we go about choosing a headset which is perfectly suited to our needs and wants without breaking the bank on useless add on features? We will go step by step discussing the different aspects of a headset (or even a headphones and mic combo). I will explain the different varieties of features or design of a headset or headphones
Stereo and surround sound
The accuracy with which headphones or headsets allow you to locate the source of sounds in game is their most valued featured. That is what gives gamers a competitive edge. And that is perfectly possible with 2 drivers, one for each ear, which results in the perception stereo sound. Our brains and ears are perfectly capable of discerning the how much noise each is picked up on the left and right sides, therefore, allowing us to know where a particular sound may be coming from. The same applies to headphones and headsets. One driver per ear is the optimal solution. Many people do not know this and, as such, buy into the marketing hype.
Quite a few companies make headsets boasting hardware 7.1 surround sound. In headsets, this is achieved by adding multiple small drivers instead of one, large driver. The result is below average sound, with non existent low end, tinny mid end and shrill high end sounds. The sound of footsteps and explosion can only be properly produced if you have good enough bass. So headsets that have multiple drivers produce underwhelming bass and therefore do not deliver a very immersive gaming experience. The Thermaltake Triton is an example of such a gaming headset.
Surround sound makes sense when you are purchasing a large speaker system with multiple sources to reproduce the feel of being the game without using headsets or headphones. But that is not the case in headsets. The drivers are placed too close to the ears to make any difference over a single driver per ear and just ends up producing shoddy audio.
So in short, what you should look for is stereo headsets or headphones without any gimmicky surround sound features. Those will be perfectly fine for gaming.
Do bear in mind that hardware level surround sound is different from software surround sound such as Dolby Atmos and similar technologies.
Closed vs Open design
Most, if not all, gaming headsets have a closed design. What that means is that the neodymium drivers in each ear are isolated from the outside environment. Which results in better noise cancelling and punchier bass at the cost of a smaller sound stage. A larger sound stage would allow you to more easily locate the source of a each sound in game. So if you value bass and really want to block all outside noise, then closed is the way to go.
But if you can handle a bit of ambient sound and want the ability to echo-locate something in game that’s a block away, then you want an open pair of headphones. They’re the opposite of closed, as in the lateral wall of the headphones will be covered with a grill or something similar that will allow sound to move in and out of the ear cups. Naturally, this will introduce some outside noise and allow sound from the drivers to bleed into the outside environment. On the plus side, this allows the sound you hear to paint more accurately and precisely and help locate sources to a much greater extent compared to closed headsets. While listening to music, instruments can also be easily differentiated.
All in all, this choice depends on what you prioritize in a your audio setup. If you do not want to fill your surroundings with the screams of the enemies you have felled, closed is the way to go. But if you don’t mind a bit of sound leak in and out of your headphones and want that extra sound stage as well, open will work better.
On ear vs over the ear
This is a bit of a minor point but can affect comfort over long term usage. On ear headsets or headphones use their clamping force only to stay on your head which can cause ear fatigue over extended periods of use. Ear cushion material and size also makes a difference in this regard but those will be covered later. Degree of discomfort will vary with each different headset.
Over the ear headphones also depend upon resting some of their weight on your head along with the clamping force around your ears. What this means is considerably lower fatigue over time and much more pleasant usage. Again, this varies with each pair of headphones or headset. Over ear is a much better choice for long term usage.
The ear cushion of a headset is what provides the comfort and stability when your wear your headset or headphones. The sound is also differs from material to material. But in most cases, you cant change the ear cushions that come pre-attached on a headset so there is little point to consider changing them if they already sound nice, but when you do have the option to do so, the change in sound can be tangible.
The size of the cushions also impacts the level of comfort and fatigue over use. Small cushions, coupled with a high clamping force, can result in pain over time. They make break in with use but you still wouldn’t be comfortable using them over long periods of time.On the other hand, extremely large cushions might not even sit around your ears, making using them pointless. So do a bit of research and see if the headset or headphones you’re interested have cushions large enough to fit your ear and not be over-sized.
Mostly, headsets and headphones come with cloth or pleather cushions. These offer decent comfort and the sound is mostly not affected. These are also breathable so can prevent sweating.
Real leather is another material used, usually on more premium and expensive headphones. These make sound more bass heavy and provide a good amount of comfort. But they arent breathable, so they may result in profuse sweating if you use them in a hot environment.
The materials used in ear cushions do not drastically change how and what you hear from your choice of headset or headphones, and in most cases, one wouldnt consider changing the cushions unless the ones that come pre-attached are exceptionally bad or they have been damaged somehow or worn out with extensive use. So this particular aspect may be ignored.
Additional points and info
By this point, we have covered most of the major aspects and points about headsets and headphones. Following what you have read so far, deciding upon a your choice of headset or headphones should be relatively straightforward. But a few points are left that we can cover below. I haven’t mentioned DAC and amps because they do not strict relate to deciding on a gaming headset, but these can certainly improve an audio experience even further, in some cases amps being essential to driving high ohm headphones.
A good mic is the other half of a good gaming setup. Clear, undistorted sound is essential for communication. But more often than not, mics on “gaming headsets” tend to be of a poor quality or do not sound great (the Cloud line-up from HyperX being a notable exception). So what should you do if your headset has good audio output, but the mic isn’t up to snuff? Well, you can always invest in a good desk mic or purchase a small detachable mic like a Antlion Modmic. Modmics also can be used with a pair of audiophile headphones for the same purpose. Some companies also make cables with built in mics that can be used with other headsets, such as a BoomPro microphone cable from V-Moda.
This is a relatively point and mostly comes down to personal preference. Some audiophile headphones have detachable cables. Though this doesn’t apply to hardwired cables in headsets, these can make a difference in headphones, even so far as resulting in improved sound quality.
Length and material can also vary to a degree, with shorter and longer cables, rubber and nylon braided options. These are all subjective, but make sure the length of the cable(s) meets your requirements. You dont want to end up with a short cable if you intend to plug it on the back of your motherboard (which can also make a difference in terms of sound quality).
Front vs rear port:
This is a very minor point but, as mentioned above, can result in improvement of sound quality and sometimes being a necessity if you use high ohm headphones. Usually, front I/O ports may pick up static and noise from the parts of your PC and somewhat sound quality. But if you choose to plug your headset or headphones on the rear headphone jack, you may find that it has improved the sound output. This is further bolstered if your motherboard has an isolated portion of the PCB for dedicated audio.
Apart from all the information above, its also good practice to do a bit of research on the product you wish to buy. Head-fi.org is a large site and forum dedicated to audiophiles and discussing all audio related queries and topics. 2 specific forum posts here and here go into much more depth about all the factors discussed above and reviewing popular options for headphone and headset choices, as well as other useful information.
Z Reviews is another good source for info about all stuff audio. He does honest reviews about all audio related products he receives or buys and also makes various DIY guides and several videos specifically related to gaming peripherals. A particular video of interest for you guys is this one, which focuses on the topic at hand on choosing gaming headsets. I recommend you check all of his videos out as they are high informative and enjoyable.
We’ve ended up quite a bit of text to read trying to explain most of the stuff and reasoning for each separate point. For recap:
2.0 headset (stereo): Good
7.1 headset (surround sound gimmick): Bad
Closed vs open design: Subjective
On ear vs over ear: Subjective (whichever is more comfortable)
Ear cushions: Small variation but subjective
The somewhat rude image below sums things up nicely.