I was recently in the market for a new gaming headset myself, so I thought I’d document the process I went through in finding my own personal pair. We’ll discuss the various factors to look out for, as well my hands-on impressions of a number of different models.
Especially if you don’t plan on using desktop speakers as well, choosing the right headset can make a world of difference, potentially making your experience more enjoyable, immersive, convenient, and comfortable for prolonged use. Nailing all of that in a single product isn’t easy and can vary between users, but to get as close as possible, try to keep these five factors in mind:
- Wired vs. Wireless – Battery life concerns; AA/AAAs or internal battery? Detachable/replaceable cable? 3.5mm and/or USB? What wireless standard/dongle; Bluetooth phone connectivity?
- Closed vs. Open Back – Open backs allow drivers to operate more effectively and can thus provide a larger sound stage (allowing positional audio to shine as the audio isn’t trapped/muddled in the earcup as much), but will leak audio into the room and allow the wearer to hear the environment (really not great for roommates/partners, noisy environments, etc). Closed backs have a reduced sound stage, audio feels less spacious, but bass (both musical and effects, gunshots/explosions/etc) can really shine as all of the output makes it to the wearer rather than escaping into the room.
- Surround Sound – Dedicated drivers, hardware processing, or software processing? If hardware/software processed, how good is the solution (is it at the cost of sound fidelity/quality?) and will the set work with other universal hardware or software solutions?
- Mic Quality and Noise Cancellation – Can the mic retract or fold away, how easily, and does that automatically mute? Does the mic feed back into the headset audio (helps the wearer avoid stumbling over their words)? Does the mic have active noise canceling to mask ambient sounds like fans/AC/family; this might determine whether the user is forced to use push-to-talk in games. Usually closed-back sets isolate noise well enough, and people don’t often PC game on the bus/train/plane, but if that is your use case, does the headset itself have active noise cancellation?
- Comfort – This is largely preference because of differences in head shape/size making it hard to convey, but there are a few general rules. Leatherette ear-pads isolate sound excellently and are easy to clean, but may become warm/oily with prolonged use in certain environments. Because open-back designs leak a ton of sound already, they often default to velour/mesh pads for the added comfort/breathability. Very few sets are on-ear, and usually the wider and deeper the ear-pads the better. For the headband, foam padding or straps that easily form to a new shape are often the most comfortable, especially when attached via spring-loaded hinges or cables. You’ll want to avoid narrow and/or rigid headbands with very thin padding, especially so the heavier the headset, as they’re likely to create a pressure point at the top of you head. You’d think the curvature would help, but over-ear sets often can’t get the curve tight enough to the head to properly distribute the weight.
At it’s base level, a gaming headset amounts to any pair of headphones with an attached microphone. While many will tell you to just buy a good pair of non-gaming headphones and slap a mic on, and there is some validity to that, there’s a level of convenience and certain features that are only possible with dedicated headsets; both routes have their advantages and downsides.
Headsets that connect via USB can often act as two audio devices, allowing you to mix game and chat volumes separately, as well as adjust your own mic volume on-the-fly without ever leaving a game. If you want to replicate similar functionality with a headphone+mic combo, you’ll have to buy not just a dedicated amp/dac, but a gaming oriented one (like Sennheiser’s GSX 1000) that goes the extra mile to add the mic I/O and secondary audio channel both of which would go entirely unused in any standard audiophile scenario. Many gaming headsets also mix back in your own voice while you speak with little to no latency (especially useful for closed-back sets), and this is impossible to achieve with separate solutions without buying a hardware audio mixer (the route taken by many professional gaming Streamers/YouTubers, as it allows them to manage multiple local headphones, mics, feeds from the PC and consoles, even chaining in vocal effects processing or soundboards).
Positional audio done well can be tremendously beneficial not just to immersion, but even performance in competitive scenarios, primarily in first/third-person shooters. Simply because of space limitations, it usually isn’t the best idea to go for headphones/sets with multiple dedicated drivers (“speakers”) in each ear cup (like the Razer Tiamat), but the effect an be quite accurately faked by processing a 5.1 or 7.1 output from the game/film, down to stereo with the human ear in mind. Some gaming headsets do this processing in hardware, but more often it can be done in software with tools from various headset manufacturers, like Razer Surround.