In comes a new year – and with the gaming industry, a brand new year ushers in radical improvements in all things hardware and accessories. Monitors get more pixels, graphics cards get more shader units, CPUs grow in computing power but headsets tend to remain the same. A good gaming headset, unlike any other accessory or hardware for your gaming console or PC, can give you satisfaction for years to come. But, then again what really is a good gaming headset? And, above all why should you even spend high when there are similarly priced superb studio monitors available? Why can’t you get a tried and tested headphone and pair it with a mic?
Remember that a brand new gaming headset is more than an accessory – it is a treat to the senses but only if you invest right. Every hardcore gamer understands the importance of a good quality gaming headset. In fact, most hardcore gamers have a single brand and model that they prefer, opting to purchase it above all newcomers year after year. We at Armchair Empire, went and asked a few professional gamers what their choices were and what they look for in a gaming headset.
If you have ever wondered what the difference is between a $20 headset and $200 headset, then you are at the right place. We compare prices, make note of new features and give a verdict on whether it meets our hardcore gamer’s verified checklist.
Welcome to the only definitive guide on gaming headsets you will find anywhere on the internet. Peddling specific brands is not our objective. Forcing your hand is not how we do business. We want you to make an informed and careful decision only after having read all sides of the story. Before you head into individual reviews on headsets, take a while and browse through our exhaustive headset gaming buying guide.
Top 5 Gaming Headsets of 2017
If you want to skip all the talk and check out our top 5 gaming headsets for 2017, take a look below or head over to our gaming headset comparison chart!
What Do You Game On?
Platforms to game on increase year after year. It is safe to assume that any common household will have at least two or more gaming platforms. From big consoles such as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One to smaller portable consoles like the Wii U and smartphone gaming – the platforms vary wildly. For those who prefer gaming mostly on a computer though, any headset will work because a computer can take all kinds of connections like USB, 3.5mm jack and some even have a dedicated input for microphones too. Not to mention, PCs will always let you connect multiple headsets or a speaker alongside a headset so you need not continuously switch them out.
- Xbox One – For those who spend majority of their time on an Xbox One, you better get a proprietary adapter for the headsets. Good news though, this adapter is readily available online and it is a one-time purchase. You can use just about any headset with an Xbox One so long as it has a 3.5mm jack.
- PlayStation 4 – For PlayStation lovers, there is nothing to worry as it takes in multiple connections. The obvious choice among gamers is to go with a good quality USB headphone as it lends the best audio quality and mic output possible. However, for those wanting to cheap out a bit, you can use your 3.5mm headsets or headphones with the DualShock 4 – these new controllers from Sony come with 3.5mm inputs. Caution though, the later will drastically reduce the sound quality and is best used just to communicate and hear other speakers, while your television or amplifiers take care of game music/sound.
- PC – Like we said earlier, PC gaming lets you do whatever you want. You prefer USB headsets for their ability to filter out specific channels, offer better 7.1 surround effect or just work as a communicator? Go ahead get yourself one cool USB headset. If you just want something that works alright, then use a 3.5mm single jack headset. But wait, if you have one of those legacy type headsets with individual jacks for the mic and speakers, a PC will still let you use it! Those who game on laptops, beware of the 3.5mm jacks on your device. You might have a single point for sound and mic or two separate points. Again, adapters for both are available online.
- Portable Consoles and Smartphones or Tablets – Those gaming on portable consoles really need to be careful. If you have a 3.5mm jack, then you need not worry as almost all gaming headsets work right with. Those with proprietary jacks or no jacks at all need specialized headsets or adapters. Bluetooth headsets, in our opinion introduce some amount of static and aren’t always at par with similarly priced wired headsets but it is entirely your choice and at times you may not even have a choice with wireless consoles and devices (iPhone 7 and above anyone?)
To summarize, 3.5mm headsets are probably the most versatile of all gaming audio devices. They have a mic, usually comfortable cans and a single connection for sound and microphone. Besides almost all consoles with their own unique connection ports offer adapters for 3.5mm headset. Basically, if you aren’t gaming on a single console and have multiple consoles then pick your favorite console and get a headset for that. More often than not, the same headset can be used on other devices albeit with an adapter at times.
Let’s Talk Ergonomics
Let’s kick everything aside for now. When gamers were asked about the top three features for any gaming headset, almost every one of them included ergonomics or the comfort. Why? Well unlike music or production, gamers tend to go for longer hauls. Even if you game moderately or enthusiastically, you will spend more than an hour engaged on your preferred device. Without proper ergonomics a headset can feel like a headlock after a few minutes! Most cheap headsets tend to compromise with the design and materials.
Remember, a headset will put pressure on your ears and hence, it is absolutely necessary that they are comfortable to stay in for long durations. If a headset is not comfortable you will not want to put them on. Too much pressure on your ears and your gaming experience will be a headache. Unfortunately, there really is no foolproof method to measure or even explain the comfort of headsets. What might be cozy for one gamer can be a tight fit for another. Another thing to keep in mind is that the first few hours with a gaming headset will always feel tight. There’s a break-in period with gaming headsets and it can range from hours to days.
What can be quantified with headsets though in terms of comfort and ergonomics is the weight and padding. Try and go for headsets that are lighter than normal. Some pack in so many features and embellishments that they forget it is a device that hangs on your head and ears. Likewise, the padding must always be ample and cushioned without feeling flimsy or low grade. Wearing a headset for a long time, can lead to sweating in the ears. Good headsets tend to absorb the sweat and release it without the material losing its texture.
The good news though is that if comfort is all you are after, there are plenty of decent brands and models that offer the bare minimum in terms of styling, features and build while concentrating more on padding, size and low weight.
Speaking Of Pricing…
Companies don’t exactly follow an honest pricing policy. Newer a company, more competitive are its pricing but with more fan following, these new companies can gradually begin pumping out inferior products at the same cost. Even worse, they can hike the prices for average goods. This is basically the supply-demand bell curve in action. Just remember that as a consumer, it is your duty to understand whether the asking price is reflective of the product features and its offerings or if it is in response to an increase or decrease of demand.
Now, having discussed the role of fame and demand in gaming headset pricing, let’s actually look at price as a choosing factor. Yes, it matters because you are the one paying for the headset but as long as you have a budget and stick with it, you need not worry. The really good news is that no matter your budget, you can always find something to be happy about. There are many companies that make gaming headsets and almost all companies have a wide range of headset models starting from $20 all the way up to exclusive ranges of $400 and above. Just remember, just because a headset is expensive does not mean it is technically superior and feature rich!
To Wire Or Not To Wire
Personal preference does matter in this regards but if you take the word of professional gamers, wired headsets are always better. There are quite a few problems with wireless headsets, some of these negatives have more to do with the wireless technology used rather than the build, quality or features.
Wireless devices need to be charged all the time. They run on batteries. This means that the moment you run low on charge, your headphones no longer work for you – back to the speakers then? What about the mic if you happen to be gaming online? Yet another complication with wireless headsets is that they operate on frequencies that are prone to interference. Because of interference, it is not unnaturally to hear sudden pops, static and other kinds of background noises. If you aren’t that picky with the disturbances then great but, if you hate static or that weird disturbance in the background, often getting distracted on a mission with friends – forget a wireless now!
Having blasted wireless, professional gamers are quick to observe that console gaming doesn’t really appreciate wired headphones. In fact, we observed that wireless headsets have better gaming quality than wired headsets with console gaming, especially if you game on a large television. Why? Well, for starters gaming on a large television means you sit pretty far away from the console. Unless your wired headsets can reach the console, you have to run it off your controllers, which is not the issue here because all modern controllers give you this opportunity.
The problem arises with the current software and device drivers. At present, no console controller lets you experience surround sound through its headset port. You get stereo with a controller. Pretty sure that in future consoles will rectify this with either a software upgrade or a brand new console but until then, wired headsets with a short cable are a disadvantage for console gaming. Another problem is that with wireless controllers they have to power your headsets, which means you get even less battery life from the controllers!
Confused? Well to make things easier, if you game a lot on consoles then get yourself a good pair of wireless headphones or headset. For those with PC gaming and wireless consoles, a wired headset will serve you right. Don’t fret about the price point, because you can find decent wireless headsets for $100 though quality cans come for no less than $300.
Let’s Talk Sound Signature – Surround Or Stereo?
Don’t ask this question to an audiophile because their answer will always be stereo. Why? Because surround sound requires heavy processing of the sound signature and this will always eat into the quality of the signals. Stereo on the other hand, simply reproduces sound as it was recorded or transmitted with minimal processing.
Okay, with the audiophiles out of the way, let’s get you set up with the right sound signature. First off, for gaming a good surround sound headset is a godsend. Unlike stereo where you only get two directions of sound, surround technology can make it possible to get some sense of three dimensional direction of approaching footsteps, vehicles and even danger. Yes, those who do a lot of first person multiplayer gaming, go surround sound technology always!
Okay having said that let’s talk about how the surround sound effect is produced in a bit more details, but without getting all technical. Conventional surround sound effect relies on breaking sound signals into more than 2 channels and using a separate speaker for each of these channels positioned all around the audience. Ever watched a movie where you could tell what’s about to happen just from the sound and even pinpoint the direction it is about to happen from? They use specific speaker arrangements in halls and theatres to get this effect. However, with a surround sound headset, there are only two speakers – one on your left and the other to your right. The software and your headset together reproduce each sound signal in a manner so as to fool your brain into thinking it is hearing a sound from a certain direction. All Dolby headphones use this technology.
With a good surround sound headset, you can hear the pop of a gunshot and understand exactly where it came from in the 3D space of a video game. Besides, those using such headsets always have an advantage over opponents without such a headset! Don’t trust us, ask any professional gamer and they will tell you just how important a surround sound headset really is.
Only downside with such gaming headsets is that they don’t do well with music, so keep them away from your iPods and audiophile devices.
A lot of debate out in the professional gamers world at present circles around frequency response. Some believe that a higher frequency response range helps with gaming. Others disagree citing biological limitations of the human ear. Again, without getting all medical and technical, let’s try and address this concern.
The term, frequency response basically defines a range that a headset will operate perfectly within. This range is measured in Hertz and it often is close to what the human ear can perceive. A typical human ear has the ability to hear anything within 20Hz to 20KHz. However, some headphones tend to operate outside of this frequency range such as 10Hz to 22KHz and so on. Proponents believe that the additional hertz lends a feel to the sound signature. Naysayers don’t agree because this supposed feel just can’t be quantified.
What you need to take away from this ongoing discussion on frequency response is that every headset behaves differently. Even those with the same frequency response will have a varying sound signature. You should test them out to ensure your ears appreciate the signature and frequency response on offer.
As for price being a consideration, normal frequency response stereo sets come for $30 or so. However, step-up headsets with higher frequency response will cost twice as much, often at par with surround sound units.
The Mic Test
Ever heard static over your headphones when talking with someone online? Ever experience a sudden pop in the background? These interferences are as much the result of wireless technology, headset defects as they are because of poor microphone quality.
Gaming headsets almost always come with a mic and communication is an integral part of online gaming experience today. Remember that your overall headset experience is part mic experience and a good performance will leave a lasting smile on your face. Look for mics with noise cancellation capability. This will eliminate any crosstalk and interference, plus your pals on the other side of the connection will bless you for crystal clear voice.
Speaking of mics, some headsets actually have the ability to detach or remove the mic when you aren’t using it. This is handy if you decide to multitask with your gaming headset. No one likes parading around a boom mic across the face out on the streets (unless it is some radical new VR game).
Having said that, it is hard to find a full spec mic on a gaming headset because of the associated costs. However, a good microphone with no static, noise cancellation will set you back an additional $50 or $60.
Alternatively, if you game on a PC then you could go for a separate mic altogether and pair it with a decent set of cans. Not the most ideal of settings but it is cheaper when you already have a good headphone with surround sound technology.
Yes, we have already mentioned wired and wireless but this is not what we want to address here. Headphones can come with USB connections, single 3.5mm jacks or double 3.5mm jacks. There’s no question of confusion when you have a gaming console that accepts only one of these variants. However, for those gaming on a PlayStation, Xbox or PC – there is the choice available between USB and 3.5mm jacks. In all honesty modern day headsets are great regardless of the connection though USB tends to last the longest without producing any interference due to loss of wire strength or corrosion of the connector heads. This is especially true with gold plated USB headsets, however they cost a lot more.
Professional gamers will never purchase a headset unless it has a built-in sound mixer. A sound mixer lets you change the volume for the game music, party chat and your mic/headphone master volumes. Some headsets even have an additional control for auxiliary input because they can connect to your phone simultaneously for background music or to receive calls without pausing a game midway. Really great mixers though can set you back by about $100. Besides, this is not absolutely important unless you consider yourself a hardcore gamer!
On the advice of pro gamers, we have included this warning or caution – DO NOT GO FOR BRANDED HEADSETS SUCH AS CALL OF DUTY AND BATTLEFIELD SPONSORED MERCHANDISE. The reason is because, such headsets have a licensing cost associated with their manufacturing. This extra cost has to be managed from somewhere and it usually means slightly inferior materials or sound signature. Stick with non-branded headsets at all times.
If You Can’t Remember All This Then Take Only This Away
Did you confuse you further? Yes, picking the right gaming headset is more than price to feature comparison. There’s a lot of consider but if you found it hard to pick the perfect headset then just remember this – choose the connection port based on your preferred gaming console and go surround sound with a boom mic. Everything else can be forgive! Having said that, we made it easy for you to pick the right gaming headset by reviewing the top choices from professional gamers, so you need not waste time choosing one.