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Whether you're watching a movie, racing solo in the Indy 500, or communicating with Bravo Team deep in enemy territory, the headset you use will either put you in the game or make you feel like you’re a third party listening in. It's one thing to be able to hear what's going on in the game you're playing. It’s quite another to be able to discern where certain sounds are coming from. Today’s gaming headsets allow you to hear footsteps echoing on your left and leaves rustling on your right. They elevate your user experience from a passive act to something much more meaningful.
At BestReviews, we don’t want you to throw your money away on a gaming headset that lets you down. We never accept manufacturer samples. Rather, we go out and buy products ourselves. We put them through their paces in the BestReviews lab, evaluating them for quality, durability, and all other applicable characteristics. Then, when we’re through with them, we donate them to charity.
So what do you get when you buy a gaming headset? Essentially, you get a pair of gaming headphones, a microphone, a mixer, and an audio interface.
In this shopping guide, we discuss what to look for in a gaming headset, including component quality, features, and battery life. When you’re ready for a purchase, please see our product matrix for our top gaming headset recommendations.
Should you get a headset that’s wired or wireless? Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons for each type:
A wireless headset gives you the freedom to move. You’re not tied to a transmitter, and there are no cables to tangle. What’s more, wireless headsets often cost less than their wired counterparts. And wireless headsets are more likely to be compatible with your existing devices; there are no cable pins to match. (Remember, though, that Bluetooth is not universal, and some devices still might not work with your wireless headset.)
On the downside, our consumer research suggests that sound quality can be compromised when you use a wireless headset. It’s not until you venture into an extremely high price bracket that you’ll find wireless headsets in which sound quality is not affected.
Another drawback to wireless headsets — at least in the minds of some — is that you need to recharge them from time to time. This can be frustrating when you’re mid-game or mid-movie and your headset runs out of juice.
Wilbert is an award-winning composer for the video game and film industries. He has worked as an in-house musician at LucasArts, scoring several games in the Star Wars universe, as well as working independently composing the scores to Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, Dead Island 2, and other indie and AAA titles. He also is the co-founder of Impact Soundworks, a highly successful sample development and music software company, and an accomplished lecturer on video game music, having given talks at the Game Developers Conference as well as Yale University and several other institutions.
Wired gaming headsets offer the immediate gratification of plug and play; no setup is required. Owners appreciate the fact that their sound is clearer and less prone to interference, too. What’s more, wired headsets typically cost less than their wireless competitors.
On the downside, your mobility during wired use is limited to the length of your cable, and said cable could become tangled in machinery.
Most wireless headsets operate on the crowded 2.4GHz radio wave band. Devices on the same band may cause interference, including your microwave, cordless phone, baby monitor, and laptop.
Whether you're communicating tactics with your own side or spouting cheeky abuse at your opponents, your headset microphone is your connection to players around the world.
But it’s not enough to have a microphone. You need a mic that matches your needs. For example, do you want a mic with a manual mute button? How sound-sensitive do you want your mic to be?
The fit of your headset matters, especially if you participate in gaming marathons. You want something that doesn't make you feel like your ears are melting off or your head’s being crushed.
We spoke with Wilbert, a former specialist at LucasArts who now composes music for video games as an independent contractor, about the difference between “open air” and “closed air” gaming headsets.
What is fidelity? Fidelity refers to the quality of a device’s sound production. High-fidelity sound has minimal distortion and delivers a highly accurate frequency response. Low-fidelity sound isn’t quite as good. It dominated the audio industry until the late 1940s, when audio technology took a giant leap forward.
Some people swear by surround sound. They claim that it’s more nuanced than stereo sound. For example, if someone zooms off in a vehicle on your right, you’ll experience it as occurring off to your right. But there are good stereo headsets out there, too. The most important thing is to find a headset with an excellent wide frequency response — crystalline highs and booming lows that draw you into your movie or game.
Wilbert advised that open air headsets provide a more natural sound and feel almost “invisible” to the wearer. Open headphones have perforated ear cups that allow air to pass through. If you tend to get sweaty, you may prefer this, as the circulating air can feel cool on your head.
But if air can pass through, so too can sound. With an open air headset, you'll be able to pick up outside noise not related to your game or movie. The reverse is true, too. The people around you will be able to hear what's going on in your headphones nearly as well as you can.
Closed air models are less audible to nearby folks because they have a speaker mounted against a solid cup. If you’re studying in a crowded area and your study buddy doesn’t want to hear your music, this would be a good time to pull out your closed air headset. The headset would allow you to be less disturbed by outside noises, too.
Closed headphones are great for gaming because the sound coming from the game won't get picked up by the microphone and disturb your communication with your teammates.
You can buy a mic separately from a headset and use them both! PC gamers can find decent USB microphones for relatively cheap and use them simultaneously with separate headphones.
Wilbert offers this list of desired headset features in order of importance:
Do the headphones reproduce clear highs and a booming bass? You want a headset that gets good reviews for its sparkling sound, from the highest squeak to the lowest rumble.
Can you wear this headset for an hour or more without experiencing pain or discomfort? Are the earphones padded? Is the headset adjustable for users of all ages, including both adults and children?
This is a cool feature, but Wilbert maintains that it’s not the most important feature to have. Surround sound adds more wiring to your headset, which could potentially introduce more issues in the short and long term. Furthermore, it drives up a headset’s price and, in many cases, compromises sound quality.
A gaming headset’s “comfort level” is subjective, and people have different opinions about what’s comfortable. Many prefer a padded headset that’s buffered by cloth our outer “skin” material.
This is nice to have, but unless you’re playing or watching in a big arena, noise cancellation may not be important for your experience. Wilbert prefers to play at home where there are few distractions loud enough to affect his ability to hear what’s happening in the game. If you’re like him, you may not need this feature.
However, if you plan to use your headset on an airplane, noise cancellation will be very important. This feature eats battery power, but you’ll be able to hear your music or movie much better during travel.
Wilbert prefers the more natural sound of an open air headset. However, potential buyers should remember that this type of headset is more likely to bleed sound into the room, where it could disturb others.
Are you ready to take the plunge and buy a gaming headset for yourself or a loved one? Wilbert offers the following tips:
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.