Best Gaming Headphones: Buyers Guide
The headphone market has become increasingly crowded, with new brands emerging from all over the world. These brands cater to certain audiences and often produce vastly different headphones. But what should you look for in your next pair? And what are the common misconceptions about gaming headphones?
Misconception 1: More bass is better
The rise of Beats by Dre, has led to a surge in bass-heavy headphones. The original Beats Solos provided booming bass with very little mid and high tones. This, coupled with the lack of clarity within the bass, led to an unbalanced sound and an overall poor audio experience. Although these issues have been largely fixed in the new iteration of Beats headphones, they still suffer from poorly controlled bass. When shopping for bass-heavy headphones make sure to check that the bass does not overpower the rest of the instruments. If you can, go into your nearest electronics store and test the headphones out with well-produced bass heavy music.
If you are looking for bass-head headphones I would recommend the Sennheiser Urbanite XL Over-Ear headphones. These gaming headphones provide a comfortable, well balanced sound whilst still emphasizing the bass. They are also stylish, well built, and can fold up for easy transportation.
Another solid option within this category is the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x. These headphones boast very good bass response, making them ideal for hip-hop and rap. Like the Urbanite, they are well constructed and offer great sound quality for the price.
Misconception 2: Headphones can't be worn outside
Many people (myself included) use in-ear earphones when commuting. Personally this is because I own open-backed headphones which leak sound when used. However, there are plenty of options for lightweight, slim line gaming headphones which would be ideal for outside use.
The Sennheiser Momentums are a solid choice. Both the over-ear and on-ear options work well for listening to music on your commute. The over-ear edition are substantially more expensive, but they offer better sound quality and noise isolation (a must for those who find themselves on busy transport or in the city). The on-ear Momentums are a great choice for someone looking for lightweight, portable headphones. Both headphones have a “fun” sound signature, with a bassy overtone. They are well built and fold away for easy storage in a backpack or office space.
If you are dead-set on wearing In-Ear earphones, then the SoundMagic E10s are a great choice. They provide accurate sound reproduction, with deep bass tones and well pronounced mids and highs. For $40 you’ll be hard-pressed to find better earphones for the price.
If you have a higher budget, then the Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear are a great option at $100
Misconception 3: Headsets are the best option for gaming
Much like the headphone market, the headset market has exploded over the past few years. Brands such as “Turtle Beach” and “Logitech” have taken the market by storm, offering many different options for gaming audio. However, in most cases, a headset is not the best option for gaming.
Let’s take a look at the Logitech G933 Artemis Spectrum headset, costing $170. This headset features “7.1 Surround Sound”, however this cannot possibly be the case. True 7.1 (and 5.1) surround sound relies on many smaller speakers being used which cause sound to enter your ears at different angles. Unfortunately, because so many individual drivers are needed to be crammed in to create true surround sound, the quality of the speakers must be lowered to keep costs reasonable making them unattractive to audiophiles with a budget. Most headphones have only two speakers, one for each ear-cup, and therefore often provide what is more accurately referred to as virtual 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound.
The manufacturer of such a headset will be using some form of software to emulate surround sound. Whilst this works to an extent, it is by no means a substitute for a speaker system, or a good pair of headphones. Not only that but virtual surround sound software already found in many modern games can often clash with the on-board virtualization software, potentially giving you worse sound. The microphones found on headsets are also typically poor quality in comparison to a desk microphone, or even a clip on mic and are generally never worth it.
Let’s take our $170 budget and apply it to a gaming headphone and desk microphone setup, instead of a headset. For $40 you can pick up a Samson Go microphone. The Go is a small, highly portable microphone which offer great audio quality for its size and price range. It comes with a carrying case and a build in stand.
For the headphones, the Sennheiser HD 598 are a brilliant choice. They are open-backed which means that they leak sound and also let sound in. Although this can be annoying, the payoff is absolutely worth it. The headphones have an incredibly natural soundstage, with a vast sense of space. When playing Counter Strike: Global Offensive, you can hear every little detail and footstep. Other games such as Battlefield 4 sound awesome too, with gunfire flying past your ear and grenades blasting your eardrums. In short, the Sennheiser HD 598 are a brilliant choice for both music, and gaming. Paired with the Samson Go, they make a killer gaming audio setup which blows any headset out of the water.
With both these setups you are getting a high quality audio experience, and a better microphone than you would find on a headset at a similar price point. Not to mention the ability to take your headphones with you, without the microphone attached. You can also use the desk microphones to record music, YouTube audio, and any other audio you want to (something which is harder to do with a headset microphone).
Misconception 4: Driving higher ohm headphones
Higher-end gaming headphones typically take more power to drive fully. Headphones such as the BeyerDynamic DT 990 require more to drive them correctly than a lower end pair of headphones such as the Sony MDRZX110. Smartphones are designed to drive lower-end headphones which typically require 20-34 ohms. Since the DT 990 has much higher impedance (250 ohms) it requires more energy to fully power its drivers.
Although this suggests that smartphones are incapable of driving high-end gaming headphones, this is not the case. Smartphones are able to drive these headphones adequately, however the audio quality will suffer and they will by no means provide the best experience. For example, the DT 990s can run absolutely fine from my HTC One M7, however they really shine when they are amplified from my desktop PC. This is also the case for onboard audio found on desktop PCs, laptops and tablets.
If you want to drive your high ohm gaming headphones to their full potential you will need an amplifier. Amplifiers come in many different forms but the most popular ones are USB Amp/Dacs. These are often small, portable USB devices (though some can get pretty big) which provide extra power to the headphones, improving the audio experience.
The FiiO E10K is a great option for a budget Amp/Dac. The E10K features a bass-boost button and a volume knob for controlling audio levels on the fly. This is a nice feature as it allows you to increase or decrease the volume of a game, film or other program without exiting it. The E10K is rated up to 150ohms, meaning it can power the majority of headphones however it will struggle to fully power very high ohm headphones.
If you have very high impedance headphones, the Topping TP-32EX can drive headphones up to 300ohms and is an excellent option if you want to get the best out of your headphones.
The world of headphones is a confusing one, with plenty of options to choose from. Bass-heavy headphones are great, as long as the bass is well controlled and balanced. You can wear headphones outside (and look stylish while doing so). Headsets are often not the best option for gamers wanting the best audio experience, make sure you consider the headphone/desk microphone option. And pay attention to the amount of power needed to run your new pair of headphones, you may want to buy an amplifier to make the most of your audio setup.