Headphones and Headsets
The Beginners Guide
So you have a great display to play favorite titles in all their graphical glory, but if you’re listening to the game over your TV's built in speakers you’re making a mockery of the game and gear you paid for. Good visuals and good sound go hand in hand and both are required to really get the most out of game you paid for, and while you can get the most volume and booms for your buck with speakers, speakers are bulky, not portable as a rule and, only viable when everyone else is awake in the house or if you live alone in a house (aka no night time gaming in a dorm or apartment without turning the volume way down or off entirely).
For most people a pair of headphones or a headset is more flexible option while still maintaining good sound quality and being able to keep you’re gaming sessions private and while the Mario Kart series doesn’t have many critical sound only cues (if any), other games do make use of sound cues and a good headphone or headset will let you hear those cues clearly and consistently and take appropriate action based on them. But regardless of the game a good headset or headphone will allow you to enjoy the game without disturbing others around you.
Headphone vs Headset
A headset is a headphone with an included microphone attached on either the left or right ear cup or for mobile centric devices inline with the cord. Headsets also tend to sound worse or cost more than headphones in a similar price bracket as some of the cost is dedicated to the added microphone on a headset and other features not related to sound quality like packaging and accessories.
Features and “On the Box” Specs:
One of the most important aspects when shopping for any headphone or headset is comfort as if it’s not comfortable for you to wear its irrelevant. Also as everyone’s head is shaped and sized differently comfort is a very subjective aspect and varies from person to person. However, the main factors that affect comfort are size of the ear cups, the material of the ear pads and the amount and softness of the padding in the ear pads, the overall weight and weight balance of headphone/headset, the amount of adjustment the headphone provides, and the amount of clamping force the headphone/headset puts on your head.
Over Ear Vs On Ear
Over ear or Circumaural headphones are headphones that feature large ear cups that surround the ear entirely and the ear pad rests on the skin around your ear. On ear or Supra-aural headphones as the name suggests have smaller ear cups that have the ear pads resting directly on the ear. For most people over the ear fit headphones tend to have better comfort due to the pads not resting directly on your ear but tend to be heavier due to the larger size of the headphones.
Cloth Vs Leather/Pleather
Cloth ear cups give a more openness to the sound stage and breath better which is very handy when gaming in the summer or in a room with a high ambient temperature. Cloth does leak more sound to and from the headset and also tends to lower the amount of bass over Leather/Pleather. Leather/Pleather is basically the opposite it keeps sound from leaking out from the headset and muffles outside noises as well, and as most headsets / headphones are closed back they go hand and hand with each other to keep your game private and keep the outside world out.
Like with comfort sound quality is a very important aspect when shopping for a headset or headphone as if it doesn’t sound good there is little reason to use that headphone and headset. Also like with comfort sound quality is very subjective and varies from person to person, so only you can decide if a set of headphones or headset actually sounds good. The main factors that can affect sound quality are the driver size, response range of the drivers, whether it is an open or closed back designed headphone, also the material of the ear pads and any digital processing features like virtual surround sound can also affect the quality.
Basically how large the drivers (speakers) are in each ear cup, most range in size from 30-50+mm with most headsets using a 40mm or larger driver in each ear cup.
Basically the range between the lowest and highest pitched sounds which is measured in herz (Hz). Most headsets have a 20-20000Hz response range.
Measured in ohms (Ω) impedance is the amount of resistance a headphone has, with a higher impedance requiring more power to drive the headphone properly. Most consumer grade headphones/headsets have impedance under 50 ohms to ensure good compatibility with a wide range of audio playback devices like MP3 players and smartphones.
Open Vs Closed Back
Open back as the name implies has a vented or mesh cover on the back of the ear cup which allows sound to move freely to and from the headphone it also provides a wide soundstage and as such the audio sounds quite airy making it easy to pick out specific details or instruments in a song, it also provides better positional awareness in video games as its easier to determine where certain sounds are coming from which in certain genres of games is very useful. Open back headphones by design will leak sound to others around you so it’s not the best for public use or for when you want to crank it up during late night gaming. Also open back headphones tend to have less bass in the mix, so if you love your bass, open back headphones are not for you. Closed back headphones are basically the opposite; they have a solid cover over the ear cup which keeps sound from leaking out as much and provides a smaller sound stage but more bass in the mix as a rule. So it may not be great for competitive first person shooters, Single player games, games where sound cues are not as important will benefit from the extra bass response. They are also handy for late night gaming sessions due to less sound leakage because of the closed back design.
Surround Sound & Headphones
First off if a product you’re considering advertises itself as true or discrete 5.1 surround sound headphone with multiple drivers in each ear cup disregard it and look elsewhere. You have 2 ears and you only need 1 driver in each ear cup to generate surround sound as you otherwise sacrificing overall audio quality as to cram more than 1 driver in each ear cup the drivers have to be smaller to fit in the ear cup, If you want surround sound in your headphone or headset buy a product that uses virtual surround sound like Dolby Headphone or DTS Headphone-X.
If you are still not convinced that a stereo headphone can not do convincing surround sound, the following youtube video should be able to change your mind on that
Amplified vs Passive
Amplified headsets are headsets that include an extra connector (almost always USB) to provide extra power to drive the headphones allowing for extra volume without buying a separate headphone amplifier, also as a rule headsets that come with amplification by default cannot be converted to a passive headset and will not function without a power connection. Passive headphones and headsets do not require the power connection to function and will work with any audio device with a 3.5mm or 6.5mm connector but can be connected to a dedicated headphone amp for extra volume and clarity if required.
Wired VS Wireless
Wired headphones/headsets are the most common type and need to be connected directly to an audio source to receive sound. They offer the best sound quality for the money and typically does not need a separate power source to work. Wireless as the name implies does not need a physical connection between the audio source and the headset which is handy for large home theatre setups where you will be siting far away from the tv or on the go listening wireless headphones tend to cost more or sound worse than wired headphones and require the use of a battery to power the amp and radio receiver in the headphones.
Other features to consider.
- A flexible mic boom; Helpful to get the mic in to the best position for the best audio quality from the mic.
- Detachable or retractable mic; Great if you want to use the headset as a normal set of headphones or if you don’t need the mic.
- Detachable cable; Very handy as replacing a cable is always cheaper than replacing the entire headset, also allows extra flexibility on what devices will fully work with the headset.
- On-Ear/Desk controls; Most headphones have an mic mute and volume adjustment controls on an inline controller which can be difficult reach and adjust during gaming, by moving the controls for volume and mic mute on to the ear cup or on a box that sits right in front of you on your desk it’s a shorter reach and you will always know where they are as they will always remain there unlike an inline controller which will move with the cable of the headset.
- Game – Chat Balancing; A staple of almost all gaming headsets, by being able to adjust the level of game and chat volume on the fly is very handy when dealing with teammates who won’t stop talking or have poor mics.
- Travel Case; Very handy if you travel a lot with your headphones by preventing damage while in transport or for long term storage.
- Inline mic; Useful if you wish to use the headset with a smartphone or tablet and still be able to take calls without resorting to the main boom mic.
- Onboard EQ profiles; A once PC only feature, now an increasing number of headsets allow users to store 1 or more user adjustable EQ profiles right on the headset to further tailor the sound to the user preferences.
The Bottom Line
Everyone’s needs and budget for a set of cans is different so knowing what features you want, where you will be using the headphone/headset and how much you are willing to spend will help to narrow down the many choices you have to a select few from which you can do further research on to help select the right set of cans for you.
My Personal Recommendations
- Sound quality above all else: Passive open backed stereo headphone, a separate mic, & Astro MixAmp TR if cross platform compatibility is needed.
- Why: A headphone will always sound better than a comparably priced headset as none of R&D or cost goes towards tacking on a mic, inline controller or anything else besides the headphone, open backed for the wide natural sounding soundstage which enhances positional awareness in gaming. For voice communication Antlion's Mod-Mic series gives you a great sounding very adjustable boom mic you can attach to any pair of headphones. Another popular mic is Zalman's clipon mic was and is still a popular choice due to its price and sound quality for the price (around $10-15). Top it off with Astro's excellent USB MixAmp TR which provides clean and clear Dolby Headphone surround sound and a complete set gaming audio features like game-chat balancing, cross-platform compatibility with Xbox, PC, Playstation 4, User customizable EQ profiles, a 3 source (game, chat and aux) stream output and a 4-pole (microphone enabled) aux input
- Why Not: may not be aesthetically pleasing, can get expensive in a hurry, the MixAmp won't be able to properly drive higher impedance cans (over 300Ω's) without further amplification
- All one wired solution: Astro A40 TR Audio System
- Why: The Astro A40 TR audio system provides a very flexible, very comprehensive audio solution for gaming that also sounds very good with music and movies for headset. The MixAmp TR provides your surround and gaming audio features like game chat balancing, cross-platform compatibility and advanced features like user customizable EQ profiles, and a 3 source stream output, the MixAmp works with any 4 pole or PC headset so you can change out to a different set of cans down the road and still keep all of the MixAmp's features. Also the A40 can be plug plugged into other devices like your smartphone or handheld gaming console. The A40 TR also has a detachable mic that can be plugged in on either side of the headset, fold flat for storage or resting on your neck for breaks, features a fully detachable cable, available travel case and come with magnetically attached speaker tags which can be swapped out for pre-made astro and partner designs or you can design your own tags to truly make your headset personalized and can be converted to a closed back headset with their TR Mod kits. Combined with great comfort and build quality the asking price might be high but you get a lot of value, flexibility and sound for your money.
- Why Not: Price; @250 USD for the A40 audio system there's no getting around that its quite expensive. Some sound quality is also lost in return for flexibility due to both being headsets instead of just headphones.
- Using existing headsets on consoles: Astro MixAmp Pro or PC Y Adaptor connected to the game controller (PS4, XB1 and Wii-U gamepad only)
- Wireless solution: Astro A50, Steelseries H Wireless audio system or if you can find it the Astro MixAmp 5.8 wireless transmitter & receiver + a headphone or headset of your choice.
- Value solution: Kingston HyperX Cloud series + PC Y Adaptor for current gen console or mobile use.
Keep in mind these are my personal choices for those 5 main categories. They will not fit everyone’s needs and certainly will not fit everyone’s budgets. If you have a question regarding a headphone or headset you’re considering or need more help on what to buy. Post on the thread and I’ll do my best to help out.