Gaming headset; pc headset; gaming earphones; with microphone; supercalifragilisticexpialiearphocious... for friends it is simply headset. Excluding sound purists, with the plug strictly plugged into the integrated Realtek, we all own the headphone+microphone combo. The bad habit of headsets, compared to traditional headphones, is that they tend to break sooner. So how do we choose the best headset for our needs?
ForewordWe were undecided whether to do an article like the one on the gaming case or an actual guide, similar to the many already on the web. The final decision was to combine the two a bit. We also have an audiophile and did not participate in the drafting, because it is not to them that we are addressing. An enthusiast already knows what to choose and probably already has what satisfies him. We have thought about those who have a low average budget and do not want to throw their money away. Many guides focus on technical details, we focus on the quality of the products and, consequently, their durability!
Deciding a budgetThe worst time to buy a PC peripheral is when you are assembling a new one. Mouse Logitech aside, the peripherals must outlast the PC and each deserves an independent budget. Something to consider there is whether you will be satisfied with integrated audio or whether you want better quality by adding a sound card. If you don't have to use EUR 600 headphones, then it will be pointless to buy a EUR 200 sound card. Always look for balance. The price of a good headset is between 70 and 150 euros. Below that figure, you are better off getting headphones and not a headset. And if you buy a sound card, make sure it is recent and still supported by the manufacturer! Many cards on the market date back 7, 8 or even 10 years and give problems today!
Headset technical specificationsDon't get lost in technicalities. High impedance does not always mean better sound. And headsets never have too high an impedance because then you'd need to buy an amplifier too. We took impedance but we could take any other specification and turn it around. The headsets in that price range are all very similar and there is no point wasting hours comparing their numbers. There are much more important factors to consider, as we will see together.
MicrophoneThe built-in microphone is for talking to other team members or having some cam conversations. It is not meant for professional streaming. Again, in the recommended price range, the built-in microphones are all a bit of the same. Voices are distinct and background noises are, when not cancelled, strongly muffled. We recommend that you always choose a headset with a removable microphone. There are two reasons for this: to lighten the headset, when the microphone is not needed, and to leave open the possibility of buying a better one to attach directly to the headset.
Normal or gaming headsets?This question is usually asked by those who already have a microphone or never use one. It works the same way as with mice: ideally, you should have two. In normal headsets the sound is flat, the difference is immediately noticeable even with the integrated card. Beware because this is not a negative factor, it is simply not suitable for gaming. All the most respected brands among audiophiles are producing gaming headsets, and not just for marketing purposes. It would be easier to pass you the usual message: "Get ours, the gaming ones suck!", given the amount of fanboys already gratuitously at work for at least a decade. Just as there are specific DJ headphones, studio headphones, recording headphones and so on, there are gaming headphones!
The flat sound
In flat sound you can distinguish each effect better, that's why those who switch from gaming to normal, perhaps studio, speakers have the perception of a higher quality. To put it simply: in a forest you'll hear better that chirping of the birds you hadn't paid attention to with gaming, but you'll have no idea how close the last shot was. If you play little and want to use the headset on more than one device: get a normal one. Otherwise, concentrate on the headset and use a pair of good in-ear ones for the rest. You'll need them for gaming in the summer anyway! Remember that the sound of games is 'designed' to work best with the type of headset normally worn by gamers.
With wire or without?
The only reason why you should buy a wired headset is the budget. Cordless models are heavier but fatigue less, as you don't have to constantly twist your neck because the wire got caught somewhere. Also think about how many times you take your headphones off simply to pick up something in the room. Those who get used to wireless don't go back. Avoid getting bluetooths because they give you problems with frequencies, they sometimes lag and the signal is more erratic. Sometimes you forget to charge them and have to use them wired. Make sure you are comfortable with the supplied cord and consider also buying an extension cordas wireless cables are usually a pain in the neck.
Don't underestimate the cable!
A good cable is very important, as it will be under constant stress and, above all, it should not stress you. Absolutely avoid the classic thin, Chinese earphone cable, which tangles and does not care about any physical laws. The most popular today is the thick, rubberized one, which does not kink. This cable, however, tends to stiffen in places until it breaks after a few years. We are talking about 5+ years, worry responsibly™.
Analog or digital?Legend has it that analogues are better. Legend indeed. If you don't have a dedicated sound card, go USB. As long as the USB is due to the integrated sound card and doesn't simply serve the microphone, the chipset that will run the CPU, or to power any lights. At that point, a free USB port is more convenient.
Stereo o surround 7.1?
Surround headsets have 5 drivers per earcup and are heavy, a lot. Up until a few years ago, they sounded awful, because the earcups were not designed for five drivers, but had a normal size, with the drivers stuffed in as best they could. Today, one would have to see on a case-by-case basis, but there are those with large pavilions and an appropriate internal structure to guarantee a good sound. The problem with surround sound in headphones is that it works as long as you stand still (in game). When you move around, the sound starts to sound unnatural, the origin not at all accurate and it only causes confusion. It's basically useless and we recommend you go for a classic stereo headset. We have two ears, not 10, and are perfectly capable of perceiving where a sound is coming from through headphones. When that doesn't happen, either the headphones suck or the game audio sucks. Guaranteed.
Virtual surround can be used with any pair of stereo headphones. It is appreciable when this software is provided by the headset manufacturer but not something worth spending more on. Is it useful? Yes and no. Some people like it and some hate it. Being something you can disable at will we don't feel like passing judgement. When using closed headsets, virtual surround can help you perceive open spaces more realistically.
Open back vs Closed back headphonesThis term refers to the back of the earcup and indicates whether it is, physically and visually, open or closed. Open headsets are perfect precisely in open gaming environments. These favour immersion by providing greater spatiality: you have a better perception of the distance of sounds. The experience is similar to listening without headphones, it is a more natural sound. With closed headphones you will never feel like you are really outdoors and every sound will be a bit closer, but they emphasise the bass better. The newer, closed gaming headsets, however, offer a spaciousness that is very close to the open ones. And it's a matter of habit!
Supra-aural or circumaural headset?The reference is to where they rest, whether above the ear or around it. Those that rest above the ear, although lighter, tend to become uncomfortable after a couple of hours. If you wear glasses, even the most comfortable model in the world will bother you, because it will increase the pressure of the cartilage on the frame. If the frame is thick, forget the idea of supra-aural. Circumaural ones are far more comfortable for the ear and don't give any problems with glasses. Sometimes, to improve isolation, they tend to press too hard on the temples. It is important to read opinions online and ask buyers questions (Amazon offers this possibility).
Insulation and comfortA closed, circumaural headset guarantees excellent isolation. You won't be distracted by sudden noises (horns honking, doors slamming, etc.) and those around you won't be able to perceive the sound in headphones. What's more, as pointed out earlier, they don't cause problems with glasses. Isolating the ear so well, however, will bother you in summer and you will sweat a lot. An open supra-aural headset will isolate much less and you will have to keep the volume at maximum when you want to concentrate. If it is not a problem during the day, it is a problem at night, because - with open doors - some sound will be audible even in the rooms next door. More expensive models have active noise cancellation for perfect isolation. Remember that this type of cancellation works for continuous background noise, not for sudden ones. Those will be passively muffled.
Coating and padding
The upholstery of the pads is generally made of imitation leather. This material is very easy to clean, has a good durability, makes you sweat in summer, but at least it is not absorbent. Other popular materials are velvet, which is lighter but absorbent (including odours), and synthetic fibres. It seems to us that no gaming headset, at the moment, uses real leather upholstery. The padding of the cheaper models is foam rubber, which is good but not very comfortable. Better models should have padding made of latex, memory or another material that fits perfectly. Good padding is also important for the headband, especially for circumaural headphones.
Material quality in a headsetIt is by far the most important component to evaluate when purchasing. How long do you want this headset to last? One year? Three? Five? Ten? It all depends on the materials. In gaming headsets, but also in those loved by audiophiles, the use of plastics is getting out of hand. There are good plastics, very durable, that last, but it is difficult to see them on headsets. Because they cost more than aluminium and steel.
Good brand ≠ good materials
When you buy a well-known brand, you think that the materials used are first-rate. Nothing could be more wrong. Junk plastic is also used in 800 euro headphones. And, more than the plastic junk itself, the problem is often the way the parts are designed and assembled. Generally speaking, the more joints you see on a headphone, the more you want to keep your distance from that model. Even when there are metal parts and it looks like it goes all the way into the joint, this is not always the case. It might only be in by half a centimetre and pry off that little piece of plastic already weakened by the presence of the screw holes. The 'metal' itself is not always a guarantee of strength because not all alloys are the same and there are some that are very brittle. If you have no way of checking for yourself, to be on the safe side buy a model with a steel frame.
Get ready to change the plug
Cables and plugs, in this price range, will never be of high quality and it's not a big deal for the use we have to make of it. The balls start rolling when you realise that the assembly is haphazardly done and opening up the headset is very noticeable. A couple of times we were faced with cables almost sheared off by the headset assembly. The jack is better than the 40-cent one from the hardware store, but it has spit-soldered wires that are held in place by the melted plastic around them. On all headsets we have always seen them this way. Replacing the jack is not difficult and, barring any tugging, will hold for a couple of years. But if you're changing headphones because maybe you can only hear one side or there's rustling, keep them and change the jack. And the next pair buy them with the removable cable, so you can buy a new cable directly and not solder anything.
Years ago we wrote a separate article on it, focusing on the wheeleven suggesting ways to bypass it or repair it. Six years later, it is still everywhere and the only ones who notice it in tests are us. All over the world. Something is wrong. The volume control, when entrusted to the classic knurled wheel, is rubbish. In no uncertain terms. The best controls are those with buttons. The knob follows. Sometimes the large, almost smooth thumbwheel without the little teeth. The cogwheel is the silent killer of headsets: day after day it accumulates dirt to the point of ruining the sound quality. Many models don't have them, go for those!