What To look for in a Gaming Headphone

My connection with games actually precedes my experiences with audio gear, though I was introduced to both at a very early age.

As a one year old I was tapping along on the second controller of my father’s Sega Genesis, and a couple years later I learned to read because I was determined to play through Final Fantasy VII by myself without someone having to help me with the subtitles.

Gaming and I go way back. Even today, I get side work doing sound and music for games, which is one of the more exciting musical and sonic fields in entertainment at the moment. Spatial audio and VR are bringing some very cool concepts to life. I digress however – this article is specifically about the overlap between headphones and gaming, namely gaming headphones.

Gaming headphones occupy a very particular category in the personal audio space. They’ve existed for a long time, even before the ‘audiophile’ and ‘premium’ categories were really full-fledged. There has been remarkably little product overlap until recently though, despite the fact there are a lot of avid headphone listeners who are gamers... or rather, there are lot of gamers who are avid headphone listeners. The gamers far outnumber the audiophiles, even in the post-Beats world we live in. So what’s the deal with gaming headphones? What are they and what do they do? Why even bother making the distinction and what makes a ‘good’ gaming headphone? Let’s take a closer look.

Comfort

It might seem obvious but I would argue that comfort is actually slightly different for gaming headphones than for audiophile headphones. When music – either as a background noise or as the focus of attention – is the purpose of a headphone, we are generally willing to put up with levels of comfort dropping down into the ‘adequate’ range. It doesn’t particularly matter if we notice the headphone, as long as it doesn’t make itself distractingly painful. It should sound good first and feel good second, ultimately. Of course, this is a subjective thing, but let’s compare it to gaming headphones.

The purpose of a headphone when gaming is to give us the audio reliably and stay put without making itself unduly uncomfortable. Sure, audio quality is a priority, but it doesn’t matter how good a headphone sounds if it doesn’t stay put on your head or is painful after an hour or two, or even a four-hour session. A gaming headphone has to last for six hours or more for some long MMORPG, streaming or e-sports sessions. The first priority is comfort – that means things like the Jecklin Floats simply won’t work. Further, a gaming headphone, in my experience, generally does a lot better than an audiophile headphone with a greater degree of clamp. Especially during heated sessions where lots of head movement is involved, this provides a greater degree of stability than sometimes loose, lightly clamping pads can.

Speaking of pads, gaming headphones also tend to do much better with velour or microfibre materials, or synthetic leathers. While real leather pads feel luxurious and may speak to the quality and expense of a headphone, once they heat up, they tend to get quite sweaty and slick. Protein leather and other synthetic leathers with smoother feels can tend to be less distracting when they get sweaty, though are much more difficult to clean, so this is a trade off. Some gamers even like velour, which despite its greater heat retention, doesn’t get quite as slick when wet, though these pads will get dingy and dirty over time.

So pads and clamping force are big things to consider when choosing a gaming headphone. Two headphones I feel do this well are the Audeze Mobius and Sennheiser’s gaming series of headphones. They fall a little short of the cushiness I like in audiophile listening, but prove their worth in longer gaming sessions, staying cooler and more firmly on the head than many audiophile equivalents.

Sound

This is probably one of the biggest areas of difference between audiophile headphones and gaming headphones. Whereas I’ve expressed my feelings about the ‘Harman Curve’ for music listening, I actually think slightly more presence region energy, and a bass shelf that starts lower and rises a few dB less is actually desirable here. Gaming sounds are often dependent on the genre of game, but typically dialogue and midrange and treble sounds have much shorter transients and greater dynamic range, so a headphone with a slightly lean tuning compared to a typical audiophile headphone will not be so fatiguing. There may be footsteps, voices, gunshots or high-pitched sounds mixed in with rumbling explosions or large monsters. This greater diversity of frequency response information means clarity is much more important than overall warmth of the presentation.

For FPS games this is especially true, where sounds and their positioning are a vital element of gameplay, indicating where players are acting from. In such an environment the entire point is not to have relaxing music or background noise, but very clear and perhaps sometimes slightly-emphasized details, especially in the treble region. Gaming headphones can get away with more elevated treble than audio headphones.

Any headphone with a variable-tuning profile does really well at this, and changing the frequency response for different types of game genres is a valuable feature in my experience. In terms of headphones that I find perform well for FPS or other high-clarity oriented tasks, the Beyerdynamic CUSTOM game has a variable bass switch and Beyer’s typical elevated treble. For audiophile listening I don’t love this headphone, but for gaming it’s a tuning that works exceptionally well, and can be adjusted for more sedate tasks like RPG or simulation games if needed.

Other Considerations

There are a lot of accessories and other considerations when looking at gaming headphones, but I’ll focus on just a few I find important; which are microphone, price and latency. Microphones are a consideration only in those games which require team chat. The number one priority is clarity here. Microphones on a lot of cheap headsets distort easily in a way familiar to anyone who’s played Halo or Call of Duty online before. With nicer microphones the sound should not clip quite so easily, and should generally have higher intelligibility. Generally, in a good microphone you’ll see a separate cable plug or detachable capabilities, pop filters and sturdier housings. Flimsy wires hanging off the end of an ear cup tend to break easily and are usually an indicator of a less than tremendous microphone. A separate cable for a mic will also allow the use of more sophisticated interfaces and expands options for both headphone amplification and more flexible microphone routing. Next up is price.

While it seems tempting to simply buy the most expensive headset you can afford, there are two pitfalls to this strategy. The first is an issue of feature sets. Some rather expensive gaming headphones have very poor sound quality and usability, but come loaded with features and cool looks or expensive branding. When looking for a gaming headphone, always be sure to research what features you need and which are optional. If you don’t play games that use team-speak or mics, then you might be better off getting a headphone with less features. A headphone for use with RPGs that contain lots of spatial info for example does not require a microphone, and also might resemble an audiophile headphone more, with a warmer frequency response working better than with FPS games. Likewise for wired vs wireless functionality or spatial audio processing.

In general, an important thing to know is that wireless headphones and headphones with any sort of processing will have higher latency than wired, processing-free headphones. Something like the Audeze Mobius, while a terrific headphone when used wired, is next to useless when used wirelessly for gaming. Bluetooth options are getting better, but still have a ways to go for the most demanding FPS gaming purposes where the battle for ever lower latency figures on everything from monitors, to mice and keyboards to headphones is an important one that can sway the result of matches. By contrast, a relaxing hour or two of Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley really won’t be hurt by a few more milliseconds of latency, and being wire-free to curl up on the couch may be a greater priority for this kind of experience. If you can, always check on what kind of latency performance and cable length you might expect from a headphone and factor it into your purchasing decisions.

At the end of the day, gaming headphones have a lot of overlap between premium or audiophile headphones, though with some slightly different use cases. We’re even starting to see some companies, like Audeze, try to address both ends of the market. The Mobius is a technological powerhouse with tons of features designed to delight a gamer looking for a step up from Steel Series of Razer, or an audiophile looking for a reliable and well-designed gaming or travel headphone. Audeze’s LCD-GX, by contrast, is an all-out assault on supreme sound quality over convenience in gaming, and promises an attractive chunk of Audeze’s house sound with a few small convenience concessions for the serious audiophile who is looking for few compromises in a gaming experience.

I look forward to seeing more companies offer their take on a gaming headphone that can satisfy audiophiles, and I suspect we’ll see more competition in this arena in the next few years.

COMMENTS
Glotz's picture

Solid essay, man.

While I've been a gamer and an audiophile since the Eighties (actually my first system was the Intellivision when it first hit and I've been a Stereophile subscriber almost as long), and I value higher-performance headphones, I am not sure the average gamer needs to minded to the higher echelon of gaming headsets.

Most gamers do seem to think by rote that spending $150 plus on a circumaural headset is the only option. My biggest issue as a stalwart gamer is headphone weight. While I've got a massive head for a average-height person, I cannot abide by huge, over-sized headphones for hours of game play, as I begin to feel disconnected from reality. I just don't enjoy the heat retention and sweat build-up. I also don't feel a need to swing my head around, despite being one of the most animated people extant. I see in the brunt of the market buying expensive cans for gaming as simple, tech-sexy desire for the sake of high-end ownership.

I've been using on-the-ear Logitech H600's for an alternative to so many of me-too headsets, largely because of weight and lack of encumbrance, and cost. If were not going for ultimate fidelity here, why invest in a faux-competitor to audiophile cans? I don't see the rationale, especially when the SQ of budget-minded cans has risen substantially. These cans sound twice as good as the same cans released only 3 years ago. They are certainly not the same model, despite the name and all exact functions.

Strange that kids (younger gamers- not you) have dictated so much of the market to the 40-somethings in the past console generation, regarding headsets. I used to be able to use my home theater / TV rig with an excellent Sony earpiece that was ubiquitous during the PS3 / Xbox 360 generation. I miss that mobility and ease-of-use.

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