What Makes a Good Gaming Headset?
I'm going to try to get back to blogging more often. I could probably spend full-time writing about audio, considering I spend nearly full-time consuming it and exploring it. Today I figured I'd tackle a topic of interest to this site's core audience head-on: gaming headsets.
This is a blog I've meant to write for a while now, but I've been deterred by how TA broke blog images during the mobile-friendly redesign. Since I can no longer use scaled-down images and the 'style' property of the img tag to make less-important images reasonably sized, I'm just going to hide this oversized travesty behind a spoiler tag:
The image behind the tag is my first Turtle Beach Elite 800X, and my third
TB headset to break from plastic fatigue. The 800X sported a new headband design that looked
more robust, but nope.
On paper, the Elite 800X is a monster--wireless everything, customizable sound profiles, a cool base station that keeps your headset charged when you're not using it, etc. It's brimming with features and conveniences for which I paid $300. Unfortunately, it's fragile and the mic sucks. I lost track of how many times people told me the hole-in-the-earcup mic sounded like ass or they couldn't make out what I was saying. For a gaming headset that's not just bad--it's broken.
To their credit, TB replaced my 800X, but I'd had enough. There's really no excuse for the build quality to be that garbage, except they're not trying, and they get away with not trying because people are used to headsets being things that wear out. Meanwhile, I have owned a pair of Sennheiser HD 650 headphones since 2004, and they're still going strong today. You can disassemble them without tools, and every single part of them is user-replaceable: ear pads, headband pad, headband, detachable cables, etc.
Apparently the PC Master Race doesn't put up with disposable headsets, because some of them are competently designed. I got a Steelseries Siberia (V2?) headset for free with the MSI gaming laptop I purchased a few years ago, and I really don't have anything to complain about with it: it's easy to drive, very comfortable, lightweight, sounds fine, and even has a nifty retractable mic boom. I don't think that headset ever cost more than $80, and I'd have no problem recommending one for casual play where audio quality is not particularly important. It gets the job done.
Top: Steelseries Siberia, Left: Audeze Mobius, Right: Audeze LCD-GX
For the most part I've given up on gaming headsets for gaming. Recently Audeze (a company that makes some extremely well-regarded audiophile headphones) got into the headset market, and I picked up both of their offerings. Very brief impressions:
The Mobius is interesting, but has too much of what I don't like about gaming headsets or Bluetooth headphones: the sound quality is hampered by digital signal processing, and the volume doesn't really go loud enough. It does have an interesting head-tracking feature that keeps audio fixed in space so that when you turn your head you'll hear the audio as if it's coming from the game world and not from the headphones. It's not a bad headset, but it's not worth the full asking price to me. I got mine B-stock for $230, which was too good to pass up. It's probably worth that, but it's a shame that Xbox doesn't support standard Bluetooth headsets or it might be an easier recommendation.
The LCD-GX, meanwhile, is more like one of Audeze's audiophile headphones with a well-made mic-enabled cable. It's a staggering $900, but it does sound like a $900 headphone at least. An XBox controller can drive the GX to loud enough volume and it sounds great for casual gaming. I've been using this for a lot of my console gaming lately; I especially enjoyed playing Borderlands 3
on it since the Audeze logo looks so much like a Vault Symbol.
I can do more in-depth reviews of these later; I want to cover some different ground today....
Since I have piles of headphones laying about, and their whole purpose in life is to sound as good as possible, I've been spending most of my gaming time playing on headphones lately. I even constructed my own
headset by attaching a Modmic to one of my favorite pairs of headphones:
Focal Elegia + Antlion Modmic 5
Although cable management needs some care, the advantage of a DIY headset is that you can get exactly the sound signature you desire. Wait, what?
As I've come to appreciate from the headphone hobby, there is no one objective definition for "the best sound." Understanding a headphone's performance is easier if you examine its overall sound as a collection of key aspects that contribute to the whole. At a basic level, the overall sound signature consists of voicing + technical capabilities.
Voicing pretty much boils down frequency response, which is how loud a headphone will reproduce a given frequency given a fixed signal strength. You might think that a totally flat frequency response would be ideal, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The audio company Harman has done a bunch of research into what constitutes the most pleasing frequency response to most people and published the results as the "Harman Curve
." Of course some people prefer a more neutral reference sound, and others prefer something like a "V-shaped" sound (accentuated bass and treble) that sounds fun and detailed. There's no consensus about the best target frequency response.
What's more, frequency response does not tell the whole story of how a headphone sounds. Technical capabilities refer to the more nuanced character of headphones, like the shape of the space in which sounds seem to come from (soundstage), the relative ability of the headphone to render individual sounds in that space (imaging), how much fine texture resolution you can hear (detail retrieval), how natural / correct / true-to-life certain elements of music sound (timbre), etc.
Gaming headsets advertise marketing-oriented features like "virtual surround," "footstep focus," or "superhuman hearing." All they're doing is using digital signal processing (DSP) to artificially shape the sound in a way that accentuates sonic cues that the headset's drivers probably don't do a great job of reproducing on their own. The end result is effective enough, but tends to sound unnatural. However, an actually good headphone with good technical capabilities can do all of these things without sounding odd.
I've recently begun to appreciate that what works best for competitive multiplayer is distinctly different from what works best for "casual" play / immersive gaming. The former is extremely dependent on excellent imaging, a decently wide sound stage, and a voicing that doesn't over-emphasize bass such that it overpowers things like footsteps. The latter mainly needs a coherent voicing and can benefit from good detail retrieval and imaging.
Focal Elegias are some of my favorite headphones for music. They've got a closed back, which keeps sound from bleeding out, but they sound remarkably open (without any of the muted, boxy overtones that plague most closed-back headphones). They've got a satisfying bass bump and excellent imaging and detail. When I ran these through my gaming test ("No Fighting in the War Room" mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered
), gunfire had a satisfying weight to it, explosions were vicious and music and dialogue were crisp and clear. Gaming in these is like watching an action movie in a theater--exciting, and larger than life.
Meanwhile, the best headphones I've heard so far for a competitive sound signature are the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pros. These are marketed as professional studio headphones; they have a remarkable ability to render individual sounds with outstanding clarity and a distinct place in space. Focusing in on any one element of a song is effortless. Although gunfire in my COD sequence lacked the sense of gravitas that I got from the Elegias, it was much easier to hear all of the surrounding action (and where it was coming from) even while shooting
For Alien: Isolation (Win 10)
I wanted to try something other than the Elegias. I ended up using the Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pros--the closed-back counterpart of the 1990s. For this game an immersive and fun sound is great, but audible location clues are everything
. The 1770s with leather pads have CRAZY bass, but maintain vivid mids and decent treble / detail. The soundstage is much more closed in than the 1990s, but they do still retain some of that imaging magic. While trying to decide which headphones to use for this game I stood next to one of the save stations and spun around randomly with my eyes closed. I could clearly differentiate when the beeps were in front of me vs. behind me, which is life-or-death when it comes to deciding whether it's safe or not to pop out of a hiding spot while the alien is wandering about.
In upcoming blogs I'd like to focus on some individual headphones and do more of a deep dive into each to cover what makes them special, what they're good at, what they're maybe not so good at, etc. Meanwhile, if there are other audio-related topics you'd like me to write about, leave a note in the comments.