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A Guide to Gaming Headphones

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For many, headphones are exclusively used for music. For others, headphones are useful for watching television and videos in general. There is a sizable, and growing, population of headphone users who use their headsets mostly, or even exclusively for video games. As with any other specific headphone use, there are headphone models or specifications that are particular to the application. If you are a new gamer or someone looking to buy a headset for a gamer there are some things you should know about gaming headsets.

In many respects, gaming headsets require similar specifications to music or television headsets. The underlying need for clear and well equalized audio is just as important. Video game audio designers are constantly improving the sound output in their games. In the earliest days of video games, audio bitrates were incredibly low, and therefore game music and diegetic sound was limited to beeps and boops. Such low detail audio sounds nearly identical between different quality headsets. Ongoing improvements in video game audio bitrates, culminating in the present day ultra-high quality video game audio, necessitate a higher standard for headsets. It is worth noting that, with the current state of video game audio quality, in-game music is on par, quality-wise, with non-video game music. With that in mind, it is clear that video game headphones need to perform up to the standard of music headphones and then some, to account for the additional needs of the game user. In addition to the music soundtrack, video games often feature gunfire, explosions and dialogue. These sounds may originate from a particular direction, which often may be necessary to tip the player on which way to look. This necessitates a high quality stereo set up with above average soundstage. Both clarity and localization demand a well designed cup with natural isolation and/or an effective noise-cancellation technology built in. With all of these needs in mind, the technical standard for a good quality gaming headset is rather high, and the process of finding a suitable pair may seem harder than a simple music headset. While it is true that there is more to pay attention to in a gaming headset, these specs actually help narrow down the options, eliminating unsuitable gear.

Video game users have notably different patterns of headset use than other demographics. Music listeners are bound to their headphones for, at most, the duration of an album, which is seldom longer than an hour. Movie fans may be regularly using their headset for as long as two or two and a half hours at a time. Video gamers, however, are known to spend hours on end rapt with their game play. Video games are engrossing by design. Single-player modes entreat players to traverse extensive worlds and plots. However, the arguably more popular side of video gaming is the online multi-player facet where friends and strangers compete against one another, often in a heated manner. With these varieties of play, the amount of money invested in the gaming system and games, as well as the sheer amount of effort put into the games’ production encourages users to play for impressively lengthy sessions. Long periods of headphone use almost invariably cause ear or scalp irritation and even discomfort from the headband’s pressure. For these reasons, comfort is incredibly important for these headsets. Video game headsets’ particular tendency to be used for longer periods of time has led to outstanding innovation in comfort, mostly unparalleled in other subsets of the headphone industry. Additionally, online multiplayer settings require built in microphones for verbal communication. Unlike inline microphones which are intended to be discreet and don’t require a high standard of quality, gaming microphones need not be discreet, and would ideally be very high in quality, ensuring clear communication. Instead of inline microphones, gaming headphones most often use microphones mounted on one of the cups, allowing for a sturdy, substantial component that can be turned toward or away from the mouth. Some gaming headsets use a microphone that’s mounted on a rigid, arm—like appendage. This arm may be able to rotate up or down depending on whether or not it is in use. Other headsets use a flexible ‘goose neck’ that allows for more precise directing.

A key difference between gaming and non-gaming headsets is the connection to the sound-generating device. The standard connector for music headsets is 3.5 millimeter, but for gaming it is just about as common, if not more common, to find USB headsets. These will be useless with your iPhone and nearly any other device you use other than your computer. That being said, USB has its advantages. While 3.5 mm, audio jack headphones utilize a device’s built in soundcard, USB headsets have a soundcard of their own. If your computer’s soundcard is low quality, at least relative to the headset, then you’re better off with a USB pair. Otherwise, I would recommend a 3.5 mm pair for the sake of using it with other devices. That being said, if the headset you prefer is only available with a USB connection and you intend to only use it with your computer, there is no harm in choosing it.

In addition to these particular features that are suited for video game use, there is an assortment of other features that may be included with these headsets. Some of these additional features are related to style or appearance. Countless ornate, or ‘impressive’ designs exist for headphones, but it is largely a matter of taste. Many headsets go as far as to include flashing LED lights or customization style components. Volume and other controls may be included on the ear cup, allowing the player to change settings without venturing away from the controller or headset. Headsets may be wireless if you intend to sit far from your device. Gaming headsets may be open-backed or closed depending on your personal preferences. Open-backed headphones provide more realistically spaced sound and otherwise higher audio quality but leak sound both in and out of the cups. Furthermore, open headphones ventilate naturally and may prevent overheating or sweating during long gaming sessions.  These would be useful for a solitary gamer who plays in a quiet place where they would bother no one and be bothered by nothing. Otherwise, it would be necessary to use closed-cup headphones which provide more isolation.

A number of major headphone brands have offerings in the gaming field, in addition to their standard, music centered fare. While each major company has an array of gaming headset options, they all have their respective strengths. I will provide you with an overview of several manufacturer’s gaming lineups to help you make sense of the options.

Audio Technica

ATH-PG1 / ATH-PDG1

ATH-PG1 / ATH-PDG1 ATH-PG1 / ATH-PDG1

These two headsets constitute Audio-Technica’s lower end offerings in the gaming headset realm. They are nearly identical options, differing only in the PDG1’s open back versus the PG1’s closed back. Above, I discussed the relative advantages and disadvantages of this specific feature. The soft leather ear and head pads and the impressively lightweight design give these headsets a high mark of comfort. They also feature a detachable cable, which helps for storage and allows for multiple cable lengths. The sleek, shiny black design of the PG1 and the red and black of the PDG1 makes for a nice looking, stylish set. These headphones definitely don’t look ‘low end’. The microphone is mounted on a flexible, goose neck style arm, allowing for a substantial amount of adjustment. These headsets only shortcomings are with respect to audio quality, which is to be expected with a company’s less expensive offering, and the lack of a USB option. All-in-all these are worthwhile and relatively inexpensive headsets.

ATH-AG1x / ATH-ADG1x

 

ATH-AG1x / ATH-ADG1x ATH-AG1x / ATH-ADG1x

These headsets are a big step up from the PG/PDG. Like the cheaper pairs, these are technically identical save for the open and closed backs. First and foremost, these headsets use a larger driver than the P’s, 53mm vs 40mm. Secondly, they feature an inline volume control and mic mute switch. Unlike most headsets, these replace the standard headband with a pair of angled pads and a simple wire arch above that. This may be disconcerting to some, but it is comfortable and looks really cool.  Overall  the headsets are stylish and have nearly unparalleled sound quality for the price in the gaming field. If you care about audio quality in your games, and have a good soundcard or amp, this headset is for you.

Sennheiser

PC131

PC131

This is likely the cheapest headset you will find for online gaming. Its supra-aural or on the ear design may be uncomfortable to some, though some prefer it. Since it doesn’t cover the ear entirely, there is no natural isolation. However, it does feature a microphone mute switch and a volume control. Despite its low price, relatively cheap look and lower quality sound, this is a fantastic offering for the price.

G4me One

G4me One

The G4me One is a huge step up from the PC131. It utilizes a circum-aural, over the ear, design which allows for natural sound isolation. The cups and band are cushioned for maximum comfort, and the pads look and feel like pillows. The G4me One also has a volume control on the ear cup. The mic is mounted on a rigid arm that can rotate back. As far as looks are concerned, this headset is a flashy black white and red, and it gives off a high quality vibe. Perhaps most impressive is the audio response which is above and beyond the average. The lows are deep and the highs are clear. This headset is well worth the cost, and then some.

G4me Zero

G4me Zero

 

This headset is an overall improvement on the already impressive G4me One. The plush padding is replaced with classy and comfortable leatherette. A microphone mute button is added for the user’s convenience and privacy. The black and red design looks impressive, stylish and classy. Overall, it is a worthwhile upgrade from the One.

PC 373D

PC 373D

The 373D is the successor to the popular 363D model. In many ways it is also a successor to the G4me Zero. It utilizes 7.1 Dolby Surround Sound providing a higher degree of sound localization. It also includes software for equalization customization. The padding returns the G4me One’s plush covering, which is incredibly comfortable and impressive looking. It utilizes a ‘Surround Dongle’ to connect to 3.5 mm to connect to the 3.5 mm plug for a higher quality digital, surround signal. This is Sennheiser’s flagship gaming headset, and it clearly demonstrates the progress that the company has made. I recommend it to anyone who’s serious about video game sound.

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