Headphones vs Headset for Gaming

Are gaming headsets just marketing, or is there actual value? While gaming headsets are popular and used by most pro gamers, they don’t go without criticism from audio enthusiasts who will often deem headsets a waste of money from an audio engineering perspective. In this article, we’ll discuss gaming headsets as well as headphones to find out which is the best for you because, in the end, audio is a personal experience, and each person is looking to get something different out of their product.

Gaming Headsets – Value or Scam?

Gaming headsets differ from traditional headphones due to the inclusion of a built-in microphone, an essential component for both competitive and casual multiplayer gamers. But what if we removed the microphone from the equation and pitted together a standard open-back headphone of a similar price point with the gaming headset based solely on sound quality? Is the difference that bad? Or do gaming headsets hold their own?

Obviously, the products that one compares will influence the results, so instead of looking at two comparisons that would only be helpful to those with the same products, we chose to look at an aggregate across the market, comparing the results of some of the leading headsets with the performance of some of the more affordable, but quality headphones available at the moment.

As a whole, we found that the gaming headsets’ performance wasn’t as good as traditional headphones for versatile use, but that the pricing did somewhat compensate for this as the pricing on the gaming headsets was a bit more affordable than the headphones we’d recommend using. For example, one can purchase a fairly popular gaming headset for under $100, while our picks for quality headphones to replace the headset sit at around $150, excluding the standalone or attachable mic you’d look to add.

Another big issue that exists for gaming headsets is the quality of the microphone. A lot of gaming headsets either excel in their microphone quality or in their sound quality, but few bring both high-quality sound and high-quality microphones to the table, though not to say they don’t exist.

Comparing The Two

However, it can still be noted that when looking at some products within a similar price range, for example, if we compare the Logitech G635 which is designed as a gaming headset, with a similarly priced pair of traditional headphones, the Philips SHP9600, both of which can be picked up for around $85.

When we compare the sound quality between these two pairs of headphones, the SHP9600 is the clear winner for music with a richer sound and a more balanced sound signature. In games, the difference was less noticeable, and in some scenarios, the Logitech performed just as well as the SHP9600, thanks to how they are tuned. One can’t take away from the overall sound quality and versatility that the SHP9600 provides.

The G635 overall performed very well in games, with solid bass response and a rich treble, though the treble does fall off towards the high treble range. In music, however, the G635 did not perform nearly as well as the SHP9600, with the highs feeling overturned by recessed mids and accentuated bass that can be muddy.

This experience translates a lot between traditional headphones and gaming headsets, where we see gaming headsets performing well in games but doing poorly for music. It’s not to say that gaming headsets always sound bad, and for many users, they may not even notice the difference, but if you’re a fan of good audio and plan to listen to a lot of music, this is something worth noting.

The TLDR is that if you’re solely looking for a headset to game with and aren’t too concerned with the nuances of high-quality sound representation for music, the ease of a gaming headset may be enough for you. But if you want to find the best balance between music and gaming audio, a traditional high-quality headphone and a standalone microphone will usually give you the most versatile results.

Why The Differences?

You may be wondering why we see these kinds of differences between gaming headsets and headphones sound. The primary reason is the way they are tuned. Most gaming headsets are tuned to the gaming experience, which is great if you’re only just gaming, but when you move the same headset across the media or music, you start to see the flaws in this approach.

In addition, headset manufacturers do not specialize in audio. When you think about your favorite headset brand, you will see computer companies specializing in peripherals more than audio, and while these companies do employ proper audio engineers, the focus of the company will affect the result.

What To Look For In Headphones For Gaming?

If you choose a more balanced and versatile audio option for gaming by picking up a pair of headphones, there are still some things you should consider before purchasing. If you end up in the audiophile forums, you’ll often see headphones presented as superior for their balanced sound signature. Still, while that’s great for reference and critical listening, they don’t do well for gaming.

Instead, we recommend focusing on products that bring a V-shaped sound signature. These headphones will present with elevated bass and treble, which, when kept in check, can work for both music and gaming. A slightly elevated V-signature will produce a sound often described as ‘fun’ and lends itself more towards the gaming experience.

A good soundstage representation will also assist in detecting enemy locations, as separating sound frequencies allows for easier distinction of enemy locations.

And then, finally, investing in a good desktop or boom-mic will, in most cases, provide far better.

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Written by
Bryn De Kocks

Bryn De Kocks is the lead editor for Audiostance, as well as one of our trusted reviewers. He has more than 15 years of experience in online publication and stands firm in being transparent with both the benefits and drawbacks of the products he reviews. Outside of editorial work, Bryn has been an avid online gamer and casual digital music producer since his teenage years, bringing his understanding of audio and especially headphones to the table. His daily driver is a humble pair of Fidelio X2HRs powered by a Fiio E10K. In his spare time he enjoys nature photography.

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