You’d never credit your headset after winning a Team Fortress 2 match, nor would you ever brag about your soundcard after just acing a round in Call of Duty 4, but any gaming veteran knows that having a sweet set of cans is a must for even the casual gamer’s setup. This is especially true today with the vast majority of professional gamers using headsets instead speaker systems.
Unfortunately, deciding which audio hardware is right for you can become aggravating very quickly with USB headsets, 5.1 headphones, onboard mixing, analog inputs, and incompatible interfaces confusing the market. With this roundup, we’re going to scrutinize six gaming headset options, and examine the largely unspoken differences between analog and USB audio technology.
If you like your existing soundcard, you won’t need a USB headset. This is because the only way for audio to be produced through the USB headset is by bypassing the soundcard entirely. A USB headset is recognized by your operating system as a completely separate audio device. While this is convenient for laptops and desktops with cheap onboard soundcards, it creates a headache for anyone looking to play music or film audio through their speakers; you'll have to change the default Windows audio device, swapping between the headset and whatever sound card your speakers are plugged into. A USB headset will usually require software installation to function with your OS and to allow customization and mixing control. This brings us to the very reason companies are making USB headsets in the first place, to allow for inline hardware acceleration which remixes the audio before sending it to the speakers. Essentially you have a mini soundcard embedded in the headset.
This is both a good and a bad thing. For gamers without soundcards (or have soundcard driver problems in Vista), USB headsets are an unbeatable value. You get hardware acceleration and a physical headset in one package. If you already have an expensive and fully-functioning soundcard, however, buying a USB headset can be pointless – the audio quality won’t necessarily be better with USB. The only option for you is using analog jacks, or if you have a newer soundcard, optical cables (although it would be amazing, we have yet to see a high end optical headset).
That said, deciding upon a testing method was difficult. We eventually settled on testing the analog headsets with a PCI-Express X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty soundcard and the USB headsets on their own.
With that important difference explained, we take a look a few of the latest headsets to see which pair is truly king of the cans.
We’re typically wary of wireless gaming products due to their spotty battery life and ironically more inconvenient set up process. We were pleasantly surprised, then, when Creative proved us wrong with this wireless offering. The HS-1200 mixes audio onboard like other USB headsets, but unlike its competitors it makes use of Creative's X-FI Crystalizer and CMSS-3D technologies. This portable X-Fi implementation comes pretty close to the surround directional accuracy and audio quality of an actual X-Fi soundcard. Despite this, games would only allow us to enable older version of EAX. OpenAL does not work with this headset and Battlefield 2 wouldn't let us set the audio quality to "Ultra." Another drawback is the lack of underwhelming bass; although punchy, there was no real boom.
The wireless functionality impressed us as it worked within 40 feet of the transmitter, through walls and electronics, before fading out. Also, the headset comes with volume control buttons on the earpads themselves, which is a necessity when going wireless. The earpads felt comfortable enough, but they sit on top of your ears, making you sweat a little. And although the microphone performed well in Skype and games, we would have liked to see it retract or detach.
All in all, the audio fidelity of the HS-1200 is excellent and the wireless functionality is near-perfect, but the poor EAX support and small earpads force our smiles to wane.
While this headset carries the official seal of approval from the Championship Gaming Series (CGS) and uber-gamer Fatal1ty, these endorsements are obviously more of a marketing gimmick than a certification of quality, since we don’t think any professional gamer would ever use a budget headset like this one. The HS-1000 contains the same inline acceleration as the HS-1200, and the CMSS-3D and Crystalizer are a welcome inclusion. Despite this, the EAX support remains just as spotty as it was on the HS-1200 and OpenAL support is nowhere to be found. Even with the far more comfortable earpads, this headset’s speakers aren't as accurate as the HS-1200's, producing little if any bass.
Fortunately the mids and highs were a bit more up to par. One thing this headset is good at is maintaining audio clarity at extremely high volumes; there was little distortion when pushing levels to the limit. The Fatal1ty's had the worst microphone among the sets we tested; it would pick up background noise with every bit of fidelity as it did our voice. In addition the recording quality was only mediocre.
For its relatively low price, the Fatal1ty HS-1000 is good, but it simply can't compare to what real professional gamers use in competitive gaming leagues such as the CGS.
Note: In a smart move, Creative is producing analog and USB versions of this headset. Both are identical except for the inclusion of an inline mixer with the USB version and the analog set will cost you much less.
As a company renowned for producing some of the best headphones on the market, Sennheiser recently released their first high-end headset designed specifically for gamers. With this in mind, we were incredibly eager to get our hands on the new PC350's. Out of the box, we noticed the earpads on the headset can fold inwards for portable storage as well as twist 90 degrees to the side allowing you to comfortably lay them flush against your shoulders.
During testing, the PC350's produced the best sound out of the roundup so far; we were able to discern sounds previously unheard when testing other sets. The highs were very crisp while the bass reproduction was accurate down to very low frequencies. We were actually able to make the headphones vibrate with no distortion. The microphone performance was great, although we would have liked to see it tuck away into the headset as it did on the Plantronics GameComm. The set was comfortable to wear for prolonged periods, more or less due to the headset resting on your head rather than your earlobes.
Our only gripe about this headset is that it's a closed-ear design. The unit’s earcups rarely sat identically over each ear; occasionally one earcup would leak in sound while the other wouldn't. We could blame it on our tester’s misshapen head, but it took a good deal of shifting around before the unit completely engulfed our ears letting no sound in from either side. Overall, we think the closed ear design is more annoying than it’s worth.
Even so, the PC350's were the best sounding headset we tested, producing exceptional sound.
While we had high hopes for these luxurious-looking pair of cans, we were slightly crestfallen after running the Medusa through testing. This is the only headset we tested with 4 speakers per earpad, producing true 5.1 surround sound with simulation. In this regard, it succeeds: the aural positioning was the best we've heard, beating out any other set in the roundup.
Unfortunately this is the only merit the ProGamer's can claim. The 5.1 audio comes at the price of severely reduced audio fidelity. Bass reproduction was almost non-existent and only audible at ear piercing levels while the highs and mids sounded rather drained. The unit’s physical design is misleading as well: soft cushy earpads and headstraps at first looked very inviting, but during actual testing they felt much more rigid and cheap.
If Medusa didn't sacrifice fidelity in place of directional sound and the unit was as comfortable as it looked, this headset would easily have been our favorite in the roundup. Unfortunately, superior directional sound results in downgraded audio quality and the headset is only faux luxury.
In searching for the ‘king of the cans’, we were bound to find a lemon scraping the bottom of the barrel. The Razer Piranha unfortunately fills that role. Unlike all of the other headsets we tested, the audio sounded completely flat and static.
After wearing them for hours our ears began to hurt as they sat right on top of our ears. Many sounds that we could hear clearly in other headsets were indiscernible on the Piranhas, while the highs and mids were very drained.
Oddly enough however, the headset had punchy bass that held clear even at high volumes. In addition, the microphone quality was respectable. The Piranhas perform great in those areas, but in every other respect they were sub-par.
These GameComs shocked us in nearly every area of testing. The 777's come with a detachable "5.1 Dolby Headphone USB soundcard" that allow for either analog or USB input, making it perfect for the LAN party gamer. In addition, the inline mixer is a plug-and-play device, so it requires no software installation.
When testing the USB card we found its directional mixing was surprisingly accurate and close that of an X-Fi soundcard. The headset was also very comfortable to wear with velour padding on both the earcups and the headband. The microphone also folds up into the headset itself, flush with headband – something we’ve never seen before. We wonder why it took so long for companies to implement this seemingly obvious idea, and hopefully we'll see more headsets following suit in the future.
Thankfully, Plantronics decided to build the headset with an open-ear design which results in increased fidelity as well as a more natural listening experience. The highs and mids were crisp and clear while the bass was wholesome and thunderous. Only at VERY high volumes would the bass cut out.
The GameCom’s sexy and comfortable aesthetics, mixed with superb audio make it our favorite headset in the roundup.