Six high-performance PC gaming headsets vie for a place on your ears
Bullets hiss and whine overhead. Your commander barks orders in your ear, but you’re pinned down, trapped in a wrecked construction site. The corrugated steel wall to your left pings as a smoke grenade bounces off and rolls into a nearby ravine. Overhead, a fighter jet streaks by, engines roaring.
In the review roundup we compare the Asus Republic of Gamers Orion Pro, Razer Kraken, Plantronics GameCom Commander, MadCatz F.R.E.Q. 7, Logitech G930, and Sound Blaster Tactic 3D Rage Wireless
Then, amidst the explosions and the chatter of gunfire, you hear it—a footstep, then another, just around the corner behind you. You wheel around, and raise your rifle….
If you don’t take gaming audio seriously, that’s one kill you’re not going to get. Although graphics tend to get all the love among the enthusiast set, a nice pair of headphones can make the difference between full battlefield awareness and tunnel vision. And even if you’re not the über-competitive type, great-sounding audio can take any game to a new level of immersion.
Fortunately, gaming headsets have been getting better and better, and this year’s crop is the best we’ve ever tried. If it’s time you upgraded to a quality headset, read on—we’ve reviewed six of the most impressive high-end solutions on the market today.
Plantronics Gamecom Commander
An awesome headset, if you can afford it
It’s always fun to see what a company can put together when it throws budgetary considerations out the window and pulls out all the stops. For Plantronics, the Gamecom Commander represents just such an effort—a completely over-the-top, luxury-tier product.
The Gamecom Commander doesn’t feel like other gaming headsets. It’s made of surprisingly heavy-duty plastic, with military-inspired oval earcups. Everything—the cups, band, wires, and microphone—feels more sturdily constructed than what we’re used to. Each set is laser etched with an individual serial number, and the Commander comes with a removable Velcro strap across the top of the headband, which allows you to customize yours with a personal or team patch (not included). Even the cable is top-notch, with a proprietary snap-away connector (so you can quickly switch between multiple devices), an in-line remote, and a telephone-style spiral cord.
Sound quality is exceptional, with unparalleled accuracy and clarity among the sets tested for this feature. The bass response is clear, but less powerful than some of the other headsets tested. The GameCom can be used as an analog set or with an included USB dongle that provides Dolby virtual 7.1 surround sound. As usual, the virtual surround is better than nothing, but not a replacement for the real thing.
Don’t let the subdued stylings fool you: This headset is a real beast
We normally don’t talk a lot about the microphones on gaming headsets, because they tend to run a pretty narrow gamut between “mediocre” and “decent.” The Gamecom Commander is a different story, with a seriously heavy-duty mic with excellent noise cancellation and the best recording quality we’ve experienced in a gaming headset.
Even the Commander’s packaging is exceptional. The set comes in a high-quality rigged nylon carrying case, which you can attach to anything with the included burly carabiner—if that’s something you want to do.
Ultimately, the only thing that keeps us from unconditionally recommending the Gamecom is the price. It’s an undeniably high-quality headset, but at $300 you’re paying a lot for luxury. The sound quality is good, but you could do better with a $275 pair of audiophile headphones and a $25 desk mic. Still, if you want a traditional gaming headset and have money to burn, this could be the set for you.
With the Sound Blaster Tactic 3D Rage Wireless, you’ll never feel like you didn’t get your money’s worth—this is the most feature-packed headset at this price point. Most notably, it’s wireless, connecting to your computer with a USB dongle and charging via a removable, braided cable. Wireless headsets have been known to have some problems, like latency or interference, but we never experienced either with the Rage.
The Rage Wireless is a USB headset, and provides its own audio processing, which can be great if you don’t have a discrete sound card. Sound Blaster is a company that obviously knows what it’s doing in this arena, and the downloadable SBX ProStudio software has some nice features, including soundstage-broadening virtual surround and a Crystalizer that enhances and clarifies most compressed audio sources.
The lights on the outside of the Tactic 3D Rage can be set to any color, and pulse while you play.
Our main gripe with the set is that it’s not terribly comfortable. The leatherette-covered foam on the earcups and headband has a little less give than we like to see, and the whole set is quite heavy. We’re also not crazy about the inclusion of a removable boom mic. It’s flexible, and recording quality is fine, but between the removable mic, the removable foam windscreen, the wireless dongle, and the detachable charging cable, the chances of you keeping track of all the components of your Sound Blaster Tactic 3D Rage Wireless are slim to none.
At $100, this is one of the least-expensive quality wireless headsets on the market. If you’re trying to cut the cord without breaking the bank, the Tactic 3D Rage is a good option.
Tons of bells and whistles are great, and we could argue about sound quality all day, but if your gaming headset gives you a migraine after a two-hour BioShock Infinite session, it’s not doing its job. With the Kraken Pro, Razer has smartly emphasized comfort as a primary feature, with big, supple, circumaural earcups that swivel freely to line up with the contours of your head. In many of the headsets we’ve tried in the past, discomfort doesn’t come from the earcups but instead from the headband, which can cause the top of your head to ache over time. The Kraken Pro finds a simple solution to this problem: It’s lighter than most headsets of this size, reducing scalp-fatigue.
The Kraken Pro is available in both traditional black and a seizure-inducing green.
The Kraken features 40mm drivers, and sound quality is good, overall. Treble range sounds are crisp and clear, and the bass is strong but a bit muddy—a state of affairs that’s common in gaming headsets, where the emphasis is on precisely picking out footsteps and distant gunshots, rather than on appreciating the nuances of a good bassline. They’re great for Call of Duty, but if you’re an audiophile, don’t expect to get an amazing music-listening experience out of these.
Feature-wise, the Kraken Pro eschews the excesses of Razer’s higher-end Tiamat headsets, settling on just the features we found most important. These include a flexible, retractable mic, high-quality build, and an included extension audio cable. Additionally, the set folds up for easy transportation.
If originality counted for much in gaming headsets, the Orion Pro would be the worst-reviewed product in this roundup. It’s a simple design, with a padded headband and two large, circular earcups with cushy leatherette padding. It looks and feels a lot like other simple sets with super-size circumaural cups, such as the Corsair Vengeance line. Fortunately for Asus, originality doesn’t matter nearly as much as comfort and performance, and this design is one of our favorites.
The aforementioned oversize earcups are comfortable for long play sessions, and create a good seal around the ear, providing impressive passive noise cancellation. Each cup contains a 50mm driver, which provides impressive sound quality. The bass response wasn’t the most powerful of the tested sets, but clarity was good overall. Our only complaints with the feel of the set is that the cups don’t pivot on the vertical axis like with the Razer Kraken, and that the leatherette cushions started to get hot quickly—a fabric option would have been nice.
With installation-free USB processing, the Orion Pro is ready to grab and go
The Orion Pro package consists of the Orion analog gaming headset, plus an additional USB audio-processor dongle, so you can use the headset in either mode. The processor has just three settings: FPS, Surround, and Amp. The options are not quite as impressive as the audio-processing suite in the Sound Blaster Tactic 3D line, but they have the distinct advantage of working without any software installation, and can be enabled or disabled on the fly with buttons on the dongle.
Logitech may not be the most exciting name in PC peripherals, but it’s a company you can generally rely on for a solid product that does what it says on the box. The G930 headset doesn’t disappoint.
The G930 is a wireless headset, with a number of practical extra features. The set comes with a puck-shaped USB device that powers the wireless transmitter dongle and simultaneously houses a pass-through charging cable. This allows you to charge and use the G930 at the same time, without using up two USB slots on your PC, as with the Sound Blaster Tactic Rage 3D.
Some of the joints on the headset are a little plasticky and creaky for our taste, but the earcups themselves have a nice range of motion, and are themselves quite solid and hefty. In fact, the set as a whole suffers from being a little too heavy. The padding on the headband is plenty thick, but we still started to get some dull head pain after just two hours wearing the set.
The G930 comes equipped with three user-bindable buttons on the earcup
Our only other qualm with the G930’s build quality is that the circumaural earcups don’t provide as much sound isolation as some of the other sets in this roundup. Other than that, though, they’re very comfortable, and they do a great job of providing crisp sound with a decent bass response and clarity. The G930 also features Dolby 7.1 virtual surround.
In all, this wireless set’s got a lot to offer, though the cheaper Sound Blaster Tactic Rage makes a compelling alternative.
Another headset that’s not for the faint-of-wallet, the MadCatz F.R.E.Q. 7 brings the Cyborg line’s quirky design and high-quality construction to the gaming-headset realm. That line has so far been a bit of a mixed bag, providing some of our very favorite gaming peripherals, as well as a couple of so-so entries. The question is, where does the F.R.E.Q. 7 fall?
Like all Cyborg products, the F.R.E.Q. 7 lays the futuristic aesthetic on thick
The common threads among all the Cyborg peripherals are their hyper-futuristic design and rock-solid construction. The F.R.E.Q. 7 is no exception, built out of metal and durable-feeling plastic and featuring a design that’s sure to turn some heads. Though the set is on the heavier side, the extra-squishy rubber pad under the headband kept head pain to a minimum. The earcups are passable, but they’re a little under-padded, and we felt like they applied pressure unevenly, pinching harder in the back than in the front.
Sound quality was quite good, overall, but in order to use the USB equalizer and other audio-processing features, we had to download drivers and software totaling 284 megabytes. Even in this broadband-connected age, we’re willing to call that number unacceptable. This set also features Dolby 7.1 virtual surround.
One oddly frustrating thing about the F.R.E.Q. 7 is its volume wheel. In any high-end headset, we expect to be able to quickly adjust playback volume from the headset itself—usually with a button or roller on the earcup or on an in-line remote control located somewhere along the cable. The F.R.E.Q. 7 features a nice scroll wheel on the right earcup, but it is almost bizarrely unresponsive. Each spin of the wheel only barely moves the overall volume. In order to get the headset to go from minimum volume to maximum volume, we had to scroll, pick up our thumb, move it to the bottom of the wheel, then scroll again a total of 20–30 times.
All the issues we had with the F.R.E.Q. 7 are minor problems or inconveniences and overall we still very much enjoyed the headset’s sound quality, solid construction, and futuristic design. That said, every inconvenience is amplified when you spend $200 on a set of cans.
If you’re using a laptop, or a desktop PC without a discrete sound card, you might be wondering what’s with all the fuss about audio processing. If you plug a pair of speakers or a headset into your motherboard, you’ll get sound that seems fine, so why should you shell out for a USB headset with built-in processing, or a sound card?
The idea is that, while your computer’s onboard audio hardware is able to faithfully reproduce the sounds encoded in music, movies, and games, by processing that audio you can actually make it sound better. That seems a little too good to be true at first—after all, if it was possible to simply make a song sound better, why wouldn’t they do that when they recorded it?
To answer that, remember two things. The first is that almost all audio files are compressed, one way or another. To make them use up less hard disk space, memory, and bandwidth, files such as MP3s are compressed, losing audio information. Further, to make songs stand out to listeners, recordings are usually subjected to dynamic range compression, which increases the overall perceived loudness of the song, at a cost of dynamic range. Some audio processing, such as the SoundBlaster Crystallizer, attempts to algorithmically restore data lost during both types of compression.
The second thing to keep in mind is that not all audio hardware is created equal. Equalizer features and bass boost can help take advantage of the strengths of your hardware, and shore up its weaknesses, while virtual surround sound processing (such as the Dolby 7.1 Surround processing found in several of the headsets in this roundup or Razer's Surround software) takes a surround sound audio source and algorithmically reduces it down to a stereo output, employing psychoacoustics to trick you into perceiving more sound sources than actually exist.
Headset Spec Speak
Like any other bit of PC hardware, headsets have developed quite a bit of related jargon. Here’s a quick glossary of headset vocab that you might encounter in reviews and on store shelves. Knowing these terms will help you pick out the set that’s right for you.
Analog vs. USB: Traditional headphones are analog—that is, they connect to an audio source using a normal audio connector. A USB headset connects to the PC using the USB bus, which allows it to process the sound before you hear it, increasing audio quality. However, USB headsets bypass any audio hardware you might have, so if you have a soundcard you should buy an analog set.
Wireless: There’s a lot of wireless audio hardware out there, and most of it is bad news. Bluetooth audio is the worst culprit: Sound is compressed before it’s transmitted, audibly decreasing quality. The kind of high-end wireless headsets found in this article transmit uncompressed audio and don’t cause any loss of sound quality, but they don’t come cheap.
Circumaural vs. Supra-Aural: All the sets in this roundup are circumaural, which means the earcups are meant to fit fully around the outside of your ear. Other sets are supra-aural, meaning they are meant to sit on top of your ears. Circumaural sets are better at keeping outside noise out, and your own audio in, but they tend to be heavier and more expensive.
Open-Back vs. Closed-Back: Open-back headsets do not form a complete seal around the ear. This can create a more natural-feeling sound, but allows sound to leak out more easily, potentially disturbing anyone nearby. Most gaming headsets, including all the ones in this article, are closed-back.