Headphones – How To Make a Sound Choice

HARDWARE
Headphones – How To Make a Sound Choice

I have the impression that, in the field of PC gaming, speakers are losing their luster—to headphones. Choosing the right headset might be more challenging than it may at first appear. Let me show you what to look at before you click the BUY button.

In-ear / over-ear

In-ear headphones offer the best isolation from the surrounding environment, so professional e-sport players are big users, particularly at gaming events, which tend to be on the loud side (they also put on ear muffles to further block out the noise).

However, in this installment we will be focusing on over-ear models, which are the most popular, perhaps for the greater comfort they bring to long gaming sessions.

Interface

First of all you, you’ll need to determine what you expect from your future headset. If you choose the USB model, it will feature a soundcard that should offer better sound quality than cheap cards integrated into motherboards, but compatibility would be limited to a PC platform only. Also, USB soundcards in most cases can’t compete with decent DACs.

Models with a jack connector are much more versatile and can be plugged into PCs, gaming consoles, smartphones and various audio equipment. If you’re using a PC, a dedicated soundcard or DAC could be required to bring out the most from better headphones.

Wireless models are for sure the most comfortable and work best with smartphones, though some models may not run for as long as you’d like on a single charge. Mind, also, that sound quality may be slightly worse than in the wired version of the same model. There are three types of headphones in this category.

  • models that communicate via Bluetooth only
  • those that come with a wireless transmitter for a USB
  • models with a wireless transmitter featuring a jack plug.

Myself, I’d opt for jack headphones, and if they cost more than around 150 USD I would add a decent DAC.

Open / Closed

This is an extremely important structural feature of the headphones. It’s usually not covered in the specification and is hard to determine by visual features only. I’d strongly recommend you decide which type is best for you and then check the specification or review to see whether the headset is open or closed.

With their listening experience, closed headsets isolate listeners from the outside world—and others from what the user is listening to. If you don’t want to annoy your roommates or listen to what they are doing, these are your best option. Closed headphones usually feature a narrow sound stage and tend to accumulate heat, so venting your ears from time to time is recommended.

Open headphones offer a wide sound stage and let air through, so no venting is required. If you wear them, everyone can hear what you are listening to and they also don’t block out sound from the world around you. Hence they are useless for usage in means of public transport.

Sennheiser Game Zero (closed) and Game One (opened)

There is also something of a middle-ground in semi-open headsets, but since they don’t close you off completely, I’d keep them in the open style category.

Sound quality-wise, opened style headphones are the way to go, if circumstances allow. But I realize that using them could prove difficult if you don’t have a separate room.

Cushions

Leather or faux leather cushions provide good sound isolation but also tend to warm the area they touch. Velvet or fabric cushions, on the other hand, don’t isolate sound so well, but they feel nicer on the skin and don’t accumulate heat.

Most of the time, leather cushions are used on closed headsets while velvet cushions are usually mounted on open headphones. However, this is not a 100% accurate indicator of headphone type. You will come across leather cushions on open headsets and velvet cushions on closed headphones.

Stereo / Surround

There are also three types of stereo/surround headphones:

  • Stereo with a virtual surround effect added by the USB card. Usually there’s a button to disable the effect.
  • Plain stereo. With proper software, virtual surround effect can be enabled.
  • True surround with multiple physical drivers.

Admittedly, the true surround sets are not very popular. That is because it is hard to execute such features well, so most users find the experience inferior to using a good stereo headset with virtual surround. Worse, surround headphones actually tend to handle music badly. While they’re decent for gaming, I would still steer clear for listening to music.

Be advised that sometimes headsets are marketed as surround, but in reality, they are just stereo with virtual effect. This is why it’s essential to check how many drivers are described in the product specifications.

Our second installment, due out next week, will describe such features as active noise cancellation and impedance. Stay tuned!

Read now: Part II

Grzegorz Iwan
Grzegorz Iwan
Amateur extreme overclocker from Poland, one of two Poles who broke the 8 GHz CPU clock barrier. Hardware enthusiast and collector, envoy of PCMasterRace philosophy; You can find ivanov's fanpage here.

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