Best gaming headset

Best gaming headset

Having the best gaming headset can make a massive difference to your experience no matter what sort of game you're playing. It could give you a competitive advantage from positional audio cues in a frenetic first-person shootout or an increased sense of immersion in a detailed virtual world. Or just make you soil yourself when a bucket turns into an alien in Prey and chews your face off...

But the best gaming headset can mean different things to different people. Do you want a versatile headset which will make your music and movies sound just as good as your games? Are you an isolationist who needs a pair of cans to block the outside world or a set which will deliver the most natural soundscape possible, regardless of leakage? And can you cope with being wired for sound or do you absolutely, positively have to go for a wireless gaming headset?

Do you even need a dedicated gaming headset at all? If audio quality is the be-all-and-end-all for you it might be interesting to note there’s a growing trend of using audiophile headphones coupled with discrete desk-based microphones so you can still yell abuse at your gaming buddies while enjoying the best aural experiences money can buy.

We’ve distilled our technical expertise down into the best gaming headsets for a variety of categories. Clicking on the quick links below will take you to them.

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Best gaming headset

Best gaming headset - HyperX Cloud 2

HyperX Cloud II

Drivers: 53mm | Frequency range: 15Hz - 25,000Hz | Weight: 272g

Approx. $95 / £64

This is just getting ridiculous. I’ve been recommending the Kingston HyperX Cloud cans - in both their original and mildly updated sequel guises - since I first laid their comfy, squishy ear-cups over my lugholes many years ago. And nothing’s happened in the time between to make me change my mind.

Kingston picked up the design QPAD started with their excellent QH-90s and made the very slightest of tweaks to the low end audio. In doing so they've created arguably the best gaming headset ever, in terms of both raw audio quality and value. The QPAD originals were a touch weak when it came to the bass tones, and Kingston managed to engineer a more powerful sound without sacrificing the high-end clarity which marked them out.

It’s still possible to pick up the first HyperX Cloud headset for less than the price of this sequel, but the second gen option adds an optional USB sound card to the mix which offers limited virtual 7.1 surround to supporting games. In terms of the headset itself though nothing was changed, so if you’ve got a great dedicated sound card in your PC then the first iteration’s 3.5mm analogue connection will be sufficient.

The aural experience from the Cloud headsets though is outstanding, thanks to the combination of 53mm drivers and broad frequency response. Most gaming headsets stick to the 20Hz-20KHz range, which is generally held to be the limit of an average human’s hearing. The Cloud though is able to produce sounds as low as 15Hz and as high as 25KHz. You might not be able to directly hear those frequencies but they still affect the audio you can hear - adding detail to both the low and high-end.

Crucially, while Kingston have improved the bass response of the Cloud compared to its QPAD progenitor, they haven’t done so at the expense of overall audio quality. Most dedicated gaming headsets over-do the bass to make your ears bleed with every gun shot, ‘splode or gentle cough you hear in-game. That can be okay for gaming, but means your headset is then useless for anything else you do with your PC. The Kingston HyperX Cloud, however, is just as good a pair of headphones for listening to high-res audio as it is when playing high-res games.

So, aurally they’re excellent and the simple, stylish and sturdy design makes them comfortable to wear for long gaming sessions and robust enough to cope with even the stroppiest fits of pique. Headsets can be fatiguing over extended periods of time, but I’ve never had a single issue with the Clouds. I genuinely have no concerns in continuing to recommend this headset for as long as Kingston keep making it.

Best gaming headset runner-up

Best gaming headset runner-up - Sennheiser GAME ONE

Sennheiser GAME ONE

Drivers: 35mm | Frequency range: 15Hz - 28,000Hz | Weight: 300g

Approx: $175 / £155 

Designed for audiophiles as much as gamers, the Game One brings Sennheiser’s decades of experience in the pro audio and enthusiast markets to a pair of stereo cans that reproduce sound with incredible accuracy. You’ll blow out your eardrums before finding a volume at which these start to distort. Don’t, though. It’s also worth noting that these cans are open-backed, which means more sound leakage both into and out of the earcups. 

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Best high-end gaming headset

Best high-end gaming headset - Audio-Technica AG1x

Audio Technica ATH-AG1x

Drivers: 53mm | Frequency range: 15Hz - 35,000Hz | Weight: 320g

Approx. $299 / £279

Take a note of the ‘x’ at the end of the name of this Audio-Technica ATH-AG1x headset - that single character is important because there is also an ATH-AG1 headset. It was the forerunner to this updated version and was a set of cans which failed to build on Audio-Technica’s high-end aural heritage. Don’t mix up the two because you’ll be seriously disappointed and be missing out on one of the best gaming headsets around.

Granted, it’s a lot of money to spend on a pair of dedicated gaming headphones, but this time Audio-Technica have brought their audiophile origins to bear in its design, making the sound reproduction of the AG1x fantastic. Like the HyperX Cloud we’re talking about 53mm drivers, but the AG1x offers a slightly wider frequency response, ranging between 15Hz and 35KHz, adding extra clarity to the high tones.

That broad soundscape really brings games to life. Whether it’s the richly detailed world of Witcher 3 or the terrifying war-zones of the Battlefield games the increased level of immersion will have the hairs on your arms standing tall. 

Sometime I even found myself quickly pulling the headset off during a late-night gaming session because of some in-game sound I thought was coming from the next room. That’s an indication not just of a nervous disposition but of a headset that’s able to deliver a realistic, broad, natural audio experience.

There is one caveat to the audio though and that’s to do with what you’re plugging the ATH-AG1x headset into. The Audio-Technica cans only use a 3.5mm connection and they really come into their own when plugged into a dedicated discrete sound card (remember them?!) or an external DAC/ headphone amp like Creative’s Sound BlasterX G5. If you’re spending this much money on a quality headset you’ll really benefit from making sure the rest of your audio setup is capable of matching it.

As much as I’ve been rather blown away by the audio quality though I’m not such a fan of the overall design. The wing support concept is a little too wacky for my tastes and means the headset doesn’t feel like it’s sat too securely on your head. There’s no real headband, just two tensed paddles which rest on top of your bonce. It’s definitely comfortable, and I’m not saying I want my headphones to have a vice-like grip on my skull, but a robust brain-cuddle is certainly more reassuring.

Those strange design notes aside, the Audio-Technica ATH-AG1x is one of the most impressive-sounding gaming headsets I’ve used. There is an open back version - the ATH-ADG1x - which I was expecting to sound even better, but I have to say this closed back version is my still personal recommendation. They’re easy to find Stateside, but can be a little tricky to track down online in the UK, so it’s worth checking out the actual Audio-Technica site first.

Best high-end gaming headset runner-up

Best high-end gaming headset runner-up - Turtle Beach Elite Pro

Turtle Beach Elite Pro Tournament

Drivers: 50mm | Frequency range: 20Hz - 20,000Hz | Weight: 390g

Approx. $144 / £170

The Elite Pro headset is a comfortable, good-sounding set of cans using Turtle Beach’s gaming heritage to great effect. As a speccy nerd it also gets my vote because of its innovative ProSpecs Glasses Relief System - a simple system which creates temporary dimples in the ear-cups to stop them pressing your spectacles into your head. Comfort aside the audio is also impressive, with the 50mm drivers delivering a relatively broad frequency range of 12Hz-22KHz. It’s not perfect though; the single audio cable is a bit short for PC gaming and you need to purchase a separate splitter to allow the mic to work with your rig.

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Best budget gaming headset

Best budget gaming headset - Roccat Renga

Roccat Renga

Drivers: 50mm | Frequency range: 20Hz - 20,000Hz | Weight: 210g

Approx. $50 / £40 

The well-priced Roccat Renga headset may be a budget option, but there’s still a lot to recommend it. Though sometimes the mighty HyperX Cloud cans do drop down to this sort of price occasionally, so they're still ones to watch out for. But the Renga is one of the lightest headsets around at just 210g and Roccat have taken the surprising step of making it an open backed design, like the Sennheiser Game One. 

Most gaming headsets have been designed around a closed back ideal, meaning the ear cups create as tight a seal as possible, with a solid surround to stop audio leaking out or background noise leaking in. What that can do though is create a claustrophobic, closed in feel to the audio as it reverberates around the ear cups with no escape. With an open backed headset the sound can travel more naturally, creating a better balanced audio experience, often with a wider, more expansive soundscape.

Obviously if you’re after a pair of headphones to use so as not to drive your flatmates/significant others mad with the sounds of second-hand game violence then maybe an open back headset isn’t for you. But if that’s not a concern then the audio quality of the Renga might well suit your ears.

Having an open back design also makes them less fatiguing to wear for long periods of time as they don’t get so hot, nor do they feel as oppressive as when the audio is restricted to bouncing around the tiny space around your eardrums. Coupled with the lightweight feel that should make them an outstandingly comfortable headset. Unfortunately because they are so lightweight they need to grip your head a little harder and that can be tiring after a while.

Still, they deliver a great, natural sound via their 50mm drivers and, for the money, will be a very worthy budget addition to your gaming setup.

 

Best budget gaming headset runner-up

Best budget gaming headset runner-up - HyperX Cloud Stinger

HyperX Cloud Stinger

Drivers: 50mm | Frequency range: 18Hz - 23,000Hz | Weight: 275g

Approx. $50 / £45

The new HyperX Cloud Stinger is trying to build on the audio heritage which the outstanding Cloud Pro began all those years ago, but this time from a more budget-oriented standpoint. And that much is obvious from the thin cushion on the headband and the lightweight, rather plasticky, frame. Pulling them from the packaging I was a little concerned about how they might sound. My prejudices though were quickly dismissed as soon as I started using them. The 50mm directional drivers deliver an impressive, balanced sound, with a decent amount of separation in the audio. The Stinger then is a well-priced headset with a surprisingly detailed sound.

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Best wireless gaming headset

Best wireless gaming headset - SteelSeries Siberia 800

SteelSeries Siberia 800

Drivers: 40mm | Frequency range: 20Hz - 20,000Hz | Weight: 318g

Approx. $235 / £218 

The Siberia 800 is another oldie-but-goodie gaming headset like the HyperX Cloud. Originally starting out life as the H Wireless it still makes for an incredibly versatile, user-friendly and good-sounding set. The 40mm drivers are able to generate an impressive virtual 7.1 surround gaming soundscape, despite not having the low-end power of the HyperX or their wider frequency response range. 

But where they can’t quite match up to our favourite overall gaming headset in terms of sheer audio quality they more than make up for it in other areas. One of the most awkward things with wireless headsets is, inevitably, battery life. Forgetting to charge your headphones will mean still having to jam a USB cable into them mid-session just to keep them going. With the SteelSeries solution however you get two lithium-ion batteries as standard - one lives in the base station and the other powers your headset. When one runs dry you quickly swap them over and carry on gaming.

And that base station is another area of excellence. The simple controller gives you a chunky volume control as well as easy access to all the settings you need for your headset, including equaliser adjustments and chat/audio mixing. It’s all displayed on a simple black and white OLED screen, where you can also check out your battery life.

The frame design might seem a little plasticky to some, but it’s robust and we’ve not noticed any cracking around the joints even through extended use. I wish I could say the same about my own frame… It’s also very comfortable too, resting on your head without crushing your ears. It’s soft and won’t lead to overheating eardrums over a long gaming session either.

The sticking point though is that we're coming to the end of the road for the ol' Siberia 800s. That's because SteelSeries have updated their wireless range with the Siberia 840 which I've been testing, but it's only a very modest upgrade and costs a lot more than the originals. The newer set has the same essential specs but adds in Bluetooth support and that's about it. They still sound great, are incredibly versatile and seriously easy to use, it's literally just the price which is an issue between them.

While you can still pick up the cheaper Siberia 800s I would have no hesitation recommending sticking with them. That said it looks like there's not a lot of new stock for the 800s in the US, so prices are now around the same as the Siberia 840 update. You can still save some cash getting the previous version in the UK, but that's not going to last forever.

Best wireless gaming headset runner-up

Best wireless gaming headset runner-up - Asus ROG STRIX wireless

Asus ROG STRIX wireless

Drivers: 60mm | Frequency range: 20Hz - 20,000Hz | Weight: 350g

Approx. $120 / £110 

I’m so glad I don’t have to look at myself while wearing the STRIX wireless. I’m definitely not a fan of the aesthetics, all angular plastic and owl eyes, but I am a fan of pretty much everything else about this headset. The massive 60mm drivers deliver an incredibly rich sound with the bass power to give you enough aural rumble to really feel the ‘splodes, but it remains tightly controlled, not being left to muddy the rest of the audio. And with the Asus Sonic Studio software you have full reign over the settings, from EQ to bass boost to reverb to virtual 7.1 surround. The STRIX Wireless is comfortable to wear and easy on the ears whether you're gaming or listening to your favourite music. I still just prefer the SteelSeries’ overall setup, but the impressive STRIX Wireless is a very, very close second, and considerably cheaper too.

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Best audiophile headphones for gaming

Best audiophile gaming headphones - Oppo PM-3

Oppo PM-3

Drivers: 55mm | Frequency range: 10Hz - 50,000Hz | Weight: 320g

Approx. $399 / £349

The headsets we’ve picked so far are all gaming-focused models. Sometimes that can mean an uneven approach to audio which puts too much emphasis on the bass response to the detriment of everything else. We have though deliberately picked headsets here which don’t do that and are able to give a high level of audio quality.

However good they may be they’re never going to match up to the incredible levels of aural loveliness Oppo’s immaculate PM-3s can offer. These are genuine audiophile-level headphones but without the four figure price tag the very best demand. The 55mm planar magnetic drivers need a little running in - the difference between a fresh set and one that’s been nicely warmed up over time is surprisingly great - but they bring an audio experience that’s crisp, clear and incredibly precise, without ever sounding too harsh.

The impressive detail to the Oppo’s audio is not surprising given that the PM-3s are rocking a frequency response of between 10Hz and 50KHz. That’s a huge range and means you’ll hear layers of sound that you never would have done with weaker headphones.

That’s all well and good when you’re kicking back listening to high-res audio music files, but how does that work in-game? In short, brilliantly. As they’re not a dedicated gaming headset you’ll need to find a discrete microphone if you want to keep lines of communication open, but they’re still great for anti-social solo gaming.

The spatial separation the planar magnetic drivers are able to produce is incredible, able to deliver a soundscape that stretches way beyond the limits of the plush padded earcups. And that feeling of space stops them from feeling fatiguing for long gaming sessions. You don’t get the sort of a positional cues you’ll get from a surround sound gaming headset, so for the competitive gamers you might want something else, but for sheer aural quality they’re tough to beat. Again though, it might be worth investing in a dedicated headphone amp or discrete sound card to get the most out of your lovely new audiophile gear.

Best audiophile headphones for gaming runner-up

Best audiophile gaming headphones runner-up - Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro

Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro

Drivers: 45mm | Frequency range: 5Hz - 40,000Hz | Weight: 388g

Approx. $599 / £399 

Beyerdynamic’s studio grade DT 1770 Pros are another beautiful-sounding set of headphones. Again they sport a broad frequency range of 5Hz - 40KHz, and complement that with some of the crispest bass tones you’ll hear. That robust bass is so well controlled that it doesn’t touch the mid-range one jot and if that’s how you prefer your game audio to be weighted they might suit you better than the Oppo pair. They are though rather heavy and that can get a bit fatiguing over time.

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How to buy a gaming headset

How to buy a gaming headset

It’s relatively easy to tell what the best graphics card is. You can easily benchmark a GPU to get a set of performance figures to give you an objective idea of how it performs, but when it comes to audio it’s far more subjective. What sounds good to you might not necessarily be what someone else wants their audio experience to be like. 

The same goes for comfort. We all have different shaped heads and ears. I have very small ears - which look ridiculous on my fat head - but it means some smaller ear cups can sit comfortably around my lobes where they may crush someone else’s. And this is where it would be handy to have brick and mortar stores where you could strap a range of gaming headsets onto your head to hear what they sound like in person.

Frequency response range

There are though some metrics which will give you a better idea of the quality of one particular gaming headset against another. The most obvious for me is the frequency range individual headphones are capable of reproducing. It’s generally held that the 20Hz to 20KHz range is the average limit for human hearing, which is why you’ll see many a headset strictly bookend their headsets’ frequency response.

But just because you cannot actually hear a specific frequency does not mean it doesn’t affect the audio you can hear in some way. It’s all about subharmonic frequencies and the way sound waves interact with each other and the physical design of a headset. That’s why, with higher-end headsets, you’ll find they’ll generate both lower and higher frequencies than we are meant to be able to hear.

A broader frequency response range allows for a more detailed and natural sound and therefore a better aural experience no matter if you’re listening to music or immersing yourself in a gameworld.

Closed or open back operating principle?

There are two basic headset designs in terms of the operating principle: open or closed back. The closed back design is the more common and is designed such that the audio is kept, as much as possible, within the ear cups to avoid audio leakage. Eww. Leakage. It also means ambient noises don't get in either.

That makes them great if the reason you're rocking a headset is to avoid hassling your significant other with the sounds of 'splodes if they're in the same room, but with the soundwaves unable to escape from your ear cups that will affect the audio. Closed back headsets often have a more oppressive, overly-bassy tone and they can also be more fatiguing during prolonged use.

Open back headsets are the ones favoured by audiophiles for their more natural soundscapes, in part because the sound is allowed to travel away from the ear. That doesn't automatically mean open back headsets are always superior but that's often the way it goes.

The negative side is that there is a great deal more audio leakage, both in and out. So anyone around you will hear exactly what's being piped into your lugholes and, vice versa, you will hear everything that's going on around you.

USB or analogue connections?

Gaming headset drivers

There are two main connections to get the audio from your PC into your headset and down your ear-holes: USB and 3.5mm analogue. Which one is going to be best for you is down to the audio source hardware in your gaming rig. 

Modern gaming motherboards have started housing impressive audio components onboard, using physical separation to avoid the telltale hiss of electrical interference from everything else that’s going on inside your rig. That means there are fewer discrete sound cards being dropped into gaming rigs than before, but whether you’ve got quality onboard audio or a great sound card they’ll both have analogue 3.5mm outputs. Plugging your headset directly into the analogue connection will mean your PC’s audio hardware will do all the processing grunt work of translating the digital signals to something the li’l speakers in your headset can understand.

If you don’t have good onboard audio or a dedicated sound card, however, then it might be worth considering a USB-connected headset. With a USB connection you’re essentially taking the digital audio information from the PC and doing all the digital to analogue conversion either in the headset or the USB dongle it’s connecting via. This can often be the best option for laptop gaming and if you want to get virtual with software-based surround sound.

There is a third way, however, and that’s to get a separate headphone amp with a high-end digital to analogue converter (DAC) built in. If you’re going to be spending serious money on an audiophile-level set of cans then you owe it to your wallet to deliver the best source audio to them as your rig can manage. Creative have already created (not just a clever name...) a few different options for the gaming crowd, from the expensive Sound Blaster X7 to the more affordable G5.

Wired or wireless?

Wireless gaming headset connection

This goes very much down to personal choice as the current crop of wireless headsets don’t suffer from the connection or lag issues sometimes associated with older wireless technology. There is still the issue of battery life, which is why I’ve recommended the SteelSeries pair with the twin batteries. That means you never have to wire up your cans even if they run dry of juice. If you only have a single battery in the headset then at some point you’re going to have to jam that USB cable in to power them.

If you’re into your high-resolution audio though you are going to be better off going for a wired pair to get the highest bit rate signal from your rig to your ears as possible. But in the gaming sphere that’s not really something you have to worry about just yet; the wireless connections are easily capable of delivering game audio across the ether.

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