The Best Headphones for Gaming | EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW!!
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8,771 word post, approx. 10 min read.
It may seem long, but this article will attempt to provide every bit of information you need to make a decision!
Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!
This is part 7 in a 7 part series on Genre, which takes a nostalgic look at some of my personal experiences with various types of music, games, and pop culture over the years. Check out the others if you would like!
If you don’t care to hear my ramblings, just skip over this part. I tend to get long winded about stuff I like. 🙂 Should be interesting nonetheless!
The NES years
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a gamer. In fact my signature at the bottom of every article is an animated GIF of Mario running. 🙂 I remember back in the late 80’s when I was just a wee boy, my biological father had a Nintendo Entertainment System and we played Super Mario Bros. on it. I can barely recall, but we also had Excite Bike, Duck Hunt, and some other stuff I can’t remember. You remember Duck Hunt, don’t you? It came bundled with the Mario game and an Orange pistol that you used to shoot the Ducks down on the screen! Kind of morbid now that I think about it. 😛 I have pictures somewhere, and will include them in this article when I go back to my parents house.
(1991 – 1995)
Pictured to the right
Camera: Nikon D3200
Lens: AFS-Nikkor 35mm 1:1.8G
Program: Aperture Priority
I never actually owned an NES, but in 1991 my stepdad and mom got me a Super NES for my birthday/Christmas bundled with Super Mario World. I was in heaven, and still to this day I play the game on occasion. I also have favorites such as Donkey Kong Country 1-3, and Super Mario All-Stars. That game combined all the great Mario games: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. – The Lost Levels, Super Mario Bros 2, Super Mario Bros 3, and later on down the road they remade it to add Super Mario World. As for Donkey Kong, for years and years I always read 2 as “Diddy Kong’s Quest”, when in actuality it said “Diddy’s Kong Quest.” Dyslexia much? Haha. Mind blown.
The interesting thing about Super Mario Bros 2 was that it was a markedly different game in terms of overall design, look, feel, and game play mechanics. Instead of jumping on stuff to kill it, you had to pick vegetables out of the ground and throw them at enemies. Instead of fighting the infamous Bowser, they replaced him with a giant Toad named Wart. Huh?
While I absolutely despised the game at first, and never gave it a chance for the better part of my life, it eventually grew on me once I decided to really sit down and play through it with an open mind.
What’s cool is that the game was originally intended for use with the Famicom (Family Computer Disk System), and only in Japan during February of 1986, with proprietary double sided discs. These could hold more data, and were cheaper to produce.
In fact, the original cover of Super Mario Bros. 2 is actually the same cover of what would become Super Mario Bros. – The Lost Levels. What made the game different from the original, is that they clearly gave Mario and Luigi separate traits based on their unique build and structure. Luigi is faster and can jump higher, but loses his footing easily (as if he was on ice). Mario is slower and cannot jump as high, but has more control when you’re moving at higher speeds.
Other notable differences included:
The poison mushroom.
The inclusion of wind.
Secret hidden blocks that must be used in order to advance the level.
Warp zones that could either further you or set you back.
Piranha plants that move quicker out of the tubes, and don’t stop even when you’re close by.
Hammer brothers that do not stop coming… towards you.
Less lives (3 vs. the 5 in the original).
The difficulty of the game (plus the fact that it was identical in appearance), a long with the inconvenience of having to convert it from a disc format to cartridge, prevented the offering from being released in the United States. The developers didn’t think it a wise marketing decision, and thus it never came to fruition as the official title of Super Mario Bros 2.
In the end, Super Mario Bros. 2 was released as basically a rework of an older title called Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, released in Japan around the summer of 1987. Being bogged down with other projects but needing to release something to compete with other consoles (namely Sega. SEGA!), the game (which was originally shelved due to creative limitations), was finally fully realized with Arabic themed characters known as the Dream Factory family.
Shigeru Miyamoto and his team at Nintendo would eventually replace these 4 main protagonists with Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool (Peach), and Toad in an effort to re-brand the game for North American audiences. Because they already owned everything but the original Arabic characters, the transition proved seamless. Aside from some minor differences, the two games played almost exactly the same, and now instead of being an obscure Japanese title, it became an unprecedented, ground breaking, and fresh new sequel.
The game would go on to become one of the best selling of all time on the SNES, which is odd considering nobody I knew during my childhood even liked it! We always skipped over it in favor of the other Mario games. POOR RUDOLF. LOL.
Aside from that history lesson, I played many more games on the SNES, including Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart (1992), Super Mario RPG (Legend of the Seven Stars), Turtles in Time, Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, The Lion King, Aladdin, The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse, Paperboy 2, and others.
The nostalgia is getting real up in here. Lol. This was my most treasured time playing video games with my sister Tara. Completing a game was of the utmost importance, and took on a sort of life and death quality. “DON’T mash any buttons” she would sternly tell me. “Okay, okay.”
After thinking I outgrew the Super Nintendo, I eventually sold it at one of my parents’ many garage sales. Really dumb idea, and even to this day I remember the moment vividly. Later on down the road I regretted it, and eventually bought another one with the games that I mentioned at the start. I won’t make the mistake of selling it again. 😀
What about my early experiences with Computers?
Microsoft DOS and the IBM PS-1
In addition to consoles, we also played games on the IBM PS-1. It’s hard to believe that this modest machine once functioned as the family’s primary computer! Technology has certainly come a long way. Floppy Disks were once considered the method of data transfer, but it’s almost comical to think about that nowadays. Put another way, you know you’re old when a floppy disk becomes a universal symbol for a save button. Lol.
It’s also amazing when you consider that one of the first FPS games originated from this very computer program. Yeah you heard me correctly. I’m talking about Wolfenstein 3-D; the game that started it all (for me at least), inspired by 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein.
There were other titles that originated the First Person Shooter, including games like Maze War, Atari’s Battlezone, Midway’s Wizards of Wor, Taito’s Gun Buster, and Atari’s Midi Maze, but Wolfenstein pioneered the genre and made it accessible, fun, and polished to an impressive degree for the time period.
The objective? Kill all the Nazi’s, and then kill a Cyborg Hitler. Wow. Times were much simpler back then.
Wolfenstein was pretty much my favorite PC game back in the day, but the fun didn’t stop there, no siree bob. Some other notables of the era included Crystal Caves, Duke Nukem (the side scroller), Ski Free, Wheel of Fortune, Shooting Gallery, Mario is Missing, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I can’t even remember.
ID software would follow up the smash hit with Doom in 1993, and later Quake in ’96.
The Game Boy
I also still have an original Gameboy from 1989, and it still works! I used to always take it with me on trips to New York (Smithtown, Long Island) to see my grandparents when they were alive, a long with my brown Teddy Bear. Those were some of the best times of my childhood. Traveling through Baltimore, my Dad would speed through the Fort McHenry Tunnel, while my mom panicked as I innocently and calmly played Donkey Kong Land. The game was so difficult that I still to this day have not beaten it.
2015 was the last time we spent Christmas at my Grandma’s before she passed in 2017. Knowing it was likely the final goodbye, I packed my Teddy and Game Boy for old times sake. I did all I could to re-live those wonderful child hood memories one last time, and it was bittersweet. I still got stuck at the same level/world after it started getting dark outside, and I still had a lot of fun on the way (I love road trips).
Check out this explanation of why it seemed nobody could beat the game on the original Game Boy. I guess it had to do with the fact that even in broad daylight I could never see what the heck I was even doing! 😛 I suppose I could get a Game Boy Color and try to finish it? 🙂
My younger cousin was so enamored with the Game Boy when he saw it that year, that it really made me happy. I didn’t expect him to know what it was or even care (you know how kids are these days). But to my surprise, he was completely ecstatic that I had one, and begged me to play it. I went home that year feeling sad, nostalgic, and grateful all at the same time. I cried like a baby for the old times, but eventually had to let them go.
After getting a little older, I gravitated towards Sony and the Playstation..
The Playstation Years (1 & 2)
(1995 – 2007)
After Nintendo, I got a Playstation 1 from my Dad for Christmas in 1995 or 1996 and never looked back. I never had a Nintendo 64 or Sega Genesis, though my best friend Ryan did back in the day. Because he lived right next door, we had the perfect set up. He could come over and play Playstation, and I could go over there and play N64. It was really the ideal scenario growing up. 🙂
I’ve since had all 4 PS systems at one time or another, and currently have a PS3 and PS4. My PS2 was sold, as well as my PS1. Again, I kind of regret both decisions, but it is what it is. I may purchase both in the future for the sake of completeness. It’s fun to collect old systems and games!
Some notables on the PS1 and 2 included Metal Gear Solid (my personal all time favorite), Crash Team Racing, Crash Bandicoot 1-3, Syphon Filter, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1-3, Tomb Raider 1-3 and The Last Revelation, Spyro the Dragon, Silent Hill, Twisted Metal, Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, Metal Gear 2 and 3, and more.
Gaming has always held a special place in my heart, and to this day I still do play sometimes, but I simply don’t have the time anymore like I used to. I remember back when I was still living at my parents house, Spring Break was pretty uneventful. At that time I had severe social anxiety and phobia to certain situations, so I wouldn’t really go out unless I had to for class at my local Community College. So for a week straight I played Fallout 3 literally without moving a muscle on the couch. I had plenty of food and refreshments, and life was good. I would fall asleep at night, wake up in the morning and start all over. Times were much simpler back then.
As the go by, my need play video games has kind of diminished..
Fallout, Metal Gear Solid 4, and the COD years
(2008 – present)
I even got into Call of Duty for awhile, but have been on hiatus from it when my PS3 kind of conked out (temporarily). I held a 3-1 K/D ratio on COD4, which is really the only shooter I played because I just wasn’t any good on the others. 😛 They even came out with a COD4 Remastered, and I’ve been itching to try it out with some Headphones and a Mic proper.
The last and most recent games I purchased were Fallout 4 and Metal Gear Solid V in 2015, which I have still yet to open! Haha! I do play Fallout 4 on occasion, but it never resonated with me like Fallout 3 and New Vegas did. There was something really special about both of those games, but perhaps it’s just nostalgia talking.
I came across a great video about how Konami basically killed the Metal Gear franchise, and I agree completely with it considering I was a fan since the early days.
Let me know what your favorite games of all time are!
Now that the trip down memory lane is complete, let’s get to the actual purpose of this review. 😛
While I do know a fair bit about gaming headphones, I don’t claim to know it all. If you have any suggestions, I am more than willing to hear them. Just don’t be rude about it. Thanks!
Also, this guide will come from the mindset of an audiophile who’s looking for a gaming headphone, and not a gamer looking for a gaming “headset”. On the surface that might sound almost counter intuitive, but work with me. There’s a reason for it. More on that in a bit.
The first thing you’ll want to think about is budget. How much are you willing to spend? Today we’ll cover some affordable options as well as some higher end gear. There are some great models in all categories, and fortunately you can spend a very small amount and be more than satisfied. I’ve always aimed to provide my readers with the best recommendations for the price, and this article is no different.
Console or PC?
Secondly, are you on a console or PC?
Your PC Rig
If you’re on a PC:
You will need one of two cables. If you do plan on purchasing an all in one “headset” with mic included, you’ll need something like this: 3.5mm Jack Adapter – Y Splitter. This will allow you to plug your head set into the female end, while the male ends (one for the mic and the other for the headphone), are plugged into your PC/Laptop, or Amp/DAC.
The second cable looks something like this: 3.5mm Audio Stereo Y Splitter. If you plan on using a separate Mod Mic + an audiophile type headphone, you may need this if your PC does not have two jacks. You will need it regardless with an Amp/DAC. If you’re plugging into the PC, and it does happen to have 2, simply plug the mic into the mic port, and the headphones into the headphone port. If you’re like me and your laptop only has one, you’ll need this dongle. It has two female ends to plug into the mic and headphone, and one male end to plug into your PC/Laptop or Amp/DAC.
Another thing to consider is upgrading your Soundcard or external DAC. What is a Soundcard? Even though my laptop’s card is really crappy, I’m not obligated to use it. Why? Because I have an audio interface, a long with 2 different Amp/DACs at the moment. What does an audio interface do? I don’t game on a PC, so I really don’t have a need for a Soundcard right now. My Scarlett 2i2 is basically an external Soundcard, but the fancy name for it is audio interface. It powers my studio monitors (What are Studio Monitors?), serves as a headphone DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) in it’s own right, and provides 48v phantom power for my AT2020, or any mic I decide to use. Learn more:Audio Technica AT2020 Review!!
With all that said, you could and probably should bypass the Soundcard and go straight for an external Amp/DAC if you’re a PC gamer. This will still provide you with an upgraded sound experience, while also eliminating the need to install a separate Soundcard into your PC or Laptop. This process can be challenging if you haven’t done it before or don’t feel particularly comfortable with it. Plus, nowadays the technology that comes with the newer PC’s and Laptops is markedly better in terms of motherboard quality, etc. An external DAC just makes more sense in most cases. Put it this way, would you rather take apart your PC, or just plug in a USB chord in a matter of seconds? I digress.
Check out this really helpful video on the various ways to connect your headsets!
Should you get an Amp or DAC?
Let’s talk more in depth about it. When deciding on:
An Amp: If your headphones have a high impedance, they’re going to require more voltage (power) to perform optimally. Generally speaking, most headphones above 100 Ohm, (and even some below) need an amp of some sort. It just depends. I go into much more detail here: How to choose a headphone amp! It’s also important to consider the Sensitivity of your cans. Generally speaking, the lower the Sensitivity, the more current is needed from the Amp to drive the headphones to listenable levels. What is Sensitivity in Headphones?
A DAC: A Digital to Analog converters job is to convert the 1’s and 0’s from your computer, into an analog sound that you hear (and vice versa). During a microphone recording, the computer takes the analog (your voice), and coverts it into data that it can understand (1’s and 0’s). Basically either of these exchanges are always happening depending on what you’re doing. The only reason you would upgrade a DAC is if your existing one is crap. I can rhyme! (Sorta). You’ll know because it either won’t be loud enough, or just generally sound bad (noise, crackling, etc). I also go into more detail about it in the article mentioned above, as well as this one: What is Headphone Impedance?. 🙂
For the question of should you get one, in almost all cases I say yes. Why? Because it’s going to instantly increase sound quality across the board.
This is a well respected Amp/DAC by a guy called NwAvGuy. It provides a clean, neutral sound output for your headphones, and is similar to a Magni/Modi combo in that it can power just about any headphone you throw at it. If you’re interested I would go ahead and get the combo. The first iteration was a stand a lone amp, required the ODAC plugged into the front, and generally looked like a science experiment. The more elegant and attractive black version is the Amp with built in DAC. Much more convenient. See it for yourself here:Objective 2 + ODAC. Here is the standalone DAC that will work with any amp: Standalone ODAC. Here is the original amp: Original 02 with Standalone ODAC (not pictured).
I currently have this Amp paired with the Modi, and it’s a great combo with an output impedance of less than 0.1. What is Output Impedance? This means that it can effectively power 99% of headphones without an issue. For instance, my 300 Ohm HD600’s require 20mW of power to perform optimally. The Magni 2 provides 260mW into 300 Ohms. You can see why the Magni is such a powerful component to any rig. The Magni 3 provides even more power: 430mW. Wowzers! Learn more:Sennheiser HD600 Review!
There’s a reason why they call this thing a DAC Magic. the A/D conversion is pristine, and music, as well as the gaming environment takes on an added dimension of clarity that must be heard to believe. I used the Magic with an Objective 2 as well as a Magni 2, and the results were stunning to say the least. Every intricate detail is heard, and even the PS4’s Dashboard music sounded interesting and was also revealing to an astonishing degree. I heard little nuances to the song that I never dreamed were there.
Also extremely versatile, this baby has RCA inputs, a Toslink/Optical input for use with Consoles/Receivers, two S/PDIF inputs, and a USB input. So basically, pair the DAC Magic 100 with the 02, and there you have my #1 Recommendation for PC Gamers.
If you only have a Benjamin or less to spend, the E10K is the absolute go to solution in my opinion. It’s one of the best portable budget Amp/DAC combos. With an output impedance of less than 1.04, it will also power most headphones without issue. I would steer clear of trying to use it with 600 Ohm headphones, as well as power hungry planar magnetics with their weird drivers. 😛 What is a headphone driver? However, these will work with cans like the HD600, and the amp is more capable than some give it credit for. I love the crisp and neutral sound these provide. Comes with coaxial out, line out, and USB. Very clean signal, lots of detail. You like!
Doesn’t really get much simpler than this folks. Plug this little crumb sized wonder into a USB slot, plug in one of those dongles (if you’re using a mic) that I mentioned earlier, and have yourself an afternoon delight. The Dragonfly Red really impressed the snot out of me upon demo, and I actually plan on purchasing one in the future because it instantaneously increases the quality of all my headphones in a matter of seconds, plus I can take it anywhere! The other great thing about this combo is that it powers my HD600’s with ease. I wouldn’t recommend trying to use it with anything over 300 Ohm, but it provides just enough juice for the 600.
I really don’t want to overwhelm you, so I’ll stop there. The important thing to remember is not to stress out over which one you get. You’ll be happy with any of the above to be perfectly honest.
To me, buying an Amp/DAC is like choosing what to have for dinner. Do you go with a juicy homemade burger with home fries? Spaghetti and Meatballs? Chicken/Rice and Broccoli? (my preparation is anything but boring), or Steak and Eggs? Salmon? If you’re anything like me, you’ll cook up a masterpiece regardless of what you decide to eat. The same goes for these options above. Man I’m hungry.
With that, let’s check out your console rig..
Your Console Rig
Fortunately, your console rig doesn’t have to be complicated either.
Just plug your headphones into the 3.5mm jack on the controller. Pretty good sound, but nothing compared to something like an Audoengine D1. More on that in a bit!
Separate Headphones + Mic – Simple Method.
First, get one of these: Sabrent Aluminum USB External Stereo Sound Adapter. The adapter plugs into a USB port on your Playstation, and allows you to plug the mic into the appropriate jack. If you’re on Xbox, unfortunately the Sabrent doesn’t work from what I’ve read. Not a problem. Instead we’ll run the mic into a Y Splitter and plug it into the controller’s port. You could also do this with the Playstation if you want.
Set your consoles output to optical.
Set the input device to the USB device mentioned above.
Set Output Device to “TV or Amplifier”.
Adjust mic volume.
Here are some of my recommendations..
Top Recommendations for Consoles
The Amp/DAC combo for your headphones that I recommend is the the same one that I recommended for PC:
This combo will run you about $300. If you don’t want to spend that much, I understand. You could also pair the Objective 2 with a Modi 2 Uber instead and save about $100. It’s very important that you get the Uber version as it has SPDIF/Optical which you will need to hook up to your console. Still, I think the DAC Magic 100 is slightly better, slightly cleaner, and a bit more versatile.
I also have a great Amp/DAC combo below as well if you don’t want to go through the trouble of hooking up an Amp and DAC separately.
Any of these options will provide the best sound quality capable of getting the absolute most out of your headphone of choice. It can also double as an Amp/DAC for easy listening if you want to kick back and spin some vinyl.
This might be the most versatile little box I’ve ever come across. Not only does it work for Gaming, but it’s also a headphone amp for your desktop, and you can use it to power your studio monitors as well! What are studio monitors? All of this is made possible by it’s RCA/Analog outs, Toslink/Optical input, and USB input.
The D1 may not have as much pure, raw power as the above set up (DAC Magic + O2) but it’s perfect for Console gaming, and livens up the sound to an absolutely startling degree. Playing Fallout 4 was a totally different experience, as the environment I was in became so lifelike and immersive that I had trouble leaving the couch! Soundstage is impeccable, and the detail present will make your head spin. What is Soundstage?
I haven’t played Call of Duty in awhile, but I could imagine using the D1 with any of the headphones I’m about to discuss would be like cheating. If you opt for the Mod Mic mic to pair with all this, just be prepared for little 12 year old snot nosed kids to start yelling at you after you own them repeatedly. In other words, get excited 😛
This is the best Amp/DAC that I’ve personally heard, and will make everything sound the best it can possibly be – this includes music as well. It supports micro USB, Optical/Toslink, and has 2 separate 3.5mm headphone jacks for sharing. So you can A/B test 2 headphones, share with a friend for movies, or share with a friend for Gaming!!
The Mojo represents a true upgrade from an entry level amp and you can hear a clear difference in sound quality. I’m a firm believer that it’s worth every penny and represents everything that you could ever want in an Amp/DAC. Learn more: Chord Mojo DAC Review | THE END GAME AMP/DAC?
All of these options have optical capability, which is necessary for hook up to your console.
The Astro Mixamp. This is the obvious secondary choice here, and will be for a lot of casual gamers that aren’t as familiar with some of the other options we discussed. That’s completely fine. The Mixamp is very convenient, does provide 7.1 surround sound, and will net you exactly what you’re looking for at a reasonable price. It will also work with your Laptop/PC as long as it has an optical port. That said, It shouldn’t be your primary solution for a higher impedance set of headphones. It will get the job done, but won’t be optimal. PS version:Mixamp for PS4.Xbox Version:Mixamp for Xbox.
FiiO D3. A fantastic budget option is the FiiO D3, which gets almost impeccable reviews for less than $30. This would be ideal if you want to get your feet wet, don’t feel comfortable dropping the money for the above options that I mentioned earlier, and only need something for gaming specifically. See it for yourself here: FiiO D3.
FiiO E17. The original FiiO E17 had optical input, and will thus work with your PS4/Xbox. The E17 does not provide surround sound, but doubles as a solution for your Laptop/PC as well as your console and will provide better overall quality than the Mixamp. Something to keep in mind. See it for yourself here: FiiO E17.
Wondering how to get it wired?
Hooking it all up
Hooking it up is quite easy, but I’ll take you step by step through the process as it helps me understand it better too. I always like to simplify things as best as possible for myself, and I know you’ll appreciate it as well! 🙂
Note: The PS4 Slim does not have Optical input.
Amp/DAC Combo with Console
(Audioengine D1 as an example)
The PS4/Xbox receives an optical cable in the rear.
The other end of the optical cable plugs into the back of the D1.
Use a USB cable from the back of the D1 into the front of the PS4 or Xbox One. I’m not familiar with the SexBox because I don’t have one, but there are USB inputs on it so don’t fret!
Plug your headphones in.
Go to Settings > Sound & Screen on your PS4.
Go to Audio Output Settings.
Click Primary Output Port
Change it to “Digital Out”
The Input format should be Linear PCM.
Go back to Settings > Devices > Audio Devices.
The Output Device should be the name of your DAC, i.e Audioengine D1.
Note: With the DAC Magic 100 I had no issues. With the D1 I ended up having to change the output device from “Audioengine D1” to “TV/Amplifier.” Your mileage may vary. Switching it to TV/Amplifier allowed the sound to come through the headphones. I’m not sure why it was being difficult, or why the sound wouldn’t come through even though the settings were right. If you have any insight into this, let me know!
Amp with Standalone DAC
Don’t forget to pin the graphic if you found it helpful!
(Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100 or Modi 2 Uber/Multibit)
The PS4/Xbox receives an optical cable in the rear.
The other end of the optical cable plugs into the back of the DAC Magic 100, or Modi 2 Uber.
Use a USB cable from the back of the DAC Magic 100 or Modi 2 Uber into the front of the PS4 or Xbox One.
If you’re using the DAC Magic 100 or Modi 2 Uber with an 02, run RCA to 3.5mm from the back of the Magic or Uber into the front of the 02. If you’re using the Modi 2 Uber with a Magni 3, use these RCA to RCA cables. Two ends plug into the back of the Uber and the other ends run into the back of the Magni.
Your headphones plug into the front of a Magni 3 Amp via 1/4″ termination. Make sure you have a 1/4″ adapter. 99% of headphones come with one so no worries. I have like 9 laying around. Lol. If you’re using the 02, it’s a standard 3.5mm jack with no need for an adapter.
Use the same PS4 settings as we used with the D1, only this time the name of the DAC will read “Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 100.” As mentioned above, I had no issues with sound coming through the 02 paired with the Magic with these settings.
Need a mic?
If you end up purchasing a set of headphones without a detachable cable:
If you end up purchasing a set of headphones with a detachable cable:
Go with the V Moda Boom Pro. The cable pops out, and the Boom Pro plugs right in! V Moda Boom Pro.
Now for the part you’ve been waiting for..
Finally, we’re getting to the meat of it. An Amp/DAC is important, don’t get me wrong. But the headphones are the main draw here. You’ll want the absolute best. That’s why I’m here. 🙂 First we’ll take a look at 2 different types of headphone.
Closed or Open?
Before we get into the crux of this whole issue, let’s talk about Closed vs. Open headphones. For gaming, you’ll want open back without question. It provides a much more immersive experience by default, and you’ll be able to hear all the juicy and subtle details that you may otherwise miss out on with a closed back homie. Closed back vs. Open back headphones.
In short, a closed back headphone is just that, closed. It traps the sound inside, and thus results in a more boxed in, in your head type of feel. There are exceptions though. Some notable closed back headphones that I’ve tried that don’t sound closed:
Keep in mind, we haven’t gotten to the actual list yet, these are just some appetizers. 🙂
Sony MDR Z1R. One of the best examples of a closed headphone that sounds completely not. Lol. Also ridiculously expensive and probably not worth our time today, though it is up there with the best of the best. Learn more:Sony MDR Z1R Review.
AKG K550. This baby is sweet, and does provide a nice airy sound in a closed back temple. Great for mixing/mastering/reference, and could also be a good option for gaming. We’ll see if it makes the list soon. 😉
Status Audio CB 1. Rounding out this short list is the CB 1, a fantastic budget option and currently 5th (out of 6) in my Budget Kings series. I had read that this bad boy sounded pretty open and spacious, but I was a bit skeptical until I got my hands on a pair and boy howdy they do deliver! Learn more:Status Audio CB 1 Review.
An open back leaks sound, and people will be able to hear what’s going on. It’s advised to use open back headphones in an isolated studio/gaming environment where you aren’t bothering anyone. That said, if the volume is low enough it’s not really a big deal for gaming. I have mine up fairly loud and when I take them off you really can’t hear that much from the standpoint of a video game situation. Shootouts and the like will get loud however, so keep that in mind.
With that laid out, let’s discuss the ongoing issue of the audiophile headphone vs. the gaming headset.
The Audiophile Headphone vs. The “Gaming Headset”
The truth of the matter is this: A “Gaming Headset”, while a popular choice, isn’t the best choice. Not by a long shot. I feel fortunate to understand that the differences between the two are not only vast, but important when considering what to buy. I know this because I have a lot of experience with what headphones are actually supposed to sound like. I’ve demoed close to 80 (currently), and I would never consider investing in a “Gaming Headset” given everything I know about audiophile headphones.
The reality is that the sound coming out of these headsets is just not very good. Like most things in life, it comes down to marketing, and because marketing is powerful, the results are powerful. Powerfully bad and deceptive.
Because the Gaming headset has to take into account a mic plus a headphone, corners will inevitably be cut somewhere; either in design, comfort, build, and/or the quality of the driver itself. What is a headphone driver?
In a true audiophile type of headphone, you’re getting the absolute best sound specific to your need. There’s a ton of different headphones out there, and while some do share similar characteristics, each sound is unique and thus we can kind of specialize and hone in on what works best for gaming.
Built in Mic vs. Mod Mic
The advantage of a Mod Mic or something like the Boom Pro (both mentioned earlier) is that:
They deliver excellent quality.
You can simply unpair them with the headphone should you just want to listen to music. Very convenient.
So what’s the criteria for a Gaming headphone?
Just one last thing before we get into it, promise! We have to know why we’re purchasing a headphone specific for gaming anyways.
Soundstage, Instrument Separation, and Imaging. For gaming, this is probably the most important aspect. A few minutes ago I sat down with the HD600 and HD558 and A/B tested both while playing Fallout 4. It wasn’t that the 600 was “bad.” Quite the contrary; It sounded great! But the HD558 did a better job of immersing you in Fallout’s world. Sounds were spaced out better, and I could hear stuff in all directions. The 558 gave me more of an out of body type of experience vs. the more narrowly imaged 600.
Fun vs. Competitive. Parlaying off of that, because the 600’s are more closed in, they may do better in more of a casual setting. A headphone with better Soundstage like the 558 fares better in competitive gaming because you can hear stuff all around you. The point is, we’re looking for headphones that match either of these criteria, and we’re going to be more picky about it.
Bass vs. less bass. Blasphemy! Give me Beats or give me death! Okay sorry, that was corny. Piggy backing off of the last point, if you’re aim (no pun intended) is more of a fun experience, and you want to hear explosions that provide greater bang for your buck, you will want some bass impact. In a competitive setting (like an FPS shooter), you don’t want a lot of bass because it negatively impacts your ability to hear footsteps, reloads, etc. around you.
Good Mic. I placed this last because you may or may not even want to use a mic. It’s not absolutely mandatory, but some folks like to be able to chat, strategize, and talk smack in the lobby. 😛 I was never that guy, though I did go off on some guy once for cheating in COD4.
Okay, we’re finally ready. 😀 I’ll outline this by stating the headphone in question, and then quickly mentioning fun level, competitive level, and comfort level.
Entry Level ($0-100)
Audio Technica ATH AD700x. If you want to save some money, the 700x is similar to the 900x but does color the sound a bit more. More on that in the Mid-Tier section.
Comfortable: Yes, but make sure you use the rubber band mod.
Philips SHP9500. Not sure why people are saying this doesn’t have a good Soundstage, because they are absolutely wrong. What is Soundstage? In fact, I think the 9500 is on par with the 558 if not better. I lost count of how many times I thought certain noises were coming from my apartment/outside and not the game. Fallout’s music has always been top notch, and while I don’t like 4’s score as much as 3 and New Vegas’, both the intricacy and atmosphere are still there, and it’s wonderful. There’s all kinds of subtle noises the 9500’s pick up that I was simply astounded by. I literally thought someone was knocking on my door a couple times, and had to calm myself down a little bit. 😛 Think about that for a second. The knocks in the game gave the illusion that they were coming from the right of me, and to the back. That’s incredible for any headphone, much less one costing roughly $50. Check out the #1 Budget King:Philips SHP9500 Review!
Competitive. I think so.
Comfortable: Absolutely. Some of the best in terms of comfort over long periods. I wore mine for about 6-7 hours, with a few breaks in between.
My Video Review!
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Here’s Part II!
Sennheiser HD518/558. I lumped these two into one because more or less they sound pretty similar to one another. Currently I’m rocking an HD558, and without the rubber strip/foam mod, and it sounds identical to an HD598. The 518 is a step below, and the 599 is a small step up. The overall sound is warmish, with much bass roll off and an extremely balanced/revealing mid-range. These are not the types of headphones to ever become sibilant, and for gaming that’s a huge plus. What does Sibilant mean? If you’re going this route, you can’t go wrong with any of them, as they all provide about the same experience. Learn more about the 558:Sennheiser HD558 Review!
Fun. With the strips in place, no. Without the strips, yes.
Comfortable: Absolutely. These rest on your head quite beautifully.
My Video Review
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Samson SR850/Superlux HD668B/AKG K240 Studio. Again, in the interest of keeping things condensed, simple, and straightforward, these 3 headphones sound a lot a like as well. The 850 is rather bright and exciting, but incredibly detailed with not a lot of bass. Great for gaming. The 240 is similar, but does come across a bit more subdued/laid back. The 668B is similar to the 850’s sound. Out of these 3 for gaming, I would probably go with the 850. Learn more: Samson SR850 Review!
Comfort: Decent. The padding on all of these is rather bad, but tolerable especially for the price.
My Video Review
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Status Audio CB 1. Yeah, I had to include this one in some regard as I was very impressed with it’s Soundstage even despite it being a closed back headphone. The large pads have something to do with this I think.
Competitive: I wouldn’t rely on it for this, but it could work in a pinch.
My Video Review
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How about Mid-Tier?
Audio Technica ATH AD900x. Yup, this is probably the best out of all the options mentioned today. The 700x is cheaper, but the 900x is more neutral, and colors the sound less. So it’s an easy recommendation and also doubles as a nice reference can. Learn more:Audio Technica ATH AD900x Review!
Competitive: Absolutely. The best.
Comfortable: Yes, but make sure you use the rubber band mod. Super simple, and you can find out about it in the above review. 🙂
Sennheiser HD598/599. Continuing the line into the mid-tier category, the 598 and 599 are the obvious culprits here. While the sound of the 598 is identical to the 558 without the strips, the 599 is a bit of an upgrade. In fact, in this category the 599 and 900x are top dogs. Should you buy the Sennheiser HD598?
Comfortable: You’re darned tootin’!
My Video Review
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Beyerdynamic DT770. A great all around headphone similar to an ATH M50/50x, this baby does better for gaming because it does sound more open. In a competitive setting, you should definitely go with something else, though it will work better than your average closed back. It has good positional accuracy, but the bass kind of gets in the way of the details. Learn more:Beyerdynamic DT770 Review!!
Competitive: Not particularly.
Comfortable: Very much so.
Beyerdynamic DT990. This is a great all around headphone with some nice bass impact and an open sound. In fact, these weren’t as obnoxious or extreme sounding as graphs would indicate. It’s a V-shaped signature, but it didn’t feel overbearing or too hyper aggressive by my estimation.
I want to quickly touch on the differences in Ohms.
32 Ohm. Easier to drive, great with Mixamp, slightly less refined, Soundstage is a bit smaller. This may be the only one you need to worry about for gaming.
250 Ohm. Darker tone, fuller bass, less mids, more refined than a 32 Ohm, Bigger Soundstage, mid-range not as forward as a 32 or 600 Ohm. Needs a desktop amp.
600 Ohm. Needs a good amp, the most refined, bass is tighter but with less impact than 25o Ohm, mid-range is more forward than 25o Ohm.
Back to the subject at hand.
Comfortable: Absolutely. The 990 is a great jack of all trades piece.
Beyerdynamic DT880. The 880 is a good choice, but isn’t quite as good for sounds coming from behind you. Don’t purchase this and expect it to do well with an FPS shooter for example. It’s very comfortable however, and has a very balanced overall signature with a bright sounding treble.
Competitive: Yes, with that drawback I mentioned.
AKG K612. The K612 is a great gaming headphone, with a fairly fun sound and competitive spirit. Comfort is impeccable as always with AKG, and it’s a great option if you’re looking for a step up from something like a K240 but don’t want to spend a ton.
Comfort: For sure.
AKG K701/702/Q701. The K701 had a massive Soundstage, and it was a bit unnatural but for gaming works amazingly well. The 702 is similar, with the only real difference being that it has a bit more bass. The Q701 has a bit more bass even than the 702, and is thus more fun, but keep in mind these are slight differences. AKG K701 vs. K702.
Fun: Not particularly, but the Q701 more-so.
AKG K550. Yup, I included it because it sounds fantastic and works for gaming much like a CB 1 in the budget category. Here we’ve got a bass that has impact but isn’t overbearing, a fantastically balanced mid-range, and a somewhat dark treble. The spacious presentation really surprised me, as this baby functions more like an open back than a closed one. Learn more: AKG K550 Review!
Comfortable: Yes, but you’ll have to fiddle with them a little to get a good fit. More on that in the review.
Top Tier ($300 and beyond)
I’m only going to mention 3 headphones in this category today because:
I don’t want to overwhelm you.
I want to keep it simple and outline the best options without a laundry list.
As mentioned earlier, for gaming it’s unnecessary to spend a whole lot on a headphone if that’s going to be it’s only purpose. These 3 guys are excellent all rounders, and will serve you well for a long time.
The Black Mage DT770 Mod from Craig Boyles. This is absolutely one of my favorite headphones. Somehow Craig was able to make the closed back Beyerdynamic DT770 sound like an open back, and for Gaming? Oh my God it’s perfect. Like drop everything right now and buy it perfect. You can hear everything. I’m not being biased either. To be honest, I was expecting to like the headphone, but not quite as much as I did. He spent over a year tuning this baby, and it really shows. It’s quickly becoming my new standard for reference. If the HD600 is my open back barometer for what a headphone should sound like, the Mage is most definitely the closed back version.
A link to his website where you can purchase a pair will also be provided there.
Philips Fidelio X2. The more bass heavy of the two, this guy is an extremely fun addition to your cabinet and also works incredibly well for gaming. Comfort is also on point. See the X2 on Amazon for yourself: Philips Fidelio X2.
AKG K712. Perhaps the best all around can, the K712 does pretty much nothing wrong by boasting perhaps the flattest response ever, with the perfect amount of bass (not too much roll off) and a fantastic mid-range. It even sort of looks like a gaming headset! (Bleh). I love the Orange and Blackhere. Learn more: AKG K712.
So what’s the final word?
To end this, I will attempt to outline the best in specific categories:
Stu is determined to provide the truth about all things audio, and strives to deliver excellent content to you the reader! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, attend church, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His attention to detail and perfectionist attitude are what allow him to excel, but it can be both a blessing and a hindrance at times.