You need a good headphone (or gaming headphones, if you prefer) for online gaming. Without one, you don’t have a reliable way to talk trash to your enemies, and your lexicon of expletives will stagnate. Oh, and you won’t be able to coordinate strategies with your friendly team or guild. Surprisingly, they’re even pretty good tools for your home office.
Your choices range from basic wired earpieces and boom mics you can pick up for $20 at a drug store (or are included with your game console), to expensive, simulated surround sound, e-sports-oriented, wireless over-ear headphones available at enthusiast sites. You should get the one that fits your budget and needs. You don’t need a ton of cash for a solid Gaming Headphones; about $50 can get you started if you don’t want to jump into high-end features and connection options.
What is Gaming Headphones?
“Gaming Headphones” are really just pairs of headphones with microphones included in some fashion. Many folks recommend buying a separate pair of headphones and a dedicated microphone over a Gaming Headphones…but I think that’s a little bit silly today with how many good Gaming Headphones are out there. Big players in the Gaming Headphones market include HyperX, Razer, Turtle Beach, and Steelseries, among many others.
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Do you need a mic for gaming? Then go ahead and get a top-rated Gaming Headphones. I know, I know, you could just get a separate mic or a mic that clips to your shirt, or one that magnetizes to the side of your headphones. But I think that’s silly and then you have to deal with an extra cable.
Microphone and audio quality have both come far enough in Gaming Headphones that you shouldn’t feel ashamed for buying one out of convenience.
2. Gaming Headphones Virtual Surround Sound
If you want virtual surround features, software or hardware solutions often come packed in with Gaming Headphones. These range from middling to great. Now true, if you’re on PC you could just check out the excellent free Razer Surround software, but that’s not an option for everyone.
On PS4, Sony’s virtual surround modes are exclusive to their headphones. Microsoft just added free virtual surround for all headphones in apps to the Xbox One through Windows Sonic, and that feature will expand to support games soon. More on that in a future article!
3. Gaming Headphones Versatility
Many Gaming Headphones have retractable or removable microphones, and they can do double duty as a regular pair of headphones. If you’re looking for the most versatile headphones for the least amount of money, a well-reviewed Gaming Headphones is not a terrible option.
If you don’t want to own a million pairs of headphones or you’re just starting out, a good Gaming Headphones might serve you better than a more- specialized and more- expensive pair. The jack-of-all-trades approach to sound won’t be as high quality as dedicated headphones, perhaps, but something well-regarded like the HyperX Cloud or the Arctis gets you 90 percent of the way there. A good Gaming Headphones can serve equally well as your portable setup, your home setup, and your gaming setup with mic!
Wired vs. Wireless Gaming Headphones
Headphones can be either wired or wireless, with wireless models generally costing more. More important is that each Gaming Headphones supports different system, handheld, and computer connections. For the PS4 Pro, Xbox One X, most mobile devices, and some computers, you can use Bluetooth for a wireless Gaming Headphones (the original Xbox One lacks Bluetooth support). Other systems require a different wireless connection, often with a separate base plugged into your console or computer.
Bluetooth has made great strides in the last few years, but proprietary wireless connections generally offer better audio quality and a stronger signal. Proprietary wireless connections are typically designed for only one console, or one console and a PC; you’ll have to choose between Xbox One and PS4 for most wireless Gaming Headphones.
If you game on the PlayStation 4, the Nintendo Switch, newer Xbox One models, or most handheld gaming devices, you can just plug a single 3.5mm headphone jack into the controller or system and start playing. The Xbox One works in a similar way, but if you have an older Xbox One gamepad you might need Microsoft’s Xbox One Stereo Headphones Adapter to use a wired headphones with it. Most headphones on this list can connect to your preferred system one way or another.
If you want to use your headphones with last-gen systems like the PS3 and the Xbox 360, you’ll need to see if the headphones supports their own unique connections, or if adapters are available. PCs are the most flexible with gaming headphones, since they can work with USB headphones (which are generally only compatible with PCs), 3.5mm analog connections (though you might need a splitter adapter if your headphones ends in just one plug), and often optical audio.
Do You Need Surround Sound?
Most high-end gaming headphones claim to offer some form of surround sound, but this isn’t accurate. The vast majority of surround sound headphones still use stereo drivers (often a single 40mm driver for each ear) to produce sound. The surround aspect comes from Dolby and DTS processing technologies that tweak how the headphones mix sound between your ears to give an impression of 360-degree audio. It’s an artificial effect that wouldn’t provide a true surround sound image even if the headphones had individual drivers for each channel; there simply isn’t enough space for the sound to resonate to produce the impression of accurate directional audio. However, it can make things more immersive and improve your ability to track the direction sounds from left to right.
Some pricey gaming headphones like the JBL Quantum One offer more immersive audio by incorporating head tracking into the mix. They still offer the same simulated surround sound as other headphones that support the feature, but they also pan and shift the audio depending on how you move your head, giving the surround effect much more realism.
Gaming Headphones Console Compatibility
Because PlayStation 4 and Xbox One headphones support is mutually exclusive, you can generally choose between different versions of similar models. Currently, more headphones on this list appear to support the PS4 directly than Xbox One, but many high-end headphones come in PS4 or Xbox One versions. If a headphones is marketed primarily for PC, it might work with a console over USB, but it might not support all features. Of course, any headphones with a 3.5mm wired connection can work with either console through the headphones jack on the controller; it’s the USB compatibility that can throw off different versions. Check the packaging and product page to make sure the headphones you want is compatible with the system you plan to use it with.
There are a few console-specific headphones and variations you can consider, like the Xbox One-only SteelSeries Arctis 9X, which offers strong performance. Still, you generally won’t find a “best” headphone unique to a console; the top models usually have versions that work with either. That said, here are which headphones on this list work with which systems:
The Best PlayStation 4 Gaming Headphones
- Astro Gaming A40 TR + MixAmp Pro TR
- Astro Gaming A50
- Razer Nari Essential
- Sennheiser GSP 670
- SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless
- Turtle Beach Elite Pro 2 + SuperAmp
The Best Xbox One Gaming Headphones
- Astro Gaming A40 TR + MixAmp Pro TR
- Astro Gaming A50
- SteelSeries Arctis 9X (Similar to Arctis Pro Wireless, without the base station)
- Turtle Beach Elite Pro 2 + SuperAmp
The Best Microphone for Gaming
In terms of headphone microphones, we’ve been consistently impressed by the mics Razer puts in its higher-end Kraken and Nari headphones, along with the mics on Turtle Beach and Astro Gaming’s flagship headphones. These can be pretty pricey, but if voice clarity is vital they’re worth the money.
You can also consider the Antlion Audio ModMic (pictured above). It’s a boom mic that attaches easily to your favorite pair of headphones, and can be removed when not in use thanks to a two-piece magnetic mount. You won’t get any of the gaming-specific features of dedicated gaming headphones with the ModMic (and wireless is right out), but it lets you use your beloved old cans for voice chat. Just make sure you have the right connection or adapter to use it with your preferred game platform.
If you’re really serious about streaming or other gaming commentary, you might want to forego the boom mic entirely and get a dedicated USB microphone instead. Decent USB mics can be found for around $50 to $150, and offer far clearer, richer, more natural audio than any boom mic you can get. It’s trickier to set up properly to get good sound, though; you need to be mindful of microphone position and where you are relative to it.
If you prefer single-player games and live alone, you don’t need a headphone at all. You can use speakers and enjoy the room-filling atmosphere, and shout into the inexpensive and mediocre monoaural headphones the Xbox One and PS4 come with.
But the next time you’re in a deathmatch, raid, or capture mission, make sure you’re shouting into the boom mic of a good headphone. To find the right one, check out our recommendations here, then take a look at PCMAG article 5 Easy Tips to Extend the Life of Your Headphones.