Gaming Headset vs Headphones – Which Is Better For Gamers?

Difference Between Headphones And Headsets

The audio in games is becoming more and more important, especially in multiplayer and competitive settings.

Audio cues give away a lot of things like footsteps or when there is a player reloading his or her weapon behind a wall or the subtle sound of an incoming zombie horde in the distance and so on.

Most of these sounds don’t come out well on regular speakers. It’s no wonder many games recommend using headphones or a good gaming headset.

The problem is that there are so many things to consider such as comfort, sound quality, amplifiers, and on-cable controls, etc. Not to mention, some of these can cost a fortune which takes away funds from the rest of your gaming build!

In this guide, you will learn about the things that should influence your preferences, 3 types of audio devices for gamers, and answer your questions about the differences between headphones and headsets.

Headphones vs Headsets vs Earbuds

Headphones

These devices typically consist of two small loudspeakers, one per ear. They come in two main styles: on-ear and over-ear.

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  • On-Ear headphones are usually smaller than over-ear, due to the ear cushion or padding sitting directly on the ear.
  • Over-ear are much larger and heavier since the cushions surround your ears instead of sitting on them.

You should try out both types and find out which type is more comfortable for you, as this varies on an individual basis.

Headsets

Headsets are the same as headphones, but what makes them different is having a built-in microphone.

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These are ideal for multiplayer or competitive gaming because voice communication is essential.

If you can’t afford to buy a separate microphone or don’t want to have additional hardware cluttering your desk, a headset is an ideal choice.

Another advantage is that with more expensive brands, you’ll find that some have more than 1 speaker per ear or virtual surround sound settings to help with determining sound directions and overall effect.

Earbuds

You should be familiar with these, especially if you’re a smartphone user. Earbuds are small earplugs you put directly into your ear.

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Up until recently, wired versions were the only thing available. However, wireless versions are out in full force and something to consider. There are even gaming earbuds that claim to offer competitive experiences to headphones.

Once your ear starts to get sore, you’re pretty much-done gaming for the day unless you switch to a headset.

At this point, I wouldn’t recommend these for serious or long gameplay since their sound quality is usually much lower and they can be uncomfortable.

Comfort & Usage

Headphones

Since you are going to wear your headphones for a long gaming session, comfort should be near the top of your list of considerations.

  • Over-Ear – Cushion sits around the ear.
  • On-Ear – Cushion sits on the ear.

How much pressure are your headphones going to place on your head and ears? Both the over-ear and on-ear types utilize various kinds of memory foam and padding for comfortability.

On-Ear Over-Ear Comparison

Since foam cushions can weaken over time, especially if the pressure exerted by the headband is too much, it can make wearing them uncomfortable.

I prefer over-ear headphones and headsets because the pressure is placed around the ear and not on the sensitive skin of the ear itself. Over-ear headphones also have the advantage of passive noise-canceling.

Just by having them around your ear, they dampen out some outside noise. We’ll get into this deeper, further down in this guide.

There are also different types of fabrics used to add comfort to your skin. I love velour because it’s so soft, but it can be a bit tricky to clean. Between oily ears and dust, they will need to be cleaned at some point.

I would avoid fake leather, vinyl, and other harder materials. Not only because of the comfort factor, but they also tend to crack and peel with regular use.

Headsets

Everything I’ve said about headphones applies to headsets too. The only difference is the microphone.

Some headsets have fixed mic positions which can be annoying if you just want to listen to a movie or music instead of communicating.

Depending on how you breathe and talk, not being able to adjust it can make painful for the people you’re speaking with.

I don’t want to hear you breathe while we’re playing together. And we’ve all played with people who sound like their microphone is in their mouth and 10x louder than the other people in your party.

Some mics swivel, flex or bend. These can be decent but build quality will be the determining factor. You have to remember that the wires inside are going to be moving all the time.

Cheaper builds use cheaper wiring which means that those wires will break quicker. Sometimes long before the rest of the headset is done.

Other headsets have detachable mics so that they can be used as regular headphones. Astro makes great detachable microphones for some of their headsets, but those may be well out of the average gamer’s budget.

Retractable microphones that can come out without you pulling it out speaks of low build quality. I would avoid retractable mics anyway because they are typically lower in quality.

Earbuds

Earbud Tips

There are quite a few different types of tips used for earbuds.

You will have to try out several different ones to see which is the most comfortable for you, so I would recommend choosing an earplug which comes in several different types and sizes of tips.

There are two main types of earbud tip materials, foam, and rubber or silicon. I’ve found that silicon tips can get a bit uncomfortable over a longer period while foam tips don’t last as long and need to be replaced more often.

There are various styles of tips as well. Some of these are bullet shaped while others have unique designs that claim to hold in the ear better or create better sound by blocking external noises.

Cleaning these is another issue. No matter how clean your ears are, these will need regular cleaning. Never put a dirty earbud in your ear.

Sound Quality

Headphones And Headsets

Sound quality is especially important if you want to play games like Battlefield, Rainbow Six: Siege or CS: GO. Positional audio and hearing small audio cues such as someone reloading a weapon or shuffling around are crucial in games like these.

Surround sound is typically made virtually because sounds would arrive in your ear at the same time regardless of their in-game distance, unlike having an actual surround speaker system. So software or hardware-based solutions are necessary here.

I must mention that there are some companies, who have created headsets with multiple speakers in each ear muff, but they certainly haven’t taken off.

The solutions we have now with virtual surround sound are pretty darn good!

On PC, you might have to install proprietary software for your headphones or headset for this to function properly. Although many sets have a small box that your headset plugs into before it’s plugged into your PC.

Open or Closed?

Many headphones and headsets come in an open or closed style. What does that mean?

  • Open – External sounds can pass through the earmuff. For example, you can hear your game, but also your dog walking around on a hardwood floor.
  • Closed – External sounds are difficult or impossible to hear. You can hear your game, but maybe not someone knocking at your door.

I prefer closed ear because I don’t want to be disturbed while I’m gaming and I find that the bass levels are usually better for that style.

However, I’m currently using an open style, Sennheiser PC363D, and it allows dampened external sounds just enough not to take away too much concentration.

If you can get a headset that has on-cable or on ear muff volume controls, do it. If you’re deeply immersed and want to hear just a tad bit better, a simple adjustment can make the difference without taking you away from the moment.

If you have a high-impedance headphone, you might have to use separate AMPs (amplifiers) to reach their full sound quality and volume capabilities. These are usually above 80 Ohms. Average gamer headphones are around 30-60 which work fine with onboard sound solutions.

Earbuds

While there are quite a few types of gaming earbuds available, in general, their sound quality isn’t suited for competitive gaming.

Even so, they might be an ideal choice if you just want to play games without disturbing others or using a bulky headpiece.

It is very important to look out for the frequency response indicated on the earbuds’ packaging. Most of them can accurately reproduce sounds in the 10 Hz to 20 kHz range. We’re talking the deep bass to high treble.

Microphones

Whether you use a headset with a built-in microphone or use a separate one, its quality is very important. No one wants to play with a teammate whose mic makes irritating buzzing or crackling sounds.

Headsets feature built-in mics, but since their focus is often not on the mic, manufacturers tend to cheap out on them.

Because of that, you have to spend a lot more money on a headset that has a quality mic. That limits your choices, but several brands offer quality all around.

External desktop microphones usually have simple installation. Most PCs and consoles have color-coded ports (Green – Audio, Pink – Microphone) or simply plug into a USB port.

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However, you have to find a good location for your mic. It can’t be too close or too far away from your mouth. If you are using external speakers, you have to consider that it might pick up your game’s noise in the background.

Audio Jack vs USB

Generally speaking, USB provides better sound quality USB provides better sound quality than audio jacks.

Audio Jack Connector And USB

For audio jacks, your sound card (often a built-in Realtek variant on your motherboard) has to do analog-to-digital conversions.

While for USB, your head unit’s DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) will do this work, often with much higher quality and less loss, resulting in clearer audio quality and less overhead on your PC.

However, the good old audio jack is deemed to be more reliable and stable for gaming.

USB is known to have some issues with reliability and stability. For example, disconnect-reconnect cycles can be difficult to troubleshoot.

While many issues can be solved by unplugging and re-plugging your devices, it can be annoying when it happens during intense gaming or a live stream.

Wired or Wireless?

While wireless headsets have the convenience of freeing you from cables, they do have some additional issues and concerns.

These devices mostly use Bluetooth, so if you have a regular desktop PC, you will likely have to purchase a separate USB dongle for Bluetooth support or ensure that your headpiece comes with one.

Battery type and life should be taken into consideration. Some Bluetooth headsets use regular or rechargeable AA or AAA batteries, while others have built-in batteries.

Built-in options are great because they are usually designed to give you longer battery life and operating time. However, once the batteries start to degrade, you may not be able to replace them easily.

Proximity can be a deal breaker. Wires are usually 3 to 6 feet long, while Bluetooth-capable devices can work up to 20-25 feet.

Console gamers are especially happy with wireless devices since those enable them to sit further away from their TV without an annoying cable crossing the entire room. No matter how careful you are, wires will get tripped over and sometimes ripped out of their ports.

Again, if there is interference with the wireless connection, it can interrupt gameplay. Personally, I’m a fan of cable connections for stability reasons.

When it comes to headset audio, the latency difference is negligible between wired and wireless which is unlike my view on keyboards and mice. The audio quality for most gamers is on par for each, but you have to pay higher prices for better sound quality in both cases.

Cost & Purpose

Like with everything else, you have to define your expectations before making a purchase.

  • Do you have a budget?
  • Do you just want to enjoy your game with acceptable sound quality without disturbing others in the same room?
  • Do you play intense multiplayer FPS games or simpler games like The SIMs?
  • Do you want to look stylish, but still enjoy great audio quality while live streaming on Twitch?
  • How long and how often are you going to use them? That might make the difference between choosing wired and wireless.

There are headphones for every need, but I would avoid “cheap” no matter your goal. Buy from a reputable brand that has a lot of reviews about the product you are considering.

Those unheard of brands at Walmart might last a month or two, but you may end up tossing them out shortly after. Even if they do last, the sound and mic quality is going to terrible. Once you try a higher-end model, you’ll understand what you’re missing out on.

While higher prices may indicate better quality, you should be aware that many brands like to overprice their “Gamer” models while not providing any additional benefits. If you’re set on a particular brand and model, wait for a sale or find a discount code!

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are a lot of different factors to consider when choosing a headphone, headset or earbuds for gaming, but it comes down to your personal preference.

What works for someone else, might not work for you.

Even so, it’s good to have a variety of opinions to help you determine which is best for you. What is your favorite types and styles for gaming?

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