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Gaming Headset vs. Headphones, which one should you go for?
People often use the terms headsets and headphones interchangeably, and for the most part, it’s not wrong.
Both terms refer to a structure that has two earpieces connected via a headband that you hang over your skull.
So where does the distinction lie?
Headsets and Headphones – How Do They Differ?
Is there a real difference, and does it really matter?
As it turns out, it does matter actually, in terms of function.
Headsets have integrated mics, that’s why it’s a “set”. Headphones don’t.
And that is where the entire distinction lies.
To sum it up, if you don’t need a mic to chat, you don’t need a headset.
So, getting into this a little further, we want to talk about gaming headsets versus headphones. For this article, we’ll talk about the mainstream consumer headphones, not studio headphones. We’ll touch a bit on studio headphones later.
Now lets put gaming headsets vs consumer headphones head-to-head.
What do we mean by versatility? What can you use them for?
The number one reason people use gaming headsets is so they can chat and game at the same time. Lots of multiplayer games support in-game chatting. And if you’re doing team play, having a good line of communication is more important than ever.
Gaming headsets should give you a clear chat with an immersive sound experience. But you can use them for other things too.
Need to chat on Skype with your colleagues?
Need to record audio for a video voice-over?
Need to hear what you sound like for a Toastmaster speech?
Gaming headsets have you covered.
Headphones are meant to be heard and not spoken into. Enough said.
As the jack-of-all-trades, gaming headsets wins on versatility hands-down.
#2: Sound Quality
Sound quality is one of the most important factors in any audio equipment.
Most gaming headsets are designed to support the gaming audio and can often handle virtual surround sound. The sounds are typically balanced because they not only have to handle music but also effects and voices. If there is an emphasis applied, gaming headsets do tend to go a little heavier on the bass. So, it might not always suit music listening.
You’ll probably enjoy your movies on a gaming headset, but a music listening experience will depend entirely on your preferences. Of course, there’s always the option of using an EQ to help improve sound output.
Here’s where sound quality will shine. Consumer headphones are meant to provide the most pleasing musical listening experience possible, within its price margin. They’re built mainly for music and will often excel at music output.
When it comes to sound quality, it’s hard to beat a specialist. Consumer headphones are built to produce good sound output, and are therefore more likely to have great sound quality. Gaming headsets have simply too many things to balance.
#3: Surround Sound
When you look at surround sound in wearable audio (and this can be DTS, Dolby formats, etc), you’re usually looking at virtual surround sound.
Virtual surround is typically created by the software on your computer or within your headphones. True surround sound is when there are multiple drivers in the headphones to create three-dimensional rotational audio.
So how do gaming headsets and consumer headphones compare?
If you’re into first-person shooters (FPS) games, surround sound is going to give you a massive advantage in terms of positional accuracy. For that reason, many good gaming headsets will be able to support surround sound.
But surround isn’t just for shooters. They’re great for RPGs and adventure genres too. They give an immersive quality to the gaming experience. Imagine riding into that village with the hooves of your steed clattering on the cobblestone below, the humdrum of the marketplace before you, your NPC companion chattering to your side. Works the same for movies too.
Consumer headphones generally aren’t built for surround sound but will support excellent stereo output. Don’t get us wrong. There are headphones that can do surround, and some that can even output true surround sound. But it’s not as common as in gaming headsets.
Gaming headsets have the lead here, as they typically have more surround sound options.
Is your headset or headphone portable?
Can you throw it into your backpack wherever you go?
One thing you’ll notice on the outset about gaming headphones is that they’re kind of bulky. Blame this on the noise isolation usually designed into the over-ear earcups. The earcups are usually large, to cover the entire ear and minimize noise leakage.
So, a gaming headset may not be your go-to for portability simply because of its unwieldiness. But on the plus side, you won’t need to bring a separate mic if you’re going to a LAN party.
If you like listening to media wherever you go, then the consumer headphone is for you. They usually have a smaller form factor, and will often be foldable in some way to make it more portable.
Consumer headphones win here. They’re usually more portable than gaming headsets.
#5: Open-Back & Closed-Back Options
The open-back earcup design will provide an airy listening experience with a natural, open soundstage. It’ll also keep your ears cool longer. The closed-back gaming headset design provides passive noise isolation but will make your ears heat up faster.
How common are these designs found among these two?
Gaming headsets are primarily of the closed-back variety. This is probably driven by competitive gaming, where players prefer to have noise isolation in their gaming environment. There are some excellent open-back gaming headsets but they’re not as easily found as its closed-back sibling.
In this category, the open-back headphone is much easier to find along with the closed-back. The closed-back design does tend to rule at consumer-level use, with the open-back headphone occupying the high-fidelity, professional-use range.
Consumer headphones have more buying options when it comes to the open-back and closed-back designs.
This is another important element for headphones and headsets. Ever put on a pair and got a massive headache from the weight? Or maybe the pressure around ears was too strong?
Let’s have a look at the ergonomics of these two.
Gamers tend to wear the headsets a lot – and we mean, a lot. Gaming sessions can run up to many hours, so gaming headsets are usually designed with plenty of comfort in mind.
They can be bulky but comfort is typically factored in with cushy earcup material and padding on the headband, a frame that is as light as possible. Some gaming headsets will even take into account the presence of eyeglass frames.
So, gaming headsets may be bulky but they’re usually very comfortable.
Consumer headphones are often designed with comfort in mind too. Maybe not for hours of wear like gaming headsets, but they need to be nice to keep on for a decent length of time. They also tend to be light and the on-ear type won’t heat your ears as much as the over-ear style gaming headsets often adopt.
It’s a toss-up. There’s comfort to be found in both types.
#7: Design Aesthetics
Before you even think of sound quality or comfort, you usually look at the styling of the headset or headphones first. After all, looks are what first meets the eye, even if it’s not the most important factor. Do they look good? Do you look good with them?
The way gaming headsets look often make them stand out from all other headphone/headset varieties. Designs tend to adopt an aggressive and colorful styling. Some will sport the ubiquitous RGB lighting that adorns many gaming peripheral these days. Don’t get us wrong, those RGB lightings are fun! However, they may not suit all tastes. Some gamers do prefer the understated, quieter forms.
Headphones are often quite stylish with pleasing, low-key aesthetics. You would typically be able to wear them outside and not stand-out (unless that was your aim).
Consumer headphones win hands-down. They are the chic fashionistas between the two.
Will they create a black hole in your wallet?
Headsets have more parts to integrate than headphones, so this will contribute to a hike in the price. Sometimes, sound quality or build quality may suffer to keep the cost competitive. Even so, it’s quite possible to get a decent pair of gaming headsets at a budget price as it is to get one at a steep number.
Consumer headphone pricing can be cheap to sky-high. “Expensive” does not guarantee quality, just as “budget” doesn’t mean it’ll sound bad.
Another toss-up. It depends on how large a hole you’re willing to make in your wallet.
When Do You Need a Separate Mic?
If you prefer the sound quality of consumer headphones, but need to chat, you can always purchase a separate mic. There are several good attachable boom mics out there designed specifically for this kind of use.
Just be aware that you’ll be dealing with additional connection, additional cable, and extra potential for product malfunction.
Our (Quick) Buying Guide
Once you’ve decided you want a gaming headset or a consumer headphone, here’s a quick summary of what you should look out for when buying.
What To Look For in a Gaming Headset:
- Quality in both sound production and mic input
- Does it offer surround sound?
- Comfort, because you’ll likely be wearing them long
- Compatibility with different gaming platforms (PC, console, mobile…)
What To Look For in a Consumer Headphone:
- Sound quality is of the most import
- Portability if you plan to bring it around
- Wired, or wireless if you prefer not to deal with cables
- Styling, especially if you want to wear them outside
Bonus: The Studio Headphone and Audio Editing
So here’s the sometimes elusive third sibling in this headphone/headset family. The studio headphone.
When do you need these?
Do you do audio editing?
Then get studio headphones. This is the only case where you should seriously consider getting this type of headphones. They’re designed to be high-fidelity with a “flat” output. Not “flat” to your ears, but to reproduce sounds as faithfully and accurately as possible to the source material.
Studio headphones tend to be very well-built with parts that are easy to repair. But they generally cost a bit more and are preferred by music professionals. Most gamers or consumer-level listeners would not go for studio headphones as other headsets or headphones can be obtained for cheaper.
Conclusion: What Is Your Purpose?
At the end of the day, what you need to ask yourself is, “what am I using these for?”.
Get a gaming headset if you play lots of multiplayer gamers, and need to chat with your gaming buddies. A gaming headset would also be a better option if you want surround sound.
If you’re more into music or just listening (not chatting), consumer headphones will likely give you the best audio quality for your money.
And finally, you do have the option of getting an integrated microphone if you want the option to chat with your consumer headphones on.