Shopping for a gaming headset is tough—in part because of market oversaturation. Combine the ever-rising popularity of e-sports with the relative ease of combining off-the-shelf audio hardware with flashy RGBs, cushy earcups, and some software wizardry, and you get a market overflowing with product. A quick search of a few popular online shopping sites reveals hundreds of headset choices across dozens of companies, ranging in price from less than $10 (£8) to north of $600 (£460).
We bet that you already have a sense of where your budget falls within that wide price range. But whether you’re shopping on a tight budget, or ready to spend the big bucks, you’ll still have lots of things to consider—and dozens of products to choose from. We've been testing gaming headsets for the better part of the past year and have distilled down the best we've tested here; to see all the models we have tested, check out our gaming headsets page.
Buying a Gaming Headset in 2018
Do you want a wired or wireless headset? Is gaming-console compatibility key, or are you strictly a PC-bound gamer? These are the two big considerations in any headset buy.
WIRED OR WIRELESS. Keep in mind, first and foremost: Wired headsets will generally cost less—and, of course, they never need to be charged. So, if you’re a PC person who plays games at your desk, you may want to stick to wired options for cost savings and simplicity. A wired headset is never going to die on you during a tense moment of battle—unless (maybe) you run over the cable with your chair. Then again, there’s no denying the convenience of being able to run to the kitchen for coffee (or your favorite non-coffee energy drink) without having to remove your cans.
A KEY SPEC: APTX. If you do go the wireless route, look for headsets that support Qualcomm’s aptX tech, a compression tech (codec) that’s been used for decades in TV and movie voice-work, in movie-theater audio, and by thousands of radio stations. In short, if you’ve heard Bluetooth audio in years past and hated it (it definitely was bad for a long while), give an aptX-enabled headset a listen. So long as the underlying hardware is good, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the sound output.
ALL ABOUT THE LOOK. Of course, you have some aesthetic elements to consider, as well, which will be purely subjective. Not everyone needs or wants RGB lights around their head, or for their headset to look like a sci-fi prop. But if you’re going to pair your headset with a keyboard and mouse from the same company, and all feature lighting effects that can be synced across the peripherals, the effect can be eye-catching—as well as helpful inside a game if the software lets you correspond in-game events or statuses (such as inflicted damage or cool-down meters) to specific lighting effects.
AUDIO & MIC QUALITY. These matter, of course, but they are impossible to evaluate on the one or two floor models at your local superstore. We focus on these aspects in detail in our deep-dive reviews.
HEADBAND & EARCUP COMFORT. Comfort is obviously more subjective than measuring audio output and input, and you should be wary of plush gaming headsets with thick bulges, cheap foam, and cloth covers. They might look good and feel comfortable, but our testing of these types of headsets often reveals disappointing acoustic performance. The ear-cushion material can make a huge difference in what your ears actually perceive.
How We Test
If you want a deep dive into our testing methodologies, peruse our comprehensive How We Test Gaming Headsets feature to understand the methodology. But for a quick sense of what we do, here’s an excerpt...
Evaluating headphones and headsets requires a slightly more complex environment than loudspeakers. The positioning of the earpiece on the auricle, how well the pieces close around the ear, and the distance between sound source and microphone (and their directional characteristics) play a major role.
To get a reasonably reliable measurement is quite complicated. That's why, for stereo recordings, we use a homemade artificial head that imitates the properties of a human. Our microphones are placed inside the auricles.
More specifically, we're using two Shure Beta 181/C mics in a wax-like plastic cast head. Their linear frequency response is very convincing when recording indoor sound, even though these small microphones were originally intended for pure instrument recordings.
A particularly beneficial property is their distortion-free recording of high levels, which is just what we need for headsets. The necessary corrections are provided by a calibration profile that we prepared especially for this purpose.
Our testing also involves analyzing in-game audio from popular titles like Battefield 4, Far Cry 4, Fallout 3, and Crysis to get a baseline of the types of sounds gamers are going to be dealing with.
So what has our in-depth testing taught us about gaming headsets in general? Rather than rehash salient conclusions into a list of bullet points, here’s another beefy chunk of advice from our How We Test story:
Detailed reproduction and good spatial resolution, particularly when it comes to complex noises and environments with multiple sound sources, are more important than any attempt at simulated surround sound. And, by the way, for fine-tuning and sound modification, a flexible equalizer is always better than a fixed sound design that cannot be changed.
Of course, good headsets almost always cost more, so it's unrealistic to expect miracles from cheap stuff. Then again, we sometimes find diamonds in the rough. Moreover, there's some really pricey junk out there, too. Trust reviews based on data collected via solid methodology. That's exactly what we aim to provide.
Our Top Pick: Best Wireless Gaming Headset
Wireless headsets require batteries and streaming tech, making them fundamentally more complex (and therefore usually more expensive) than their wired counterparts. But there’s no denying the freedom they afford, letting you run to get a snack or answer the door without having to take your headset off. Plus, you’ll never trip on the wires of your wireless headset. Just remember to charge up before that big battle. You don’t want your audio to cut out in the thick of the fray.
Our Top Pick: Best Wired Gaming Headset
As noted up top, wired headsets tend to cost less than their wireless counterparts, and they don't need to be charged. This tends to make them more reliable since they won't die in the middle of a tense battle. If you always game at your desk or right in front of your laptop, a good wired headset can deliver a lot of great features at a modest cost. And the wired connection means you'll always get the best sound quality the hardware can deliver, without the potential complications of interference or compression.
Our Top Pick: Best Budget Gaming Headset
Given that wireless headsets typically cost more than wired models, budget models will often be the latter. But that doesn’t mean they have to be light on features. The best budget headsets will have sound quality that's above-average for their class and pack a solid feature set, while often skimping on flash and features that don’t add much substance or utility.