When you're in the market for a gaming headset, look for products designed as linearly as possible, capable of providing sufficient level stability, and delivering passable transient response.
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.
Comparing headphones with good resolution to those that modify the sound you hear yields unambiguous results. Where the left image shows a jet passing over a ground battle with clearly audible structure, exaggerated bass on the right distorts action on the ground to an indistinguishable messy rumble. Turbine noise is lost in a completely dominant whistle, while wide-band air noises disappear entirely.
There's always room to discuss the merits of simulated surround sound. But even though the illusion's benefits are subjective, over-emphasized sound design forces us to give this technique of manipulating what you hear a resounding thumbs-down. Such an acoustic concoction, which changes the levels across different frequency ranges, should ultimately be dumped. It usually just leads to self-deceit, since sounds aren't played back the way they were meant to be heard.
PC audio is a matter of personal opinion shaped by listening habits and our own brains, trained through a lifetime of acoustic experiences. This leaves the field wide open for interpretation. However, gaming headsets will probably never make great all-around listening devices. In the end, many gamers may conclude that a good set of in-ear headphones, or decent stereo headphones plus an external microphone are a much better solution.
This leaves consumers prepared for both action and music. After all, whether you're listening to a classical orchestra or the latest depiction of WWI, physical laws and biological peculiarities remain the same.
Unfortunately, the term "gaming" is all too often misused to justify either higher prices or the sale of meddling manipulation as a feature. There are laudable exceptions, as we'll see in our headset reviews. But for the most part, we're looking for specific qualities and characteristics from audio hardware.
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