How to Choose a Great Gaming Headset
We talked to various experts and 16 die-hard users to find the best designs and features
Libby Kamen, the manager of Team Kitty, an online network created to promote female video game streamers, regularly spends 6 hours a day playing the likes of “World of Warcraft,” “Among Us,” and “Stream Racer” before legions of fans on Twitch, a popular live-streaming platform. Doing so without her trusty wireless gaming headset, she says, is hard to imagine.
“If I gesture wildly while on camera, I’m not going to pull the cord off,” she adds. “If I get up to get a snack, I’m not going to trip. That would be great content, but probably not fun for me!”
Needless to say, a lot of demands get placed on gaming headsets. They require high-quality sound and a built-in microphone so that you can chat with friends (or viewers) while playing on Microsoft’s Xbox, Nintendo’s Switch, Sony’s PlayStation, or any number of gaming computers. Ideally, they’re also wireless (or at least tangle-resistant), comfortable to wear for extended periods of time, and capable of providing a more immersive audio experience than if you were merely using the built-in speakers of your TV or laptop.
Gaming Headset 101: Why You'd Want One
Gaming headsets are useful for two big reasons: 1) They allow you to easily chat with your friends courtesy of the built-in microphone, and 2) They deliver high-quality, immersive audio directly to your ears, sparing the ears of others nearby, who may not want to hear the hubbub from “Call of Duty” for hours on end.
“My partner just does not want to hear gunfire or screaming,” says Charlie Hall, a senior reporter at Polygon, a popular video game and pop culture website. “Nor, on the other end of the spectrum, does she want to hear the happy-go-lucky, singsong sounds of 'Animal Crossing.'”
As he says, the immersive audio provided by a gaming headset can be useful in many ways. When you clearly hear the rustling of leaves, the pitter-patter of rain, or the crackling of the flame on your torch, you can savor more fully the experience of being in a virtual world. It’s a bit like watching a ballgame inside the stadium.
And, as our user study participants pointed out time and again, in highly competitive multiplayer games, where every second counts, it’s vitally important to be able to distinguish between the faint gunfire in the distance and the heavy footsteps at your back.
“With a game like 'Call of Duty' or 'Fortnite' or 'PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds'—anything where you’re playing with other people in a multiplayer space—you can hear them,” says Hall. “The footsteps, the gunfire, the grunts. Using your left and right ears, you can tell where they are, get your crosshairs on them, and do better at the game.”
Having a built-in microphone means you can easily chat with your friends, better coordinating your actions. It’s also, you know, just nice to be able to speak to people given how hard it is to socialize right now.
With those basics out of the way, you’ll want to turn your attention next to what is perhaps the biggest decision you’ll face when choosing a gaming headset …
Wired or Wireless?
Wired headsets are generally less expensive than wireless models. They’re arguably simpler to use, too: You merely plug them into your console or computer and off you go.
But some users dislike being tethered to a gaming device by a wire. They prefer not to have their range of motion restricted in any way.
Wireless headsets are a little more complicated. Before clicking the buy button, you have to make certain they’re compatible with the device you own. That’s because wireless headsets use different technologies to send and receive audio—Bluetooth, 2.4GHz RF, or something else entirely—and not all platforms support those standards.
Take the Sony PS5. It supports Bluetooth and 2.4GHz RF headsets, but you need an adapter that plugs into the console for them to work. The adapter typically comes with the headset, but you also can purchase one separately if you want to use, say, the AirPods Pro or Sony 1000XM4 you already own (minus the mic, of course).
The Microsoft Xbox Series X/S uses a proprietary technology called Xbox Wireless, which the company claims is less susceptible to interference than Bluetooth or 2.4Gz RF. But that means your headset for the Xbox Series X/S may not work with other platforms.
Some wireless headphones cover all the bases, fully functioning with all the major platforms and wireless technologies, but these models are generally more expensive.
At the very least, you should check the product packaging or product pages on the manufacturer’s website to confirm that the headset you purchase won’t disappoint you the moment you remove it from the box and attempt to pair it with your machine.
Wireless headphones have one more complication to be aware of: They’re powered by batteries, and batteries have to be charged before you enter into a long day of play. It can be annoying.
“Every time the battery gets low, I have to plug it in and I hate it,” says Kamen of Team Kitty, describing a wireless headset she’s recently been using. “I hate it, hate it, hate it.”
Some, though not all, headsets sidestep this issue with batteries that can be removed and charged separately. Others permit you to use them while they’re being charged, as long as you can plug the charging cord into a computer, console, or nearby outlet.
Once again, these are things you don’t have to worry about if you buy a wired headset.
The right gaming headset for you is one that’s comfortable to wear, even during marathon gaming sessions. After all, says Damien Mason, a hardware writer at the UK-based video game website PCGamesN, “if it’s an uncomfortable headset, it will always be uncomfortable.”
But what does comfort mean in the context of gaming headsets?
One factor to consider is how tightly the headset sits on your head and ears. This is sometimes referred to as clamping force and may be particularly important for people who wear glasses, because a tight fit can push them into your temples.
Many headsets allow you to adjust how tightly they fit around your head, often with a simple notch mechanism that clicks into place as you adjust the headband. (Though we can’t outright say “all” headsets feature this option, you almost have to go out of your way to find a pair that doesn’t.) One novel approach, taken by the company SteelSeries, adds a ski-goggle-style band beneath the headset band that allows you to more precisely adjust the fit.
“I love the design,” said one user study participant who owns the manufacturer's Arctis 7 headset. “Not only is it unique, but the added form-fitting strap is comfortable for short and long gaming sessions.”
Another factor to consider is the material the headset uses to cover the memory foam cushioning around the head and ears. A number of participants in our user study lamented the unpleasant phenomenon of overheated ears after extended play, and that can be tough to avoid, particularly if you like to game for hours on end. Though faux leather looks nice, a mesh fabric allows for greater breathability.
“On our team, we all use mesh,” says Michael Hoenig, founder and editor-in-chief of Hardware Canucks, a gadget review channel on YouTube with more than 1.5 million subscribers. “It’s just more comfortable, and you don’t have to worry about it sticking to your head after a while.”
One option, he says, that may in time resolve any debate over which material is best, is to choose a headset that offers replaceable ear cups so that you can easily switch styles.
Sound Quality and Features
There are two things to consider when it comes to sound: the quality of the audio you hear and the quality of the audio your friends hear when you speak into the mic.
A good gaming headset should help you determine where your opponents are on the virtual battlefield, a concept known as directionality. Some headsets go one step further, offering surround sound technology designed to improve this directionality, but the quality depends on several factors, including whether or not the game has been programmed to take advantage of the feature.
The headset should also be fast. You don’t want any delay between when something happens in the game and when you actually hear it. This is known as latency and can be a real immersion killer.
“You don’t want to fire a shot onscreen and not hear it for another second,” says Mason. “Because that means you don’t hear your enemies’ shots for another second, either, and that second can mean life or death in the game.”
Latency mostly affects Bluetooth wireless headsets, according to Mason, and could be a reason to go for a model that uses 2.4GHz RF, a wireless standard that’s faster and has a longer range than Bluetooth. (Or a wired model, of course.)
Then there’s the microphone.
Lower-end gaming headsets have to cut corners somewhere, and it’s often microphone quality that suffers the most. “When you’re yelling with your friends, it will crackle and sound kind of rough,” says Team Kitty’s Kamen.
The mics on certain wireless headsets have trouble, too, owing to the way they transmit data.
“There’s only so much data you can jam through a wireless connection,” says Hoenig. “You want to take 5.1 surround sound or virtual surround sound, process that, and then have two-way voice? Imagine water being poured into a very small funnel: That’s your wireless connection.”
And so, you might want to double-check the reviews of any wireless headset you’re considering to make sure there aren’t widespread complaints about audio quality. Make sure you keep the receipt handy as well, in case you need to initiate a return.
As the product cards below point out, there’s a range of other features to think about, too, including controls that let you mute the mic, adjust the volume, and strike just the right balance between in-game audio and chat audio. You’ll also find varying degrees of flexibility in positioning the mic. In some cases, you can simply raise and lower it. In others, it’s placed on a bendable arm.
In an ideal world, you’d want to visit a store and try on various models to find the features and fit that best suit your needs. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made that far more challenging. So, at the very least, try to purchase your gaming headset from a retailer with a favorable return policy.
The consumers who participated in our user study owned at least one of the following models—listed according to price.
Price: $25 to $30
CR's take: This is a wired model with cables that descend from both ear cups, as one user in our study noted, which can be a nuisance. Inline controls let you adjust the volume and mute the mic. The mic can also be removed if you wish to use the headphones to listen to music and movie soundtracks. The included PC splitter cable provides access to headphone and mic jacks on computers. The headset is compatible with Mac and PC; PS5 and PS4; Xbox Series X/S and Xbox One; and mobile devices that accept a 3.5mm audio plug, but you have to choose the correct model for your computer or console.
Price: $90 to $100
CR's take: This is a 2.4GHz wireless model with 7.1 surround sound technology and a claimed battery life of up to 16 hours. On-ear controls let you adjust the volume and mute the mic. You can also mute by flipping the mic upward, a feature often mentioned as a plus by our users. An LED light indicator lets you know when Mute is on. Online software controls allow you to tweak equalizer settings, set up pretuned audio profiles, and customize the RGB lighting on each earcup. The model is compatible with PC and PS4.
Price: $98 to $110
CR's take: This is a Bluetooth wireless model with a claimed battery life of up to 15 hours. It features 3D Audio Advantage technology for Playstation consoles and Windows Sonic surround sound tech for Xbox consoles. On-ear controls let you adjust the game and chat volume independently and apply preset settings for bass, treble, and voice chat. According to one study participant, the SuperHuman Hearing setting is helpful for detecting footsteps and other subtle sounds. You mute the mic by flipping it upward. The headset is compatible with Nintendo Switch; PS 5, PS 4, and PS 4 Pro; Windows 10 PCs; and XBox Series X/S and Xbox One, but you have to choose the correct model for your computer or console.
CR's take: This is a 2.47GHz wireless model with DTS Headphone:X v2.0 surround sound technology and a claimed battery life of 24 hours. It has an LED light indicator for monitoring the battery level. On-ear controls let you adjust the volume, mute the mic, and tweak the balance between game and chat audio. The mic retracts into an ear cup. One user in our study mentioned that the headset comes with software that allows you to put more emphasis on footsteps or fire. Another admired the ski-goggle-style headband that keeps the plastic headband off your head. The manufacturer also includes a 3.5mm audio cord for wired use with mobile devices. The headset is compatible with Mac and PC, Nintendo Switch, and PS. (The PS 4 does not support the surround sound feature.)