What factors make up headphone quality specifically for gaming? We at Antlion Audio have distilled it down to these main groupings: Comfort, Image & Soundstage, and Overall Sound Quality.
Before we dive into what all that means, let's get a list and some scores of the best, reasonably priced (mostly) headphones:
Prices and scores (out of 10.0), taken from third-party review site Rtings. Accurate as of 3/5/19.
|Sennheiser HD 599||Open||8.5||7.5||8.0||$163.33|
Sennheiser HD 800s
* Wireless with low enough latency for gaming
So what do all these columns mean for your gaming experience? Let's run through them real quick!
Is the back of the earcup is open, closed, or semi-open? An open earcup, as you can mostly see by the scores, tends to give higher results. This is because the open design allows for a wider, more natural sound. However, open back headphones "leak" sound, meaning the person sitting next to you can hear them too. It's fairly rude to use them in public, and since one of the advantages of the ModMic is you can remove it and use your headphones without the mic, it may make sense to use closed back headphones. However, if overall "best" is your concern, open or semi-open are the way to go.
First, these scores are subjective. It's not easy to give a number to comfort since your head and my head are different. That said, based on our experience these numbers look accurate and there's a noticeable difference between something scoring a 7.5 and something scoring an 8 or 8.5. In short, think of 7.5 as "above average" and 8.5 as more comfortable than you can even imagine. At this time NO headphone has ever scored higher than an 8.5. Comfort is KING in gaming though, because if you're anything like us, a gaming session can sometimes be an all-day event. Not a single gaming headset managed to reach 8.5.
Imaging & Sound Stage
THIS is why you buy headphones over gaming headsets. It's also why open back headphones tend to outperform on this list. Without diving too far into the technicals, think of "imaging" as how accurately a gunshot in the distance is positioned and "soundstage" as to how far away it sounds. The score you see is the headphones' average between both, and like Comfort, there's a noticeable difference between 7 and 8 and no headphone has ever reached 9.0 yet. Think of 7 as good and 8.5+ as "like being in a movie theater."
This is a mixture of all the factors that go into quality: Frequency response curves across high, mids, and lows, imaging, soundstage, and harmonic distortion. In short, the higher this number the more accurate your headphones are reproducing the sounds themselves. Unlike the above scores, these scores tend to range much wider and are a little deceptive. First, to be clear you may not even notice the difference between a 7 and 8 on this. Second, two headphones both scoring 7s may have very different sounds (called a sound signature) but, on the whole, average out to be equal. In short, take this number with a grain of salt. It's a great starting point, but you need to compare two headphones side by side to really get your own opinion.
Did you notice our last headphone? The HD 800s? If price is no object this article isn't needed. Buy that headphone, a nice amp, and be done with it. Price IS an object for most of us, so it is important to consider what you're getting for the cost. Is comfort more important than imaging? Is overall sound quality more vital than comfort? We selected only headphones (with the exception of the HD800) costing less than $200 at the time of publication. Add a ModMic for as little as $50 extra and you have created the ultimate gaming headset for anywhere between $78 and $240. There's no wrong choices on this list, but there ARE choices, and budget is probably the first factor to consider.
These are what we believe are the keys to making the right headphone choice. Price, quality, comfort, and soundstage & imaging. Score high in all those boxes and leave your headsets behind. The above list is NOT a complete list of every good headphone, but rather a selection of headphones tested by a third party which highlights the quality you can get from separate headphones over headsets.