Nothing is sweeter than the sound of silence, but because silence is less immersive than grenades, chainsaws, and crotch shots, games have audio to make them feel more realistic.
There are two sides to the audio coin though, with “gaming” headphones and “audiophile” headphones both addressing the sound need, despite their differing feature lists. So which is better?
Gaming headphones are feature rich
You may be familiar with sets such as the Logitech G35 and the Razer Megalodon. These headsets typically have features that benefit gamers, the most notable being multi channel directional audio.
So the Logitech G35’s offer 7.1 channel gaming, right? Dedicated speakers for front left, front right, side left, side right, rear left, rear right, centre and subwoofer. Wrong, the G35’s are actually stereo headphones.
Unlike true multi channel audio (which I’ll get to in a minute), the G35’s are just a pair of stereo headphones with built-in 7.1 channel processing. The same signal that would be sent to your sound card is sent via USB to the G35’s processing unit instead, which emulates 7.1 channel surround sound on the headphones, giving you the impression of multi directional audio.
True multi channel gaming headphones such as the Tritton AX Pro gaming headset do exist (and are quite pricy) if you’re willing to take things to the next level, and they offer a whole new range of features to consider. The AX Pro cans have 4 speakers in each side which produce front, rear, centre and subwoofer sounds independent of each other, similar to how a home theater system works.
Beyond the multi directional audio there are other features found on gaming headphones that benefit gaming. Built in microphones are essential for competitive team based play, though it seems they’re more often used for shouting at noobs rather than discussing tactics and match information. The other feature is built in controls, such as volume up/down/mute, along with more advanced options such as voice morphing and voice commands over music. Nice to have, but not as essential as the mic.
Audiophile quality is awesomesauce
While the list of features found on gaming headphones is fresh in your mind, let’s list what’s missing from audiophile headphones. Firstly they don’t often have a built-in microphone, something gamers will have to work around if they use voice chat often (a R80 lapel mic is an option). They also don’t offer built-in volume controls, and G keys with voice morphing were the last thing on the designer’s mind.
So they’re missing quite a few of the nice-to-have features found on gaming headphones, however what they do have is the sort of quality that you won’t find in gaming headphones.
Audiophile headphones cost more than a regular set of stereo cans because of the audio quality they produce. Sounds are clearer, sharper, and more precise. Things sounder tighter, more controlled, and the experience is far better.
Audiophiles often talk about soundstage, a way to subjectively measure the depth and richness of sound. Good soundstage allows music lovers to pick up where different instruments, voices and vocal parts are situated on an imaginary 2D or 3D field. By the same token this soundstage would benefit gamers, who would be able to pinpoint where the sniping camper is judging by the sound of the bullet flying past your left ear without the need for newfangled sound processing technology.
Speaking of this technology, audiophile headphones can make use of similar Dolby technology found in the Logitech G35s via their sound card and similar multi channel audio emulation can be produced, on higher quality speakers.
More to consider
Audio is a very subjective field, and if you give a set of headphones to 10 different reviewers you’ll get 10 different reviews, all with varying scores. From my own experience there is little to no difference in gaming between the Logitech G35, the Tritton AX Pro, and a set of Sennheiser HD555 – I say this after extensive use with all three headsets.
The stand-out headset for me was the HD555, which shone in gaming, and were in a class of their own when it came to watching movies and series, or listening to music. A friend of mine who has had experience will all three disagrees, saying that the Tritton AX Pro were by far the best set of cans, followed by the HD555 and then the G35.
At the end of the day you need to try and avoid advice from fanboys on both sides of the fence, and decide which type of headset offers you more of what you want. If convenience and a long list of features is your thing, gaming headphones are for you. If you prefer great quality audio above all, use your headphones for a variety of entertainment mediums, and are willing to make some convenience concessions, audiophile headphones are probably more your thing.