A couple of weeks ago someone asked me what the best gaming headphones are, and I realized he probably wasn’t the only one wondering. There are a few things to keep in mind while looking for this kind of equipment.
The general medical consensus is that hearing damage starts at 85 decibels. Some headphones come with settings that allow you to choose the maximum sound level, but many do not. Be aware of how loud the sound is turned up, and take steps to avoid hearing loss. In video games there are often loud noises “surrounding” you. One trick I use if I’m having trouble hearing in a video game is to turn on the subtitles. This allows me to catch what someone is saying even if a noisy explosion is happening nearby. You can often also adjust the sound settings in games—turning the conversation up and the general sound down could solve the issue.
Depending on how old the user is, some headphones will be too large. Even I, as a 25-year-old, often have trouble with the ears slipping down—especially if the headphones are heavy. Younger kids will often need a smaller band size to be comfortable. That goes for the size of the component that goes in or around the ear, as well. A lot of people have a favorite kind of earbud (the kind that sits just inside the ear), usually because it’s the one that fits them best and won’t slip out or give them an earache. If you’re looking for an over-the-ear headphone set, you’ll want to make sure it doesn’t pinch or pull. Just make sure to try the set out—or at least find a cheap, similarly-shaped version to try out—before spending a lot of money on equipment. If you’re looking for a gift for someone, find out what their current favorite set looks like and find one in the same size and/or shape.
Finally, background noise. Some headphones are built to silence background sound, while others aren’t. Earbuds typically don’t have this capacity, which means users may have to turn up the volume in order to hear their game or music. The downside of noise-canceling headphones is, of course, that users may not be able to hear calls to dinner, important announcements, or cars coming toward them. Keep in mind what setting the wearer will be in when using the headphones.
In-the-Ear vs. Over-the-Ear
Some headphones go inside the ear, while others go over the ear. There’s actually a third type that goes around the ear, as well. Headphones that sit inside the ear are small and more portable, but they don’t do much to protect from background noise, and they tend to give some people headaches. This type of headphone can also be worse for hearing since they a) require the volume to be turned up more to drown out background sounds, and b) they go directly into the ear canal. They do tend to be the cheapest option, however. Over-the-ear headphones are easier on the wearer, but slightly bulkier. They may squish or pinch ears after a while. Headphones that go around the ear tend to be the best in terms of noise-cancelling, but they can also get fairly large and heavy, and some folks complain that their head gets too hot while wearing them. (The latter two types of headphones actually have some overlap, depending on how large your ears are.)
Budget is, of course, always a concern. Headphone prices easily range from $5 to $500. Some considerations here are who will be using the headphones and what they’ll be using them for. The cheapest type of headphones tend to be earbuds, and they also tend to be the most portable. This often comes with a sacrifice in quality and durability, as well as hearing protection, unfortunately. You can expect a $10 set of earbuds to wear out within a fairly short time period, especially since they tend to be the set you bring with you to the gym or stuff into a backpack. That’s true of any portable headphone set, though—I’ve had $35 headphones break within weeks since I tend to shove them into my pocket twice or three times a day.
Headphones you use only while sitting at the console or computer won’t see as much action and will tend to last a lot longer, so you can expect a bit more use out of them for your money. My dad has had the same nice pair of noise-cancelling headphones at his computer since I was in high school—approaching a decade at this point.
A Tip to Increase Durability
One way to keep headphones from wearing out is to cover their key weaknesses. These are usually the spots where the cord stops, since this is wear tension builds up, so I like to wrap electrical tape around the cord at these junctions just to be safe. It’s not pretty, but I’ve gotten a lot more wear out of my headphones since I started doing it.
Good Vs. Extra-Good Quality
The key in working within a budget is to recognize that the difference between $5 headphones and $500 headphones is massive, but the difference between $50 headphones and $500 headphones is significantly less distinct. Some folks are very sensitive to this small leap in quality (and more expensive headphones do tend to have more options and settings), but most of us are paying for something we won’t really notice on a day-to-day basis.
Your Personal Priorities
The main thing to keep in mind when you’re looking for headphones is what your main concern is. Is it quality of sound? Quietness for the rest of the household? Protection for the ears? Different sets will offer different benefits, and there are some trade-offs.
Headphones Vs. Headsets
Another significant consideration is whether or not you want a headset vs. a simple pair of headphones. A headset, for those not in the know, is a pair of headphones that comes with an attached microphone. If you or a family member want to be able to chat with teammates on a regular basis, a headset is a must. (If you’re savvy about it, you can actually make your headphones into a headset.)
Ratings of Specific Headphones & Headsets
So what is the best ear equipment out there? I’ve collected some links here so that you can make an informed decision.
- For younger kids, check out Pint Size Pilot’s best headphones for young children in 2015 (ignore the 2012 URL, this is an updated article). There’s also this piece from Headphones Unboxed.
- Gamesradar’s best headsets with attached microphones in 2015. They also pulled together a list of the best 2014 gaming headsets for your money, with different sections for different budgets.
- Kotaku’s best headsets in 2014—this one was poll-based, with Kotaku readers weighing in on their favorites.
- For your basic headphones in 2015, check out this list from CNET, and this one from Techradar. The latter also has some information about types of headphones (wireless, noise-cancelling, etc.)
Have a favorite brand? Advice for other gamers? Let us know in the comments!