How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gaming Headsets

Don’t let superfans talk you out of liking something!

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ve been around production-grade audio gear for most of my life, thanks to having a dad who works in radio production, and I’ve been personally interested in sound and sound gear for about the last 17 years.

For the better part of the last decade, if you asked me about gaming audio, I probably would have given you the same advice that any current internet audiophile might: Don’t buy a headset for gaming, get dedicated headphones and a microphone instead.

Or buy some nice speakers.

Today? I’d tell you to do the exact opposite. Go for it. Buy a reputable headset.

WAIT, WHAT?

It’s true, gaming headsets used to deserve their reputation for being stupid. They often had bloated bass, bad materials in their construction, and visual designs created to appeal to a certain subset of the market that really liked bright, garish plastic. I was right there wearing them and cringing along to their muddled sound just like everyone else.

That garish part still lives on thanks to the magic of RGB lighting everything, but those other qualities? They’ve been largely wiped out as the market has grown.

Thank goodness.

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“black headphones on floor” by Matthieu A on Unsplash

TAKING A CUE

HyperX was one of the first brands to buck the trend of iffy gaming audio with the original Cloud, which was really just a licensed “regular” headphone with a mic attached to it. And they put it out at a relatively-affordable price.

It was a profound course correction for a segment of the industry that had been so obsessed with bass.

The success of the Cloud belies the truth of what a gaming headset really is, in spite of what marketing or angry internet people will tell you. When you boil it down, a gaming headset is just a pair of headphones that include a microphone. And what HyperX did could be seen just as much as a cheap R and D shortcut as a smart marketing move.

Why create your own audio tuning when someone else has already done that work? Why make terrible-sounding headphones and microphones when other companies have already figured out how to do this better?

Shouldn’t you just copy that?

HyperX’s sales numbers helped shift the gaming audio market and now there’s a whole plethora of products that use audio tuning much more in line with “audiophile” headphones, and microphone quality has improved as well.

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“purple and black pyramid wallpaper” by Sandro Katalina on Unsplash

GOOD SOUND IS *ALWAYS* GOOD

Headphones have an underlying marketing problem.

It’s hard to make them exciting once you’ve made them sound good.

You get to that hurdle, and now you have to fancy things up with bells, whistles, wireless, celebrity endorsements, and other functions just to keep things interesting.

Turns out we leapt over that hurdle years ago.

There’s enough science out there about good sound signatures that we already more or less know the type of audio reproduction curves that “most” customers will enjoy. Subjective preferences are still a factor of course, with some folks liking more bass or more treble than the neutral standards.

But we’ve been capable of making headphones with truly amazing sound for a couple of decades now. And many companies put out products that fall into this zone, that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get.

For whatever reason, gaming companies used to apparently ignore all of this information, instead creating headsets with bass, bass, and some more bass heaped on top.

I…I don’t really know why that was ever the plan.

I guess bass sounds fun for the first few minutes you try something. There’s nothing like a head-rattling explosion. But today’s gaming audio requires good mids and highs so that you can hear things like footsteps, dialogue, and environmental nuances.

Somehow, in the last few years, the gaming audio world woke up and now the vast majority of gaming headsets, particularly those over 50 dollars, have really nice sound quality. I should know, I’ve…reviewed over 100 headphones in the last few years, and about half of those have been gaming products.

I like gaming, and I don’t like to fill my desk with additional products when one will do.

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“woman wearing round silver-colored watch” by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

VERSATILITY

Sometimes, it’s nice to spend money on one thing and then be done.

Since I’m a crazy person, I’ve bought and sold a lot of headphones over the last few years just to try them out…but this is a silly plan, completely bereft of financial responsibility.

Realistically, it’s great to buy one product that’s personally appealing, and use it until it either breaks or you find something better years down the line.

Gaming headsets offer everything you need to get going in one box. They have headphones, a microphone, connectivity options, and sometimes they even include their own DAC/amp once you’ve reached the high end of the price field. You don’t have to keep researching endless online reviews or watching unboxing videos for additional stuff.

You get all the things you need, and you’re done.

Even though I think its microphone isn’t very good, the Sony New Gold Wireless headset is one of the most versatile audio products I’ve ever owned for the money. It’s got a USB wireless dongle that works natively on a PS4, complete with solid surround processing that uses the actual 7.1 uncompressed audio data from games.

Further, on PC, Mac, and Switch, the USB dongle switches into a standard stereo mode for quick and easy wireless audio support. And it has a 3.5mm, non-proprietary cable that’ll let it attach to anything else.

Sure, you could get all of these connectivity and sound features out of a more complex setup, and you’d get better mic performance…but that setup would cost a lot more than the $99 Sony’s headset runs for, and require a lot more research and setup on your end as a consumer.

In fact, aside from the Gold headset, my most used headphones right now are a Steelseries Arctis 5 2019 and Arctis Pro. I thought that Steelseries did a terrible job marketing the second one…but they also designed both of these to have sound signatures that mimic popular studio pairs to the point where I’m more than happy with them.

Of course, it turns out that those popular studio pairs might not be as big a deal as I thought…

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HIGH END AUDIO IS A NICHE

Last week, Audio-Technica released a new Bluetooth version of their venerable M50X studio headphones. That headphone has massive crossover appeal, and it’s been enjoyed by countless studio producers and home audiophiles for many years now.

Or at least, that’s what I thought. But then I gained some new perspective.

In the press package they sent out with review units, they let slip an interesting fact: Throughout the whole life of the M50 product line, they’ve only sold 1.8 million of the things. You can see it quoted in this article, and numerous others online.

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Seeing this low number pop up on all the tech sites last week was kind of shocking.

The M50 originally launched in 2007…which means it’s taken eleven years to hit that number.

I thought it would have been a lot higher.

I mean, you can’t walk ten feet online without tripping over numerous accolades for the M50’s. They’re a critical and audiophile darling, and although they’ve had some big backlash in the last few years, they’re still one of the most recommended headphones of all-time.

I’ve owned three pairs over the years, and I think they’re great.

And yet, they’ve averaged a little over 163,000 units a year. That’s nothing compared to the size of the market. And the sort of sales that just about any other consumer entertainment product would be very disappointed in.

If even the most mainstream of the “high end” products is struggling to sell compared to the Beats and Boses of the world…I bet the same thing is happening in the gaming headset space.

None of this matters oh no.

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“six white sticky notes” by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

DO YOUR THING

Don’t let the internet tell you that a dedicated gaming audio setup is “the only way to go” if you like your headset. Don’t feel guilty for buying something with virtual surround sound. Don’t listen to the people who are out there just to make you feel bad.

Some of them might show up below this article.

The odds are now quite good that a gaming headset is going to give you enough of a decent audio experience that you won’t be left out in a land of awful audio.

I’m not saying you absolutely can’t do better for more money; sure you can, but the returns will diminish quite quickly.

Gaming is supposed to be fun. Music is supposed to be fun. Audio is supposed to be fun.

As long as you’re enjoying your setup, then that’s all that matters. I’ve been really impressed at how far gaming audio has come over the last few years, and I’m in a unique position to truly realize the gains these products have made. And I’m not going to lie about it just to prop up old truths and myths.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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