Before shopping for gaming headphones, there are a few important questions you should answer:
- What type of games do you play? The biggest distinction is between first-person shooters (FPS) and non-FPS. Success in a first-person shooter such as Call of Duty is highly dependent on how well you can pick up directional audio cues. Because of this, soundstage, imaging, distancing, and detail retrieval are the most important qualities a headphone can have for competitive play. If you don’t play FPS games, your options open up because excelling in these areas is not a necessity.
- Do you need to block external noise or keep noise out? If so, make sure you opt for closed-back models which typically have very minimal sound leakage.
- Do you need a built-in microphone? Having one is very convenient, but you can always attach an AntLion ModMic to a standard set of headphones. If you are on a tight budget, we recommend this cheap DealExtreme Mini Clip-on Microphone.
To get the most out of your headphones for gaming, we highly recommend using Dolby Headphone Surround Sound 7.1 which can be delivered from compatible sound cards or external DACs/Amps. The Astro MixAmp is our favorite and is compatible with PC, Xbox 360 , PS3.
Each of our recommended headphones is categorized as one of the following:
- Competitive – The large soundstage and realistic imaging of these headphones makes it a cinch to pinpoint enemies in FPS games. The bass is tamed so the fine details and footsteps can be easily heard. The resulting in-game sounds are not as dynamic or satisfying as other headphones but if the majority of your enjoyment comes from godlike killstreaks, grab one of these.
- Fun – These headphones make your games to come to life. They dish out the most energy and realism thanks to the fuller bass which can make explosions sound like they are happening in your room. If you are willing to sacrifice a few extra deaths here and there for pure audio glory, these are the headphones for you.
- All-purpose – The best of both worlds. These are for great for semi-competitive gamers who are looking for a one-stop-shop.
[Disclaimer: these recommendations are not comprehensive. Instead, we have tried to find something for everyone while keeping the lists short. At the same time, this is a living document so let us know what we’re missing!]
In order of increasing price:
Koss KSC75 – $15 (All-purpose)
Don’t be fooled by the price of the clip-on KSC75. It is the most widely renowned budget headphone because of its great sound quality, practicality, and durability. Isolation is nearly non-existent so these are best used around the house or working out. Onto the sound, the imaging on the KSC75 is very respectable despite its forwardness and medium-sized soundstage. The bass is not particularly powerful, especially in louder environments, but neither is it the focal point of the sound (making a better headphone for gaming!). The mids are rich and the treble exhibits great sparkle for such an affordable headphone. Everyone should own a pair of these! [Buy at Amazon]
Turtle Beach Ear Force X12 – $50 (All-purpose)
I don’t have many sub-$100 headsets on this list; I suggest most people buy the Tritton AX 720 as their starting rig because it comes with a Dolby Headphone decoder and the stock headset is decent. If you want to upgrade, it probably makes most sense to save up for a $100+ headphone on this list. That being said, if you wish to forego Dolby Headphone, the The X12 has garnered very good reviews and should not disappoint. It connects via USB and has an in-line amplifier and volume/voice controls. Comfort is good, there is no sound leakage, and the sound is gamer-friendly: not too much bass for competitive play, but enough to bring the games to life. Overall it is hard to fault given its modest price. [Buy at Amazon]
Creative Aurvana Live! – $100 (Fun)
Widely agreed upon as being one of the best headphones $100 can buy, the CAL! can do it all. Soundstage width and depth is good for a closed headphone and despite having such a warm tonality and strong bass it is suitable for competitive gaming sessions. Comfort is a definite strong point. It can get warm on the ears over long listening sessions but the clamping force is extremely low. Despite its over-ear, non-foldable design and below average isolation, you will likely find yourself using these on-the-go because of the short cord and solid build quality. [Buy at Amazon]
Audio Technica AD700 – $100 (Competitive)
If you can deal with the beige/purple color scheme, the AD700 is arguably the best competitive gaming headphone because of its gigantic soundstage. With Dolby Headphone it has unrivaled capabilities in terms of soundstage size and directional cues. It is also very comfortable due to the nearly nonexistant clamping force, the flipside being their insecure fit: even bobbing your head a little bit makes them slide around your ears. The AD700 is often recommended as an entry-level home listening headphone for music, but most people will be disappointed by the lack of bass presence. All things considered, the AD700 should be a top consideration for competitive FPS players. Just don’t expect these to satisfy your movie and music needs. Note that they are open-back and thus provide little isolation. [Buy at Amazon]
Tritton AX 720 (+free Dolby Headphone Decoder) – $130 (All-purpose)
The Tritton AX 720 is not just a headset: it is an all-in-one solution for Dolby Headphone Surround Sound seekers. The decoder box is completely separate, so if you happen to dislike the headset it is still worth keeping for the decoder. The actual headset is no slouch though: it is user-friendly, utilizing a closed-back design with a swivel mic and in-line volume/microphone controls. In terms of sound it does not stand out in any particular category but it is good enough to where you might find it hard to justify upgrading to another headset. Compatible with PC, PS3, and Xbox. A great place to start! [Buy at Amazon]
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro – $180 (Fun)
If gigantic bass is a prerequisite of your ideal gaming headphone, read on. The DT 770 is one of the most satisfying gaming headphones if you are looking for immersion. Comfort is superb thanks to the velour pads, the bass provides sub-bass rumble when called for, and the soundstage is large for a closed headphone. Despite being closed-back they have the best distancing capabilities of any headphone on this list. Imaging is accurate, but they are difficult to use competitively because the bass steals the attention away from the mids and treble. If you are searching for fun factor, the DT 770 has it. [Buy at Amazon]
Sennheiser PC 360 – $215 (All-purpose)
Yet another standard-setting product from Sennheiser. If you are looking for a headset and are okay with a little sound leakage, look no further. Comfort, build quality, soundstage, imaging, balance, detail – it’s all there. It also boasts a swivel microphone that is automatically muted when moved into the upright position and a circular volume control built-in to the ear cup. Being an offshoot of the well-received Sennheiser 5xx series, the PC 360 sounds great with music too. As always with Sennheiser, they come with a 2-year warranty. [Buy at Amazon]
AKG K701 / K702 / Q701 – $275 (Competitive)
Hands down the best competitive gaming headphones out there. All three of these headphones are categorized as analytical for a reason: they allow the tiniest nuances to be heard in everything from games to music. They share a lot in common with the Audio Technica AD700: soundstage is similarly gigantic and imaging is great but everything is more refined with the AKGs. Bass is shy, mids are smooth and transparent, and the highs are sparkly and detailed. The K and Q versions are essentially the same but they have slightly different tonalities. If you plan on using these solely for competitive gaming, go for the K701/K702 but otherwise the Q701 is the better choice because the fuller bass plays nicer with most music and movies. Note that these headphones beg for amplification, but even something like the Astro Mixamp or (non-Dolby) Fiio E17 can do the trick. [Buy at Amazon]
Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro/Premium – $300 (All-purpose)
My top recommendation. The DT 990 is well-rounded and great for all types of gaming. They are very fun to listen to while retaining all the characteristics that make a good competitive gaming headphone. The open-back design gives it a nice sense of airiness, soundstage and imaging are very good (though not up to par with the Competitive headphones on this list), and the strong bass exerts itself without stealing too much away from the mids and highs. The treble is very revealing which might translate to harshness for some people, but this is more apparent in music than it is in games. The Pro version has a stronger clamping force and more mid-bass presence so we only recommend the Pro version if you do not play first-person shooters. Note that they come in 3 versions: 32 Ω, 250 Ω, and 600 Ω. The DT 990 is relatively power hungry so if you do not plan on buying a dedicated amp, go for the 32 Ω version. [Buy at Amazon]
Category: Best Headphones