A Guide To Gaming Headsets

Gaming Headsets

Author: Dave Melchiore

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There are many good reasons to own a high-quality pair of gaming headphones. Headphones allow you to listen to music, games, or other aural experiences without disturbing your family / roommate / neighbors. They provide the best possible listening experience because they keep ambient noise to a minimum, and allow you to detect nuances that regular speakers may not sufficiently express. Some models even provide true 5.1 channel surround sound! Another feature you may find on gaming headsets is a built-in microphone, which, of course, allows you to taunt your opponents as you obliterate them.

When selecting a set of gaming headphones, there are several important considerations that differentiate models:

How to Decipher Headset Specifications | Surround Sound Headphones
Gaming Headset Microphones | Headphone Amplification | Wireless Headphones
Force Feedback Headsets

How to Decipher Headset Specifications

Zalman 5.1 Surround Sound Headphones

When shopping for gaming headphones, the first question on everyone’s mind is: “What do all those numbers mean? There are several important technical specifications that most manufacturers publish with their headphones, and by comparing them, you can choose a set that is right for you. The first figure usually listed is the frequency response.  It is usually given as a range, for example 16Hz – 22,000Hz.  What this represents is the range of frequencies, or pitches, the headphones are capable of reproducing.  Humans can normally hear frequencies between 20Hz and 20,000Hz, so numbers falling below that range are “felt” more than heard, and numbers falling above that range cannot be heard by the majority of the population.

The next important figure is impedance.  Impedance measures the resistance to the flow of electricity through the headphones, and is therefore given in Ohms.  A higher impedance rating will put less load on the equipment driving the headphones (i.e. your computer’s audio system), but it will often require more power to produce the same loudness.

The third important term to become familiar with is sensitivity. Sensitivity is given in dB (decibels), and measures how much sound pressure (loudness) is produced from a fixed amount of power (watts). The higher the sensitivity rating, the less power is required to produce a given loudness level, and the more responsive the headphones will be.

Sometimes, you will see a Max SPL rating on headphones. This number is given in dB, and it measures the maximum sound pressure the headphones are designed to produce. In other words, it shows how loud they get. Keep in mind that the threshold for hearing damage from extended listening is 80 dB, and 130dB for a single exposure.

Finally, distortion is the measure of how faithfully a pair of headphones reproduces sound. When it is given, it appears as a percentage; lower is better. A distortion level less than or equal to one percent is generally considered to be inaudible.

Surround Sound Headphones

Surround Sound Headsets

Some newer headsets on the market offer a full surround sound experience, in 5.1 channels. These surround sound headsets offer perfect 360* attenuation of each and every sound, whether it be whizzing bullets or pizzicato strings. They plug into your computer’s existing sound card’s surround sound outputs, or sometimes into an unused USB 2.0 port.

Gaming Headset Microphones

Plantronics GameCom Headset

Everyone knows that speaking commands in real time is much more effective on the battlefield than typing them into a console, and hoping your teammates read them. A built-in microphone is ideal for all team-based games, in that it provides the clearest sound and doesn’t take up room on your desk. Some headsets, such as the Steelpad Steel Sound 5H v2, have removable or retractable microphones, so you can use it when you need it, and store it out-of-the-way when you don’t. Another feature that may be desirable in a microphone is some degree of noise canceling; that will help prevent unwanted background noise from confusing your teammates during an intense frag-fest.

Headphone Amplification

Razer Barracuda Headset

Most gaming headphones are non-powered, which means they are driven directly from the audio port or USB port they are plugged into. This provides a less-expensive, smaller, lighter-weight listening solution for most gamers. However, if you want the loudest, clearest-sounding headphones around, spring for a set of externally-powered phones, such as the Razer Barracuda HP-1. This type of gaming headset receives audio signals through the usual 3.5mm jack, but draws the power used to drive the speakers through a USB port.  The advantages include higher SPL (dB), less distortion, and (usually) no noise in the audio stream.

Wireless Headphones

LTB Q-Bass-U Headset

Many recent headset designs, such as the LTB Q-Bass-U headset pictured above, incorporate wireless technology. This allows you to roam freely throughout the room (or maybe even the entire house!) without getting tangled or restricted by pesky cords. Most wireless gaming headphones operate in the 2.4 GHz radio spectrum, which minimizes interference with other devices. Depending on the model, wireless gaming headsets can be powered by either standard-sized batteries (rechargeable or disposable) or a rechargeable battery pack.

Force Feedback Headsets

Force Feedback Headphones

One of the latest innovations in gaming headset technology is force feedback. Force feedback headsets (such as the AudioFX Force Feedback Gaming Headset pictured above) immerse you in the game like never before.  They incorporate motors into the ear cups which buzz, pulsate, and vibrate as you play the game, adding tactile feedback to the excellent aural feedback you’re already receiving.

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