The Great Kotaku Gaming Headset Roundup

Forget graphics -- for my money, audio is the most vital aspect of a video game. It's the thing that makes me get lost in a game's world, that makes my pulse pound and sucks me in. But in order for a game to sound good, you've got to have the right equipment.

So much video game playing takes place late at night, or while sharing space with other people, and a deafening 7.1 surround-sound setup isn't a viable solution for many people. A good gaming headset can be worth its weight in gold. But which one to buy? I've rounded up seven of the most popular gaming headsets to see how they all stack up.

It used to be that gaming headsets were chintzy, overpriced cash-ins that lacked a fraction of the audio fidelity of comparably priced "real" headsets. Fortunately, that's changing -- there has never been a better selection of great gaming headsets than there is right now.

Unfortunately, shopping for a gaming headset is notoriously difficult. What features matter, and which ones don't? How much to pay? Does wireless matter? And on top of all of that, it's very difficult to really test a headset before buying it, so you're usually taking some Internet yahoo's word for it that the headset in question actually sounds good.

Today, I am that Internet yahoo. This is my attempt to cut through the signal-to-noise mess and round up some of the most popular surround-sound gaming headsets on the market today. This list is far from comprehensive -- honestly, in the time it took me to test and write up these headsets, several new models have been announced. That said, it gives a pretty good cross-section.

Going in, I had a few requirements:

  • The headset had to offer surround, whether simulated or analogue.
  • The headset had to have a built-in microphone that allowed for voice chat.

Other than that, I'd take all comers. On consoles, I ran a number of games, from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Halo Reach on Xbox 360 to Uncharted 2 and Resistance 3 on PS3. On PC, I tested Skyrim, Far Cry 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2, as well as a bunch of other games. For my PC tests, I used a SoundBlaster X-Fi Titanium sound card, which allowed me to tweak and adjust the surround sound to optimise it. I used the same settings for each headset so that I could fairly compare them all.

With this many different headsets, this many different features, restrictions, and requirements, it's very difficult to parse them all, even here. At the end of the article, I'll make some broad recommendations, and if you have any questions about the headsets, I'll be reading the comments and will do my best to answer them.

Cross-Platform/Console Headsets

Astro A40 Headset And Mixamp

Price: $US249.99 for headset and mixamp, $US129.99 for Mixamp alone, $US209.99 for A40 headset alone

Inputs: Optical, Coaxial, Stereo analogue, 1/8" analogue, USB

Chat Works With: Xbox 360 via included cable, PS3 with additionally purchased dongle, PC via USB

Pros: The Astro Mixamp is still the most flexible gaming audio hardware you can get. The headphones are light and comfortable. Astro's audio/chat mixer remains the most elegant chat solution.

Cons: The A40 leaks audio, which means that whatever you're playing will be very audible to anyone else in the room (or apartment) with you. After several years of use, my Mixamp makes a lot of noise when I turn its knobs, which is par for the course with consumer electronics, but still annoying. They're pretty expensive.

Audio Quality: Decent. The A40's are a bit boomy for me, and there's no way to mess with the EQ on the headphones, so you're pretty much stuck with how they sound, especially on consoles. They're not bad, and were a gaming mainstay for me for a long time. That said, they're not great, and I prefer the audio quality of the newer A50's.

Overall Impression: The headset is OK, the mixamp is great. If you've already got a good pair of headphones, you would do well to consider just picking up the Astro Mixamp. It's capable of projecting Dolby headphone surround into any regular pair of headphones, and while you won't get voice chat, you can always cobble together a workaround. That said, the A40 is still a fine gaming headset; the big cans provide a large aural space for the headphone surround to work in, and they're nice and comfortable. This is a good option for anyone who wants a lot of versatility in their gaming audio setup.

Link: Official Site

Astro A50 Wireless

Price: $US299.99 for the headset and receiver

Inputs: Optical, 1/8" analogue, USB, Optical passthrough

Chat Works With: Xbox 360 via included cable, PS3 & PC via USB

Comfort: The A50s feel much like the A40s, only they're a tad heavier -- that means that after lengthy sessions wearing them, the top of my head started to get a bit sore. It wasn't a deal-breaker, and usually just meant that I should get up and take a break, but they're a tad less comfortable than the A40, though still comfortable.

Pros: The A50's remain the most impressive, best-sounding, best-designed gaming headphones I've used. There's still room for improvement, but Astro's got this thing nailed. They're expensive, but in this rare instance, you get what you pay for.

Cons: It's easy to accidentally switch the headphone/microphone mix when you touch the headset; the switch on the side feels too easy to accidentally press. While optical passthrough is great, it would also be great if the wireless mixamp had an analogue output, so you could plug speakers into it, should you so choose. Very expensive.

Audio Quality: Good. The A50's offer the richest, deepest audio of the bunch here, and the closed-backed headset provides the most immersive surround sound. I wouldn't listen to music on them, but I would (and have) happily watched a movie.

Overall Impression: I recently reviewed the A50 -- it's Astro's most ambitious headset, and it's also their best. It's fully platform agnostic, and works just as well for PC gaming as it does for consoles. It's also tied with the Tritton as the most expensive headset I tested -- but the price is borne out in the quality of the product.

Link: Official Site

Tritton Warhead Wireless

Price: $US299.99 for the headset and receiver

Inputs: Optical, No passthrough, no USB

Chat Works With: Xbox 360 only

Comfort: I initially thought that the Warhead would be uncomfortable, as their angular design looks edge-covered and hard. So I was surprised by how comfortable they are -- they're a sturdy set of cans that stay on your head and while they're a bit snug, they didn't feel uncomfortable at all.

Pros: I actually like how the Warhead looks -- the plastic design isn't quite as appealing as the A50s, but it's still a nifty looking set of headphones. After an initial setup, the microphone can talk directly to your Xbox 360 with no required cables, which is nice if you only game and talk to people on an Xbox 360.

Cons: The user experience, however, is kind of a chore. Buttons are placed all over the headset, and it was all but impossible for me to put them on or take them off without accidentally pressing the EQ button and changing how the phones sounded. The biggest problem with the warhead, though, is that they can only be used to chat on an Xbox 360. I'm not sure why Mad Catz would pay extra money to Microsoft to licence their wireless tech -- the difference between this and simply plugging an Astro in to your Xbox controller feels negligible to me; if anything, it's a hassle. And the fact that the microphone won't work with anything but an Xbox 360 feels needlessly restrictive in a headset this expensive.

Audio Quality: Decent. The actual quality of the audio isn't amazing, but the surround sound is well done, and projects a good soundscape. Bass is strong and ringing, and everything is clear and punchy. It can feel a bit too clear at times, but in general the Tritton is a very nice-sounding headset, though more for gaming than movies or music.

Overall Impression: The Warhead is a decent headset, but I feel it doesn't live up to its extraordinarily steep price-tag. At $US300, I want it all -- a headset that can work with any system, hassle-free, that's well designed, sounds great, and will last for a long time. While the Warhead sounds fine and works well enough, its finicky controls and Xbox-only chat leave it short of those expectations.

Link: Official Site

Turtle Beach Earforce XP400

Price: $US219.95

Inputs: Optical, Optical passthrough, 1/8" analogue in

Chat Works With: Xbox 360 via included wireless dongle, PS3 & PC via Bluetooth

Comfort: Not bad, not great. The XP400 is a bit pinch-y, and the ear cups don't fit over my ears as comfortably as some higher priced models. That said, I usually stopped minding after a little while, and was content to wear them for extended periods of time.

Pros: The XP400 is a versatile headset, with built-in bluetooth technology that lets you pair to the PS3 and to your PC, and even answer cell phone calls. The headphone surround effect is solid, if not amazing.

Cons: Everything feels a little bit cheap, which is too bad, considering that the headset costs only a bit less than the Astro A40/Mixamp combo. The Turtle Beach mixamp is small and difficult to store properly, and it's difficult to adjust the buttons on the fly without taking the headphones off and re-examining them. The microphone is strange -- I'm much more of a fan of the rubber girders that most other sets use, rather than the wired, bendable one Turtle Beach goes with. (Your mileage may vary on that, though.)

Audio Quality: Decent. The general sound quality of the XP400s doesn't quite match the A50 or the Warhead, but they're still a good-sounding set of headphones and fine for gaming. High frequencies rarely felt crushed, and there was a healthy amount of bass.

Overall Impression: The XP400 is a fair headset, though the comparably priced A40/Mixamp is better sounding, more versatile and better designed. The XP series looks like a step in the right direction for Turtle Beach, though, and if you can find them on sale somewhere (which is likely), you could certainly do worse.

Link: Official Site

PC-Only Headsets

Several of the headsets I've been trying out are for PC gaming only -- they use USB to get their audio, and are incompatible with any major gaming consoles. Still, given how many people play games on PC exclusively, I thought I'd test them and share my impressions. I tested the Corsair USB headphones using their own built in audio software, and the Tiamat using the SoundBlaster X-Fi titanium sound card.

Razer Tiamat 7.1 Surround

Price: $US179.99

Inputs: analogue 7.1 speaker cables only

Chat Works With: PC via USB

Comfort: While I was surprised that the Tiamat's earcups didn't quite go entirely over my ears, they're still a very comfortable set of headphones, and fine to wear for long periods of time. The cables and remote can be a bit of a bother, but it's not that difficult to get your setup working so that you're not tripping over them all the time.

Pros: The biggest pro for the Tiamat is that it's the one headset on this list that features "true" 7.1 audio. That means that there are eight speakers in all -- left, right, left-center, right-center, left-rear, right-rear, centre, and sub. The result in-game is remarkable, you'll really hear where everything is coming from. In fact, sometimes you'll hear it too much...

Cons: The audio quality (which I'll get to below) just isn't on par with the other headsets on the list, mainly because the Tiamat has crammed so many small speakers into a space usually reserved for one big one. I actually don't like that I'm given the option to tweak every speaker's level, and to go into my computer's EQ to try to get it to sound "right." I wound up constantly doubting that I had things optimised, and eventually just gave up and lived with what I had. Also, I had an issue with hum making its way onto my cables -- whether I plugged into my motherboard's integrated 7.1 outputs or my SoundBlaster's, I always had noise on the line. I doubt that everyone will have the same problem, but it's one of the downsides of analogue audio cables that something like that can even be an issue.

Audio Quality: Not great. The Tiamat's big downfall is that the many small speakers used to generate the true 7.1 surround sound just can't measure up to the large drivers in the other headphones on this list, particularly the Trittons and the Astros. I messed around with the EQ on my PC

Overall Impression: Mike already reviewed the Tiamat for us, and raved about them. While I find the headset to be fine, and the surround sound to be occasionally amazing, I don't share his enthusiasm for the headset as a whole. It's easy enough to use, but restrictive in where you can use it -- only with 7.1 analogue outputs, and only while mucking around with the annoying in-line remote control. If you're dying to try out cool new tech and have money to burn, the Tiamats are certainly worth a shot, but there are more flexible and better-sounding headsets in this list that offer headphone surround that's almost as impressive.

Link: Official Site

Corsair Vengeance 2000 Wireless

Price: $US149.99

Inputs: USB only

Chat Works With: PC via USB

Comfort: The Vengeance 2000s are a very comfortable set of headphones -- something about the snug way they'd hold my ears made me prefer them to all of the other headphones I tried. They're form factor is nice, and they just feel good on your head.

Pros: For a (relatively) inexpensive set of headphones, the 2000s are a solid piece of equipment, and they sound nice. They're hassle-free to set up, hold a charge for a long time, and the wireless works as it should.

Cons: The biggest problem with the 2000s is that they're not dolby certified, and so they require you to use Corsar's own proprietary audio software. As a result, the surround sound is quite… different than the other headphones. It's not necessarily worse, but it feels more confusing and unclear, and as the software starts adding reverb to simulate room-size, it only gets more muddled. At first, I thought it was fine, but the more I played, the more I realised that things just weren't lining up with their position in the same way as on the other, Dolby certified headsets.

Audio Quality: Good. While the surround is a bit dicy, the sound quality of the 2000s is very strong. Bass is robust, highs don't get too crunchy, and everything is clear without causing audio fatigue.

Overall Impression: The Vengeance 2000s are a really good headset that are only a bit tough to recommend because they have weird surround sound. If you're not obsessive about positional audio, you could do a lot worse, but it's an odd oversight in an otherwise fine set of cans. It's particularly weird since the 1500s below do have Dolby certification. Still, the 2000s are a better than decent set of gaming headphones.

Link: Official Site

Corsair Vengeance 1500 Wired

Price: $US99.99

Inputs: USB only

Chat Works With: PC via USB

Comfort: The Vengeance 1500s aren't quite as snug and comfortable as the 2000s, but they're still a very comfortable set of headphones. They're good for long gaming sessions and soft on the top of your head.

Pros: The cheapest headphones in this roundup, the 1500s are actually right up there with the big boys in terms of their features, comfort and sound quality. They don't have speakers to match the Astros or the Warhead, but they still sound pretty good would be perfectly sufficient for the average PC gamer. They're a cinch to set up and work mostly without a hitch. A good, affordable all-around PC gaming headset.

Cons: Really just the sound quality thing, described below.

Audio Quality: Decent. As I mentioned, the audio isn't up to the quality of the other headsets on this list, though they don't really sound bad exactly.

Overall Impression: The Vengeance 1500s are in an odd place in this roundup -- they're the cheapest of all the headsets here, but while they don't quite match the 2000s overall audio quality, they do have certified Dolby headphone surround, and they're a generally fine set of gaming headphones. They're comfortable and easy to recommend.

Link: Official Site

Recommendations

As I mentioned at the outset, this roundup is far from comprehensive. There are just too many sets of gaming headphones on the market for one guy to round up, test, and compare them all. So, my recommendation is based only on trying these headsets, and could change as new models hit the market. That said, I think there are some clear winners here.

Which One Is Best?

I think I can safely say now that Astro really does make the best gaming headphones on the market. I use the wireless A50s every time I play video games, and when combined with the SoundBlaster X-Fi's audio enhancements, they generate extremely convincing headphone surround. They're intuitive to use, well designed, comfortable, and sound great. Best of all, they're really easy to use with every gaming platform. The A40s and Mixamp are also a worthy purchase, particularly given that you can get a Mixamp and use it with whatever kind of headphones you like.

The A50s are expensive. But you get what you pay for. And if you're not looking to spend $US300 on a gaming headset (and who could blame you!), rather than spend a hundred bucks less on an inferior set of headphones, I really would recommend getting a Mixamp and using it with headphones you've already got.

Honorable Mention

The $US99 Corsair Vengeance 1500s were a big surprise. Usually when it comes to audio, money really does matter -- more expensive speakers just sound better. So the fact that the cheapest headset in this entire roundup has OK sound quality, offers Dolby headphone surround, and is easy to use and comfortable… well, if you're a PC gamer looking to get a gaming headset without breaking your bank, I really would recommend the Vengeance 1500s.

There will always be more gaming headsets hitting the market, and we'll keep on reviewing them here. If you've got any questions about any of these headsets, please let me know in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.

(Second image via Shutterstock)

Comments

    It's always disappointing to read articles like these which talk about the best of the best headsets made "for gamers" without considering the amazing quality of headphones out there by companies who have years of expertise in making excellent quality audio equipment. I know the A50s deliver reasonable sound & Turtle Beach are good midrange headphones but most audiophiles know that nothing will beat a free-standing mic mixed with a good pair of studio headphones. These headsets designed for games have speakers that weaken very easily when their frequency range is tested, high frequencies crackle & low frequencies become wet.

    I'd like to see someone do a comparison between the headset w/mic versus headphones with separate mic.

      Whilst I 100% agree with you, but 'gaming' is a bit different, since a lot of them include all in one features such as dolby digital decoding or built in mic. The sound is also skewered for more impacting sound such as big bass which would be rated very badly for being accurate but satisfactory for the 'gamer'.

      I on the otherhand say what a waste of money and you'd be better off buying some crappy used home theatre amp to decode the dolby digital and then buy your self a good 'real' set of headphones to plug into.

      I also prefer using decent headphones with a desktop mic. I've been using the same USB Logitech desk microphone for years.

      Ditching the built in microphone opens up your choices IMO. Choose a good set of headphones instead of a headset. That said, I've never been able to convince my friends to get decent headphones, not even modestly priced ones. Headsets headsets headsets, even after they've broken the damn things

      As for surround sound. I just a application called My Ears (it's Aussie too) and it does HRTF (Head-Related Transform Function). Seems nice to me, Though the setup is a time consuming listening test of sorts.

        I have had exactly the same problem. It's almost like we're fighting a losing battle. With all of my friends in the gaming scene reading gaming news, of course they need to go buy whatever's new at EB games or is advertised on a site as above. Do the editors have some kind of contract to review this stuff, do they get paid by the makers or are they just love struck by whatever free merch comes their way?

      I completely agree Kotaku has been pushing this overpriced junk for ages. Just the other week I said the same thing as you. Give us goddamn quality audio reviews. Not squirrels, cheap plastic, colours, usb amps and wireless crap. Dolby Certifications is just more branding adding to the cost of already overpriced headphones. Don't get me wrong though, I do believe you can get some great quality for your money, but not with "gaming" headsets. I have Beyerdynamic DT-250's and they are flawless and cheaper than any of those 'top range' headphones you have here and they exhibit none of the problems detailed. They have controlled bass that isn't overpowering or boomy, crisp highs, although not over the top but it's all a part of the balance. Oh and they're also closed so they don't leak much sound, but they still offer a nice spread of sound. Then to satisfy communication needs a Zalman Clip on mic is cheap and works great. Not by all means the cheapest set up, but I am almost willing to give my word that it would blow away anything suggested here without even having heard anything reviewed.

      What really does annoy me though is that so many people think that these headphones or their close family members are the best thing out. They think just because they have gaming brand names or sound better than your $20 pair bought from K-Mart these are the bee knees in audio. So sadly mistaken so many are though. The audiophile world is filled with so many gems, these are just like painted rocks made to resemble true luster or quality. The placement of these rocks on the front page of sites such as Kotaku or in the window of the store if you'd like is misleading and only leads to there being more misguided souls out there. =(

      I just truly hope people here have the sense to do some research and talk to some headphone experts before spending $200-300+ on a pair as some do. You can get great quality for less as well which is where experts can help with some true value advice. I am by no means and kind of expert. But if anyone were looking for one. headphones.com.au is a great place to start. Although they are a store as well their community and they offer honest unbiased advice. Merchandise is as overpriced as hell though. So another great place to go for advice on prices is http://forums.whirlpool.net.au/forum/131?&g=201

      I'm Currently Using a Pair of KRK's and a Shure SM 57.
      Hard to beat.

    I have Astro a40's myself. They are amazing!
    Best headphones I've ever had.

    I had Logitech G35's but these blow them away!

    If you want the top headphones possible, get the Astro's.
    I'd skip the A50's though, reported an initial few batches contain hardware issues (free fixes but you'll have to be without them)

    The Astros are used by MLG. True quality.

      You haven't heard of brand sponsorship I take it?

    With the a50's, does a mic symbol always show up on a game like cod for example when playing online even if you have it muted? Because I want a good pair of headphones but I don't always want to talk to people, but people would expect me to speak to them if the mic symbol was showing.

    Something you should have looked at was using a different headset with the Astro MixAmp.

    The MixAmp is what makes the Astro's stand out and when you combine that with a top of the range headset (Sennheiser most notably) you will hear the difference go from great to unbelievable.

      Yep I use Sennheiser wireless headset at night with my TV/xbox. Sweet surround and no issues with TV or console or PC when I plug then in.

    I bought a pair of Astro A40's earlier this year. Excellent quality on consoles, but I feel as though there could be better options for PC.

    Any thoughts on logitech's g930 wireless headset? I picked up one of these a while back and have never had any issues, the emulated surround isn't great but I imagine emulation can only go so far

    Some good recommendations there, particularly the A40's. A friend of mine has a pair and they're really comfortable. For me the sound stage is, like the article said, a little bass heavy -- this isn't necessarily bad for certain games but I prefer headphones that are a bit more well-rounded.

    I have a pair of Sennheiser PC360's I use on PC (don't get fooled by the name, they aren't Xbox compatible). They sound absolutely brilliant for anything I use them for, and they have an open-ear design which means your ears don't get all hot after long sessions. I usually forget I have them on. They aren't noise cancelling, however, and they do leak some noise depending on how loud you have them, so they aren't suitable for every set up. Probably the best feature for me is the mic, which clicks as you swing it down. This means when you need to talk to someone in person, you can just click the mic up and not annoy everyone in your ventrilo/mumble channel. Brilliant feature.

    Well there's my two cents; check them out if you're in need of some new headphones. I'll be buying another pair the second these ones get lost/broken.

    Mic quality? I understand you may not of had time however the mic is just as important.

      The mic quality on the A40 Headset in crisp, clear and has noise interference cancellation as well.

      I have used them for shoutcasting (commentating eSports) and you can hear every word nice and clear. Even when you raise your voice it still stays audible.

    Sigh....am I really going to need to spend around $200 for a good headset? How much better is the sound quality on these compared to Turtle Beach X12's?

    ha gaming headsets.......cheap marketing ploy to charge big for poor quality. If you are looking for good audio in a headset look towards top audio brands instead of 'gaming' brands like turtle beach, astro, tritton etc.

    Fatal1ty Professional Series Gaming Headset MkII cheap, reliable and very good sound positioning. however little bit flimsy need to be careful with it. max cost $99. Combine with a sound card does wonders. If you want usb input get the creative Sound Blaster Arena Surround max $149. most of these "high end" sets arent really that good especially turtlebeach and razer.

    No AudioTechnica, and no mention of the driver issue causing sound to often drop out for a moment on the A50s.
    Cool story bro

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