You Can Use Noise Cancelling Headphones In Place Of A Gaming Headset, But There’s A Catch

Gamers have a lot of choice when it comes to headphones. But money isn’t unlimited and there’s often a lot of competing demands. You want a good set of cans while gaming, but you want something warm and well-rounded when listening to movies and music. It’d be nice to have Bluetooth support, because then you could also use those headphones with your mobile phone while commuting. And, if at all possible, it’d be nice to have a set of headphones that don’t look too gaudy on the train or office.

The one set of headphones that comes closest to doing all that isn’t targeted at gamers. It’s Sony’s king of noise cancelling cans, the Sony WH-1000XM3 over-ears. So I wondered: if you wanted to use these as a set of all-purpose, all-rounder headphones for everything, just how well would they do for gaming?

To test the theory out, I used a set of XM3’s over the course of a month on different hardware and platforms. For mobile phone and tablet gaming, playing titles like Teamfight Tactics or Company of Heroes, I had the XM3’s connected over Bluetooth with Sony’s Headphones Connect app installed. On consoles, I kept things simple and had the audio run through the 3.5mm connector on my Xbox Elite gen 1 and stock DualShock 4 controller.

Given that Sony’s console should work well with Sony headphones, I’ll start proceedings with console gameplay.

Using XM3’s with PS4, Xbox One, Switch

While consoles have plenty of twitch-based shooters – Fortnite, Rainbow 6: Siege, Overwatch and so on – they’re not the kinds of games I tend to play on console. Console is my go-to for grand RPGs like Final Fantasy 7, exclusives like God of War, Spider-Man, and things like Cricket 19. I’ll also throw DOOM Eternal in this list, because while it’s obviously a heavy, fast-paced shooter, it’s not a competitive one the same way, say, Counter-Strike or Valorant might be.

The difference that makes is that those games don’t usually place as high a priority on positional accuracy and depth. It’s more about enjoying the warmth and immersive experience than being able to identify precisely how far away an enemy is. And when you’re playing something like Final Fantasy 7 Remake, all the information you need is on the screen at any given time, so you’re not being denied crucial information or sound cues.

That said, it doesn’t mean shooters are unplayable on console – far from it. Most of the time, the sound in those games would be coming from a 2.1 channel soundbar, rather than headphones or a broader headphone setup. Games like Overwatch have such clear audio cues that you’ll still get all the information you need, and you’ll know where enemies are. I didn’t lose anything by using the XM3’s in that instance. They obviously weren’t as clear or detailed as a couple of more expensive planar headphones I have on hand – specifically the HyperX Cloud Orbit S and the depreciated Oppo PM-3 cans – but the experience was more enjoyable than some lower-end wireless or wired headphones.

There is a catch with all of this, of course. If the XM3’s noise cancelling isn’t active – in cases where you’re just charging the headphones, or you just have them disabled to save power – the XM3’s sounded tinnier, more distant, and just generally lacking that mid-bass and presence that makes the XM3’s so enjoyable to listen to. I tried the XM3’s with a couple of different headphone cables (one that shipped with my Oppo PM-3’s, and the cable that came with my older Sony XM2’s) and got the same result. So if you’re worried about noise cancelling headphones losing charge over time, particularly with prolonged usage, you’ll want to keep this in mind.

Using XM3’s with PC

For the PC, I had the XM3’s plugged into a O2 headphone amplifier sitting on my desk which connected into the main speaker jack in my motherboard. This was mainly because the XM3’s cable is super short and designed for devices within arm’s reach, but also because the amplifier just makes it easier when trialling different sets of headphones that required different levels of power.

Power isn’t an issue for the XM3’s, to be clear, and you can drive them just fine by plugging directly into your motherboard, laptop’s 3.5mm port or the 3.5mm port on your monitor. Using them as a regular set of cans for music and movies every day was more than sufficient, and infinitely more comfortable on the head than what most open-back or closed-back gaming headphones would be. The issue around the lack of depth and presence when turned off was still present, but that’s not exactly problem and more a feature: if you cancel out more of the outside world, you’re going to be more fully immersed in what you’re listening to, and you’ll have a better experience.

Where the XM3’s shone was with games that featured a full-throated soundstage, titles that really envelop you with a booming OST and a lot of ambient sound. DOOM and DOOM Eternal were perfect for this, and they were a touch more enjoyable on the PC because of the lower compression. Instead of getting audio that’s transmitted wirelessly before going through the DualShock’s 3.5mm port, it’s being transmitted through two wired cables (through the amplifier and to the headphones, in my case).

Games like The Witcher 3 and Tetris Effect were a real treat, especially with the extra comfort you get from the XM3’s. But the real downfall for the XM3’s came to the twitch shooters that I really enjoy playing on PC, like Overwatch, Counter-Strike and most recently, Valorant.

Gaming headphones generally are tuned to highlight the bass and presence of particular audio cues, like gunfire and footsteps. With the XM3’s, I ran into a similar problem that I’ve had with my planar Oppo PM-3 headphones. The sound is warm and immersive, but the XM3’s lack the imaging from more finely tuned gaming headphones. When a McCree or an enemy starts creeping up from around or corner, or starts firing nearby, it sounds like it’s all around me, rather than coming from a specific area. It makes it difficult to identify individual enemies, which is less than ideal. In games like Counter-Strike, where enemies will often rush forward, the lack of precision also made it harder to tell how far away an enemy was, which impacts your decision making as to when you start responding with grenades/flashbangs of your own.

Another caveat here is that most of my testing was done with the XM3’s in wired mode. You can connect them to your Windows 10 PC via Bluetooth, although I would strongly suggest that you don’t.

So if you’ve been looking for a set of headphones around the $300 to $400 mark, and you’re wondering whether you could just buy the XM3’s as an all-purpose set of cans for everything, the answer is yes. Sony’s noise cancelling headphones are still one of the best sets of cans on the market today, partially thanks to that great blend between comfort, sound and versatility.

But if you’re someone who plays a specific set of games regularly – Fortnite, Rainbow Six, Counter-Strike and other competitive FPS’s of its like – then you’ll have a vastly different experience. The XM3’s there, much like my Oppo PM-3’s, are definitely not the set of headphones you want. You might have a bit of a better experience compared to a sub-$100 or $150 set of gamer headsets, but you’ll be sacrificing a lot of aural accuracy for the comfort and ease of use.

As with any piece of equipment, it’s good to ask yourself some detailed questions about precisely what you want to use the headphones for. If you’re a gamer on a strict budget, and you can only afford one set of headphones, the XM3’s are definitely worth considering. It’s just worth knowing how you’re going to use them, and what trade-offs you’re prepared to accept.

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