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

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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

sony wh1000xm3 gaming headphones

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

sony wh1000xm3 gaming headphones

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.


sony wh1000xm3 gaming headphones

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.

Comments

  • Cheers for the review. It would be cool to see how the xm3s go with Bluetooth on PC? Can any PC Bluetooth dongles do aptx/hd/etc? Or a similar codec?

      • Cool. Notice much latency? I’ve tried using my sennheiser’s and haven’t had to many issues latency wise. But I’m not playing games like cod or cs where I need to worry.

        • I guess I should’ve mentioned that my Bluetooth headphones are Aptx Low Latency as well. Using Aptx-LL on both ends means any latency isn’t perceptible.

          You can check out on the Aptx website which dongles and headphones support which codec. I didn’t realise, but some overseas TVs support Aptx Bluetooth which sounds rad.

          • Cool. Well the xm3 does support the aptx stuff so maybe with a good Bluetooth dongle it may work. What headphones are you running?

          • The dongle is an Avantree DG60.
            For headphones: Avantree Audition Pro because they’re Aptx-LL and have a 40 hour battery life.
            I bought the larger sized earpads for them too which feels more comfortable for my larger ears.

          • Cheers. Not as expensive as I thought they would be. How is the sound quality?

          • Late reply!

            I’m no audiophile, don’t use any equalizer software, amps etc. I find they’re quite good, a little more “real” sounding than other headphones I’ve used.

            In saying that, I’ve found that I prefer to listen to music on bassier headphones. If I didn’t already have a bass leaning headphone, I’d use these for everything with no complaints.

          • Reply meant for @jengaship below as for some reason the reply button isn’t working. All good and thanks for the reply. I’m probably the other spectrum. I don’t like mine to bass heavy.

  • Why are we not using the XM3’s with bluetooth? Just curious as I have hit hurdles with mine that through vigerous Googling have overcome.

        • The base Windows 10 codec. If there’s an easier way to get the lower latency codec going – with or without a separate bluetooth transmitter – that might be worth a relook.

          • Thanks for checking. From what I’ve seen some Bluetooth dongles are better than others. As far as aptx I’m not sure as it’s a Qualcomm standard.

          • Yeah, it’s not something that a Windows PC/laptop would support by default, so you’d have to buy a separate Bluetooth dongle.

      • Why would you expect more latency for a direct Bluetooth connection vs. plugged into the 3.5mm jack of a wireless controller?

  • I would be curious to see an update of this with the PS5’s “3D audio” when it becomes available to see what difference, if any, it makes.

  • I think it’s worth noting two different things about outdoors / on-the-go headphones that are relevant when looking at using them for games where positional audio is important.

    The first is that almost without exception headphones designed for outside use will have a closed back – this means better passive noise isolation, typically ‘better’ bass response (louder, sometimes bloated and imo subjectively worse on most sub $250 headphones I’ve tried compared to open-back equivalents of the same or lower price, but bass heads seem to like that sound. I haven’t tried any more expensive headphones from either category, so stuff may change at higher prices, and I’m more into ‘sparkly’ treble or flat sound signatures than bass heavy ones, ymmv) and a narrower sound stage (closed back headphones will typically lean closer towards that ‘inside your head’ feeling some headphones have, or it will be harder to pick out individual sound’s position from a mix).

    The other is that in any application where positional audio is important and you aren’t outside open back headphones are generally preferred. Typically they will have a wider soundstage (the opposite of the narrower soundstage sescribed above), leak more noise (I love my AKG K240s, but fellow commuters wouldn’t if I used them on trains / buses) and allow more of the environmental noise through to the listener (this is actually a great feature if you’re working in a music studio for example where a lot of musicians prefer to hear their own instrument through the mix as well as through their own ears as one example).

    This article doesn’t really mention this, but the reason there’s no real do-it-all option (or at least not an optimal one) is, at least in my eyes, largely because of these differences. For personal, at home use I find open-backed solutions far preferable, that’s what they’re designed for.

    All that said every gaming headset I’ve used (never bought one, but tried some friends’) sounds awful, even some surprisingly expensive ones, felt uncomfortable and struck me as a total waste of money. If you care about quality at all you’re obviously better off going for a portable pair of headphones than trying to use a headset if you can only pick one, but personally I use a pair of open-back studio headphones for everything on my PC and I find I can’t go back to using any other solution at home (except for speakers, which aren’t an option for me, which outside of games would be my preference).

    Personally I’d look at headphones commonly used in recording studios or radio stations, my beloved and heavily used AKG K240s are a recording studio staple for a reason – they’re relatively affordable for how good they (subjectively) sound, realy comfortable for all day use (I somewhat frequently use them for 5+ hours with no break – another advantage of open back headphones is they breathe a little and I don’t get sweaty / hot ears after long use like I have with closed back headphones), last a really long time and sound more than good enough for most people (I prefer them over any other headphone I’ve tried, even much more expensive options, but I’m a treble head, they’re definitely not a basshead’s favourite) and offer a better soundstage than most comparable closed back options (not all closed back headphones have a poor soundstage, but the ones that supposedly have a wide one aren’t cheap, nor are they built in the same ways, but as mentioned I haven’t tried any of the really expensive ones).

    Those are my preferred headphones for personal use, but all of the studio staples I’ve used are good too (though some I find horribly uncomfortable, comfort is subjective and if possible always try before you buy), if it’s important to musicians and sound engineers it’s usually what you’ll find desirable in headphones for entertainment / games as well. Slap on a cheap, clip on mic or desktop mic and you’ll have, for probably less money, a much more comfortable, better sounding and far more durable solution for personal use than a headset (I’ve got a friend who’s gone through 3 headsets, all more expensive at the time of purchase than my headphones, in the time I’ve had these headphones, 5+ years of heavy – basically daily – use at least, probably closer to 8+ now and I’ve only replaced the cable once for about $20 including postage in that time).

    Honestly I think it is worth it to spend a little extra to get a good pair that’s properly designed for home / continuous use and one for travel / commute – a decent pair will last a long time, and sound a lot better than a headset (and in my opinion most outdoor use headphones too for which you typically pay extra for noise cancellation, design portability focused features and more recently wireless technologies while often offering little as far as better sound goes than something like a studio headphone until you start paying really big money. Of course if you like a V shaped sound signature they will sound better, but for long-term use, a flatter, more neutral sound is far preferable for me, V shaped ‘exciting’ cans are awfully fatiguing, even if I preferred the sound otherwise I wouldn’t like it for long listening sessions).

  • A little bit off topic but I’m still pissed off at Sony for deliberately making certain brands of blu tooth headphones unusable on PS4. I mean there are work arounds with dongles but this is so anti consumer and plain mean. Especially for people on a low income.

    • Sony is so petty that an Xbox controller won’t even charge when plugged into a PS4 USB port. So, ah, yeah.

    • I believe its all bluetooth headphones isn’t it? i mean i cant even use Sony’s own XM3’s on the pS4 without a wire (Though cant remember if that was just because the mic isnt compatible.)

  • Interesting read! I have a pair of XM3’s hooked up to the TV through a Sennheiser BT unit. Setup works great for playing games and watching movies at night. I do notice a very slight delay; however, it is not enough to kill the immersion. Sound quality is also much higher than plugging directly into the controller + the added benefit of the noise canceling.

  • I’ve tried my sony wf-1000xm3 with my gaming rig connected with BT. Errrrrr not a great experience.

  • Ive never thought about buying ‘gaming headsets’ if im spending that much money you get proper ones like the XM3’s or something (and use it wired).

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