Today, I’m going to break down the difference between headphones and a headset for gaming. What’s the difference, why does it matter, and what audio solution is best for your gaming needs? I’ll dive into all of that below.
What’s The Difference Between Headphones and a Headset?
First, let’s talk about the basic difference between headphones and a headset.
Headphones are just that: headphones. You wear them over or inside your ear and they serve to carry all of your audio output right to your ears. However, they have no attached microphone of their own: headphones are only for receiving audio, not recording audio.
A headset is very similar to a pair of headphones most of the time, but with one key difference. In addition to all the sound output capabilities of headphones, headsets opt to build in a microphone in order to enable an all-in-one audio solution. Depending on the headset, this will be done via two combined and split audio cables, a single USB cable, or Bluetooth.
So, headsets are straight-up the better option, right?
Not…necessarily. I’ll break down the matchup in more detail throughout the article, but the conclusions I come to might surprise you. Headsets definitely have their place in the market, though: let’s talk about that real quick.
Why You Should Buy a Headset
The main benefit of a headset for gaming compared to headphones is honestly found in simplicity, and to a lesser extent, entry-level pricing. Why bother buying headphones and a separate microphone when you can just buy both in one? It seems like a pretty straightforward and logical choice to me, and the truth is it just might be for many consumers.
These days, the cost of an entry-level gaming headset (especially from a random Chinese company with low prices) isn’t all that much higher than the cost of an entry-level pair of headphones. At that point, especially if you’re very tight on a budget, you’d be a fool to not at least consider the all-in-one option.
But is there a reason you should still consider headphones, instead?
Why You Should Buy Headphones Instead of a Headset For Gaming
Make no mistake: if you buy headphones for gaming instead of a headset, you’ll still need to buy an attachable mic or a desktop mic in order to still have voice communications. This will add some extra cost to your headphones, but not very much: a decent attachable boom microphone can easily be attached to your headphones and purchased for $20 or under.
So, it’s not like you’re stuck without audio recording if you don’t have a headset. It’s not like you’ll even need to spend that much to add it on. You still have options, and oftentimes, a great pair of headphones with an attached mic can provide a better experience for a cheaper price than headsets with competing quality.
Let’s break down how this happens by diving into more direct comparisons.
Headphones vs Headset For Gaming: Sound Quality
Now, headphones and headsets don’t have some kind of universal sound quality that I can judge. However, I can talk about sound quality offered for the price, and this is actually a key area where headsets are lacking, especially on the high-end.
Headphones are marketed at people who only want to receive audio, so there’s a lot of focus on improving sound quality and slapping on extra features as the pricing of headphones increase,
Headsets are primarily marketed at on-the-go professionals and gamers, who aren’t considered to need top-of-the-line sound quality. Granted, many gaming headsets will still try to justify their pricing by adding virtual or actual surround sound into the equation. There are plenty of virtual surround sound solutions for headphones on PC and console alike.
As discussed and tested by LinusTechTips in the video above, there are a wide variety of surround sound gaming headsets. Some are pure stereo headsets with software surround, while Razer actually stuffed in five drivers per-ear for a “true” 7.1 surround experience in a headset.
Unfortunately for those specialized headsets, especially Razer’s, it turned out that those virtual surround solutions just weren’t as good as a simple software solution like Dolby Atmos with stereo headphones. Even Razer’s Tiamat, with the actual extra hardware built-in, fared worse than good software with stereo headphones.
For positional audio in games, it’s pretty obvious that any pair of good stereo headphones will do, backed with the right audio solution in software. You don’t need to pay extra for positional audio in your hardware, since software does it better.
While some headsets can still have genuinely good positional audio built-in, it isn’t a clear win for them. And in terms of sound quality in general, especially for things like music, headphones get better a lot faster than headsets do as you spend more, and continue climbing in quality well past them.
Headphones vs Headset For Gaming: Build Quality
Like most “gaming” peripherals, headsets can have pretty decent build quality…to a point.
Make no mistake: there are plenty of gaming headsets that have perfectly fine and decent build quality, especially around the ~$50-$150 price range. However, that isn’t a guarantee, and even on the fairly high-end of gaming headsets, you can have some surprisingly bad experiences.
In this case, I can attest to my own bad experience with the Sennheiser GSP 600 Headset. I spent nearly $200 on it shortly before the 2020 pandemic, only to have it fail on me during that year, at a time when supply chain and delivery system issues meant I simply wouldn’t be able to return it before the window closed. It was more than I had ever spent on a single piece of sound hardware, and it had failed me faster than even my basic $20 Bose headphones I had used in High School.
I was…honestly still am pretty mad about that. These days that headset has plummeted in price, but it’s still no excuse to put something with such abysmal build quality at such a high price just because you’re marketing it to gamers. And coming from a reputable high-end audio brand like Sennheiser, it’s particularly shameful.
So, the real answer is to do your research. Read reviews thoroughly and look for warning signs of potentially short-lived hardware before you purchase, especially if you’re going to spend hundreds of dollars like I did.
While my case is a bit of an extreme example, I think it holds merit as a demonstration of a larger problem in the market. Overall, I feel like headphones are held to a higher standard, so I’m going to give it to headphones.
Winner: Headphones, in Budget and High-End
Headphones vs Headset For Gaming: Pricing
To be honest, if you just need a quick cheap sound solution that will work with minimal headaches on your end, it’s still worth considering headsets. Especially in the price range of $40 and under, you can find some surprisingly compelling gaming headsets, and as long as you do your due diligence and assess user reviews, you should be able to avoid real bad experiences.
But I would say that if you’re willing to spend more money on your audio solution, especially lots of money on your audio solution, you should stick to headphones with an attachable mic.
Headphones will improve in sound quality and build quality where headsets won’t, and there isn’t a drop in mic quality by choosing separate, attachable mics instead.
Winner: Headset for Budget Users, Headphones For Mid-Range and High-End
Headphones vs Headset For Gaming: Which Do You Really Need?
Overall, I think headphones with an attachable mic is the best option for anyone who wants to make the most of their money, especially once you enter the mid-range and high-end. Get Dolby Atmos or a similar solution, and any marginal advantage the gaming headsets might have had in positional audio will get blown away.