So you’ve built your PC, bought the best graphics card and the best gaming monitor to go with it; now all you need is some kind of new-fangled listening device to appreciate the sights and sounds of your favourite games, which is why I’m here to help you find the best gaming headset for your needs and budget.
For whatever reason, PC desktop speakers seem to have gone the way of the dodo these days, and the piddly speakers you’ll find in your monitor usually aren’t fit for anything but the briefest of email pings. What’s more, with several games now utilizing online play and various types of co-op mode, a gaming headset with a built-in microphone is often much more convenient than simply having a pair of regular headphones and a separate mic.
Finding a good gaming headset, however, is fraught with problems, as you’ve not only got to find one that sounds decent, but there’s also the quality of its microphone to consider as well as its overall comfort. There’s no use having an incredible sounding headset if the headband suddenly turns into a vice-like torture device after 30 minutes of use. To that end, I’ve created this handy guide, complete with everything else you need to know about buying a new gaming headset. Below, you’ll find my current favourites out of all the headsets I’ve tested here at Castle Shotgun, but as with any kind of ‘Best’ list, these picks aren’t set in stone. It will continue to change and evolve as I get new headsets in for testing, but for now, let’s count ourselves in…
Best gaming headset: Steelseries Arctis 7
If you’ve ever had as much trouble finding a comfortable headset as I have, then the Steelseries Arctis 7 is a revelation. Its ski-goggle headband might not look as comfy as other headsets with fistfuls of padding to their name, but its clever suspension design means the steel frame never actually touches your head, allowing me to wear it for hours and hours without issue. Whereas other headsets often always leave me with a vice-like headache after 30 minutes, the Arctis 7 just lets me get on with playing games.
It sounds great, too, and is completely wireless, allowing you to keep your gaming desk nice and clean without another tangle of cables in the mix. What’s more, its wireless transmitter isn’t just a little USB stick – it’s got its own cable, so you can position it wherever you like for the best signal. You also get a regular 3.5mm audio cable so you can use it as a wired headset as well if you prefer.
The Arctis 7 is more expensive than other wireless gaming headsets on this list, but it does come with a couple of extra handy features, such as its ChatMix slider. This lets you filter out all game music to focus solely on your multiplayer chat, and it works vice-versa as well, helping you drown out those screaming 11-year-olds who can’t believe you didn’t make that headshot from half way across the map.
If your budget doesn’t quite stretch that far, then fear not, as the rest of Steelseries’ Arctis range uses the same exactly the same audio drivers as the top-end Arctis 7 as well as the same comfy headband design.
Read more in our Steelseries Arctis 7 review.
£127 from Amazon UK
$149 from Amazon US
Runner-up: Corsair Void Pro RGB (USB)
The Corsair Void Pro RGB comes in numerous flavours, including wireless, wired and a non-RGB, wired ‘Surround’ version. I tested the middle wired RGB model, and this is another headset that rates highly on the comfort scale. Corsair’s headsets have a much looser design than most, so they’re less prone to the dreaded head pinch as a result. They’re perhaps not the best pick for those with smaller heads, but those with larger skulls or a lot of hair to contend with will no doubt appreciate the extra wiggle room.
The Void Pro RGB also has an excellent microphone, and is usually my headset of choice when I put in the occasional appearance on The RPS Electronic Wireless Show. It’s a great sounding headset as well, but its virtual 7.1 surround sound effects aren’t the best, hence its position as ‘runner-up’ rather than our overall winner. You also need to fire up Corsair’s Cue software to use it, as there isn’t a dedicated button to enable it on the headset itself.
Still, if you’re after a tasteful RGB headset that doesn’t cost the earth, the Corsair Void Pro RGB is a great place to start.
Read more in our Corsair Void Pro RGB review.
£78 from Amazon UK
$60 from Amazon US
Runner-up: HyperX Cloud Flight
Sound-wise, the HyperX Cloud Flight is easily the equal of both the Corsair Void Pro RGB and the Steelseries Arctis 7, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell which one was better overall. It is, however, more expensive, and (for me, at least) not quite as comfortable, putting it in third place on this list behind its featherweight competition
The Cloud Flight still has plenty of merits of its own, though, including a whopping 30 hours of battery life when you turn off its ear-cup LEDs. That’s miles ahead of the Arctis 7’s 15 hours of wireless battery life, and makes a strong case for it being the best wireless headset currently available – especially when it only costs a little bit more than its Steelseries rival. Even with the LEDs set to breathing mode, the Cloud Flight’s rated for an impressive 18 hours of play time, and you’ll still get 13 hours out of it with them going full light show.
That’s pretty impressive as wireless gaming headsets go, and certainly a lot more convenient than most of its wireless competition. Its detachable microphone also puts in a good performance, and you also get a wired 3.5mm audio cable in the box for use as a wired headset, too. The only downside to using it wired is that you can’t then take advantage of its onboard volume controls, which is a bit of a pain. Still, as wireless headsets go, there’s plenty to like here.
Read more in our HyperX Cloud Flight review.
£139 from Amazon UK
$160 from Amazon US
Best budget gaming headset (wired): Cougar Phontum
The Cougar Phontum is by no means perfect (its microphone may as well go in the bin), but at this kind of price, it’s still a great buy for those on a budget. With its metal frame and large, plush ear cups, the Phontum’s build quality is outstanding for a headset that costs less than £50 / $50, and it’s infinitely preferable to the overly plastic construction of its nearest rival, the Turtle Beach Recon 150.
As mentioned above, the microphone is pretty useless (let’s blame that on Cougar’s Metal Gear-esque naming conventions), and its high/treble reproduction isn’t as good as more expensive headsets, but its overall audio quality is perfectly good enough for the money. If you’re looking for something inexpensive to give to your kids or younger siblings, the Cougar Phontum is well worth considering.
Read more in our Cougar Phontum review.
£43 from Overclockers
$49 from Amazon US
Best budget gaming headset (wireless): Corsair HS70
Let’s face it, wireless gaming headsets are pretty expensive. As you’ve no doubt seen on this list, the best ones demand well over £120 / $150 in most cases, which can often be a step too far for those looking to keep costs down. Thankfully, Corsair has come up with a solution – the brilliant £100 / $100 HS70.
It’s still a fair chunk of change, I’ll admit – especially for those in the UK – but the HS70 is an absolutely superb headset in its own right. It doesn’t have as many fancy features as the Arctis 7 or the battery life of the Cloud Flight (although its 16 hours of uninterrupted air time is still nothing to be sniffed at), but if you’re after something simple that gets the job done, feels great and doesn’t involve trying to unravel a million cables, the HS70 is the headset for you.
Read more in our Corsair HS70 review.
£100 from Scan
$100 from Amazon US
Best ‘money is no object’ Hi-Res gaming headset: Steelseries Arctis Pro + GameDAC
If you’ve got money to burn and want the absolute best of the best, look no further than the Steelseries Arctis Pro + GameDAC. Not to be confused with its more expensive wireless and cheaper GameDAC-less Pro siblings, this middle offering in Steelseries’ Arctis Pro line-up is arguably the best of the lot – if only because it’s the only one to have proper Hi-Res audio support.
Combined with that handy titular GameDAC control that gives you every settings option you could possibly want right at your fingertips (all on a lovely big tactile dial, to boot), this is the best and comfiest way to get 96kHz, 24-bit audio from your game library and beyond.
Read more in our Steelseries Arctis Pro + GameDAC review.
£250 from Amazon UK
$250 from Amazon US
How we test:
I’ll be upfront. Testing a gaming headset can be an extremely subjective experience. What’s comfortable for one person may be a headache-inducing monstrosity for someone else, while others may prefer a more bass-laden approach to their gaming music compared to something more balanced.
Personally, I prefer a balanced headset whose bass doesn’t drown out the highs, and I use a number of audio tracks to help test this – both in and out of games. To get a feel for the headset, I fire up my Final Fantasy XV soundtrack in iTunes, paying special attention to how it handles the battle theme of Hunt or Be Hunted. This particular track has a lot going on with a number of different instruments in play, from its busy bass section to its fast and frantic piano and strings melodies. If a headset can handle this without one section overwhelming another, we’re onto a winner. If I need extra reassurance, I throw in a bit of Omnis Lacrima for good measure.
To make sure a headset can handle lighter instrumental tracks, I use a combination of Final Fantasy XV’s Piano Collection soundtrack, Austin Wintory’s Transfiguration EP from Journey, Ace Attorney’s Gyakuten Meets Orchestra concert, and a light sprinkling of my Breath of the Wild: Sound Selection CD and the Bravely Default soundtrack. I also listen to regular bands and songs, including the likes of Turin Brakes, Queen, Maximo Park, a bit of Bowie and the opening themes to space anime Knights of Sidonia and grim naked giant anime Attack on Titan, again testing for overall balance, clarity and general toe-tapping grooviness.
In-game, I focus on three main titles. Normally, I start with Doom and run through its first UAC level, listening out for overall punchiness, whether its head-squelching sound effects are drowned out by the thumping bass, and more importantly, how good the Super Shotgun sounds when you unleash its double-barreled fury on an unsuspecting imp.
Next up is Hellblade, where I sit back and listen to the internal voices whirling around inside Senua’s head during the game’s opening boat sequence. Since Hellblade uses binaural audio techniques (which uses two microphones to accurately measure the distance between your head and where the sound’s coming from to create a proper 3D, 360-degree soundscape – try these examples with a pair of headphones on to see what I mean), this is a great test of how a headset can be immersive and create a fully-believable sense of place. I listen to see how up close and personal the main narrator can be, as well as how the other voices come and go and titter around the periphery. If a headset can make my spine tingle (as some of them have), this is a good sign.
Lastly, I boot up Final Fantasy XV proper to check my earlier findings in the game itself. Previously, I also gave The Evil Within a quick blitz to make sure those classic zombie groans came through loud and clear against the rest of its ominous soundtrack.
Next, I record myself talking for a bit in Audacity to see how its microphone performs, and I also try to wear the headset for as long as possible to see how comfortable it is over long periods of time. Admittedly, a lot of headsets tend to struggle in this area for me, as I’ve either got a head that’s secretly shaped like a Minecraft block underneath all my hair, or every headset manufacturer on the planet has a mysterious grudge against me and they’ve collectively designed each of their headsets to only last for about 30 minutes before they start to press down and pinch the top of my head. Obviously, the longer I can wear one without this happening, the better.
Wired or wireless?
Gaming headsets broadly fall into two categories: wired and wireless. Wired headsets are arguably the most common, with most plugging into a USB port or a 3.5mm audio connection, while wireless ones are, well, wireless.
Wireless headsets are generally more suited to those there console boxes that sit beneath your TV so you can lounge around on your sofa without falling over a string of cables every time you get up to make a cuppa, but they’re also a good choice if you want to cut down on the warren of PC cables you’ve got building up behind the back of your case. Just bear in mind that you’ll still need a free USB port for their wireless transmitter or dongle, as well as somewhere to charge them when they run out of juice.
What’s all this 7.1 surround sound stuff?
You’ll also see a lot of gaming headsets claiming they can do 7.1 surround sound. In a traditional audio setup, a 7.1 system would require seven individual speakers and a subwoofer (the .1 bit). The kind of headsets we’re dealing with, however, will only ever have two speakers (one for each ear), so any headset that says it can do 7.1 surround is usually going to be doing it virtually via onboard software and its own internal algorithms.
Virtual surround sound is by no means a bad thing. Yes, it’s not as good as proper 7.1 surround sound, but in some cases it can help make music feel more immersive and all-encompassing than regular stereo. However, poor implementations of it can often destroy any sense of intimacy or breathing-down-the-back-of-your-neck-style dialogue, and it can sometimes make your game audio feel like it’s been turned into one great big echo chamber, so don’t be fooled by what it says on the box.
Do I need a Hi-Res audio gaming headset?
We’re also starting to see more Hi-Res audio certified headsets starting to appear, but don’t get too bogged down in making sure you get one. Hi-Res (or High Resolution) audio is meant to provide the absolute pinnacle of music quality, with audiophiles saying it’s akin to ‘being right there in the recording studio’ when you listen to it.
Put simply, Hi-Res audio has a much higher sampling rate (also known as bit-depth, or the number of samples taken per signal per second in the analogue-to-digital conversion process) than CD quality audio, which is meant to make it more accurate and more detailed than anything else currently available.
To throw some numbers into the mix, CD is specified at 16-bit or 44.1kHz, while Hi-Res audio is usually defined as either 96kHz or 192kHz at 24-bit.
This is great if you already own lots of Hi-Res audio tracks or subscribe to something like Tidal, but as for gaming… it’s currently unknown how many, if any, actually support Hi-Res audio or whether you get any extra benefit over non-Hi-Res audio headsets. Personally, I’ve never been able to tell the difference between Hi-Res and CD, and that’s after multiple demos and tech PRs doing their darnedest to convince me otherwise. As a result, it’s probably worth it if you’re into Hi-Res audio stuff outside of gaming, but don’t go paying extra if you’re only going to be using it for games.