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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Gaming Headphones)

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  1. joe
    Holiday 2017 Edition
    Holiday 2017 Edition
    Holiday 2017 Edition
    Holiday 2017 Edition
    Holiday 2017 Edition
    Introduction Introduction
    Introduction
    Over-Ear Headphones Over-Ear Headphones
    Over-Ear Headphones
    In-Ear Headphones In-Ear Headphones
    In-Ear Headphones
    Desktop Amps & DACs Desktop Amps & DACs
    Desktop Amps & DACs
    Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs
    Portable Amps, DACs & DAPs
    Wireless Headphones Wireless Headphones
    Wireless Headphones
    Exercise Headphones Exercise Headphones
    Exercise Headphones
    Travel Headphones Travel Headphones
    Travel Headphones
    Gaming Headphones & Headsets Gaming Headphones & Headsets
    Gaming Headphones & Headsets
    Desktop & Portable Speakers Desktop & Portable Speakers
    Desktop & Portable Speakers
    Cables & Accessories Cables & Accessories
    Cables & Accessories
    Music & Media Music & Media
    Music & Media
    CanJams CanJams
    CanJam
    Head-Fi Meets Head-Fi Meets
    Head-Fi Meets
    Page of
     

    While my avid gaming days have long since passed, I still enjoy giving my laptop's video card something to overheat about from time to time. Favoring first-person shooters, imaging is important; but as rusty as I am with games nowadays, it's mostly so that I know precisely from which direction death is raining down on me. (I also use the headsets for telephony and software speech recognition dictation.)

    A few gaming headsets I've used that I feel comfortable recommending include:

Sennheiser G4ME One and G4ME Zero

What a lot of Head-Fi'ers don't know is just how much experience Sennheiser has with communications products. They make countless products at the center of which is voice clarity. And, like beyerdynamic, Sennheiser also makes well-regarded aviation headsets. Now take all of their experience with the aforementioned, merge that with their consumer headphone expertise, and you have the fixings for some great gaming headphone possibilities.

Sennheiser released two gaming headphone models, the G4ME ONE (open-back) and the G4ME ZERO (closed-back). If you can game with an open-back headphone, the G4ME ONE is, to my ears, the more versatile of the two, its sound signature reminding me of Sennheiser's HD 55X headphones. With music, the open-back G4ME ONE also exhibits nice body, and its level of detail retrieval and articulation also play very nicely with music.

The closed-back G4ME ZERO sounds more like a dedicated gaming headphone to me than the open G4ME ONE. The focus with the G4ME ZERO, in games, seems to be more about fine details and articulation, with a lighter low end than its open sibling. In first-person shooters, I found myself a bit more vigilant-feeling with the G4ME ZERO, like I was sensing a little more around me in the game than with the G4ME ONE. The compromise in having this extra in-game detail is a sound signature that I find a bit too light and sharp for general music listening.

With both of these headsets, the noise-canceling microphones work extremely well. In-game speech articulation with both is excellent, and those on the other end of it tell me my voice through both sounds very crisp and clear. Because of this, I've had very good luck with both of these headphones for use in Skype conversations, in addition to gaming.

Comfort with both is fantastic, with the extra-large circumaural (around-the-ear) earpads allowing either to be worn for hours without discomfort. For me, the G4ME ZERO's leather-like earpads are softer and more comfortable than the G4ME ONE's velour pads; but, again, both are extremely comfortable.

My one very big complaint about both of these Sennheiser gaming headphones is the fact that both are terminated in dual 3.5mm mini plugs (one each for headphone and mic). Since more and more computers are coming with single combo mini jacks, I wish Sennheiser included the appropriate adapters. A USB adapter would be nice, too.

Given their performance, it's not surprising to me to see more and more pro gamers wearing Sennheiser gaming headsets; and the G4ME ZERO and G4ME ONE will likely be favorites among them.

Sennheiser GSX 1200 PRO

If you’ve been around Head-Fi for a while, you may have come across Mad Lust Envy’s incredible headphone gaming guide. It’s a phenomenal gateway to virtual surround sound gaming on consoles, and occasionally on PC. One of the reasons why the guide leans towards console gaming is because it’s generally more complicated to experience incredible virtual surround sound on PC. Unexpectedly, at CES 2017, Sennheiser announced a new line of products designed with PC gamers in mind, and what a line it is.

The Sennheiser GSX is a 24 bit USB Gaming DAC/amp for PC and Mac. It comes in two flavors: the GSX 1000 and the GSX 1200 PRO. The difference between the two is the GSX 1200 PRO’s ability to network multiple units together for lag-free team communications. If that’s an important feature, make sure to pick up the GSX 1200 PRO. If you’re gaming at home on a desktop PC or on the road with a laptop, either model will serve you well. I went with the GSX 1200 PRO myself, but I haven’t had a chance to try the networking yet.

The GSX’s spotlight feature is Sennheiser’s Binaural Rendering Engine. It’s a digital sound processor (DSP) that takes an ordinary stereo signal and processes it to simulate a 7.1 channel surround sound system through a pair of headphones. This can serve to increase the immersion in a fantasy title like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, or give a competitive edge in shooters like the recently released Call of Duty: WWII. Sennheiser states that the Binaural Rendering Engine also works for music, movies, and tv shows, but I’ve been using it exclusively for gaming.

The Sennheiser GSX is surprisingly simple to setup. It’s bus powered, so there’s a single USB cable that runs from the computer to the GSX. There are no drivers to install. All that’s left is to plug in a pair of headphones or a headset. The mic and headphone jacks are separated on the back of the GSX, so if you’re using a headset like Sennheiser’s GAME ONE or GAME ZERO with split plugs, just plug in and play. If you’re using a headset with an all-in-one 3.5mm TRRS connector, there’s an adapter in the box. Residing next to the mic input is a dedicated 3.5mm jack for active speakers. The speaker output bypasses the Binaural Rendering Engine processing.

The simplicity continues with the user interface as well. The volume is managed by a prominent aluminum ring that surrounds a capacitive touch display. Via the display, it’s possible to adjust the equalizer and reverb, enable or disable the surround processing, and more. After a couple seconds, the display dims showing only the volume level. Simply hold a hand above the display and it will wake from its gentle slumber. Between the well thought out design and quality of the materials used, the GSX feels incredible in use.

Of course, build quality and simplicity are secondary concerns. What matters most is how it performs. Is this a device that truly does what it set out to do, or is it just another gaming accessory surrounded in marketing hype and no substance? Thankfully, it’s the former. The GSX takes stereo sound from games like Overwatch, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Borderlands, and sculpts it into a convincing 7.1 surround sound experience.

Skyrim has become my single-player game of choice recently because it pairs sublimely with the GSX’s spectacular immersion. When the game launches, I’m not sitting at a desk in front of a monitor, I’m standing outside my mountain farm near the town of Falkreath. As my character on the screen turns, I can feel Tamriel’s cold north slowly revolving around my head.

Exploring the vast world of Skyrim is so captivating that I don’t ever want to play it without a virtual surround processor, and the GSX 1200 PRO that I’ve been using simply does that better than any comparable device I’ve ever used. Thanks to Sennheiser’s remarkable Binaural Rendering Engine, the GSX has become the new yardstick. It’s my personal favorite device in its class.

Now to keep expectations in check, it’s not a perfect surround simulation. I have experienced more convincing virtual surround processing, but those systems are custom tailored to the individual listener. They are also rather expensive and significantly larger. There are more impressive options than the GSX available, like the Smyth Realiser, but they’re nowhere near as accessible.

The Sennheiser GSX is something every PC gamer should try this holiday season. The pure simplicity of the physical design combined with the realism of its processing sets it apart from the competition. You don’t normally expect the newcomer to head out on their first day and grab the lead, but the Sennheiser GSX has done just that.

Creative Sound Blaster X7 Limited Edition
By Brian Murphy (AxelCloris)

On paper the Creative Sound Blaster X7 Limited Edition looks to be the gamer’s equivalent of a multi-tool. Its feature list includes almost every tool we could want, with a few extras thrown in for good measure. It serves as a DAC, ADC, headphone amplifier, speaker amplifier and Bluetooth receiver. It can decode Dolby Digital and processes a 5.1 signal into their proprietary SBX Surround virtual surround for headphone use. It’s compatible with the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows and Mac. It even comes with its own built-in headphone stand. For most gamers these features make an enticing package, but can Creative do what Victorinox has managed to pull off for generations? Is this the Swiss Army knife of the gaming world?

In a word: yes.

In more words: the Creative Sound Blaster X7 Limited Edition is able to perform all of the necessary tasks expected of a gaming-focused DAC/amp with a few extras thrown in for good measure.

The X7 LE’s most important features are the virtual surround processing, headphone amp, DAC and ADC. If any one of these weren’t up to snuff I wouldn’t be mentioning an all-in-one device, I’d be recommending an entirely different solution based on the needs of the user. An all-in-one has to perform adequately in the majority of situations and the X7 LE manages to pull it off.

While I was absorbed in games like Overwatch and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the X7 LE’s headphone amp was driving my ETHER Flow with ease. In fact the X7 LE worked wonders with almost every headphone I paired with it. The MrSpeakers ETHER Flow, Philips SHP9500 and Sennheiser HD 800 all had no trouble reaching higher volumes. However, any HIFIMAN HE-6 owners will want to use the line out with another amp because no, the X7 LE cannot drive it. Unless someone is trying to use headphones that require a small sun to serve as the amp, the X7 LE is ready for whatever they throw at it.

Headphone pairing is something that should be considered with the X7 LE. It sounded better paired with my ETHER Flow than it did the SHP9500 and HD 800. The Philips and Sennheiser have a brighter presentation compared to the planar magnetic MrSpeakers. The X7 LE also has a brighter, leaner sound out of the box and plays well to the ETHER Flow’s signature but not as much the other two. Those who own brighter headphones need not fret, as Creative allows the user to swap the X7 LE’s opamps and tweak the sound via the hardware rather than software. Want a warm and smooth sounding X7 LE? Buy a set of warm and smooth sounding opamps and pop the hood.

I haven’t changed the opamps in the X7 LE, but Head-Fi user @Evshrug has. In his review of the Burson Audio v5i opamps he says that they made his X7 “...more dynamic, full of interesting details and atmosphere, while also easier to listen to.” If that doesn’t sound like an improvement, there’s an a bevy of other opamps available to personalize the X7 LE for anyone’s tastes.

While it’s not a factor for single-player games like Skyrim, a good ADC is necessary for games where communication is essential. Voice chat can make or break competitive games like Overwatch and League of Legends, and while the X7 LE’s mic input has room for improvement, it was acceptable for my teammates. I was using the V-MODA BoomPro, a cable with an in-line boom mic that I’ve used for years and absolutely adore. From their perspective my voice was unusually low through the X7 LE and sounded as though I was speaking into a plastic cup, but once I boosted the volume they were at least able to hear me clearly. I was told that my voice still wasn’t as “natural” as it is with other ADCs, sounding compressed and hollow, but it was functional. The ADC is like a multi-tool’s 1” pen knife, it’s able to get the job done but it’s not necessarily the perfect tool for the job. It’s a compromise.

Every gamer will end up using the headphone amp and most will use the mic input, but some will probably never enable the X7 LE’s SBX Surround processing, and if any of them are reading this in our buying guide, I suggest skipping the rest of this entry and checking out our other recommendations. There are other solutions out there for those who don’t plan to use the X7 LE’s surround processing. SBX Surround is the X7 LE’s statement feature; the glue that binds the entire experience together.

Creative’s SBX Pro Studio suite is an incredible resource for gamers. It’s essentially the brain that runs the X7 LE. It has multiple presets that cater to different users and a 10-band EQ for those who want to tweak the sound just so. There’s a setting called “Scout Mode” - one I rarely use if I’m honest - that’s designed with the eSports world in mind. I hardly ever enable it because I don’t play on a professional or even semi-pro level, but I have used it in the past to give myself an advantage in ranked Overwatch play. Scout Mode boosts the frequencies that enable us to hear details like footsteps and reduces frequencies that can impact positional cues, like those found in explosions. The sound is crisp and clear without any low frequency rumbles getting in the way. This breaks the game’s immersion for me, so I only use Scout Mode now and then.

Beyond that the SBX Pro Studio lets the user adjust the bass, treble, voice clarity, surround processing levels, game/voice balance and more. Unfortunately all of these adjustments have to be made from either a computer or a connected device like a smartphone or tablet. There’s an iOS and Android app available for console gamers for those who want to make adjustments without the need for a computer. That’s a huge improvement over the company’s older Recon 3D USB device which could only be adjusted from a PC or Mac.

The X7 LE is able to perform all of the essential functions gamers need and the extras only add to the experience. These features won’t be used by every X7 LE owner, but like a good multi-tool they’re useful to those to use them and unobtrusive to those who don’t.

The included headphone stand is perfect for lightweight headphones and headsets. For headphones with more heft - like my ETHER Flow - the stand was too wobbly for comfort, so in the end I removed it. Doesn’t work well for me, but others will certainly appreciate that it’s there. The Bluetooth functionality will be welcomed by console users but most PC gamers will probably skip over it and use the SBX Pro Studio software instead. I imagine that the X7 LE’s 100W stereo amp is another feature that will appeal to some but ignored by the masses. I love the fact that I was able to clear my dedicated stereo amp from the desk and connect my passive monitors directly to the X7.

The $500 price tag will no doubt keep many buyers at arm’s length, but it’s a great system for anyone who wants to have a compact all-in-one desktop solution for both computer and console gaming. If $500 is too much of a stretch, there’s a $400 version of the X7 available as well. The standard X7 has a higher output impedance of 2.2Ω vs the LE’s 1Ω and the speaker amp maxes out at 76W. Those gaming with sensitive headphones should consider the X7 LE, but anyone who doesn’t and won’t take advantage of the better speaker amp might find the normal X7 kinder to their wallet.

Yes, the Creative Sound Blaster X7 Limited Edition is one of the best gaming multi-tools available. No, it’s not cheap. Yes, it’s flexible and versatile. No, it’s not the perfect solution for everyone. Yes, it is a solution for most. Yes, I highly recommend it.

“— 
Sound Blaster X7 is really a High-End Sound Blaster that successfully integrates Gaming, Movies, and Music into one unique and innovative product. Superb sound quality with tons of features. Kudos to Creative! ”
  earfonia ,
Head-Fi Member/Contributor
 
Skullcandy SLYR
By Jude Mansilla

I almost considered putting the Skullcandy SLYR in the over-ear headphones section. For 80 bucks, it's a good closed headphone, period, and with the added functionality of a built-in stow-away microphone.

As has been covered before on Head-Fi, Skullcandy is getting very serious about sound. They've hired a lot of talent, and built their own labs, and have moved away from OEM to designing and engineering their own stuff. The SLYR is a product of those efforts, and a very good result.

The SLYR comes with a USB gaming sound mixer. To put it in non-gamer speak, this mixer is like a USB DAC (plus USB mic in) that also allows you to adjust audio settings, especially for mixing game audio and voice. It also comes with three different EQ settings. Because the mixer's cables are so long--and because I think the SLYR sounds better with music without the mixer (though the EQ is fun to experiment with while gaming)--I just plug the SLYR directly into my computer, or into one of my good USB DAC/amps, most of the time.

With or without the included mixer, the SLYR is very good for gaming. Its sound signature favors clarity over boom, though it still does a fine job of conveying sounds, impact, and effects of the death and destruction I usually find myself suffering from when I enter the gaming fray.

The thing is, when I'm done gaming--when I've plugged it directly into my computer or one of my good DAC/amps--I regularly forget to change the SLYR out for another headphone when I return to music. I'll say it again: this is actually a good $80 closed headphone. The SLYR's overall clarity is good. Its bass is well balanced, mids could use a bit more refinement and richness, and there's occasionally some mid-treble glare. Still, though, it's musical enough that I'll use it for an all-'round headphone on days I know I'll be Skyping a lot (its built-in stow-away boom microphone comes in handy). 80 bucks--a very good deal.

Skullcandy PLYR 1
By Jude Mansilla

It's designed primarily as a wireless gaming headset. It's by Skullcandy. Get over both of those things, cue up your music, flip up the PLYR 1's built-in boom microphone to get it out of the way, and enjoy the music, as the Skullcandy PLYR 1 is one of the best sounding and most versatile wireless headphones I've yet used. Okay, I admit I was also skeptical when Skullcandy's Gernard Feril and James Lang told me they had a wireless headphone even a Head-Fi'er could love. Turns out they were right.

The PLYR 1 has three equalizer settings: Bass Mode, for emphasized impact for explosions and special effects; Precision Mode, for emphasized mids and highs to highlight footsteps and reloads in gaming; and Supreme Mode, which is the most balanced of the three settings. For music, I use Supreme Mode the most, occasionally opting for Precision Mode.

With switchable Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Headphone encoding--and a boom microphone with very nice outgoing voice clarity--the PLYR 1 makes for an immersive gaming experience. The PLYR 1's surround prowess also makes it an outstanding movie and TV headphone. Of course, the surround experience isn't totally out-of-head, but the PLYR 1 conveys enough out-of-head cues to make you check that your speakers aren't on from time to time.

For me, the PLYR 1's wireless performance has shown itself to be long-range--easily covering the entirety of my modestly sized home--and rock solid. The headphone's lithium-ion battery charges quickly (around two to three hours), and provides long battery life, with up to 14-15 hours for listening only, around nine hours with a lot of chatting, and a multi-purpose average per-charge use time of around 12-13 hours.

In terms of inputs, the PLYR 1 supports Toslink optical input and analog input via a 3.5mm mini plug, which brings me to my only real complaint about the PLYR 1: Its USB functionality is limited to the boom mic. Given its headset functionality, full USB input and output support would have made for easier one-cable hookup to computers for music listening, Skype calls, text-to-speech dictation, and gaming--especially for media-I/O-limited laptops like the Apple MacBook Air.


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