Gaming Headsets; the good, the bad and the ugly

The humble headset is, perhaps, one of the most important tools in a gamers armada. Without sound we are deprived one of our key senses and have no way of detecting enemies or communicating outside of our field of vision. I have looked at a diverse array of headsets from the simple, compact, laptop-friendly SteelSound 3H to the built-like-a-brick-outhouse, surround sound emulating Terratec Headset Master. All of these headsets have one thing in common; they possess a microphone. With todays VOIP software and broadband connections not having a half decent microphone available to communicate with your team mates is unforgivable. And if you’re the kind of gamer who uses a weighted mouse to gain the edge you should already know this.

So, without further ado click the link below to meet the good, the bad, and the ugly.

SteelSound 3H

Build
As the budget little brother to the 5H and an excellent pair of headphones in themselves I think the 3H deserve a mention. They are sturdily built and attractive but at the same time manage to fold to almost pocket-sized proportions and are incredibly portable.

The cups are vaguely egg shaped, very narrow and surprisingly comfortable to wear. Suffice to say if, for some reason, you game on a laptop and wish to stay portable then these are absolutely the headphones for you- within the bounds of this roundup anyway.

Features
There’s not a lot to say about the 3H, they lack an inline volume control but have the same retractable microphone design as the 5H. Their ability to fold up for transport is second to none but some form of cable tidy wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Microphone
Again, like the 5H the 3H microphone is fully retractable and highly flexible. I’m a big fan of this design as it can both be tastefully hidden and done so without being lost as is the risk with a detachable microphone. It has a good enough pickup volume and deals well with noise but may give you nightmares as it has a distinctly medical/matrix/alien feel.

Audio
When hooking up the 3H to my iPod I was blown away by levels of volume and base that I hadn’t even obtained with my Sennheiser PX-100s which you’ll see hooked up to iPods in the London Apple store. As portable headphones I love them and really can’t fault them.

Overview
If you’re always on the go, own a laptop, or want to use a headset with your portable audio player then these are probably the best choice. None of the other headsets even come close to the size these are when folded up and a paltry £25 is a steal!

SteelSound 5H V2

Build
Being designed specially for gamers by gamers, endorsed by gamers and tested by gamers SteelSeries don’t hesitate to brag about the pedigree of the SteelSound 5h. They are solidly built, despite being made of plastic, and can be disassembled so that either cup or the headband can be individually replaced if damaged. This is also handy when compacting them for transport.

Like the Sennheisers the SteelSound 5H successfully combine a robust build with clean, attractive aesthetics. Come on, who doesn’t like black and silver?

The cups themselves are large, well padded and amongst the most comfortable in the roundup.

Microphone
The 5H microphone is fully retractable and hides away in the left cup when not in use, this is far, far more favourable than a microphone which stows away by tiling upwards and typically looks like an antennae. Like the Medusa 5.1 the 5H microphone is extremely flexible and position-able. It has a high pick-up volume and little noise although it still comes in third to the Creative and Speed-Link headsets.

Audio
When it comes to music listening the 5H is a bit lacking. It has drivers custom-tweaked to accentuate the all important footstep sounds in first person shooters making it a very specialist piece of equipment for gamers only. What bugs me is that I’m sure this could be done equally as well with an equaliser setting that could be turned off to facilitate good quality, ordinary music listening alongside your gaming addition.

In fact it’s possible to compensate for the 5H tweaks by using the equaliser in your audio software. With VLC set to “Pop” I was able to get listen-able music out of the 5H but, still, if you’re not playing Counter-Strike then you probably don’t want to be using these.

Overview
The 5H V2 headset is tailored so absolutely toward hardcore FPS gaming that it really doesn’t hold up well in any other listening situation. Though if hardcore FPS gaming is your forte then they might be for you and at £50 aren’t going to break the bank any more than the other contenders in this roundup.

Icemat Siberia Headset

Build
Whilst many of the headsets in this roundup have sacrificed good looks for robust builds it seems the Icemat Siberia has gone the other way. One awkward trip in my bag and, to the PRs surprise, the Icemats were slightly broken. It’s quite clear that their ambitious design has a slight flaw; where the cups connect to the headband there is no real hinge to allow them to pivot. This, combined with the elementary principle of leverage, makes for very broken headphones when you try and put them in a confined space.

Still, despite being clearly broken the Icemats are holding together remarkably well and are still wearable and usable although I’m not putting them in a bag in a hurry. This is a shame as they are touted as music listening headphones and intended for use with a portable player.

The Icemats excessive size and lack of flexibility make them a definite no-go for LAN party transport. It took me one journey to break them- perhaps I was unlucky enough to get a bad pair, but looking closely at the build leads me to think otherwise. Of course, treat them well and you’ll be fine.

Like the Razer and Terratec headsets the Icemat Sibera has two flexible round bands and a spring loaded, soft leather and felt head-band to keep them sitting comfortably.

Features
The Icemat Siberia has some of the best considerations for cable management in the lineup. If you’re connecting to a portable player or front audio port then you can simply detach the inline volume control along with a significant length of cable. Couple this with the fact that the cable is thick and tangle resistant and you have a recipe for the cleanest possible setup in any situation.

The in-line volume control is simply just a volume control and cannot mute/unmute the separate microphone. It is, however, the best feeling volume control of the bunch.

Microphone
The Siberia has the best microphone of the bunch simply because it’s entirely independent to the headset itself. This raises the question; “Is the Siberia really a headset?”. Obviously the clear and definitive answer is a resounding no, but the microphone is bundled, comes with clips to fasten it securely and tidily to the Icemats audio cable and clips easily onto your lapel so excluding the would-be headset on a technicality would be unfair.

The separate microphone can also be clipped to a monitor, desk or anywhere you fancy- it picks up exceptionally well if placed within a reasonable distance but will, of course, clearly pick up mouse clicks and key-presses if you attach it directly to your desk.

Audio
The Icemats are amongst the best performers in the bunch when it comes to audio quality, it’s clear to see why these are touted as music listening and not gaming headsets- it would be a shame to waste something capable of producing such great sound on the harsh explosions and gritty dialogue of the latest FPS.

Overview
If you listen to music extensively on your gaming rig and don’t take your headphones anywhere then these could be perfect for you. They are also available in sexy Apple-esque white (wait… Apple have gone black now with the iMac/iPhone/Macbook) and can be had for about £40. I only wish they were a little more flexible and robust.

Sennheiser PC156 USB

Build
As one of the most compact and simple headsets in this roundup I can’t help but like the Sennheiser PC156 USB. It’s very portable, very clean and very simple. It’s also possibly the only headset that manages to combine such attractive aesthetics with a robust build. Although made entirely from plastic none of the undue force, twisting and turning I summed up the courage to subject these too managed to make an impression. Suffice to say; they don’t look tough but they definitely are.

The PC156 USB has the second most unusual cups in this roundup, they don’t entirely enclose your ears which you’ll find very forgiving in hot weather but this comes at the cost of some comfort and they’re not terribly good at staying on your head. Suffice to say that if you “dance” to your heavy metal the next MSN message you send will be along the lines of “afgs;lkj;lkj” when they fall onto your keyboard.

Features
The PC156 are the only headset in this roundup to boast a wrap-around cable tidy system. A plastic gubbin is supplied for you to wrap excess cable around to keep everything tidy. It’s easy to see exactly why this was done as, when unwrapped, the PC156 cable will tangle like dread-locks with itself and any other cables in close proximity.

An inline volume control and microphone mute/unmute top these off nicely.

Microphone
The microphone is fixed to the left hand side and is bend-able and tilt-able but doesn’t have quite the absurd range of positions available with the Medusa and SteelSound microphones.

It’s touted as noise canceling and does dampen noise somewhat although it’s still recognisable. On the plus side speech is crystal clear an the microphone pick-up volume is good enough right out of the box- particularly when using the USB audio adaptor.

Audio
Excellent audio quality is par for the course in a pair of Sennheiser headphones, the PC156 are no exception and provide good base without compromising the rest of the range. I find that using the USB audio adaptor gives greater volumes over some of my computers built-in audio (Powerbook G4 and my HP workstation in particular) and also has the benefit of adding audio-in to computers that lack it (Mac mini I’m looking at you)

Overview
At £70 with USB adaptor and £40 without (PC 151) the PC 156 is expensive for a simple binaural headset but this is to be expected from Sennheiser and the build quality, sound quality and aesthetics do not disappoint.

SpeedLink Medusa 5.1 Home


Build
The Medusa 5.1 home is one of the ugliest headsets of the bunch, but what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in durability. Although plastic and not metal it has some seriously sturdy joints and a microphone that takes a lot of effort to break.

Although seemingly well padded in the cup department the Medusa 5.1 isn’t terrifically comfortable to wear. The 6 speaker drivers required for proper surround emulation give it quite a heft. Both cups can be swiveled 90 degrees for quick listening sessions and even fold up to make the headset fairly transportable.

Features
The Medusa 5.1 is, without a doubt, the most excessively over-featured surround sound emulating headset of the bunch. It comes with a behemoth amplifier/input switcher that boasts two inputs for PC/DVD Player, an output for the headphones themselves and a second pass-through output for a proper set of 5.1 speakers. I found that the amplifier didn’t do an awful lot in the amplifying department but it’s an extremely handy input/output switcher and doubles as a stand for the headphones when they’re not in use.

All of the cables for hooking up the Medusa are supplied, the headphones will normally plug into the front of the amplifier using a custom metal connector but adaptors are supplied for plugging them straight into a 6 channel output or even into regular old 2 channels… or an iPod if you’re so inclined.

An inline volume control is supplied with independent volume adjustment for the front, rear, centre and “vibrate” channels. The latter is a fairly puzzling way of saying subwoofer. The amplifier houses the master volume control which is somewhat inconvenient if you want to use the headphones without it.

I can’t help but think the amplifier needs a digital optical input/output and DTS decoding to allow it to be hooked up to an Xbox 360 via TOS-Link; then with a 24″ Dell monitor (or anything else that has component and DVI inputs), a PC, an Xbox 360, 5.1 surround and a set of these headphones you’d have a pretty integrated setup that your neighbours wouldn’t hate you for.

Microphone
The Medusa has a long, flexible microphone that looks like it dropped straight out of The Matrix. It’s mounted on the left but can easily be bent backwards to be used on the right hand side if you wear the headphones backwards. The microphone can easily be positioned close to or far away from your mouth and has a high pick-up volume without over-emphasising background noise.

Audio
I found the Medusa 5.1 to be slightly lacking in the audio department. Whilst the surround sound effect was present and impressive the rear left and right channels were decidedly “tinny” and music listening quality is sacrificed as a result.

Overview
The complex setup makes the Medusa an option I would personally shy away from. Coupled with less than stellar audio quality and a fairly ugly appearance this doesn’t bode well for the Medusa; however the input/output switcher can be extremely useful in very specific setups- these are far more likely to fall into the home cinema arena than gaming, however. You can pick up the Medusa 5.1 Home for £50-£60; which isn’t a bad price.

Terratec Headset Master 5.1 USB


Build
The Terratec headset is incredibly robust, the sturdy plastic cups are held on with metal arms which are directly attached to two tough but flexible round head bands. There’s a separate, spring loaded, soft leather band which contacts the head and keeps the headphones from slipping down; this is the only possibly weak spot but feels fairly sturdy.

The cups are very well padded and can both be rotated through 180 degrees vertically so you can hold the headphones against your head and listen to something without putting them on.

By not “trying too hard” to obtain an appealing design aesthetic the Terratec Headset Master has come out looking and feeling solid and professional. They are a fantastic example of how something as well used and often abused as a headset should be built.

A very peculiar thing of note here is that the build styling and construction of the Terratec Headset master is identical to that of the Razer Barracuda bar some superficial styling. I was unable to get much comment from either companies PR on why this is.

Features
The Terratec Headset Master has an inline volume control, the master volume however is an irksome rocker switch that increases/decreases the volume in steps which are a little large for my taste. It can, however, be pressed down to quickly mute audio- a nice touch if ever I saw one.

In addition to the master volume the inline control has individual volume controls for all 6 channels- they are paired into Front, Surround, Sub and Center so you can’t adjust left/right balance on the fly but it avoids a dial-overload.

This is the only USB 5.1 Surround Sound headset of the bunch, which makes it singly the most easy to use Surround Sound emulating headset and the only one which will connect to laptops or computers lacking 6 channel outputs.

Finally the Headset Master comes with a neat little storage bag that has a skull on the front.

Microphone
The Terratec Headset Master boasts a long and somewhat ugly detachable microphone which is far less likely to get lost than the Razer offering. The microphone has a good pick-up volume and low noise, coupled with the “interesting” software features it’s certainly up there with the best.

Audio
Audio quality is fantastic. Despite the use of a small USB audio adaptor the Terratec Headset Master pumps out a decent level of volume and a disturbingly realistic surround sound effect.

Software
I wont go into much detail here as these are one of the few headsets to come with a software package to back them up. The software is absolutely feature-packed for something as simple as a headset. You can test all 5.1 channels, switch between 6 and 2 channel modes, boost bass, apply surround sound effects, tweak the sound with an equaliser and play around with Karaoke/Magic voice functionality.

Karaoke/Magic voice includes key shifting if you can’t sing in tune, and vocal cancellation to strip vocals from your CDs/mp3s. You can also add echo to your microphone and/or adjust your voice to sound like a monstor, cartoon, male or female. The “male” setting is advised for all 12 year olds who want to pass as mature on Ventrilo.

Overview
Incredibly similar to the Razer headset yet almost half the price at only £45 the Terratec 5.1 is the easiest to set up and arguably the best 5.1 emulating headset in the roundup, if not the best of the bunch.

Saitek G20 Vibrating Headset

Build
The GH20 is one of the uglier headsets of the bunch even though it’s coloured an attractive purple. Owing its heritage to Saitek, a company not yet known for producing stellar audio products, I wasn’t expecting much.

On the plus side it’s build like a brick sh… outhouse with large, comfortable cups and a not-quite-so-well padded head band all moulded out of sturdy plastic.

Features
Yes, you read the name correctly, the Saitek GH20 Vibrates. The point of vibration is twofold. One, it accentuates base for us D&B fanatics (read as: it vibrates your head), two, it vibrates in response to explosions and other low frequency sounds in games further enhancing the gaming experience. I’m a fan of the Saitek GH20 simply because I’d love to strap a pair of sub-woofer endowed monitor speakers to my head and listen to Pendulum all day. The GH20 is the cheapest headset in this round-up but still boasts a fairly attractive design, alas the vibration function is somewhat gimmicky and wearing these at a LAN party will likely result in you being laughed at. Still, if you’ve ever wondered what strapping a subwoofer to your head and turning the volume up to 11 feels like these are the safest and cheapest way to find out. (Although we wouldn’t recommend you voluntarily blow your own eardrums in the name of science)

If you want to use the vibration functionality you will need to sacrifice a USB port or stock up on AAA batteries.

Microphone
The GH20 microphone is surely the worst of the bunch, with a low pick-up volume and no noise cancelling to speak of. It is highly flexible but not quite as cool as the Medusa, 5h and 3h microphones.

Audio
Audiophiles beware, these are low end headphones with vibration gimmickry. Don’t expect ground breaking audio quality, although they’re certainly listenable and quite fun if you enjoy a bit of DnB but have neighbors who don’t. Although I like a bit DnB I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t require the best of audio fidelity; just volume, in large and unhealthy quantities.

Overview
The G20 were included both for posterity and to cater to the gimmick loving few out there with low budgets. At only £20 they’re not a bank breaker and they’re not the greatest headset in the world but they’re good for a laugh.

Razer Barracuda HP-1


Build
The HP-1 appear to have come out of the same mould as the Terratec 5.1 headset – the styling is incredibly similar and identical in places. Who copied who here I don’t know but this may indicate that the internals are also similar – this doesn’t bode well for a supposed high-end gaming headset. The PRs for either company couldn’t seem to come up with a definitive answer as to why their products are so similar.

This does, however, mean that the Barracuda HP-1 shares the Terratecs stellar metal build and, thus, is a pretty tough piece of kit. The HP-1 also shows off some pretty sexy LED-enhanced black styling that visually sets it apart from the Terratec Headset Master.

Features
The first thing I noticed about the Razer HP-1 is the fact that it lights up (a priority I’m sure doesn’t even make it to the essential features lists of hardcore gamers) and boasts an in-line amplifier complete with a comically oversized master volume control.

Like any 5.1 surround emulating headset the HP-1 requires a USB connection for power but unlike the Terratec 5.1 headset doesn’t go the route of using the same USB connection for audio. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it, but if you’re a true gamer and have invested heavily in your sound-card you’re really not going to want to offload your surround sound onto a cheap USB audio adaptor.

The in-line control/amplifier includes a quintet of channel specific volume controls in addition to the master volume and a switch for turning off the amplifier, turning off the lights, or turning on both.

In order to connect the Razer HP-1 headset to a normal sound card you need to connect a female DVI to a 6-channel+mic adaptor. The net result is a nasty and pointless pair of DVI plugs bolted together and shoved behind your PC. Razer even have the cheek to call their DVI hack the “Razer High Definition-Dedicated Audio Interface” despite the fact it offers absolutely nothing over a regular group of four 3.5mm connectors other than confusion and marketing gimmickry. At best I can see it eliminating interference by balancing all the six (or 7) channels which would only work with their sound card anyway, but otherwise Razer aren’t selling me on this one.

Microphone
The microphone is quite rigid and impossible to position according to preference but is compact and detachable. However in retrospect; being compact and detachable are the recipe for an inevitable loss. Despite the microphones short, stumpy and un-positionable form factor it does a reasonable job of picking up speech.

Audio
The Razer, like the Speed Link and Terratec headsets, emulates 5.1 surround sound. It does it as well as the Terratec, which is to say that the surround sound effect is very distinct and normal audio quality is not sacrificed. However the Razer HP-1 is not backed up by the Terratec Headset Masters excellent software package.

Overview
With an irksome connection, slightly bulky inline volume control, and somewhat pointless compliment of LEDs I’m inclined to favour the perplexingly similar Terratec Headset Master over the Razer Barracuda HP-1. At £80 you’re clearly paying for the Razer brand but if that’s worth £40 to you then there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t grab a set of these.

Creative HS-900


Build
The Creative HS-900 is, without a doubt, the ugliest headset to make it into this roundup. Its lack of visual appeal is, however, countered significantly by just how comfortable it is to wear. Placed somewhere between “cans” and the bizarre small ear cups of the Sennheiser PC156, the HS-900 strikes a good balance between weight and comfort. It’s clear the HS-900 is built to be robust and do the job, rather than look pretty. This has the added benefit of keeping the price down without compromising on quality.

Features
With no inline volume control, no surround sound emulation, and no cable management the HS-900 is fairly thin on the ground when it comes to extra features. It does have a neat little black drawstring bag to put over your head when you’re wearing it though.

Microphone
The HS-900 boasts the Microphone with the loudest pick-up volume of the bunch alas it also picks up background noise just as well although I didn’t find it interfered with the speech enough to be a problem. Still the noise was odd in a microphone touted as noise cancelling.

Like the Saitek headset the HS-900 microphone is an ugly, protruding affair which can not be stowed or detached, it’s also one of the longest which is great if you like a microphone right in front of your mouth but we should all know this isn’t at all necessary for good broadcast sound quality and volume.

Audio
The HS-900 boasts fairly good audio quality, however it’s just not “good enough” to satiate those well tuned audiophile eardrums. It’s clear the HS-900 is targeted more toward internet voice communication than gaming.

Overview
If you can live with pure ugly this is actually a very good headset that can be had for about £40

Overview

There are, I think, 3 clear winners in this roundup. Your mileage may vary but here they are:

Surround Sound
For surround sound emulation with a quick, easy setup and a pretty good software package the £45 Terratec Headset Master 5.1 USB beats the Razer and undercuts the price. If you’ve not heard of Terratec before, now’s a good time to get acquainted.

If you prefer something a lot cooler looking, have money to splash, or are considering a Razer Barracuda soundcard then the Razer Barracuda HP-1 Headset is definitely worth a look. With the same build quality and features of the Terratec offering but a higher price, the choice is yours!

Plain Ol’ Audio
Despite their decidedly flimsy build the £40 Icemat Siberia, available in black or white, can’t be overlooked for its excellent audio quality and nifty discrete microphone.

Portability
For shoving into a bag and using with portable audio players and laptops it’s safe to say that the £25 SteelSound 3H wins hands down. It folds up so small and so elegantly that your cat could wear it, and look good doing so.