The Great Kotaku Gaming Headset RoundupForget graphics—for my money, audio is the most vital aspect of a video game. It's the thing that makes me get lost in a game's world, that makes my pulse pound and sucks me in. But in order for a game to sound good, you've got to have the right equipment.


So much video game playing takes place late at night, or while sharing space with other people, and a deafening 7.1 surround-sound setup isn't a viable solution for many people. A good gaming headset can be worth its weight in gold. But which one to buy? I've rounded up seven of the most popular gaming headsets to see how they all stack up.

It used to be that gaming headsets were chintzy, overpriced cash-ins that lacked a fraction of the audio fidelity of comparably priced "real" headsets. Fortunately, that's changing—there has never been a better selection of great gaming headsets than there is right now.

Unfortunately, shopping for a gaming headset is notoriously difficult. What features matter, and which ones don't? How much to pay? Does wireless matter? And on top of all of that, it's very difficult to really test a headset before buying it, so you're usually taking some Internet yahoo's word for it that the headset in question actually sounds good.

Today, I am that Internet yahoo. This is my attempt to cut through the signal-to-noise mess and round up some of the most popular surround-sound gaming headsets on the market today. This list is far from comprehensive—honestly, in the time it took me to test and write up these headsets, several new models have been announced. That said, it gives a pretty good cross-section.

Going in, I had a few requirements:

  • The headset had to offer surround, whether simulated or analog.
  • The headset had to have a built-in microphone that allowed for voice chat.

Other than that, I'd take all comers. On consoles, I ran a number of games, from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Halo Reach on Xbox 360 to Uncharted 2 and Resistance 3 on PS3. On PC, I tested Skyrim, Far Cry 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2, as well as a bunch of other games. For my PC tests, I used a SoundBlaster X-Fi Titanium sound card, which allowed me to tweak and adjust the surround sound to optimize it. I used the same settings for each headset so that I could fairly compare them all.

With this many different headsets, this many different features, restrictions, and requirements, it's very difficult to parse them all, even here. At the end of the article, I'll make some broad recommendations, and if you have any questions about the headsets, I'll be reading the comments and will do my best to answer them.

Cross-Platform/Console Headsets

The Great Kotaku Gaming Headset RoundupS

Astro A40 Headset And Mixamp

Price: $249.99 for headset and mixamp, $129.99 for Mixamp alone, $209.99 for A40 headset alone

Inputs: Optical, Coaxial, Stereo Analog, 1/8" analog, USB

Chat Works With: Xbox 360 via included cable, PS3 with additionally purchased dongle, PC via USB

Pros: The Astro Mixamp is still the most flexible gaming audio hardware you can get. The headphones are light and comfortable. Astro's audio/chat mixer remains the most elegant chat solution.

Cons: The A40 leaks audio, which means that whatever you're playing will be very audible to anyone else in the room (or apartment) with you. After several years of use, my Mixamp makes a lot of noise when I turn its knobs, which is par for the course with consumer electronics, but still annoying. They're pretty expensive.

Audio Quality: Decent. The A40's are a bit boomy for me, and there's no way to mess with the EQ on the headphones, so you're pretty much stuck with how they sound, especially on consoles. They're not bad, and were a gaming mainstay for me for a long time. That said, they're not great, and I prefer the audio quality of the newer A50's.

Overall Impression: You can read Mike McWhertor's review from 2009 here. My take: The headset is okay, the mixamp is great. If you've already got a good pair of headphones, you would do well to consider just picking up the Astro Mixamp. It's capable of projecting Dolby headphone surround into any regular pair of headphones, and while you won't get voice chat, you can always cobble together a workaround. That said, the A40 is still a fine gaming headset; the big cans provide a large aural space for the headphone surround to work in, and they're nice and comfortable. This is a good option for anyone who wants a lot of versatility in their gaming audio setup.

Link: Official Site

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Astro A50 Wireless

Price: $299.99 for the headset and receiver

Inputs: Optical, 1/8" Analog, USB, Optical passthrough

Chat Works With: Xbox 360 via included cable, PS3 & PC via USB

Comfort: The A50s feel much like the A40s, only they're a tad heavier—that means that after lengthy sessions wearing them, the top of my head started to get a bit sore. It wasn't a deal-breaker, and usually just meant that I should get up and take a break, but they're a tad less comfortable than the A40, though still comfortable.

Pros: The A50's remain the most impressive, best-sounding, best-designed gaming headphones I've used. There's still room for improvement, but Astro's got this thing nailed. They're expensive, but in this rare instance, you get what you pay for.

Cons: It's easy to accidentally switch the headphone/microphone mix when you touch the headset; the switch on the side feels too easy to accidentally press. While optical passthrough is great, it would also be great if the wireless mixamp had an analog output, so you could plug speakers into it, should you so choose. Very expensive.

Audio Quality: Good. The A50's offer the richest, deepest audio of the bunch here, and the closed-backed headset provides the most immersive surround sound. I wouldn't listen to music on them, but I would (and have) happily watched a movie.

Overall Impression: I recently reviewed the A50—it's Astro's most ambitious headset, and it's also their best. It's fully platform agnostic, and works just as well for PC gaming as it does for consoles. It's also tied with the Tritton as the most expensive headset I tested—but the price is borne out in the quality of the product.

Link: Official Site

The Great Kotaku Gaming Headset RoundupS

Tritton Warhead Wireless

Price: $299.99 for the headset and receiver

Inputs: Optical, No passthrough, no USB

Chat Works With: Xbox 360 only

Comfort: I initially thought that the Warhead would be uncomfortable, as their angular design looks edge-covered and hard. So I was surprised by how comfortable they are—they're a sturdy set of cans that stay on your head and while they're a bit snug, they didn't feel uncomfortable at all.

Pros: I actually like how the Warhead looks—the plastic design isn't quite as appealing as the A50s, but it's still a nifty looking set of headphones. After an initial setup, the microphone can talk directly to your Xbox 360 with no required cables, which is nice if you only game and talk to people on an Xbox 360.

Cons: The user experience, however, is kind of a chore. Buttons are placed all over the headset, and it was all but impossible for me to put them on or take them off without accidentally pressing the EQ button and changing how the phones sounded. The biggest problem with the warhead, though, is that they can only be used to chat on an Xbox 360. I'm not sure why Mad Catz would pay extra money to Microsoft to license their wireless tech—the difference between this and simply plugging an Astro in to your Xbox controller feels negligible to me; if anything, it's a hassle. And the fact that the microphone won't work with anything but an Xbox 360 feels needlessly restrictive in a headset this expensive.

Audio Quality: Decent. The actual quality of the audio isn't amazing, but the surround sound is well done, and projects a good soundscape. Bass is strong and ringing, and everything is clear and punchy. It can feel a bit too clear at times, but in general the Tritton is a very nice-sounding headset, though more for gaming than movies or music.

Overall Impression: Mike reviewed the Tritton in depth, so you can read his take over there. For my take: The Warhead is a decent headset, but I feel it doesn't live up to its extraordinarily steep price-tag. At $300, I want it all—a headset that can work with any system, hassle-free, that's well designed, sounds great, and will last for a long time. While the Warhead sounds fine and works well enough, its finicky controls and Xbox-only chat leave it short of those expectations.

Link: Official Site

The Great Kotaku Gaming Headset RoundupS

Turtle Beach Earforce XP400

Price: $219.95

Inputs: Optical, Optical passthrough, 1/8" analog in

Chat Works With: Xbox 360 via included wireless dongle, PS3 & PC via Bluetooth

Comfort: Not bad, not great. The XP400 is a bit pinch-y, and the ear cups don't fit over my ears as comfortably as some higher priced models. That said, I usually stopped minding after a little while, and was content to wear them for extended periods of time.

Pros: The XP400 is a versatile headset, with built-in bluetooth technology that lets you pair to the PS3 and to your PC, and even answer cell phone calls. The headphone surround effect is solid, if not amazing.

Cons: Everything feels a little bit cheap, which is too bad, considering that the headset costs only a bit less than the Astro A40/Mixamp combo. The Turtle Beach mixamp is small and difficult to store properly, and it's difficult to adjust the buttons on the fly without taking the headphones off and re-examining them. The microphone is strange—I'm much more of a fan of the rubber girders that most other sets use, rather than the wired, bendable one Turtle Beach goes with. (Your mileage may vary on that, though.)

Audio Quality: Decent. The general sound quality of the XP400s doesn't quite match the A50 or the Warhead, but they're still a good-sounding set of headphones and fine for gaming. High frequencies rarely felt crushed, and there was a healthy amount of bass.

Overall Impression: The XP400 is a fair headset, though the comparably priced A40/Mixamp is better sounding, more versatile and better designed. The XP series looks like a step in the right direction for Turtle Beach, though, and if you can find them on sale somewhere (which is likely), you could certainly do worse.

Link: Official Site

PC-Only Headsets

Several of the headsets I've been trying out are for PC gaming only—they use USB to get their audio, and are incompatible with any major gaming consoles. Still, given how many people play games on PC exclusively, I thought I'd test them and share my impressions. I tested the Corsair USB headphones using their own built in audio software, and the Tiamat using the SoundBlaster X-Fi titanium sound card.

The Great Kotaku Gaming Headset RoundupS

Razer Tiamat 7.1 Surround

Price: $179.99

Inputs: Analog 7.1 speaker cables only

Chat Works With: PC via USB

Comfort: While I was surprised that the Tiamat's earcups didn't quite go entirely over my ears, they're still a very comfortable set of headphones, and fine to wear for long periods of time. The cables and remote can be a bit of a bother, but it's not that difficult to get your setup working so that you're not tripping over them all the time.

Pros: The biggest pro for the Tiamat is that it's the one headset on this list that features "true" 7.1 audio. That means that there are eight speakers in all—left, right, left-center, right-center, left-rear, right-rear, center, and sub. The result in-game is remarkable, you'll really hear where everything is coming from. In fact, sometimes you'll hear it too much...

Cons: The audio quality (which I'll get to below) just isn't on par with the other headsets on the list, mainly because the Tiamat has crammed so many small speakers into a space usually reserved for one big one. I actually don't like that I'm given the option to tweak every speaker's level, and to go into my computer's EQ to try to get it to sound "right." I wound up constantly doubting that I had things optimized, and eventually just gave up and lived with what I had. Also, I had an issue with hum making its way onto my cables—whether I plugged into my motherboard's integrated 7.1 outputs or my SoundBlaster's, I always had noise on the line. I doubt that everyone will have the same problem, but it's one of the downsides of analog audio cables that something like that can even be an issue.

Audio Quality: Not great. The Tiamat's big downfall is that the many small speakers used to generate the true 7.1 surround sound just can't measure up to the large drivers in the other headphones on this list, particularly the Trittons and the Astros, even after I messed around with the EQ on my PC.

Overall Impression: Mike already reviewed the Tiamat for us, and raved about them. While I find the headset to be fine, and the surround sound to be occasionally amazing, I don't share his enthusiasm for the headset as a whole. It's easy enough to use, but restrictive in where you can use it—only with 7.1 analog outputs, and only while mucking around with the annoying in-line remote control. If you're dying to try out cool new tech and have money to burn, the Tiamats are certainly worth a shot, but there are more flexible and better-sounding headsets in this list that offer headphone surround that's almost as impressive.

Link: Official Site

The Great Kotaku Gaming Headset RoundupS

Corsair Vengeance 2000 Wireless

Price: $149.99

Inputs: USB only

Chat Works With: PC via USB

Comfort: The Vengeance 2000s are a very comfortable set of headphones—something about the snug way they'd hold my ears made me prefer them to all of the other headphones I tried. They're form factor is nice, and they just feel good on your head.

Pros: For a (relatively) inexpensive set of headphones, the 2000s are a solid piece of equipment, and they sound nice. They're hassle-free to set up, hold a charge for a long time, and the wireless works as it should.

Cons: The biggest problem with the 2000s is that they're not dolby certified, and so they require you to use Corsar's own proprietary audio software. As a result, the surround sound is quite… different than the other headphones. It's not necessarily worse, but it feels more confusing and unclear, and as the software starts adding reverb to simulate room-size, it only gets more muddled. At first, I thought it was fine, but the more I played, the more I realized that things just weren't lining up with their position in the same way as on the other, Dolby certified headsets.

Audio Quality: Good. While the surround is a bit dicy, the sound quality of the 2000s is very strong. Bass is robust, highs don't get too crunchy, and everything is clear without causing audio fatigue.

Overall Impression: The Vengeance 2000s are a really good headset that are only a bit tough to recommend because they have weird surround sound. If you're not obsessive about positional audio, you could do a lot worse, but it's an odd oversight in an otherwise fine set of cans. It's particularly weird since the 1500s below do have Dolby certification. Still, the 2000s are a better than decent set of gaming headphones.

Link: Official Site

The Great Kotaku Gaming Headset RoundupS

Corsair Vengeance 1500 Wired

Price: $99.99

Inputs: USB only

Chat Works With: PC via USB

Comfort: The Vengeance 1500s aren't quite as snug and comfortable as the 2000s, but they're still a very comfortable set of headphones. They're good for long gaming sessions and soft on the top of your head.

Pros: The cheapest headphones in this roundup, the 1500s are actually right up there with the big boys in terms of their features, comfort and sound quality. They don't have speakers to match the Astros or the Warhead, but they still sound pretty good would be perfectly sufficient for the average PC gamer. They're a cinch to set up and work mostly without a hitch. A good, affordable all-around PC gaming headset.

Cons: Really just the sound quality thing, described below.

Audio Quality: Decent. As I mentioned, the audio isn't up to the quality of the other headsets on this list, though they don't really sound bad exactly.

Overall Impression: The Vengeance 1500s are in an odd place in this roundup—they're the cheapest of all the headsets here, but while they don't quite match the 2000s overall audio quality, they do have certified Dolby headphone surround, and they're a generally fine set of gaming headphones. They're comfortable and easy to recommend.

Link: Official Site

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Recommendations

As I mentioned at the outset, this roundup is far from comprehensive. There are just too many sets of gaming headphones on the market for one guy to round up, test, and compare them all. So, my recommendation is based only on trying these headsets, and could change as new models hit the market. That said, I think there are some clear winners here.

Which One Is Best?

I think I can safely say now that Astro really does make the best gaming headphones on the market. I use the wireless A50s every time I play video games, and when combined with the SoundBlaster X-Fi's audio enhancements, they generate extremely convincing headphone surround. They're intuitive to use, well designed, comfortable, and sound great. Best of all, they're really easy to use with every gaming platform. The A40s and Mixamp are also a worthy purchase, particularly given that you can get a Mixamp and use it with whatever kind of headphones you like.

The A50s are expensive. But you get what you pay for. And if you're not looking to spend $300 on a gaming headset (and who could blame you!), rather than spend a hundred bucks less on an inferior set of headphones, I really would recommend getting a Mixamp and using it with headphones you've already got.

Honorable Mention

The $99 Corsair Vengeance 1500s were a big surprise. Usually when it comes to audio, money really does matter—more expensive speakers just sound better. So the fact that the cheapest headset in this entire roundup has okay sound quality, offers Dolby headphone surround, and is easy to use and comfortable… well, if you're a PC gamer looking to get a gaming headset without breaking your bank, I really would recommend the Vengeance 1500s.

There will always be more gaming headsets hitting the market, and we'll keep on reviewing them here. If you've got any questions about any of these headsets, please let me know in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.

(Second image via Shutterstock)