Techies are all ears for gaming headsets

The devices have better audio driver tech, provide more privacy and block out noise from surroundings

When Mr Ang Chor Han's old gaming headset failed during a recent late-night session, he began searching for a replacement.

"I wanted a gaming headset because they come with mics, and have features like 7.1 surround sound," said the 26-year-old operations manager. "Most regular headphones don't come with mics so you have to use a clip-on, which can be a bit troublesome."

The growing number of gamers like Mr Ang, who like to don headsets when playing games and value good sonics, has led to the increasing popularity of gaming headsets worldwide over the past few years.

In a report last October, technology market research firm TechNavio pegged the annual growth of the global gaming headset market at 7.8 per cent from 2014 to 2019.

"The gaming headset market is witnessing exponential growth worldwide because of the rapid adoption of gaming," it said.

That trend is evident in Singapore as well.

"With increasingly better audio driver technologies installed in gaming headsets, they are definitely gaining more popularity," said Mr

Tan Chee Ming, business development strategist at Singapore University of Technology & Design's Game Lab.

He added that another reason headsets are popular is that they "provide more privacy when communicating and lesser surrounding noise, as compared to desktop speakers".

WHAT MAKES A GAMING HEADSET?

One of the prerequisites of a gaming headset is having a microphone. "Microphones are much needed for quick communication between players in multi-player, fast-paced games," said Mr Tan.

Mr Zheng Yang Yun, general manager of audio retailer Treoo, said most gaming headsets have good passive noise isolation to block out noise from the surroundings. And they tend to have a more bassy sound signature,which helps when a player is listening to in-game explosions.

Mid- to high-end headsets may also have features such as in-built sound cards, which can process audio independently of a PC's onboard sound card to improve overall audio quality.

Finally, many gaming headsets also look the part, with RGB lighting or bold hues. "Striking colours add to the awesome cool gamer factor," said Mr Tan.

As for Mr Ang's gaming headset quest, he prioritised comfort over everything else.

"I mainly look for a gaming headset that's comfortable, lightweight and cooling, because there's no point in having good sound and awesome features if wearing it is going to bug you after 10 minutes of gaming," he said.

He ended up with the Kingston HyperX Cloud II, a purchase he is very pleased with.

"They are very comfortable, and really good, the best headset I've used so far."

lting@sph.com.sg

Here are reviews of five flagship gaming headsets onthe market:

1. The Kingston HyperX Cloud II is one of the most well-rounded gaming headsets on the market.

It is a very comfortable and understated headset, backed by solid construction and performance. It is also pitched at a price that will not break the bank.

Kingston's excellence in this arena may be surprising, given that the American firm is better known for its storage solutions. But it wisely decided to draw on the expertise of co-developer and gaming peripheral firm Qpad instead of developing its own product from scratch.

Comfort-wise, the Cloud II lives up to its name. The length of the headband is padded with memory foam, and the pivoting ear cups make it easy to fit most head shapes.

Among headsets in this line-up, I found it the most comfortable to wear over a span of several hours.

The headset also comes with a set of fabric ear cups that users can switch to if the default leatherette ones prove too warm.

Kingston has included extras such as a netted carrying case and an airplane adapter - perks that are not necessary, but a nice touch.

Unlike many other gaming headsets, the Cloud II has eschewed the usual garish route for a construction that feels sturdy and refined. There are no lights or bright colours here, just brushed aluminium accents and aluminium coverings on ear cups.

It is also simple to use. The default 3.5mm input can be plugged into a USB input extension, which adds on an in-line controller that doubles as a 7.1 virtual surround sound processor.

The controller comes with a button for toggling the virtual surround sound on and off, which is very useful as running audio through 7.1 processing tends to muddy the small details in a soundscape.

Overall, I found the headphone well balanced at both extremes, performing just as well with bassy explosions as it did with high- pitched vocals.

Verdict: The Cloud II is one ofthe best gaming headsets on the market, with unparalleled comfort and solid performance.

TECH SPECS

PRICE: $149

OPERATING PRINCIPLE: Closed

DRIVER: 53mm with neodynium magnets

FREQUENCY RESPONSE:15Hz to 25,000Hz

WEIGHT: Headset alone, 320g; with microphone and cable, 350g

RATING

FEATURES: 3/5

DESIGN: 5/5

PERFORMANCE: 4/5

VALUE: 5/5

OVERALL: 5/5

2. The Roccat Kave XTD is packed with features but sacrifices compatibility and portability for the aim of being the ultimate desktop headset.

The headset has only USB input, and cannot be detached from its desktop remote-cum-sound-card - a hand-sized device with a volume dial, a Bluetooth indicator and buttons to mute the microphone and change the channel of output.

The headset also has features that I did not even know I need, like adjustable bass vibration and the desktop remote being able to connect to an external speaker set-up.

Unfortunately, the Kave XTD is not compatible with consoles and, although it has Bluetooth connectivity, it is USB-powered, which means it cannot be used on the go.

The headset itself has two 40mm driver units and one 30mm vibration unit per cup. They provide genuine surround sound instead of using software to mimic the effect.

To me, there was a significant difference between this and virtual surround sound, and placing noises like gunshots was more accurate.

Unfortunately, the rest of the audio experience falls a bit short. While it was competent enough on most fronts with no glaring distortions, I felt it lacked a certain punch and clarity, which rendered sounds less lifelike than I prefer.

The headset is also ergonomically dissatisfying, with oddly shaped ear-cup foam and restricted pivot angles on the cups. The foam covers most of the ear-cup surface, leaving a small gap for the ears.

It felt almost like I was being forced to fit my ear into a certain configuration - which may be the intention as the drivers are angled precisely 12 degrees apart - and having a fixed head position may augment the surround sound experience.

Verdict: A headset for strictly desktop-bound users. Some gamers may have issues with the fit of the headset.

TECH SPECS

PRICE: $259

OPERATING PRINCIPLE: Semi-open

DRIVER: 40mm and 30mm

FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 20Hz to 20,000Hz

WEIGHT: 335g

RATING

FEATURES: 5/5

DESIGN: 3/5

PERFORMANCE: 3/5

VALUE: 3/5

OVERALL: 3/5

3. The Logitech G933 is the wireless version of the G633 - both products are called Artemis Spectrum - and they are similar in almost every aspect except that the G933 is wireless and costs $70 more.

They are both packed with features that will make gamers happy, such as RGB lighting and programmable macro keys.

As the G933 is wireless, the headset now also supports three inputs simultaneously - digital, analog and wireless - which may come in handy if you need to pick up a call while in-game.

Pairing the headset with your gaming rig should be a breeze, as there is a USB receiver tucked away behind the left ear cup, under a magnetised cover. Plug the receiver into a PC, console or home theatre system, and it will automatically sync with your headset.

However, this means that the G933 cannot pair wirelessly with a smartphone or tablet, as there is no Bluetooth connectivity.

The G933 is furnished with the same dapper good looks as the G633, sporting snazzy chrome accents and softly glowing insignias.

They both weigh in at a pretty hefty 374g. But for me, the fit of the swivelling ear cups and the comfort afforded by the foam-padded headband were sufficient to mitigate the extra weight, even after long periods of use.

Both Artemis Spectrums face the same problems of awkwardly positioned macro keys on the back of the left ear can that most gamers will never use, and a volume scroll wheel positioned just below the macro keys that is easily accidentally activated when putting the set on or taking it off.

Fortunately, the construction and design of both headsets feel very polished and their sound profile is dynamic yet delicate, and without the overwhelming bass that characterises many a gaming headset. The 7.1 virtual surround sound feature is also competent, though not spectacular.

As for the $70 top-up just for wireless connectivity, I would say that the G933 is very much on the pricey side. Unless wireless convenience is very important to you, the G633 is a more reasonable buy.

Verdict: A polished, high-end headset that some gamers may find a bit too heavy. At $299, it is also one of the more costly headsets out there. If you want an Artemis Spectrum, the G633 ($229) is more value for money.

TECH SPECS

PRICE: $299

OPERATING PRINCIPLE: Closed

DRIVER TYPE: 40mm

FREQUENCY RESPONSE:20Hz to 20,000Hz

WEIGHT: 374g

BATTERY LIFE: Eight hours with default lighting; 12 hours with no lighting

RATING

FEATURES: 4/5

DESIGN: 5/5

PERFORMANCE: 3/5

VALUE: 3/5

OVERALL: 4/5

4. The Creative Sound BlasterX H5 is a no-frills, performance-oriented gaming headset that delivers, in terms of both comfort and sound.

But gamers who are looking for a more luxurious, feature-packed experience may want to explore other options.

The Sound BlasterX H5 is the analog, pared-down variant of the Sound BlasterX H7. It ships without the H7's surround sound, USB connectivity and back-lit ear cups.

The omission of on-board virtual surround sound is a glaring one, compared with other similarly priced headsets.

However, the downloadable BlasterX Acoustic Engine Lite software allows gamers to toggle between preset equaliser modes for different genres of games such as first-person shooter and real- time strategy.

The fit is surprisingly relaxed, and it sits well with very little pressure on the head or ears. The oversized ear cups are lined with incredibly soft leatherette-covered padding, and the headband is cushioned by a thick layer of foam.

At 260g, the H5 falls firmly into the flyweight category for a gaming headset, and will definitely be able to last through long gaming sessions without it feeling like a burden.

But perhaps, because of this loose fit and the lack of noise-cancellation, I found myself overhearing conversations around me despite the H5 being closed-back headphones. My sound volume was turned up relatively high, too.

The overall sound profile of the headset is reasonably well-balanced, with a nice handling of the bass and mids, even when I cranked up the volume.

The H5 is also good on clarity, with nice clear details coming through when listening to classical music.

However, I did find that, on the very high notes, the sound had a tendency to become a little off-puttingly shrill and sharp.

Verdict: A pair of light,comfortable headphones that is big on performance but lacks features.

TECH SPECS

PRICE: $199

OPERATING PRINCIPLE: Closed

DRIVER TYPE: 50mm FullSpectrum

FREQUENCY RESPONSE:20Hz to 20,000Hz

WEIGHT: 260g

RATING

FEATURES: 3/5

DESIGN: 4/5

PERFORMANCE: 4/5

VALUE: 3/5

OVERALL: 4/5

5. The Sennheiser G4ME One is a headset with audiophile-pleasing sound quality, but the high price point - $339 - is likely to deter gamers.

In many ways, the G4ME One does not feel like a gaming headset, and the only features that point in that direction are the relatively flashy red-and-white design and the boom microphone.

The 2.1 stereo headset does not have the inbuilt, or external, software sound processing that we have come to expect from many gaming headsets. Instead, it delivers a flat, high-fidelity sound.

It also does not have a single combined audio and microphone jack, the standard on many laptops and consoles nowadays. In order to use the headset with those devices, you will need to purchase an adapter.

What the Sennheiser G4ME One has, though, is fantastic sound quality. And it is not just for gaming, but for everyday use - movies, music or whatever else you can throw at it.

The headset sounds full and rich without being heavy-handed, and it is intricate and precise all the way through its considerable dynamic range.

It is white with chrome red accents, and the overall construction feels plasticky and a little flimsy.

On the other hand, the full-plastic construction means that it is also relatively light, at 300g.

The oversized ear cups are designed for comfort. But I have an issue with the headset in this regard. For one thing, even at the shortest headband adjustment, the entire headset felt too large for me. Also, the bottoms of the velvet-lined ear cups sat low enough to press against my jaw, which was uncomfortable after a while.

I also definitely have an issue with the $339 price point. Sennheiser is primarily an audio company, and it is understandable that they will want to peg the price of their gaming headsets to the rest of their offerings.

But it is very difficult to justify paying $339 when the competition in the gaming headset market is so stiff and there are plenty of other high-quality options out there for significantly less.

Verdict: If you are an audiophile who enjoys gaming, stomaching the $339 might be palatable; otherwise, the high cost is a big deterrent.

TECH SPECS

PRICE: $339

OPERATING PRINCIPLE: Dynamic open

DRIVER TYPE: Not stated

FREQUENCY RESPONSE:15Hz to 28,000Hz

WEIGHT: 300g

RATING

FEATURES: 3/5

DESIGN: 4/5

PERFORMANCE: 5/5

VALUE: 2/5

OVERALL: 3/5


This article was first published on JAN 20, 2016.
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