Gaming Headset Buyer's Guide & Roundup

Article Index

Some Words On Sound Quality

Sound quality is highly subjective. It is in your best interest to listen to any headphone or headset you are considering before you put your money down. What sounds good to others might not sound as good to you, so only you can accurately pick out what sounds best. However, reviews and guides like this one can give you a clue on where to start. A truly awful set of headphones will sound bad next to a good pair no matter who is listening, the subjectiveness only goes so far. The really important part is knowing what you like to hear.

In general, sound quality is described as a combination of three divisions of the sound spectrum. These are the highs, or treble, referring to the higher frequency sounds like bells and cymbals. The mids, or mid-range, which refers to a sound range roughly equivalent to what the human voice is capable of. Finally the bass, which refers to low frequency sounds like bass drums and the lower keys of pipe organs. The majority of sound information exists in the mid-range, though the high and low frequencies are also extremely important.

It is almost always preferable to have balanced sound where all three frequency divisions are represented equally. However many people like a very slight bias towards one of the frequency divisions. Some people enjoy the extra clarity of a high frequency emphasis while others are bass-heads who like low frequency bias. For positional audio, low frequencies aren't as important since frequencies below 80Hz are considered non-directional. For this reason, ample bass isn't crucial for gaming though you may still want some to help fill in those explosions.

Audio Terms Defined
Sound and music have their own jargon which can be used to describe sound quality in great detail. However this jargon isn't especially intuitive and can make audio equipment reviews difficult to comprehend. To help get you started on deciphering audio equipment reviews, including this one, we'll define a few of the most common terms used to describe sound quality and character.

Often sound quality is described as a preference for one of the three frequency divisions. A speaker with a slight preference to treble reproduction, where the highs are slightly louder and/or more prominent than the other frequencies, would be called "light" or "airy". If the sound seems to be lacking in highs, it may be described as "dull" or "muffled". The words "bright" and "brilliance" are also often incorrectly used to describe a high frequency emphasis, though these terms don't directly relate to the character of the high frequencies at all.

If a speaker or headphone has a mid-range emphasis, they would be described as "forward" or "aggressive". The opposite, a mid-range deficiency, is referred to as "recessed" or "laid back".

A sound that is lacking in bass is said to be "thin" while one that seems to have ample or excessive bass is "thick". A speaker that has a notable mid-bass bias is called "boomy". A speaker that produces bass notes that are poorly defined and indistinct is often perceived  as "loose" or "muddy". The opposite, where the bass is tuneful and the notes are distinct, is called "tight" or "punchy". In extreme cases of boomy, muddy bass, all bass notes will seem to sound the same resulting in "one note bass".

The term "soundstage" is an important one that describes the ability of an audio reproduction system, like a speaker, to convey a sense of the original recording space, and the location of sound sources within it. A good soundstage means the sound sources seem to be audibly placed in their correct places. While a poor soundstage will misrepresent the locations of the sound sources.

A very wide, or "spacious", soundstage will put you in the middle of the action, as if you were on stage at a concert, with sounds seeming to come from all sides. A very narrow, or "pinched", soundstage will make it seem like you're sitting farther away, like in the back of a theater, with sound only coming from one general direction.

Now that we've outlined the basics of what to look for in a gaming headphone or headset, and we've cleared up some vocabulary let's take a look at a few popular options from a variety of price points and feature levels.

Related content