Gaming Headset Buyer's Guide & Roundup

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Sennheiser HD 595

Purpose built gaming headsets are a relatively new development. Many gamers, including "e-sports" professionals, just use a set of standard headphones and an internet chat microphone for their gaming sessions. Despite the growth of gaming peripherals, a high quality headphone is still an excellent alternative to gaming headsets and a few of the most popular models are made by Sennheiser. 

Years ago, before surround sound gaming headsets, when you posted on a forum to ask for recommendations on a nice set of cans for gaming, you're likely to get at least a few recommendations for Sennheiser's HD 555 or 595 headphones. These two extremely similar headphones were primarily designed for musical enjoyment but can be excellent for gaming as well. Since they are standard headphones, they both lack microphones so you will need to use a separate unit. Thankfully a decent stand-alone internet chat microphone can be had for cheap and should do the trick.

 Sennheiser HD 595
 Frequency Response
 12Hz - 38.5kHz
 Driver Design
 40mm per ear cup
 112 dB
 Impedance  50 Ohms
 Cable Length
 10 ft (3 m)
 In-line Volume Control
 In-line Mic Control
 Input Method
 1/4" plug (1/8" adapter inc.)
 Price  $249.99

The Sennheiser HD 595 (and the 555) are standard analog headphones. Their rather long 10 foot cables terminate in a simple analog plug. There isn't even an in-line control of any kind. Since the HD 595 and 555 were designed for audiophile use, they come with 1/4" audio plugs. Thankfully Sennheiser has included a 1/8" adapter in the package so you can use it for standard MP3 players and PC headphone outputs.

Design & Comfort
Although it is a traditional headphone, the Sennheiser HD 595 has a modern design. The headphone is made primarily of plastic with cloth padding on the headband and ear pads. They aren't collapsible but the ear pads can be turned thanks to an odd joint design.

It's unique in this round-up for being the only "open back" headphone. This means the back of each ear cup is open to intentionally allow air, and sounds, in and out of the ear cup. This design generally allows for a more open and natural sound characteristic. Unfortunately, an open headphone design also has the disadvantages of sound leakage, both in and out. You will be able to hear sounds around you and if you turn up the volume, people around you will be able to hear what you're listening to. This may be an advantage in some situations just as much as it can be a disadvantage in others.

The Sennheiser HD 555 and 595 have the exact same physical design and they look identical. A few people have even taken them apart for comparison and even the drivers appear to be the same. The only obvious physical differences between the two headphones is that the HD 555 has a piece of rectangular acoustic foam attached to the inside of each ear cup. However there is a significant price difference, and a noticeable sound quality difference, between the two products.

It has been suggested that the two headphones are in fact identical and Sennheiser has used the acoustic foam in the HD 555 to retard its performance so it can be sold at a lower price, but this is just unconfirmed speculation at this time. Regardless, both of these headphones have been much lauded for their excellent performance and the sound quality differences between them are minimal. Some readers will no doubt try to mod their HD 555's after reading this article but we warn you to be extremely careful when disassembling your headphones and you might want to kiss your warranty goodbye.

One of the major differences between the two models is the HD 595 comes packaged with Sennheiser's headphone hanger. This neat little gadget goes for about $20 on its own. It uses a friction clamp that is controlled by a thumb-wheel tightener. It clamps to most flat surfaces and the padded hanger area can be rotated for clamping on vertical surfaces. This is a nice accessory that helps keep your headphones in easy reach without taking up valuable space on your desk.

Compared to typical gaming and internet chat headphones, audiophile headphones usually have much higher clamping pressure which results in discomfort and fatigue. A higher clamping pressure means a better seal and better sound quality so the trade-off might be worthwhile for critical listening but is unacceptable for gaming. Thankfully, the Sennheiser HD 555/595 are well known for being some of the most comfortable audiophile headphones around. Even so, they aren't quite as plush as some of the other gaming headsets in this round-up, although the difference is tiny. We did not experience any discomfort or fatigue during our testing, even after long sessions. 

Sound Quality
The Sennheiser HD 555 and HD 595 headphones are well known for being the benchmark for a relatively affordable set of audiophile headphones, taking note that most audiophile equipment is exorbitantly priced. They also happen to work great in games thanks to the same sonic charity, accuracy and excellent sound staging that make them so great for music.

These headphones sound excellent for all types of music, which isn't a surprise considering their provenance. The sound is very balanced. The highs, mids and lows are all in harmony and the frequency reproduction is flat and accurate enough that they can be used as studio monitors. These headphone aren't particularly light or airy, nor are they dark or bass happy. All frequencies are just about balanced. If these headphones have a flaw, it would be that they are slightly bass shy. This isn't to say these headphones lack bass, but they don't thump quite as hard as many other headphones in their price range. It's also worth mentioning that the HD 595 have slightly better bass response than the HD 555.

Beware that these headphones do produce a flat and accurate sound reproduction, which might seem to lack excitement at first, especially compared to many other headphones which flatter certain frequencies in order to make them sound better. However once you get used to their true and accurate sound, you may never want to go back to a headphone with exaggerated bass or flattering highs.

Thanks to their open-back design, the HD 555 and 595 both have an amazingly wide soundstage, considering they are simple stereo headphones. While many closed-back headphones can sound like the sound is inside of your head, the Sennheisers sound like the music/sound is coming from all around you. Unfortunately there is no native surround sound effect, despite the amazingly wide sound stage. However, as with any stereo headphone, you can add your own virtual surround sound if you have a sound card that supports it. Pair the Sennheisers up with a sound card capable of Dolby Headphone or another virtual surround sound technology and you will get a fantastic virtual surround sound headphone setup.

The HD 555 and 595 sound very good in games. Compared to most gaming headsets which tend to exaggerate and flatter the original source material, the Sennheisers' sound reproduction can seem a bit thin at first. However you'll soon notice and come to appreciate the level of clarity the headphones are capable of. You will hear things you didn't hear before, both in your music and your games. These headphones also have an uncanny ability to pick out the sounds of footsteps and gunshots in most games. Best of all, the Sennheisers are very good at positional accuracy and you will be able to tell where the sounds are coming from with ease.

Overall, the Sennheisers are superior headphones compared to most purpose built gaming headsets, including the ones in this round-up. Unfortunately they're also nearly twice the cost of most gaming headsets available. They also lack the feature set and focus of purpose built gaming headsets and most importantly they lack an integrated microphone. While missing features like virtual surround sound can be added with the right sound card and stand-alone microphones are fairly cheap, these are extra costs that add to the already high cost of the headphones.

The end result is a relatively poor value compared to all-in-one solutions like the Creative Arena Surround USB which offer 80% of the sound quality and more features for less than half the cost. However if you have the budget and/or already own a decent gaming sound card with Dolby Headphone support (or similar tech), then a set of Sennheiser HD 555 or HD 595's may serve you very well.

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