Having heard so much about the technology and about how gaming headsets affect a pro/competitive gamer’s performance, how could I resist the chance to try out some of these headphones myself? Below you will find mini-reviews for three very different headsets that should help out anyone considering taking the plunge.
If you’ve ever been to a LAN gaming event, chances are you’ve seen a Sennheiser PC 350 in action. This is a popular headset for competitive gamers, because it combines excellent audio quality with noise cancelling and some cool design features. Due to the PC 350’s ‘closed’ design, its ear cups shield you from a good amount of outside noise, an essential feature when in a noisy environment. Another benefit that comes with this type of design is the focus you will have on the audio due to a lack of interference. When testing these with some of my favorite music (ranging from classical music to pop and from rock to electronic dance music), I was loving all the little details I had never heard before. Singers taking in a subtle breath just before the chorus or that background instrument you never heard before… if you’re serious about music you simply have to try listening to it with a pair of quality headphones at some point.
However, most here are primarily interested in the gaming side of this headset, and to say it does not disappoint would be an understatement. I remember reading all about Creative’s EAX technology quite a few years ago and how it would enable me to hear exactly where sounds would be coming from, but I now realize a tool like that is only useful when you have the setup that is equiped to do so. I tested these out by playing Modern Warfare and Half-Life 2, two of my all-time favorite shooters, and the experience became more immersive immediately as I was able to better hear all kinds of ambient sounds that were mostly lost on me when playing through regular speakers.
The attached microphone comes into play during multi-player sessions but I decided to also do some testing over Skype, letting the other caller be the judge of the audio quality. The mic is of the noise cancelling variety, but this did not seem to affect Skype performance. In games, however, background noise seeping in was significantly reduced when compared to my regular mic. What is a convenient feature with this headset is being able to push the microphone boom up to turn it off, so when you finish your skype call you can just switch to listening to music without much effort as all. However, I found the mic would obstruct the ear cup’s ability to swivel when pushed up, and it had me wishing the boom was detachable.
All in all, this is a very impressive headset that goes beyond gaming with excellent music performance. It’s too bad the mic does not detach as it would emphasize the headset’s versatility. Those concerned with storage issues will be happy to know this headset folds up, which helps if you want to take it on the go (in which case the closed design also helps). Top quality like this does come at a price though, as a PC 350 will cost about 170 dollars at retailers right now.
Closed design makes for excellent noise blocking
Folds up for easier storage
Audio quality is excellent
Versatile, works equally well with your mp3 player
Mic does not detach
The PC 360 is not too much unlike the PC 350, but has a few major differences. The most obvious one is that this is an ‘open’ headset design, which in my case meant an improved level of comfort over the 350’s (which were already very comfortable but had my ears warm up over time). Because I play in a very quiet environment, an additional benefit to this open design for me was the sound quality. There was a certain richness to the audio when listening to music that I’ve never heard in closed headphones, making this my favorite headset of the three that I tested out.
In-game performance here is very much on par with the 350’s experience, with the experience of added comfort during longer gaming sessions being cancelled out by the 360’s inability to keep outside noise out due to its open design. In terms of usability, however, the 360 has an extra trick up its sleeve. Its volume control is not, as is traditional, located on the cable, but in a dial that is integrated in your right ear cup. Because of this, you’re not fumbling around for the controls in the middle of a game, or when the next audio track is a little too loud for your liking.
Unfortunately, the 360’s mic does not detach, which is a shame as this would be a perfect pair of music headphones otherwise, both in terms of performance and esthetics. I can’t stress enough how good the audio quality on this headset it, but as with the 350 the price might put some people off. Shopping around, you can find the PC 360 for under 200 dollars.
Open design and great usability, with convenient volume controls
An excellent level of comfort, even during long sessions
Unrivalled audio quality (when in a quiet environment)
Versatile; works great with games, voip or music
Mic boom does not detach
Top quality comes at a top price
While the PC 350 and PC 360 were similar in many regards, the PC 333D is a different beast altogether. The main difference lies in the D part, which stands for Dolby and signifies that this headset uses Dolby’s Headphones technology to allow for 7.1 sound (read our initial article on gaming headsets for more info). This technology is definitely the main draw for this headset and is enabled through a usb-powered sound card/adapter that comes with the headset. Because of this feature, this is a good option for laptop owners or users without a dedicated soundcard, but it also renders your expensive dedicated sound card useless if you happen to have one.
Surround sound gaming works surprisingly well on this headset that works as a regular stereo headset when not hooked up through the adapter. Where the other two headsets provided excellent positional awareness through subtle differences between sounds, here you’re actually finding yourself in the middle of things. As an extra test, I played some Test DriveUnlimited 2 using this headset and having a car slowly come up behind you and pass you just sounded great. So if you’re considering a headset but do not want to part with surround capability, this is definitely an option for you.
However, surround capability will only function on a PC which has the drivers installed for the usb adapter, so the effect is lost when using the headset with your mp3 player or handheld device. This makes the usb adapter a bit of a mixed blessing, where an excellent pc experience makes you wish for more when using other devices.
Another fairly major difference when looking at this headset is its design, with ear cups that do not fit all the way over your ear (resting on the skull) but instead sit on top of your ears. Over longer period of gaming, this can lead to painful ears and the need for a short break to cool down. Perhaps I just have sensitive ears, but I was wishing this surround technology was included in ear cups like those on the 350 or 360.
In the end, however, it’s surround sound you’re looking for with the headset, and that’s exactly what you’re getting and that’s what it does well. The total package is about the same in price as a PC 350, but includes the usb audio card/adapter. So while it may not be the audiophile’s headset of choice, this is definitely a solution that has the gamer in mind; even more so if said gamer finds surround sound to be an essential part of the experience.
Surround sound works very well and impresses right away
USB sound card included
The audio quality in-game is excellent, especially when using surround
Surround capability only works on PCs
Comfort levels during longer sessions are not optimal due to the on-ear design
The mic boom does not detach
A major initial stumbling block for many will be the price of these high end headsets. As a piece of equipment people traditionally don’t shop around for, it’s all down to the value a gamer attaches to the benefits offered by these products. This is precisely why it’s difficult to give a clear recommendation, because different models cater to different types of users. My personal favorite was the PC 360, because my quiet gaming environment allows for an open design and I’m a big music fan as well, but those gaming in larger groups would definitely want to opt for a closed design instead. Is the price worth the upgrade? Let me put it like this: you are definitely getting a LOT more than you would with a budget product, but if it’s worth it is ultimately down to personal preference. What factors into that is how important the benefits outlined during this 3-part feature are for you. If you are considering upgrading your headphones or headset, see if you can try out a pair to find out if you’ll be convinced. I know I was!