A headset means that you can listen to music without disrupting other people or talk on the phone without having to hold it against your head. The difference between headphones and headsets is simply that a headset also has a microphone.
Headsets are available in all possible colours and shapes – primarily designed on the basis of their area of use. Gaming headsets are normally over ear models that cover the ear and partly reduce the noise from your surroundings. Headsets intended for use while exercising are usually in-ear models. There are also headsets where the ear cup lies against the ear, which are known as on-ear. These are common in offices, for example. They are comfortable while at the same time you don’t need to take them off when talking to colleagues in the same room.
In other words, when you choose a headset you should base your choice on what you intend to use them for. If you’re going out to run a marathon in the pouring rain, there are waterproof, wireless in ear headsets with a frame that you put around your ear – these stay in place better than normal in-ear headsets that you simply insert into the ear. If you are instead travelling between home and work, you may be better off with a slightly simpler wired in-ear headset. If you particularly want to exclude external noise, a closed headset is often best.
The headset can also be either wireless or wired. Wireless headsets often use Bluetooth for the wireless connection, while wired headsets use a 3.5 mm or USB cable. The advantage of a wireless headset is of course that you don’t get tangled up in the cable. The disadvantage is that you have to recharge it from time to time. If you forget this and the battery runs out, you’ve temporarily got no headset. Wired headsets have the advantage that you don’t have to charge them, but on the other hand you have to put up with the cable. It’s rarely longer than 2 m, which also means that you’re a little bit more limited in how far you can move from the source unit you’re connected to. There are different standards of Bluetooth, but a headset usually has a range of around 10 m.
USB cables are common on gaming headsets in the medium price class because they have more functions. For example, some gaming headsets have virtual surround sound to give a richer gaming experience, together with LED lighting around the ear cups. If you purchase this type of headset and also want to use it with your mobile phone or tablet, you should make sure that it also includes a 3.5 mm cable, otherwise you can’t connect them.
Practically all headsets have volume control and a mute function. What distinguishes them is how these are designed and where they are placed. The most straightforward solution is to have access to both the volume knob and a microphone on/off switch both on the ear cups and on the cable. If you’re out running, you often have the cable inside your top and so it can be useful if you can still increase or reduce the volume. The same applies when you’re playing a game. It must be possible to quickly find the settings and buttons.
Some headsets also have a number of other functions. One is noise cancellation, which means that the microphone is constructed so that it excludes noise from your surroundings. This improves the sound quality for whoever you’re talking to.
Other examples of functions that you can find on the headset market are virtual surround sound, LED lighting and an equaliser option.
The functions you get depend on the manufacturer, intended use area and the price class. Headset prices vary quite significantly. You can find cheap headsets for around £20, but if you want good sound and a lot of functions you have to count on spending quite a bit more. The very dearest headsets cost several hundred pounds, but these are normally relatively advanced wireless models intended for enthusiasts. The budget class usually contains normal wired headsets with 3.5 mm cables, while wireless ones are generally in the more expensive segment.
These days, it’s easiest to buy headsets online. This where you can compare prices, and the range is much wider than if you went to a physical home electronics shop. The headset is then delivered to your door.
The advantage of buying in a physical shop is that you can take it home the same day and sometimes you can even try listening too.
If you buy a headset online, it’s important that you read the tests and user reviews of the models you’re interested in to make sure that they provide the quality you’re looking for.
The SteelSeries Arctis 5 is a gaming headset providing high levels of comfort and a noise profile that’s perfect for many situations. This means that you can easily hear approaching enemies, experience magnificent environments and at the same time enjoy the game soundtrack. However, this isn’t the headset you'd choose if you were only thinking of listening to music. The soundstage is too flat to suit different types of genre. Nor does the equaliser make much difference, and this is a bit of a shame, because if it had you’d have been able to get a sound that suited you on a more personal level. For example if you prefer a relatively heavy bass for particular music genres. It can also be nice to have a more powerful bass to reinforce the experience when you’re doing something like flying a plane or throwing a grenade. But the bass isn’t particularly powerful in this headset – instead it’s quite well-balanced. If you try to increase the bass through the equaliser, it doesn’t really make much difference. However, if you prefer a more balanced soundstage, it works straight out of the box. Nor did we experience any problems with distortion. The microphone performs well and the people we played with experience the sound as clear.
The comfort levels with this headset are almost the most striking thing about it, as they're extremely high. It presses just the right amount around the ears – not so much that it shuts out your surroundings completely, but enough so that you're not bothered by computer noise. However, in noisier environments you may need to turn up the volume quite a lot so that you're not disturbed, in which case quite a lot of sound leaks out too. The ear cups are made of plastic, but they have a rubbery finish that means they don’t feel plasticky. Nor do they crackle when we pull on them as sometimes happens with cheaper headsets. You can control all of the important functions on the ear cups. You adjust the volume and microphone on/off here, but you can also adjust the volume with the USB cable that’s included. If you connect the headset via USB instead of the 3.5 mm cable, it also has LED lighting.
The headset is held in place on the head with a ski goggle headband. You can replace this with a different design if you like. The advantage of the ski goggle headband over stepwise expansion is that you don't need to remember your favourite position. This combined with the great comfort levels and a balanced soundstage mean that the Arctis 5 is a good value for money headset.
The Asus ROG Strix Wireless is a wireless headset that will suit people who enjoy lots of pressure in their sound. The headset has a nice peppy bass that performs very well in war games and bassy music, but the rather underbalanced middle register makes voices sound like the person speaking is in a tunnel. Rock music also suffers somewhat as the middle register is periodically drowned by the bass. The drivers should also include an equaliser allowing you to set the sound to your own preference, but unfortunately this doesn’t seem to have been present with our test example. And of course the equaliser only works if you’re playing via a computer. If instead you’re using the headset with your gaming console, you get the original sound.
The ROG Strix Wireless is, as the name indicates, wireless. The included USB dongle is a neat little unit compared to the rather substantial headset. We measured the range as about 10 m. We initially felt that the headset squeezed rather hard, but compared to many of the headsets this didn’t turn into a feeling of discomfort over time and we grew to appreciate the balance. The large ear cups have nice padding, and the pressure means that they exclude quite a lot of environmental noise. If you have a computer with a noisy fan, for example, this can be the difference between a good gaming experience and a bad one. The battery time is very good. We could easily play a LAN game for 8+ hours without the headset dying. The manufacturer promises 10 hours. It would have been nice if the volume buttons on the left ear cup had been replaced with a volume knob and the on/off button had been moved a bit further away, leaving the mute button on its own. Currently there’s a row of buttons which means it's hard to find the right one, particularly when the buttons are so anonymous. You can disconnect the microphone when it's not in use. We would have preferred to be able to roll it into the ear cup instead – otherwise there’s a risk of losing it. We'd also have liked it to be more adjustable. But given that you get a wireless headset with pretty good sound and a really good battery life in this price class, we can’t give it anything but two thumbs up.
The Plantronics RIG 500 stands out in that you can take it apart and replace parts of it. Although this mostly feels like a marketing gimmick, we can’t avoid liking this kind of innovation in the headset market. However, in terms of sound the headset leaves a lot to be desired. If we were to critically review the sound without looking at the price, we'd say it was extremely sharp and unbalanced towards the treble. This means that screaming noises in games are extremely piercing, while sounds like explosions don’t really make an impression. On the other hand, this is a budget class headset, and if we look at the sound for the price it’s not bad.
There’s nothing wrong with the design and comfort. As we’ve already said, the design means that this is a modular headset, so you can replace the ear cups, microphone or head frame with another one. This doesn’t particularly give any added value, however, as you’d rarely upgrade a headset in this price class – instead you'd normally just replace it completely. The design is also quite simple, so the headset doesn't stand out either positively or negatively. But it also sits on the head nicely and squeezes just hard enough around the ears. We could play for several hours without experiencing any headache or pain in the jaws. The only thing lacking is buttons for the volume and microphone on/off. Both the mute function and volume knob ought to be on the ear cups, but aren’t. However, the boom microphone does mute in the upright position. The fact that the headset has a 3.5 mm connection means you can use it both with your mobile phone and tablet in addition to your computer or game console.
The Razer Kraken 7.1 V2 is a headset with full-bodied sound and powerful bass. But despite the power of the bass, the sound isn’t exaggerated and is still balanced – it's rather that the soundstage is wide. The headset handles both muffled bangs and rapid treble well. In a headset with such a wide soundstage, of course the sound is sometimes overdone – for example the bass takes over and drowns the mid range, or the treble becomes a bit sharp – but it doesn’t happen so often that it's a problem. There’s also an equaliser you can use to adjust the soundstage to your preferences. You connect the Kraken 7.1 via USB cable. This makes possible the design that lights up the Razer logo on the ear cups, together with the fake surround sound. But the virtual surround sound isn’t particularly impressive. It deepens the sound slightly, but it’s still difficult to hear exactly where the next enemy is coming from. It’s a welcome addition, not a game changer. Unfortunately no 3.5 mm cable is included in addition to the USB cable, so the use areas for the headset are rather limited – for example, you can’t connect it to your mobile phone.
The comfort is OK, but there are a number of issues. The ear cups press quite tightly around the ears and this can be uncomfortable over longer playing sessions. At the same time they aren’t particularly well padded, and a good deal of sound leaks both in and out. We would also have liked a volume knob on the ear cups, where there’s only a button to turn the microphone on and off. Given the price, this is a headset with good sound quality, but it’s still a way off the top score.
The Ozone Blast ST is a gaming headset that works very well when communicating with your fellow players, but where the actual game sound isn’t such good quality. The sound is unbalanced. The mid range is drowned by an over-dimensioned bass and treble. The powerful bass is good at times in certain types of game, for example when it's noisiest in FPS games and there aren't such high requirements for game music and so on. But the lack of balance in the sound instead has a negative effect on the game experience when you're playing big titles like Mass Effect and Destiny.
The design of the headset also leaves a lot to be desired. It’s quite large and clumsy. The boom microphone catches the eye unnecessarily whether it's folded down or up. On the other hand, some people prefer this type of more futuristic and substantial design over a more scaled-down variety, so if this is you you’ll probably also like the fact that the manufacturer has chosen to clad the headband with a leather-like material. However, the design of the ear cups mean they are uncomfortable on the head, so the design still leaves a negative impression.
The best thing about the Ozone Blast ST is that the headset has a pretty good microphone. It’s good at discarding background and environmental noise. When it’s folded up, this acts as the mute button – the headset has no separate button. Another advantage is that the headset is connected via 3.5 mm cable and can therefore be used with your mobile phone and tablet as well. This combined with the low price and OK sound means that the headset still comes in with a just above average score.