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Gaming audio and you. Why (99.5% of) gaming headsets suck, and how you can enter the world of high fidelity sound on a gaming headset budget!
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Why (99.5% of) gaming headsets suck:There are actually a couple of reasons here to qualify why most gaming headsets are sub par. Some of these issues are compounding, some headsets will suffer from more than one of these issues and it all piles up into one big shit heap. While generally speaking, nearly all gaming headsets will suffer from at least one of them.
Build quality - There's a lot of stuff jammed into a gaming headset. All that stuff has to work together and on top of that the headset has to make a competitive price mark and turn a tidy profit for the manufacturer. You've got the speakers, a mic, cabling, connectors, on board audio drivers (if its a USB set), noise cancellation (by way of closed design), the ear pads, headband and internal mountings blah blah etc. Basically in order to make a product that meets a competitive price point and still makes a decent profit for the manufacturer, one or more of the listed things in here tends to get the cheap and nasty treatment. Usually more than one thing.
On board or in-PC audio drivers - It's either going to be on your motherboard (most people these days) or in a sound card, but internal audio processing in your PC falls victim to all kinds of RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) from your mainboard, power supply, video card etc that reside in your PC. Higher quality motherboards will have the audio processing stuff on your board physically isolated from the rest of the circuitry and it does help a bit, but ultimately it's the physical proximity to all the electronics and power inside your PC that reduces the sound quality. The only real way to negate this issue is to take it outside.
Marketing - Unlike the fairly 'word of mouth' driven world of hi-fi audio gear, gaming gear is heavily driven by advertising and marketing. The marketing budget is included in the cost of making the headset, so at the end of the day, those are dollars being taken away from quality components and assembly.
Some video's to watch from some people who know their shit:Tek Syndicate - Gaming headphones suck, make your own. You can get better sound and longer lasting set ups that will do you just as much justice for home media and Hi-Fi as it will for gaming. Watch this, it's important. It's also a 3 part series
BillyEeatWorld talks about gaming headsets (the all in one type) and general gaming marketed head phones and what they bring to the table in comparison to traditional headphones. Includes a nice cost comparison of a high end gaming headset versus a solid studio/audiophile style setup as well. He doesn't go into a lot of detail over exactly how cheap you can get started into a higher quality sound environment, but none the less it's a good explanation of gaming versus traditional headphones.
HardwareCunucks go into great depth on comparisons between gaming headsets and traditional Hi-Fi stereo headphones, how marketing philosophies and design focus differs, mic quality (with a demo of several different gaming headset mics) and a solid explanation of sound quality between gaming tuned headsets and stereo headphones.
Soundcards - Do they do anything? At all?:Surprisingly, very little beyond some extra software based processing. While a sound card separates audio processing from your mainboard and to a degree, takes some of the load off of your CPU with regards to audio processing, at the end of the day it, unless there's a distinct and noticeable issue with your on-board sound like background hiss (EMI/RFI induced),it does very little to improve your sound quality beyond running its own software based equalisation and post processing (like virtual surround) and possibly using a more powerful amplifier for driving difficult high impedance headphones to higher volumes. If you already had a decent onboard DAC/Amp on your mainboard, its likely to be doing nothing at all other than colouring the sound in the cards flavour. In some cases it may actually degrade your sound quality purely based on the amount of complex circuitry the signal passes through after exiting the onboard DAC/amp before reaching the final output point where you connect your headphones/speakers to the unit. All circuitry on the inside of your case is also subject to any and all electromagnetic interference (EMI) and/or radio frequency interference (RFI) that's being bounced around in there by whining coils, noisy fans, vibrating cooling pumps and CPU's pulling heavy work loads. Lengthy cable runs, such as those from your sound module to the front audio connections on your PC, can pick up this interference and manifest it in the form of a hissing sound that rides in the background of your speakers or headphones as you listen at moderate to high volumes.
Are all sound cards the devil? Plainly speaking, no, they aren't. While discrete PCI-E sound cards up at the high end of the market often produce higher quality sound than onboard main board modules, they're still on the inside of your PC case and are subject to the same EMI/RFI that everything else is. For the price of a high end sound card, you could either be getting a high quality external audio processing solution in the form of a DAC/amp combo, an external sound card, a set of quality stereo headphones or all of the above. If your on board audio can't handle driving your speakers or headphones at high volumes without generating background hiss or distortion and crackle though, it's time to look at alternative audio processing solutions. Taking your audio processing outside of your case is the only way to completely separate your sound from what's happening on the inside of your case and completely taking internal interference out of the equation.
Tek Syndicate has a good talk about gaming audio, what sound cards actually do and how it affects your audio experience. This video is fairly heavily focused on sound in gaming but also makes (a pretty half baked) explanation of audio signal loss through sound cards, on board audio and how sound processing software affects your audio experience.
Is there a difference between stereo sound and 5.1 or 7.1 simulated surround sound in terms of how we hear it? Sort of, but the answer is basically no. You have two ears, your headphones have two speakers and it's the type of the recording and/or the quality of the sound encoding and programming in the game you play that determines positional sound and the 3 dimensional sound environment that you experience. There are a few different kinds of sound encoding and recording that will affect the way you hear sound when it's played back to you, but ultimately you're going to hear sound coming through your headphones the way it was meant to be heard when it was originally recorded. Unless the game you are playing is a 2d platformer where there is literally only left and right as possible sources of sound, almost all sound in games is played back in a form of binaural or virtual surround sound, whether or not you are using a headset or sound setting in your audio software that enables or creates "3d sound". When you play a 3d game, you can tell left from right, front from back and all variations between, regardless of your sound settings as this kind of intelligent sound design is part of the game engine itself. When you play a 3d game with all of your virtual surround sound software turned off and just take a straight untouched audio feed from the game itself, you can differentiate direction, intensity and distance of sound, but when you play some of your favourite music and throw on all of the surround sound software and tweak the shit out of that EQ, you're still just hearing it in stereo. While virtual surround messes with the tone and sound stage, you can't pick out an instrument from the track playing and think to yourself, "Hey, that violin is playing behind me here!" can you?
Check out the Virtual Barbers shop, close your eyes and have a listen. Make sure you turn off all of your surround sound software before you listen to it, it's really important that you listen this in plain old 2 channel stereo. This particular sound demo is probably the best working example I can give on the whole "is there any point to surround sound?" debate when it comes to gaming audio. This particular demo was recorded in true binaural format and was specially designed for playback over stereo headphones to create a very realistic replication of the sound at the point of recording. If you care about the evolution of sound gaming, this is a particularly interesting clip as the recording technique and its electronic replication featured very heavily in 3d games from the years 1998 to 2003, but the company that originally developed the technology was purchased by Creative Technologies and the technology was buried.
All that virtual surround sound is, is some tone based filtering that's designed to widen the sound stage presented to your ears (and disguise the poor sound quality of bad headphones when used without a shitload of post audio processing). You get the same effect of a wider sound stage and the same quality positional audio by using open backed or high quality headphones (or both).
DAC's (Digital to Analogue Converters) - What do they do and do I need one?:A DAC is a Digital to Analogue Converter. Basically what it does is takes a digital sound output, breaks that signal down and rebuilds it as an analogue sound output. Now, INB4 some wise arsed electrician sticks his head in here and tells me, "Hey Sentry you dickhead, that's still digital output coming from the DAC because you can't break down a digital source and make it true analogue. Do you even know how VSD's work, you fucking simpleton?". Yes. Yes I do know how VSD's work, but as we all know, high quality VSD output is a better reproduction of a true sinusoidal waveform than a raw sine wave is while it's being affected by all sorts of horrifying harmonics, right? RIGHT!? Right, now shut the fuck up, I'm still talking...
Anyway, what a good DAC actually does beyond just producing an analogue audio signal for you to listen to, is to reproduce that signal as close as humanly possible to it's original source sound. Typically on board sound or sound cards give you some signal loss or background noise that you'd rather not have. Do you get that faint hissing sound you get when you crank your headphones to high volume while you're gaming or listening to music? Yeah, that's background electrical interference from your computer and it's not actually meant to be there. If you can hear it then you might want to look at an external sound solution to drive your wonderful headphones and get your audio processing away from the source of that noise. You've got options at this point, either in a DAC/Amp all in one unit, a full blown external sound card, a DAC/Amp stack, a receiveAMP and a giant fuck-off set of tower speakers and a subwoofer than can blow your windows out... But we're talking about headphones here so you may as well get a simple high quality DAC to make sure you're getting the cleanest sound possible while you're moving your audio drivers away from that electromagnetic radio frequency interference hell that is the inside of your PC case.
Linus Tech Tips explains what a DAC is, how it works, why you might want one and some of the advantages of using one over your on board sound.
Headphone amplifiers - There's a 95% chance you don't need this and if you need one, I'm not telling you anything new:If you're running high impedance headphones, you're either going to want a sound card with an amplifier that's capable of driving them to a high volume or a desktop amplifier to beef up the signal in order to drive your headphones at a high volume with clarity. There's a 95% chance that you don't need to know this as it's likely your headphones sit nicely in the 32 to 60 ohm impedance range (industry standard for headphone manufacture). Should you ever get a pair of headphones that are of a significantly higher impedance (anything above 100 ohms basically) you may find yourself in a situation where you'll want a headphone amp to boost that signal up a bit. While the impedance of a pair of headphones doesn't necessarily affect the quality of sound they produce, different manufacturers produce models with differing impedance and this value needs to be taken into account when considering a purchase.
Basically a higher impedance value, you require more power to drive the headphones. Low output devices like mobile phones or on-board PC headphone jacks can sometimes have trouble driving headphones of high impedance (100 ohm+) and may require a headphone amplifier to deliver the required power to get the volume and clarity out of them that you'll want. Attempting to drive a set of high impedance headphones with from a source not made to deal with the load won't necessarily affect the sound quality of the headphones themselves (although it may do in the form of sound not being as sharp and detailed as it can be), but it will have an affect on the maximum volume they can achieve. If you find yourself with the volume cranked to the max and still looking for more then it's a sign that you need to look at a better amp situation for your audio setup.
Headphone impedance explained. This whole series is really good viewing, you should watch it as it explains a lot about headphones very concisely and in bite sized chunks.
This all seems pretty complicated. How hard is it to set up?:About this hard...
If you don't include the amp in that mix it's about as hard as plugging in a USB cable and a headphone jack.
This all sounds expensive, do I actually need any of this?While running an external audio setup tailor made to your delicate aural needs sounds amazing (and it does sound amazing), this guide is about improving your audio on a, budget that won’t put you out of pocket any more than a mid range gaming headset. What were going to look at here are upgrade priorities, fault finding, isolating problem spots and working out what you can do to get the best possible improvement to your sound without buying unnecessary equipment.
Fault finding and isolating problem spots in your audio:
Background noise: This can come in the form of hissing, humming, cyclic ticking or even a harsh buzzing sound. The main culprit when it comes to unwanted background noise is electrical interference. When you put on your headphones or headset and listen to them with no sound playing, is there a background hiss, hum or buzz that’s there when you turn the volume up to where you would normally be listening to it? If the answer is yes, there are a couple of things to check before going for the most expensive solution, which is getting your audio processing outside of your PC:
• First off, check the connection and cable to your headphones. Check the plug ends are clean and that the cable itself is run away from other cables, especially those carrying power.
• If you’re still getting background hiss, disconnect your headphones from the front of your case and connect them directly to the motherboard or sound card output/s at the rear of your computer. This eliminates and lengthy internal, cable runs from the circuit that typically go past fans, graphics cards, your CPU and hard drives etc on the way to your front jacks.
• Also test your headphones with a different cable if possible to eliminate the cable itself as a noise source (corroded or high impedance joints in cables, can produce noise or affect sound quality).
• If you’re using a sophisticated sound card or onboard audio set up that allows you to designate what audio jacks are used for different tasks, try using your headphones with different jacks to test if it’s one particular audio jack that’s causing the issue.
If you’ve tried all of the above and are still getting background hiss, it’s probably time to move to an external audio processing solution in the form of a DAC/Amp or external sound card.
Crackle and pop sounds: Most of the time, crackles, pops and sounds of that nature are more a result of physical problems with your audio gear than electrical interference. Dirty or corroded plugs, sockets, damaged soldering and joints, problematic cables and headphone speaker diaphragms are usually what causes that real “plastic bag” type crackling in your sound as well as pops, clicks and the like.
• Much like the above checks against your gear for background noise, check your plugs, sockets, cables and headphones themselves against spares to see if the sounds are eliminated. If they are, great! If not, when next it’s time to replace your gaming headset, buy some proper headphones.
PRIORITIES, aka, I can’t afford all this shit right now but I want better sound:While not everyone can rush out and upgrade or replace their audio set up right now, at some point in the future, you will be. Your headset is going to break or fail and you’re going to have a choice to make. Do you give in to the dark side and buy another doomed to fail gaming headset, or do you start your footsteps down the path to audio glory and start looking at quality audio equipment for your battle station? If your sound right now makes you happy, you have no issues like background noise or whatever, your gaming headset is 100% functional and you think it sounds great then it’s an easy choice, you keep your current set up and take this whole post as advisory content for when you next need to replace or upgrade your sound.
If you’re replacing or upgrading though, there is a list of priorities to go by:
1. Headphones: Well duh. Your headphones are the single biggest quality improvement you can make to your sound. You can go out and buy five grand worth of DACs, amps and magical cables right now, but if you use them with some shitty ear buds you got for free on a domestic plane flight, it’s still going to sound atrocious. On the flip side, a quality set of headphones plugged into a half decent sound card or motherboard audio output will be an immediate solid improvement on a mediocre gaming headset.
2. Microphone: While this should probably be bundled in with headphones, it’s worth mentioning on its own because not everyone talks to people on the interwebs. If you can afford it, grab an Antlion ModMic and then you’ve got a mic for life that will turn any headphones you buy into a gaming headset. If you can’t afford it, just grab any old cheap desktop mic as a place holder. As long as people can understand you when you speak then you’re ok. If you’re recording then chances are you already have a better mic than what’s found on a headset anyway.
3. External Audio processing: Whether it be in the form of a DAC/Amp set up (or DAC+amp single unit), external sound card or even a full blown receiveamplifier hifi setup, at some point along the road, it's going to be time to take your audio processing outside of your case. That time is when you can afford it, and after you've got a worthy set of cans to pump the noise out of.
4. Odds, ends, expansions and stuff that's unnecessary, but heaps of fun none the less: Want to run 4 amps off 2 dacs, build a blind AB testing rig, 96 pairs of headphones, run 7.1 surround and a remote system for broadcasting fart noises from YouTube into every room in your house? Me too. But first, make sure you've got some nice headphones, a solid external processing solution and a decent mic. After that, go apeshit.
5. Other mystical bullshit and snake oil that may or may not make a difference: A broken cable is a broken cable. You replace it with one that's not broken and you've got sound again. But an oxygen free copper double earthed triple insulated quadruple shielded kevlar braid single origin fair trade gold plated cable with limited edition plug ends blessed by the Pope? I've got no idea. Well, I've got some idea, because electrical signalling is what I do for a living. Some people out there say it makes a difference to sound. If they can hear the difference then they're on par with dogs and superman in the listening department. Don't go buying any of this stuff thinking it will solve problems that a good set of headphones and a quality audio processing solution won't. Yes there are dirt cheap shitty leads out there that are likely of inferior quality, but once you go past that price point of "this is one of those regular quality audio leads that's going to float around your house for the next 20 years", then everything from there on is basically wank factor.
What makes a set of gaming headphones?:Watch this. The whole thing. This guy talks about pretty much every set of cans you'll ever need to know about in terms on gaming, how they sound, differences between open and closed cans, a shit load of brands and price ranges, DACs, amps, what it takes to drive high impedance headphones etc. You could probably just watch this video and skip this entire thread because this guy lays it out in laymans terms and his video pretty much has everything I was looking to get at by writing this thread. It's a long vid though, like 28 minutes. Watch the whole thing. Z Reviews has quickly become one of my favourite YouTube channels for audio stuff, that guy really knows his shit. If you're interested in audio stuff in general then this channel should be on your subscription list.
This sounds expensive. Will I need to sell my organs on the black market to afford this?:Only if you intend on going right to the top of the food chain in ridiculous audio overkill. Much like the world of PC gaming, there is a bargain basement entry option that will help you ascend to greatness without breaking your bank... any more than your typical gaming headset will anyway.
Let's do some price comparisons:Listed below are some popular gaming headsets and their Australian/US retail prices (in DollaryDoos/FreedomBucks) for the sake of comparing the prices to a proper set of stereo headphones and (possibly) an external audio processing solution
- Steelseries H wireless gaming headset - $400/$299
- Audio-Technica ATH-AG1X gaming headset - $350/$246
- Astro A50 gaming headset - $350/$299
- Sennheiser GAME ZERO Gaming Headset - $280/$150
- Razer Tiamat 7.1 Gaming Headset - $250/$220
- Logitech G633 Artemis Spectrum RGB 7.1 Gaming Headset - $280/$130
- Audio-Technica PG1 gaming headset - $160/$174 (I don't know whats going on with the price difference here)
- Razer Kraken gaming headset - $170/$100 - (average price, varying models)
HeadphonesSuperlux HD668b studio monitoring headphones - $67/$37
This is an incredibly well balanced and well made set of open backed headphones for its price. Sound wise they've got a similar frequency response to the Beyerdynamic DT990s ($380/$241). The days of "Made in Taiwan" being a bad thing are well and truly over. Seriously, amazing cans for the money. Like many cheaper headphones, the stock earpads aren't amazing and are definitely worth replacing with something more comfortable.
TASCAM TH02 closed back stereo headphones - $30/$22
Another insanely good sounding set of headphones at a crazy low price for their performance. Being closed back headphones, they also give pretty nice external noise cancellation and really keep that bass rattling around in your head as well. Great for explosions, gunfire, dubstep and things that you don't want the people beside you hearing when you've got cranked up a bit. One thing I'd defintely look at if you pick these guys up is some more comfortable earpads to go with them. One thing about cheap headphones is that there are a few sets out there that sound amazing for the price, but they do tend to fall back a bit on comfort. It's an easy fix though.
DAC's, Amps and external soundcardsFiio E10K Olympus 2 USB DAC and headphone Amplifier - $105/$76
One of the most highly recommended entry level DACs on the internet. It's simple, delivers great clear sound, has a built in amplifier for driving higher impedance headphones (with a selector switch for if you're going upwards of 32 ohms) and can literally drive most low to medium impedance headphones to destruction. It's also got a bass booster switch on the front for kicking up the low ranges a notch if you like a heavier sound or want every explosion to risk giving you brain damage if its turned up too loud.
MicrophonesAntlion ModMic 4.0 - $79/$49
This is the one that the people love. When I wrote this thread I originally listed the Zalman ZM-MIC1 as my primary recommendation for turning your stereo headphones into a proper sound and communication solution for gaming with price as the primary motivator. However, aside from the comments in this thread itself saying the Antlion ModMic should be the go to choice when creating your own personal masterpiece of gaming sound, I received several dozens of direct messages asking why the Zalman over the Antlion when the difference in quality was massively in favour of the Antlion. The ModMic comes in couple of flavours with a couple of options, you have the choice between a uni-directional and omni-directional model, the difference being uni is focused on the direction of your voice while cutting out a lot of background noise, and omni made to get an even recording from the complete area around it. Both models come with the option of a mute switch should you desire (or use an online communication protocol without a mute or push to talk option). It sounds better than most all-in-one headset mics and rather than a clip that needs to be fixed to your shirt or your headphone cord near your head, its got a nice magnetic clip that affixes a boom directly to your headphones.
V-MODA BoomPro Microphone - $30 FreedomBucks (good luck finding one in Australia)
The BoomPro is an omni-directional condenser mic that works by plugging directly into your headset, in line with the 3.5mm connector lead that attaches to your headphones. If you don't have a set of cans with a direct plug in then this is gonna be problematic for you. Other than that, it's a fine mic and also has its own in line volume control with which you can adjust your headphone and mic volume. It's sound quality and voice isolation are good but if you plan on getting this thing, make sure it can connect to your headset before buying it.
Zalman ZM-MIC1 clip on mic - $12/$7
It's a mic. It costs $12 (or $7 if you're on the other side of the puddle). If you're using a gaming headset, you already don't care what everyone else have to listen to so if you're looking to save money, you should look into it because this is the part of your glorious new audio set up that you don't have to care about or listen to. You'll be happy as a pig in shit with your beautiful DAC and 668b's and we won't be able to tell the difference because this thing sounds just as good as every other gaming headset mic out there.
Total cost of the Sen7ryGun magic audio makeover: $184 DollaryDoos / $120 FreedomBucks
The bits above here are really bargain basement audio bits and pieces. Before some wise ass jumps in here and tells us all how much more expensive and better their setup is, I'm well aware this is a very cost effective and entry level introduction into quality audio. The point is, it sounds a shitload better than 99.5% of gaming headsets out there, is just as functional and can be used anywhere you take them. If I was going to change anything about this as a starter kit, I'd get some replacement pads for the HD668b's (something softer and more luxurious because I like shit like that) and I would probably go for an Antlion Modmic instead of a Zalman because it's a bit more stylish and functional (it costs $40 FreedomBucks though). Even with some new ear pads and an Antlion mic, this whole setup will cost less than $200USD so it's still better quality at a better price point than a lot of gaming headsets out there.
In summary, stop buying gaming headsets. You're encouraging them to keep making shit audio gear and overcharging us all for it.Obviously this doesn't mean that you need to get rid of your current audio solution and start fresh. Much like beauty, rockin' sound is in the ear of the beholder so if you're happy with where you're at, don't feel like you've gotta move away from that. But in the future at some point, your terrible gaming headset is gonna break (years and years before any half decent pair of headphones will) and it'll be time to upgrade or replace. When that time comes, I highly recommend taking a look at your options as far as quality headphones and a DAC go. Your ears will thank you for it later.
I'm not calling this post finished yet, as I think of more stuff to add to it I'll get it in there. But it's late, I'm tired and I've got another YouTube vid to upload :P