Gears & Gadgets

Guidemaster: The best gaming headsets for your console or gaming rig

Just an armful of the gaming headsets we tested.
Enlarge / Just an armful of the gaming headsets we tested.
Valentina Palladino
Welcome to Ars Gaming Week 2019! As a staff full of gamers and game-lovers, we’ll be serving up extra reviews, guides, interviews, and other stories all about gaming from August 19 to August 23.

Most people can meet their gaming audio needs with a good pair of headphones. But if you play lots of multiplayer games or frequently use your console/rig to chat with friends, a good gaming headset and its included microphone will make more sense. Unfortunately, the market for gaming headsets remains riddled with junky hardware.

So for Ars Gaming Week, we’re getting you some help. We spent the last three months testing 30 gaming headsets to find the ones most worth buying. Below you can find our current favorites, including options for those on a budget, those with cash to burn, and those who want to go wireless. And, like with all of our Guidemasters, you can consider this a living guide—we’ll be sure to update it as new standouts arrive.

One last note: like most audio-related buying guides, there are personal biases at play when talking headsets. Different people have different sound preferences, and that’s fine. I can only speak to what I like, and as someone who’s used hundreds of headphones over the years as a tech reporter, I like to think my opinions can be of use. All of this is to say that, as with most audio reviews, nobody can tell you what you like, and it’s best to treat this guide as part of a wider consensus that helps you find the products that are worth it.

That said, we’re confident the following headsets will suit most people well.

Table of Contents

The best gaming headset for most people: Cooler Master MH751

Most people in the market for a gaming headset should buy the Cooler Master MH751. For less than $ 100, it provides exceptional value in comfort and audio quality, with a good microphone and a relatively handsome design to boot. It’s a no-frills headset with few special features, but it nails the fundamentals so well that most people in the market for a gaming headset are unlikely to care.

I wasn’t expecting to like the MH751 as much as I did considering how little cachet Cooler Master has in the audio world. There’s a secret to the company’s success here, though: the MH751 and its pricier sibling, the MH752, are rebadged versions of Chinese OEM Takstar’s Pro 82 headphones, which are something of a cult favorite among audio enthusiasts. They’re not exactly the same thing—the bass adjustment slider on the Pro 82 is gone, and the Cooler Master headsets use a 3.5mm jack instead of the more obtuse 2.5mm port—but the meat of the design is very similar. What changes Cooler Master did make are generally for the better, including a tidier sound and a nicer-feeling pseudo-sanded material on the ear cups.

The key selling point here is comfort. A gaming headset is something you’re likely to wear for hours at a time whenever you use it, so whatever you buy needs to play nice with your head. Because everyone’s head is different, comfort is subjective, but the MH751 is as close as I can get to guaranteeing something will feel pleasant around your ears. It was easily the most comfortable of the 30 gaming headsets I tested, and it ranks among the most agreeable headphones I’ve ever worn as a whole. Again, the secret here is shameless copying: the Takstar Pro 82 more or less rips off the design of Sony’s MDR-1A, which I am on the record as calling the nicest-feeling headphones I’ve ever used.

The MH751 can’t quite reach those heights, but its leatherette ear pads have ample amounts of soft memory foam padding and plenty of space to fit the whole of your ears. They rest gently against your temple instead of clamping down too tight. While the headband doesn’t have as much padding, there’s enough to present no problems. The design feels good and light because it balances its weight so evenly. Adjusting the headband is smooth, with light clicks to indicate your calibrations, and there is a generous amount of room to make those adjustments. The result of all this is a headphone that should fit even the largest heads with aplomb and remain pleasing to wear for multi-hour play sessions. (Your ears may get a little sweaty over time, but that’ll happen with almost any over-ear headphone.) To be clear, when I say “even the largest heads,” I’m talking about myself. When I get this enthusiastic over a headphone’s feel, it should give you particular reassurance.

That comfort wouldn’t mean much if the MH751’s sound was subpar, but that’s very much not the case. The operative words here are neutrality and balance. No one part of this sound signature dominates the other: bass is present and well-measured but not boosted, mids are realistic and detailed, highs are clean and not fatiguing unless you dial the volume up to dangerous levels. The soundstage is wide enough for a closed-back headphone, and imaging is strong, so you’ll be able to pick out enemy footsteps in a first-person shooter and the like. It’s not a flat sound profile, but it’s decidedly flatter than most gaming headsets. You mostly hear things as they were mixed to sound. If anything, some people may wish it was less balanced in the low-end, since bumped-up bass can give explosions and other action game sound effects more impact. There’s also no virtual surround sound support—there is in the MH752—but that has never made or broke the quality of a gaming headset, since that tech is largely dependent on what game you’re playing. The components and tuning of the MH751 is good enough to outclass the sound of many pricier headsets that do include 7.1 surround.

I don’t want to overstate things: this is still a sub-$ 100 headphone, and you can get more detail and crisper treble on slightly more expensive headphones. But compared to most gaming headsets, even ones closer to $ 200, the MH751 hits what it’s going for and gives little to complain about.

Similarly, the MH751’s microphone punches above its price range. It gives voices a good sense of fullness and clarity, and it does a good job of suppressing outside noise—not the best, but good. You can hear a sample of me using it below. (And yes, I thought the idea of reading Dickens in a post about gaming headsets would be funny.) The mic is flexible enough and totally detachable, and it locks tightly into place when it is connected.

On top of all of this, the MH751 doesn’t look like a gaming headset, which is one of the biggest compliments I can give any gaming headset. There’s no gaudy RGB lighting and the Cooler Master logo on the side doesn’t look like something a bunch of guys in a board room thought would appeal to energy-drink-swilling “gamers.” While the all-black finish isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, and there’s too much plastic to say the headset feels out-and-out premium, in no way does the MH751 feel flimsy or creaky. It’s very much something you can wear outside without getting looks. The braided cable is a bit long and places the volume/mic mute controls slightly too far down, but like the mic it’s removable, so you can always swap in a more travel-friendly cord if it bothers you. Isolation is just OK, though, so you might still hear louder noises if you’re playing with the volume at a low level. The ear cups don’t fold up, either. Still, this is light and handsome enough to work as a good mobile headphone.

All of this means the MH751 isn’t just good for a gaming headset—it’s a legitimately strong pair of headphones with a quality mic. It’s great for gaming, great for audio enthusiasts on a budget, and great value.

The good

  • Exceptional comfort, balanced sound, and understated design at an affordable price.

The bad

  • Design could feel more premium and ear cups don’t fold up.
Cooler Master MH751 product image

Cooler Master MH751

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

On a budget: Kingston HyperX Cloud Stinger

The MH751 is sometimes available in the $ 60-70 range—at that price, it’s worth the premium over any budget headset. (Of note: it became somewhat low in stock online in the days before this guide was published, but a Cooler Master representative told me the shortage is only temporary.) If you’re determined to spend no more than $ 50, though, the HyperX Cloud Stinger should serve you well. It’s a downgrade from the MH751 in almost every way, but its energetic sound and relatively comfortable design make it a good buy for those on the cheap.

The Cloud Stinger has what’s known as a “V-shaped” sound signature: it boosts the low- and high-end frequencies at the expense of a more recessed mid-range. The bass is particularly hyped-up, but all that added thump feels more fun than overblown in practice. The highs are present to the point of fatigue at the highest volumes, but they’re neither overly dulled nor sibilant. Imaging is excellent as well, and distortion is low. All of this makes for a sound that isn’t balanced or natural for music, but it works well for gaming: the powerful low-end gives explosions and shotgun blasts more oomph, the bump in the treble and high-mids makes enemy footsteps more prominent, and all of it puts sounds where they’re supposed to be. The laid-back mids do make you miss out on some finer details, but for the price and the point of the headset, it sounds good.

Similarly, the Cloud Stinger’s microphone isn’t top-notch but performs well for a $ 50 headset. It does well to keep voices audible within background noise. Speech is consistently clear, though it lacks some airiness and sparkle in the treble and makes voices sound slightly duller then they’d sound on better mics as a result.

The design here has its ups and downs. On the plus side, it’s comfortable, with spacious ear cups, a highly adjustable headband, and a good amount of memory foam padding on both. It’s a bit stiffer on the ears than the MH751, but so are most headsets. What’s here isn’t outright stiff at all and it’s lightweight. The Cloud Stinger is a few years old at this point, but this design is still more pleasant to wear than many headsets that cost twice as much.

That said, the plastic-heavy exterior feels like a $ 50 headset. The ear cups don’t fold up. The microphone isn’t all that flexible. It leaks noise at higher volumes, and it’s mediocre at isolating external noises. And both the mic and the 3.5mm cable are permanently attached. Combine all that with the big red HyperX logo on the sides, and you have a headset that’ll look very goofy outside of the house. (HyperX announced new PS4- and Xbox-themed versions of the headset shortly before this guide was published, but a HyperX rep says the new models have the same technical specs as the existing pair.) Still, if you’re specifically in the market for an affordable gaming headset, these shouldn’t be dealbreakers. For the money, the Cloud Stinger is a fun time where it matters the most.

The good

  • Fun sound and plenty of comfort for $ 50.

The bad

  • Non-detachable microphone and cable.
HyperX Cloud Stinger product image

HyperX Cloud Stinger

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

A wireless alternative: SteelSeries Arctis 7 (2019 Edition)

While I’d recommend most people look into wireless headphones, what with 3.5mm jacks continuing to disappear from new smartphones, the need for a wireless gaming headset isn’t as pressing. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have headphone jacks baked into their controllers, the Switch has one baked into itself, and most PC gamers sit close enough to their rigs to run a cable.

If you’re OK recharging another device and dealing with lesser audio quality just to go cable-free, though, get the SteelSeries Arctis 7 (2019 Edition). It sounds good for a $ 120-ish wireless headset, lasts long, and is easy on the ears. It comes with a 3.5mm cable and works fine as a wired headset, too, but I primarily tested it in wireless mode since that wireless functionality is the main draw here.

For that, the Arctis doesn’t connect over Bluetooth. Rather, this set uses a puck-shaped 2.4GHz dongle that plugs into a USB-A port and connects to the Arctis 7 as soon as the headset is turned on. Having the option to use Bluetooth would’ve been nice for connecting to a mobile device—it’s available on other SteelSeries headsets, after all—but as it is, the connection quality with the proprietary transmitter is just about flawless. Latency is extremely low, to the point where there’s no visible delay between what you hear and what you see on screen. Wireless range is fantastic, which should allow most people to walk a couple rooms over without audio cutting out. I had zero issues with the choppy signals whenever I sat in front of my PS4 or PC. (Just note that those are the only two platforms the Arctis 7 is explicitly built for—like many wireless headsets, this doesn’t support game chat on the Xbox One. We have a pick for that console below.) Battery life is excellent at around 25 hours a charge (as always, this will be less if you constantly play at high volumes). The headset is still usable while being topped up, and if you ever get caught out without a charger nearby, it works completely passively in wired mode. All of this means the Arctis 7 is great at the “wireless” part of “wireless headset.”

I was impressed by the audio quality of the Arctis 7. It’s not as neutral as the MH751, but like that headset it emphasizes balance and accuracy over a more blown-out party-friendly sound. Its lower-bass doesn’t extend terribly far, so it doesn’t lend tons of juice to action game sound effects, but the bass that is here is tight and tidy. The mids are smooth. Treble is clean and prominent without feeling harsh, for the most part, but it can result in some shriller “ess” sounds at the highest levels. The Actis 7 loses some mid-range separation with busier recordings, and its soundstage isn’t as open as better wired headsets, but all told it’s a relaxed sound that’s easy to like.

The Arctis 7 supports EQ customization and 7.1 surround sound through DTS:Headphone X 2.0, but you need to go into the SteelSeries Engine app to get any of that to work. Both of those things can help you better tweak the sound to your liking, and the app is fairly easy to grok. But having to go out of your way to access these features can be a pain, and they aren’t essential for most people.

The design of the Arctis 7 might take some getting used to, but it should prove comfy before long. Like most other SteelSeries headsets, the Arctis 7 uses a “ski goggle suspension” headband that stretches to fit your head. By default, it may cause the ear cups to ride up on those with bigger heads, but there’s enough room for adjustment through the headset’s velcro side tab for most people to find a pleasant fit. The fabric-coated ear pads on the 2019 Arctis 7 are softer and more padded than those of the older 2017 edition, and the ear cups run a little deeper, so the new model is a gentler wear for more people over extended periods. There’s next to no padding above the suspension headband, but once you find the right fit that headband hugs the top of your head without applying much pressure. The headset does make my ears somewhat sweaty after wearing them for a couple hours, though, and the softer fit means it does a subpar job at blocking out external noise. But the metal-and-hard-plastic frame feels decidedly sturdy, and most people should be able to live with poor isolation with a headset meant for the home.

This headset has a mic mute toggle, volume dial, and a dial for mixing chat and game audio built into the ear cups, alongside various charging and connecting ports. These are all useful and responsive, but their crunched-up placement on the back of the ear cups isn’t the quickest to reach when you’re in the middle of a team deathmatch. The mic, meanwhile, can be stowed in the headset itself, but it’s always partially visible and it’s not detachable. The ear cups don’t fold up, either, so the Arctis 7 is best kept off the road. That said, I found the white model I reviewed to look particularly stylish.

About that mic: it’s good for a wireless headset and it does a particularly nice job at suppressing background noise. Using it in wireless mode means an inherent loss in quality, however, so voices immediately sound more compressed and lacking in body. You can hear what I mean in the sample below.

Nevertheless, this is a comfortable, good-looking, and pleasant-sounding headset that doesn’t let being wireless get in the way. If you just can’t stand the thought of taking off your headset to make a quick run to the kitchen—or bathroom, God forbid—it’s worth the plunge.

The good

  • Excellent wireless connectivity, great battery life, and pleasant sound.

The bad

  • Suspension headband may take some getting used to.
Steelseries Arctis 7 product image

Steelseries Arctis 7

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Wireless for Xbox One owners: SteelSeries Arctis 9X

As noted above, the Arctis 7 doesn’t support game chat on the Xbox One, but those who plan to stick with Microsoft’s console for a little longer can get the same idea in the SteelSeries Arctis 9X.

The Arctis 9X looks, sounds, and feels extremely similar to the Arctis 7, and the microphone and core audio components on both are identical. Pretty much all of the pros and cons I listed for the Arctis 7 apply here. The only noteworthy design differences are the enlarged mic mute toggle and better-spaced controls, and the green lined pattern on the headband, which skews a little too “gamer” for my liking but isn’t massively egregious.

The major technical differences are in the Arctis 9X’s connectivity. Namely, the 9X supports Microsoft’s Xbox Wireless protocol. This is the same technology used by Xbox One controllers, so the process of connecting the 9X to an Xbox One is as easy as pairing a gamepad. You just press the pairing button on the console and hold the headset’s power button down, then everything connects automatically. After that initial pairing, the headset will automatically pair to the console whenever both are turned on. There’s no dongle needed. It’ll also work with PCs, though you’ll need an adapter or a computer that has Xbox Wireless support baked in for it to work.

Beyond that, the Arctis 9X also supports Bluetooth, so it can connect to a phone and Xbox One simultaneously, playing music from one and game audio from the other. This is great in practice.

There are a couple caveats to note, however. While having Xbox Wireless built-in is the most convenient route SteelSeries could’ve taken with Microsoft’s console, the tech did introduce a few more connection hiccups and a worse wireless range than what I got with the Arctis 7 and SteelSeries’ own transmitter. It’s far from aggravating; I only mean to say that its connection isn’t as bulletproof as that of the Arctis 7. I noticed similar connection snafus with other Xbox Wireless headsets such as Turtle Beach’s Stealth 600. And while having Bluetooth is convenient, it’s shoddy for gaming purposes—it brings on much higher latency and creates way more artifacts in mic recordings.

I also can’t deny that the Arctis 9X is expensive, running close to $ 200 despite performing so similar to the $ 120 Arctis 7. It’s a particularly heavy cost given how the next Xbox is only a year away (and will hopefully play nicer with more wireless headsets). If you’re looking for something cheaper, the aforementioned Stealth 600 is OK for a $ 100 headset, but I can’t recommend it without heavy reservations. Most Xbox One owners should stick to a cable if they need a new headset, but if you’re in that niche that’s all in on Xbox and wireless audio, the Arctis 9X is a quality choice.

The good

  • Supports Xbox Wireless and Bluetooth audio.

The bad

  • Similar performance to Arctis 7, but more expensive.
Steelseries Arctis 9X product image

Steelseries Arctis 9X

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

A premium option: Your favorite headphones with a detachable 3.5mm cable + V-Moda BoomPro microphone (or just the SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless)

I know, I know. Here’s my thinking: I have a hard time recommending anyone pay more than $ 250 for a headphone that will only ever be used for gaming purposes. Most dedicated gaming headsets in that price range are fine, but they feel overpriced compared to the better “normal” headphones that sound better for the same amount of money (or even less) and can be used in any situation.

The easiest way to maximize your value is to make sure that pair has a detachable 3.5mm cable and affix it with V-Moda’s BoomPro microphone. This is a separate cable with its a 5-inch omni-directional boom mic attached. If your headphone has a detachable 3.5mm connector, you just take that out, plug the BoomPro in, and it immediately becomes your audio and microphone input.

The BoomPro isn’t the absolute highest-fidelity mic I’ve used: it’ll let in some background noise in especially loud environments, and its lack of included windsock means you’ll hear some wind noise when the mic is too close to your mouth. It does well to isolate your voice in more common surroundings, though, and in general it makes that voice sound clean, clear, and neither overly boosted nor overly thin. For a $ 30 mobile mic, it’s good enough to not feel out of place on a more premium headphone, and it’s an obvious step-up from the mics integrated into most modern headphones by default.

This mic’s design is mostly convenient as well. The cable is about 80 inches long, which is a bit much for taking on the road but provides a nice amount of slack at a desk. There’s an in-line clip that can attach to your shirt, with a volume dial and mic mute switch that work well. It would be nice to have music playback controls alongside those, but that’s not a huge loss if you buy this mostly for gaming. The mic portion is suitably bendable and can be easily swiveled away when you want it out of your face.

The catch is finding a headphone that either has a detachable 3.5mm cable or works passively when jacked in. I primarily tested the BoomPro with Oppo’s PM-3, which destroys everything else in this guide from a detail and accuracy perspective but the PM-3 was discontinued a couple years back. (This was my reference headphone for audio comparison tests.) Some popular headphones like Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50X require an adapter to work, and wired headphones are becoming less and less frequent in general. That said, there are still dozens of headphones that work right away. And if you’re willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a headphone for sound quality, chances are you don’t mind using cables. If you need a couple suggestions that are compatible out of the box, Philips’ Fidelio X2HR and V-Moda’s own Crossfade M-100 Master both sound great.

There are other attachable mics out there, most notably Antlion’s ModMic 5, which works with any headset. It sounds better than the BoomPro, but not so much better to be worth an extra $ 40. It also introduces more cable clutter, and it requires you to stick a dime-sized magnetic disk to the side of your headphone, which sort of defeats the purpose of buying a cable that lets you use your premium headphones around town. Still, if you can live with those shortcomings, it has no compatibility issues.

V-Moda BoomPro product image

V-Moda BoomPro

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

Alternatively, if you just don’t mind flashing the cash on a dedicated gaming headset, SteelSeries’ Arctis Pro Wireless is the only premium option I tested that performs well enough to feasibly justify its price tag. It typically runs close to $ 300, which is an eye-watering amount of money for this class of device, but its sound actually holds its own against higher-end traditional headphones.

It’s more or less an upgraded take on the audio quality of the Arctis 7 above—wonderfully flat, accurate, and detailed, with superb imaging that lets you pinpoint in-game sounds. It works with a wireless base station that makes it just as reliable connection-wise as the Arctis 7. It works both as a passive wired headset and over Bluetooth 4.1. It also has a larger mic mute button than the Arctis 7, which is convenient.

The design of the Arctis Pro Wireless is slightly less comfortable than its cheaper sibling, however. The ear pads are a bit stiffer, and the whole fit is somewhat tighter on the head. It still feels nice in a vacuum, though, and the greater clamp means it does better to isolate outside noise. Battery life is a definite downgrade at about 15 hours a charge, but SteelSeries includes a second battery in the box that charges in the base station. Better outright longevity would be more convenient, but it’s easy enough to swap batteries in and out.

The mic, meanwhile, is virtually identical. That’s mostly a good thing, but it’s still not completely detachable, so the headset will look weird on the go. That makes it hard to justify the Arctis Pro Wireless for most people, but if you’ve got the cash and a portable pair you’re already happy with, this is a genuinely premium headset.

The good

  • BoomPro: Adds a quality mic to already-great headphones for low cost.
  • Arctis Pro Wireless: Fantastically accurate and neutral sound.

The bad

  • BoomPro: Only works with headphones with a detachable 3.5mm cable.
  • Arctis Pro Wireless: Expensive and slightly less comfortable than cheaper Arctis headphones; no chat audio on Xbox One in wireless mode.
SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless product image

SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

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