The qualities that make the best gaming headphones are a bit different from those that make the best headphones overall. It's less important for them to reproduce music faithfully and more important for them to provide a surround-sound experience that lets you feel as though you're in the heart of the game world. Gaming headsets also include microphones, so it's important for them to provide clear voice transmission. Comfort is, if anything, more important with gaming headphones, since you may need to keep them on for hours at a time.
One set of headphones that excels in all these areas is the Sennheiser PC 363D (Est. $300) . Most reviewers find them very comfortable, thanks to their light weight and soft velour-covered ear pads. Professional reviewers rave about the headphones' surround-sound feature, which Evan Kypreos of TrustedReviews.com says "brings real direction and depth to sound." Experts also like the sound quality overall; Kypreos and Campbell Simpson of PC World Australia say they enjoyed listening to music and movies with these headphones, though Kypreos concedes that they don't match the quality of top-notch music headphones. Reviewers are generally pleased with the microphone on the PC 363D. They say it does a good job of blocking ambient noise so your voice comes through clearly. In addition, both Campbell and Kypreos say the volume control on the right earpiece is very easy to use by feel alone.
So do these Sennheiser headphones have a downside? Well, actually, they have several. First of all, they're best for PC gaming. They use a USB Dolby sound card for 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound, and that's PC only. Also, you need one or more accessories to adapt the headphone's dual connectors to mate with the Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One or, in some cases, the Apple Mac. Second, while most reviewers find them comfortable to wear, a few users at Amazon.com complain that they grip the head too tightly. And finally, several Amazon reviews say the sound card's software is surprisingly limited -- allowing little more than selecting between stereo and surround modes.
For console gamers, the best choice is the Astro Gaming A40 Audio System (Est. $250) . More than just a headset, these headphones come with a mixer/amplifier that has inputs not just for PCs and consoles but also for MP3 players and other music devices. (Note, however, that Xbox One compatibility requires a $25 Microsoft Xbox One Stereo Headset Adapter). The A40 headphones can equalize sound levels on music and adjust the balance between in-game sound and voice inputs in video games. Alex Cocilova of PC World says the system is complicated to set up, but once in place, it provides "fantastic" sound quality, for music and videos as well as games. He also describes the surround sound as "immersive."
Both experts and users find these lightweight, well-padded headphones very comfortable, even for extended play sessions. One feature they like is the swiveling ear cups, which can slip off your ears for a quick rest. Most reviewers also say the microphone transmits voices clearly and blocks ambient noise. However, the Astro A40 gets lower overall ratings on Amazon than the Sennheiser PC 363D because there are a fair number of complaints about durability and customer support. Users describe a variety of problems, ranging from loose screws to nonfunctioning earphones. They also say Astro's customer service is hard to reach, slow to respond and often unable to fix problems after a headset has been returned for service.
The Sennheiser G4ME Zero (Est. $280) is a newer gaming headphone, but one with lots of promise. Most tech sites haven't reviewed it, but it earns 4.5 stars at PC World Australia and a very positive preview at TechRadar.com. Both sources say the sound quality of these Sennheiser headphones is excellent, and its light, well-padded frame is comfortable for hours of play. The first few reviews to pop up on Amazon since January 2014 are overwhelmingly positive as well. Also, unlike the Sennheiser PC 363D, these headphones will work with the Xbox One system (though not with the PS4). However, there just isn't enough feedback on them yet to say how they'll measure up against the Astro A4 over the long haul.
If you're a more casual gamer who isn't prepared to invest $250 or more in a set of headphones, you might consider the Logitech G35 (Est. $100) . These budget-priced Logitech headphones earn a Best Buy recommendation from PC World Australia and mostly positive reviews on Amazon. Reviewers say these headphones are very easy to set up and use, thanks to a simple USB input. They also offer good sound quality, good surround-sound positioning, and an adjustable fit that's comfortable for most users. The main complaint we saw about them is that they're not durable. Many users at Amazon say that one or both of the ear cups broke off or the headband broke within a few months. On the plus side, the headphones come with a three-year warranty, and users say Logitech's customer support is very good.
An even cheaper option for novice users is the Turtle Beach Ear Force Z2 (Est. $40) . This headset was an Editors' Choice pick at Laptop magazine in 2010 for its "balance of sound quality, comfort, and portability." However, the reviews for the Turtle Beach headset at Amazon.com are unimpressive. In over 150 reviews, it earns an average rating of only 2.6 stars out of 5, with many complaints about poor durability. Still, the Ear Force Z2 might be a reasonable choice for someone who just wants to try out a gaming headset without investing a lot of money.