While traditional headphones are designed to make music sing, PC headsets (also called USB headsets) have different missions. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) headsets are designed primarily for video conferencing and Internet-based phone calls. Gaming headsets, on the other hand, have more robust audio components to keep up with the dynamic sound effects of action games; some are also a good choice for movie watching or casual music listening. Gaming headsets tend to cost more, too.
However, even the most expensive PC headsets aren't designed for serious music listening. If you're looking for a set of cans to bring out the best from your music, visit our reports on headphones, earphones and wireless headphones.
It's a rare thing for professional reviewers to fall in line when it comes to recommending a product. But when it comes to PC headsets, the overwhelming consensus is that Corsair's Vengeance line of gaming headsets deliver a strong blend of features, functionality and value, making them a top pick for gamers.
The top-of-the-line Corsair Vengeance 1500 (*Est. $90) earns a Gold award from HardOCP.com, a Kick Ass award from Maximum PC, an Editors' Choice award from CNET (Australia) and a recommendation from HardwareHeaven.com. All praise its high build quality, comfort, competitive pricing and excellent sound. The Vengeance 1500 uses a built-in digital sound processor -- basically an external sound card -- and larger-than-average 50 mm sound drivers to create what reviewers say is a remarkably full sound. Its Dolby Headphone technology creates a simulated 7.1-channel surround sound effect that works very well. Some experts wish the Vengeance 1500 had leather-lined (rather than vinyl) ear cups -- though they admit that would likely drive up the price -- and Maximum PC's Alex Castle warns that the headset may be "too large for folks with wee heads."
The Corsair Vengeance 1100 (*Est. $40) can be connected using either USB or 3.5 mm analog connections. This gaming headset features smaller 40 mm drivers and a flimsier, more lightweight design than its more expensive brethren, and it uses a supra-aural (on-the-ear) rather than circumaural (behind-the-ear) design. Several reviewers say the non-adjustable headband is too small, causing ear pain after prolonged use, and some say it broke after a few months. Despite this, critics and users alike say the sound quality of the headset's microphone and headphones are superb, and most agree that it is by far the best budget-priced gaming headset available.
The Razer Tiamat 7.1 (*Est. $180) takes things a step farther. It's the first PC headset to offer true 7.1 surround sound, thanks to 10 discrete audio drivers of varying sizes. The Tiamat wins awards and recommendations from Wired, PCMag.com and HardwareHeaven.com because of its top-notch design, features and sound. Critics appreciate the individual-channel volume-control panel included in the USB wire that draws power from your PC; they say the headphones provide a great mixture of low-end presence and vocal clarity that are perfect for gaming and watching movies.
The noise-filtering microphone is adjustable, and the headset wins all-around kudos for its comfort and build quality. However, you'll need to pair the Razer Tiamat 7.1 with a 7.1-channel-capable sound card to get true 7.1 surround (Razer helpfully maintains a list of Tiamat-compatible sound cards on its website). The cost and the need for a high-end sound card put the Razer Tiamat 7.1 at the high end of the gaming-headset spectrum, but reviewers say the Razer Tiamat 7.1 is the best gaming headset you can buy -- if money is no object.
The Cooler Master Storm Sirus (*Est. $95) uses four independent sound drivers in each cup -- three 30 mm drivers and one 40 mm driver -- to deliver true 5.1-channel surround sound, with each having its own adjustable volume. However, experts say the headset is a bit too bass-heavy and complain that its audio is somewhat muffled and muddied out of the box. The high-quality components and build quality get high marks.
Two wireless PC headsets receive high marks, the Creative Sound Blaster World of Warcraft Wireless Headset (*Est. $80) and the Logitech Wireless Gaming Headset G930 (*Est. $110). The G930 is the best-reviewed wireless gaming headset thanks to its comfortable design, excellent sound quality and minimal signal interference. We already cover both these wireless gaming headsets in depth in our wireless headphones report.
If all you want to do is make calls on Skype or talk on a chat service like GChat, your PC headset doesn't need high-end components or features like surround sound -- all it needs to do is produce clear audio. There are a bevy of basic headsets for VoIP available, but they get very little attention from professional reviewers. Fortunately, these PC headsets receive more user reviews than most other devices on Newegg.com, BestBuy.com and Amazon.com, allowing us to identify highly regarded models.
The Logitech USB Headset H530 (*Est. $40) earns more praise from users than any other VoIP headset. The H530 maintains a 4-star rating at Newegg.com and does nearly as well at Amazon.com, where more than 250 buyers leave reviews. Users say the premium laser-tuned 31 mm drivers and super-wideband audio technology produce far better audio than other VoIP headsets, and many say they happily watch movies or play games with the H530. Voices sound clear, thanks to a noise-canceling microphone. Most reviewers also appreciate the on-ear volume controls and the fact that this USB-powered headset doesn't require installing any software drivers. However, as with many PC headsets, users with large heads might find the Logitech USB Headset H530 uncomfortable, although there are many fewer reports of discomfort with the H530 than with other VoIP headsets.
Another user favorite, the Plantronics .Audio 655 (*Est. $35), is named one of the best PC headsets by About.com's VoIP guide (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.) These basic USB headphones sport 40 mm drivers and on-ear controls; reviewers say the headphones and adjustable microphone deliver good to very good sound quality. While the on-ear cups are plush, several users complain that they're slightly too small, which can become uncomfortable if worn for a long time. The similar Plantronics .Audio 355 (*Est. $25) uses 3.5 mm jacks rather than the .Audio 655's USB connectors, and its volume controls are in a controller embedded in the cord rather than on-ear. The .Audio 355 also lacks the .Audio 655's Fast Mute Mic feature, which mutes the microphone when you raise it away from your mouth.
Budget-minded consumers should consider the Microsoft LifeChat LX-3000 (*Est. $25), reviewers say. The plastic headset is a bit flimsy; a sizable minority of users complain of breakage, though they also say receiving replacement units is simple. The headphones may also be a bit small for large-eared users. However, buyers also say this PC headset's headphones and microphone deliver solid audio quality. The plug-and-play installation also draws praise, although some bloatware is installed along with the headset's software. This PC headset is also optimized for use with Windows Messenger, sporting several advanced, dedicated features for the messaging service. It's also Skype certified.
Other VoIP headsets are available for even less money, but none garner widespread praise or recognition, and most have dozens (or hundreds) of user reviews complaining about poor performance and fragility and comfort issues.
If you're looking for a hands-free VoIP experience, the Plantronics .Audio 995 (*Est. $55) earns a 4-star rating from PC World Australia, as well as hundreds of above average scores from users at Newegg.com and Amazon.com. The headset links to your PC via a USB Bluetooth adapter and has a 30-foot range. These over-the-ear headphones are sturdy, reviewers say, although some complain that they become uncomfortable after several hours of use.
Reviewers say the microphone works great, but they also say that headphone audio is subpar to that of conventional PC headsets -- though still decent enough and largely interference-free. The biggest drawback: You can't use the .Audio 995 while the headset is charging via an included USB cable, and the headset's battery can't be replaced.
Finding reviews for PC gaming headsets is easy; TomsGuide.com, CNET (Australia) and PCMag.com offer helpful comparative roundups, while the professional enthusiasts at DigitalTrends.com, Maximum PC, PC World (Australia), TechRadar.com, HardOCP.com, Bit-Tech.net and HardwareHeaven.com all review new gaming headsets as they're released. Wired's GeekDad blog offers a solid stand-alone review of the Razer Tiamat 7.1. Finding professional reviews of non-gaming PC headsets is more difficult; the only worthwhile reviews are relatively light roundups on Bestcovery.com and About.com. Fortunately, the hundreds of user reviews at BestBuy.com, Amazon.com and Newegg.com provide a treasure trove of information.