Typically, headsets are not a first priority purchase we make for our new gaming computers or mobile devices. Nevertheless, when the decision has been made and it comes time to invest in a headset, we resort to either buying whatever looks good or we get stuck between a few models without really knowing what would be the most comfortable or pleasurable for the ears, what would be the most reliable or, of course, which would not break the bank.
Sometimes us users can get confused between two terms – “headset” and “headphone”. Not anymore! It is very easy to distinguish one from the other – headphones don’t have a microphone and are intended only for listening to an audio stream. Headsets, on the other hand, have a microphone, which provides 2-way communication, and allows users to listen to the voice and speak simultaneously, when playing online games with other players. Makes sense, right?
There is another important aspect that separates the two – sound quality. It just so happens that most of the time headphones provide a much better and clearer sound quality than headsets. Because, technically, headphones primary task is to ensure high quality sound for listening the music, whereas a headset’s primary task is to ensure clear voice recognition. It is not an axiom though – you of course can find a cheap sounding headphone from a no-name brand on the market, as well as expensive branded headset with decent sound quality – well enough to listen the music. Though, this is not common and can cost you quite a bit of money. So, as we usually advise – check the models available when shopping and judge for yourself.
Let’s take a look and see what parameters users should when deciding which to headphones to choose (going forward, we will just be saying “headphones”, since both headsets and headphones have a lot in common) and what kind would be the most appropriate for a specific task. A small note here: we won’t talk about pure technical parameters such as frequencies, impedance, membrane materials/technologies and other technical specifications that would be more appropriate and interesting for audiophiles – we will strictly be looking at design qualities, comfort-ability, usability and general quality of phones and microphone for the average computer user or gamer.
There are three general types of the headphones: In-ear (ear buds, canal phones and canal buds), Supra-Aural (light-weight, portable) and Circumaural (full-sized). Each one of them have their own specific characteristics that are essential for different kinds of applications.
Ear Buds are inserted and sit loosely in outer ear. Typically poor sound quality and have no isolation from the external noise. Portable, compact and inexpensive. Not highly recommended, but if your budget is relatively low, these would do the job for routine voice recognition and background music listening.
Canal Buds are the next evolution of in-ear type. They have smaller ear tips (usually rubber) and sit tight just inside the ends of the ear canals. Sound quality in canal buds is generally higher than that of ear buds. Compact and comfortable, with noise isolation better than ear buds, but still not enough to concentrate on the sound without being distracted by the external noise.
Canal Phones sit deep in the ear canals and block external noise and are excellent for noisy environments. Sound quality is generally very good, though some models can be quite expensive with the price tag ranging from $100 all the way up to $1000. It is important to mention, though, that some people find canal phones to be uncomfortable since they inserted deep into the ears.
Supra-Aural type (light-weighted, portable)
In comparison to in-ear, this type has bigger drivers that rest against the outside of the ears, and most models have a thin headband that goes either over or behind the head. Portable models can be folded and put into your pocket when travelling. General sound quality is quite good, especially in a bass range and some of the best models from famous brands produce a very impressive sound.
Circumaural is the oldest type of the headphones and is the most ideal for the ear, due to having big size drivers for outstanding sound quality and headband connected ear-pads that fully cover and surround the ears for a comfortable experience during long usage periods. There are two sub-types of circumaural headphones: closed, which block some degree of external noises and keep your music from disturbing the others; and open, which quite often generates a better sound, but are not that well isolated from external ambient noises and the sound can be heard by the others nearby. Typically, circumaural has a very solid bass response. In order to deliver superior sound quality, some models might require more power than computer or portable device would be able to provide, so dedicated headphone amplifier may need to be considered. A downside of having full-sized models is that they are big and bulky, which makes no difference for home use, but may become a problem when travelling.
Headphones with a Microphone (headsets)
Each of the above headphone types can be equipped with a microphone, which, depending on the construction of the headphones, is designed and attached differently. Most of the time headsets are intended primarily for communication purposes – games and voice chats.
On a wire – not a bad choice for those who are unsure whether they need a microphone or not. At a brief glance, the actual microphone is almost unnoticeable and very often is built into the volume control button. Construction-wise, it is very simple and sleek, and doesn’t add a lot to the price. These are mostly used in in-ear type headsets. Cheap models might not have an ambient noise suppressor, which affects the general quality of the voice reception.
Fixed mount – an ideal solution for those who plan to use the microphone regularly. The microphone is fixed on a short plastic holder that is attached to one of the ear phones. Voice reception quality may vary, depending on the brand and the price of the headset. Microphones of good quality models quite often come equipped with the noise suppressor for a better and clearer voice reception.
Adjustable mount – one of the best types that would the most appropriate for computer headsets. The distance between the microphone and the mouth can be adjusted by either bending or rotating the mount, which allows changing reception gain and quality. If microphone is not needed, the mount can be put up along the headband, which makes this type of headset very comfortable.
Built-in design – on of the worst microphone mounts. Apart of the user’s voice, it often catches all of the surrounding sounds and noises. The only advantage of such mount type – invisibility and a good aesthetic look of the headset as a whole.
Microphones with built-in noise suppression.
Modern microphones are quite often equipped with a very useful feature – noise suppression. Microphones with the noise suppressor will make your voice more clearly heard and would create a participation effect.
Headsets and headphones can be wired and wireless.
This is the best solution for those who require the freedom of movement within the room or the office, most popularly connected via Bluetooth. Honestly, the freedom of movement is the only real advantage of this type of headset, while disadvantages of the wireless headsets are much more prominent:
- Sound quality is relatively poor
- Necessity of changing the batteries on a regular basis
- Heavier than wired headsets
- Could be more expensive than similar wired models due to additional electronics, plus the cost of the batteries
The most preferable connection type due to following advantages:
- Better sound/voice quality due to less interference on a cable (if shielded).
- Cheaper than similar wireless models.
The downside of wire headsets is the opposite of the wireless – your movements become limited by the length of cable.
There are also two different types of connectors (plugs):
- Mini jack 3.5 mm. A small connector that can be plugged into the computer audio output or into a smartphone or tablet. Headphones have only one Mini jack connector for audio output, whereas headsets have two mini jacks – one for the phones and one for the microphone. Studio and monitor type headphones can be equipped with 6.35mm jacks.
- USB – the modern version of the headset with a built in miniature amplifier and can be used when some of your devices have no separate standard analogue input of 3.5 mm. Sound quality is acceptable for voice communication, but listening a high quality music can be questionable.
There are hundreds of headsets and headphones models and brands available on the market with a wide variety of price tags. As we already mentioned in the beginning – before making a purchase, try out different types of the headphones and headsets and decide for yourself which fits for your purposes.