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How to Choose the Best Headphones for Gaming: 2020 Edition (Top Picks & FAQ)

Current Recommended Budget and High-End Studio Headphones for Gamers

The best quality studio headphones for gaming and musicMainstream gaming headsets just won't cut it if you're after the highest audio quality for games and music

Last Updated: October 17, 2020

In this roundup review we'll be going over some of the current best headphones for gaming at various budgets, to help you get the best sound quality and comfort for your money. Gaming headsets, which are basically headphones with attached mics and extra features marketed to gamers such as special software or cool aesthetics, are very popular these days. However, when compared to standard headphones, with gaming headsets you get less audio quality for the same price.

See Also: The Best Value Gaming Headsets (With Mic)

In other words, just getting standard headphones, and adding your own mic if you need one (whether attachable or external on your desk), is the smart way to stretch your money furthest if you care about quality. Anyone familiar with audio gear will know this, but most average gamers won't and they often get suckered into "gaming headsets" because they look cool, not realizing there is a better way. Don't get me wrong, nothing getting a gaming headset as they are handy, and not all of them are bad (some have good quality), but buying some good headphones is the best way to get top-notch sound quality for less. And if you're looking to invest into the absolute highest quality sound, headphones are a no-brainer as even the best high-end gaming headsets on the market won't come close in terms of quality. 

So if you don't need a mic, or you're just going to use a separate mic (which will also typically be better quality than most built-in gaming headset mics) then consider buying some good headphones for gaming like the ones below. This dual setup of using headphones and a separate mic is actually quite common among the more audio-enlightened gamers out there, and as mentioned it can save you money too since gaming headsets can be quite overpriced. Anyway, let's get into the best gaming headphones for the money right now based on both my own personal opinion and judgement, and more importantly on the opinions of much more in-the-know audio professionals that I have done my best to learn from around the web. Oh, and if you're confused about terms like open-back vs closed-back headphones, see the FAQ at the end.

See Also: The Best PC Speakers for Gaming

The Best Budget Gaming Headphones Under $50 (USD)

Behringer HPS3000

Fit: Over-Ear

Style: Closed-Back

The Behringer HPS3000 are a good example of how you can save quite a bit of money opting for non-gaming headphones instead of a headset marketed for gamers which are sometimes a little inflated price-wise because of better aesthetics and add-on features that you don't always need.

For example, 7.1 surround sound is a feature often marketed for gaming headsets, but the reality is you don't need this feature as a good quality stereo headset can be just as good if not better when it comes to quality and directional sound. 7.1 for headsets is not real surround sound; it's virtual surround sound.

The Behringer HPS3000 will offer similar quality sound to gaming headsets that sell for more than this, and if you need a microphone you can always get a cheap add-on mic like the Zalman Zm-Mic1 or V-Moda BoomPro which are both good value.

See Also: The Best Wireless Gaming Headsets

The Best Value Gaming Headphones Under $100 (USD)

Audio-Technica ATH-AD500X

Fit: On-Ear

Style: Open-Back

With more to invest the Audio Technica AD500X is another excellent value buy that'll outperform many gaming headsets (in terms of sound quality) that sell for more. These are designed for audio mixing and general listening, but it'll work just as well for some seriously great sound for gaming. Audio Technica, along with Sennheiser, are one of the premiere brands when it comes to trusted quality for sound, and this is one of their best value options right now. Just keep in mind the AD500X is an on-ear, open-back style, meaning that it doesn't insulate sound inside your headphones. So if you don't want people around you to hear the sound, go for over-ear headphones instead (which are almost always a closed-back design, and therefore trap sound inside).

Honorable Mention: Philips Audio Philips SHP9500 (Over-Ear, Open-Back)

It has an open-back design which releases pressure on the ears, making for a very natural lightweight feel great for those longer gaming sessions. The self-adjusting wing-style headband also adds to making this a seriously comfortable fit. Again, if you want a mic, getting a cheap add-on like the Zalman Zm-Mic1 or V-Moda BoomPro will get the job done nicely if you don't need the best mic around. The Philips Audio Philips SHP9500 is another great bang for buck choice in this price range that doesn't disappoint when it comes to sound quality as it also has an open-back design like the AD500X. Choosing between the SHP9500 vs the AD500X is a tough choice as they're both excellent value headphones for gaming, music, and even audio production, and I could have easily picked one or the other as the top recommendation here. You really can't go wrong with either.

The Best Closed-Back Gaming Headphones (Noise Cancelling)

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x

Fit: Over-Ear

Design: Closed-Back

If you just want the best of the best, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x are top-notch studio headphones that deliver superb audio quality, and are very well received across the audiophile community. Their over-ear, closed-back design are ideal if you want to prevent sound leakage, whether to prevent people around you from hearing your headphones, or to prevent outside noise from getting in the way of your experience.

See Also: The Best Internal PCIe Sound Cards

The Best Open-Back Gaming Headphones (Highest Quality)

Sennheiser HD 599 SE

Fit: Over-Ear

Design: Open-Back

We've included the 599 SE here as our recommendation over the previously recommended Sennheiser HD 598 SR, as the 599 is almost identical to the 598 but at a much better price (and the bass is reportedly slightly better too). At this level of investment you want to start considering a dedicated sound card for your PC to make the most of such high-quality headphones (and same for the ATH-M50x), though keep in mind that built-in audio on any half-decent modern motherboard is very good these days (hence why sound cards aren't common these days). But if you're super picky about sound, and are investing in top-notch headphones like the ATH-M50X or 599 SE, sound cards do make sense (whether internal PCIe or external DAC).


Open vs Closed Headphones for Gaming

Open headphones, technically called open-back headphones, are designed in a way that allows some sound to escape out the rear of the ear cups, which allows for higher-quality and/or accurate timbre and acoustics, as well as a broader soundstage. The downside to open-back headphones is that anyone around you can hear your audio. Closed headphones (or closed-back) isolate sound so that people around you can't hear what you're listening to, but also so that your ears are isolated from outside noises (removing distractions). In general, open-back headphones can provide more accurate positioning of sound due to the broader soundstage, which is a little contradictory as you'd think that closed-back headphones would be of higher quality due to the sound insulation. If in a public place like a LAN, you want to avoid sound leakage as well as prevent outside noise from distracting you, in which case closed-back headphones is the better choice.

Difference Between Headphones vs Headsets for Gaming

Headphones typically offer better quality sound for the price, as gaming headsets are often overpriced compared to headphones in terms of pure audio quality. Gaming headsets are handy because they come with an attached mic, but you can just as easily buy your own clip-on (or external) mic when using headphones. Gaming headsets may also come with extra features like 7.1 surround sound, but in most cases it's not going to make a difference compared to any half-decent stereo headphones which can drive just as good surround sound.

Over-Ear vs On-Ear Headphones

When choosing headphones you also have terminology called over-ear and on-ear headphones. Over-ear headphones, sometimes called around-ear headphones, are ones that cover your ears, and can either be an open-back or closed-back design (but are usually closed-back, though there are exceptions like the Sennheiser HD 599 SE which are over-ear yet open-back). On-ear headphones, sometimes called open-air headphones, do not cover your ears, and are always open-back in design. On-ear headphones can be more comfortable to some people as your ears are exposed to fresh air, at the expense of little to no sound insulation.