Published: April 4, 2020
The first true AAA virtual reality game is finally here, but choosing the best PC VR headset for Half-Life: Alyx and other top VR games like the Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, Boneworks, and VR sim racing (like Assetto Corsa and Project Cars 2) can be confusing with the competition between headset makers having heated up in recent times. A couple years back, buying the best VR headset for PC gaming was simple and a toss up between the original Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
Since then things have changed quickly with Oculus going on to release the Oculus Rift S (a better PC powered/tethered headset) and the Oculus Quest, the first very good standalone VR headset. HTC also released the HTC Vive Pro. But Valve, Pimax, Samsung, HP, Lenovo, Asus and others entered the game too, and today there's a decent chunk of options to choose from and a multitude of companies all vying to develop the best VR gaming headsets possible.
Virtual reality is smack bang in the middle of a golden age as we speak, and especially so right this very moment with Half-Life: Alyx releasing to complete and utter critical acclaim just this past week. The decent amount of PC VR headsets to choose from these days is good news for VR gamers and enthusiasts, and there are now some very good budget PC VR headsets on the market that can provide a solid experience at a significantly lower price than the best high-end VR headsets.
See Also: The Half-Life: Alyx PC Build Guide
Though competition in the high-end headset segment has heated up recently too, with the HTC Vive Pro having been knocked off its perch at the pinnacle of VR headset technology by Valve. To get into PC VR gaming, you ideally want to buy the best high-end PC VR headset you can get, in order to enjoy Half-Life: Alyx and other top VR games and experiences like Boneworks, The Walking Dead Saints and Sinners, and VR sim racing games (Assetto Corsa and Project Cars 2) in their full glory the way Valve and other developers intended.
But the great news reported by many reviewers and testers over the past week is that playing Half-Life: Alyx on a cheaper, "budget" VR headset (VR is still expensive either way, but "budget" relative to high-end headsets) is not only entirely possible but importantly still a very enjoyable experience that doesn't get in the way of the fun. Yup; if you're getting into PC VR but on a relative budget, there's no need to throw down 1K or more on the best PC VR headset that money can buy (and then another 2K+ on a high-end PC). A good mid-range gaming PC build paired with a good budget VR headset will still wow the majority of people, or in other words, is still worth it for VR.
But like with any expensive tech purchase, you should do your research carefully before buying anything, and avoid rushing to get your wallet out. Not any VR headset will do, especially if you want the best Half-Life: Alyx experience, so you want to think through your choice to get the best experience for your money. For example, despite it being a great value headset overall for other games, and the best wireless VR headset available, we don't recommend the Oculus Quest for Half-Life: Alyx for reasons we'll explain later. Sure, it'll run the game, but the downsides outweigh the upsides, and there are better options for the same (or lower) price.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you're fortunate enough to be able to spend a lot of money on the best high-end VR headset for Half-Life: Alyx to play it with maximum immersion on the highest quality settings (and with the best controller tracking and audio which both add immensely to a virtual experience), you also want to do your homework. You can have the greatest PC in the world, but using a subpar headset would be a shame if there was a better one for around the same price.
Before diving into our top recommendations of the current best PC VR headsets for the money (as of April 2020), let's take a broad look at the choices available. Valve states that Half-Life: Alyx is compatible with any SteamVR compatible VR headset, which includes any of the following models:
All of these headsets are also compatible with other great PC VR games like Boneworks, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, and sim racing games like Assetto Corsa, Project Cars 2 and so on. But the real question is, which is worth your hard-earned money?
Whether you're looking for the cheapest headset possible that will still give a good experience in this particular game, or the absolute cream of the crop for the ultimate HLA experience, below are the top 3 best PC VR headsets for Half-life: Alyx and the exciting near future of AAA VR gaming in general (from cheapest to most expensive).
The Samsung Odyssey Plus (also available to purchase from the Microsoft store here) is our top pick of the best cheap PC VR headset for Half-Life: Alyx and other leading VR games, and provides excellent specs and a great virtual reality experience at a relatively low cost compared to the big boys (without too many limitations).
The cheapest way to play Half-Life: Alyx while still getting a good experience is to buy what's called a Windows Mixed Reality headset. Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) is simply a virtual/augmented reality platform for Windows 10, and there are quite a few different headsets based on the WMR platform including the HP Reverb, Lenovo Explorer, and Dell Visor to name a few. But if you do your research, at this point in time the general consensus in the wider VR community at large is that the Odyssey Plus from Samsung is the best overall bang for buck WMR headset, with impressive specs that generally match more expensive headsets like the Oculus Rift S in certain regards.
Importantly, this past week plenty of reviewers and testers around the web have reported the Samsung Odyssey Plus running Half-Life: Alyx just fine, and that despite it being a more low-end cheap PC VR headset, it didn't get in the way of the great game that HLA is. However, the main drawback of a Windows Mixed Reality like the Odyssey Plus is the lower quality tracking that shows when directly compared to better headsets. WMR headset controllers are tracked via cameras on the front of the headset, which means that nothing is tracked behind you.
In practice that means that your hands won't be tracked behind you or your head. This isn't often an issue in VR games, but in Half-Life: Alyx you do have to reach behind your head somewhat to grab items from your backpack, which can result in lost tracking at times (therefore breaking your immersion and possibly your enjoyment). From what I've seen this isn't a huge dealbreaking issue plaguing those who've played Half-Life: Alyx with a WMR headset, but it is an example of how a cheaper VR headset can limit the experience somewhat.
PCGamer had this to say in their test of VR headsets:
"Windows MR headsets fall prey to the same problem: They only track the position of the controllers through two cameras on the front of headset. If you put your hand behind your head—which you do a lot in Alyx, to grab ammo from your backpack—it can lose tracking entirely and send your hand flying off into space."
But potentially annoying tracking issues aside, while high-end VR headsets will definitely provide better image quality and other features like more comfort in longer sessions, faster refresh rates, superior audio and more precise controls, if you're on a tight budget but don't want to miss out on VR gaming history (or you're not patient enough to wait it out and save up for a better headset), we can comfortably recommend the Samsung Odyssey Plus in conjunction with a good mid-range gaming PC that covers the PC spec requirements of Half-Life: Alyx. In mean, for most people it's still be worth playing the game on a lesser headset like the Samsung if that's all you can afford (rather than not play it at all).
The Oculus Rift S (also available at B&H here) is the best budget/mid-range VR headset for Half-Life: Alyx. At normal pricing, it won't cost too much more than WMR headsets like the Samsung Odyssey Plus, though due to VR headset stock shortages as of late it may unfortunately cost quite a bit more, in which case the Samsung would be the better overall bang for buck buy.
If you can afford a better headset than a cheaper WMR headset like the Samsung Odyssey Plus, but high-end PC VR headsets like the Valve Index (see below) are out of reach of your wallet, we highly recommend the Oculus Rift S. Not to be confused with the older Oculus Rift, the Oculus Rift S is a great middle road option to get into VR gaming and based on multiple sources provides are great experience in all the top VR games on the market (not just Half Life Alyx) like Boneworks, The Walking Dead Saints and Sinners, sim racing games, and more.
While we're listing the Oculus Rift S here as the best budget headset for Half-Life: Alyx, it's technically a mid to high-end VR headset, but since our top headset recommendation below is quite a lot more expensive in comparison, the Oculus Rift S could be considered a "budget" option.
Tom's Hardware had this to say in their test of the Oculus Rift S in Half-Life: Alyx:
"The Rift S has a lower refresh rate than most other VR headsets, but that didn’t appear to have any adverse effect on gameplay."
Oculus Rift S vs Samsung Odyssey Plus for Half-Life: Alyx
This is a tricky decision as the specs between the Oculus Rift S and Samsung Odyssey Plus headsets are quite similar, and at normal pricing they're not far apart in that regard either with the Rift S typically only costing around $100 more (prices are currently always changing). The Samsung Odyssey Plus initially sold for $500, then $400, and now you can find it for under $300. So the question is, is the Rift S worth the extra amount (whatever that turns out to be)?
If you investigate discussions and comparisons from those who've tried both, in a nutshell the Rift S is objectively the better headset overall boasting slightly higher-quality, clearer lenses, better controller tracking, and superior comfort. But again, it's a close call, and both headsets are good bang for buck (again, at normal or close to normal prices).
Why the Oculus Quest is Not That Good for Half-Life: Alyx
Unfortunately, based on multiple reports of people's experiences using this headset, using the best standalone VR headset on the market today, the Oculus Quest, is not recommended for Half-Life: Alyx. Why? To be able to play the game on this headset, you need to use the Oculus Link cable, which unfortunately lowers the visual quality as the signal needs to be compressed. PC powered VR headsets (pretty much all the other models mentioned in this guide) don't have this problem.
Furthermore, the Oculus Quest only has a refresh rate of 72Hz - the lowest of any headset mentioned in this guide. For the best experience with Half-Life: Alyx and other top VR games, I'd avoid the Quest, which is a shame to say as it's the best standalone wireless VR headset. Perhaps one day we'll have wireless VR headsets that are powerful enough to tap into the full potential of AAA VR titles.
It's no secret the Valve Index (buy directly from Steam for the best price though it can take a while to receive) is the current best VR headset on the market boasting the most impressive specs and features. As of 2020, Valve's own headset has no equal and currently sits comfortably at the pinnacle of VR technology. Naturally, it's also the best headset for Half-Life: Alyx. Point, blank, period.
The Valve Index is the most immersive way to play Half-Life: Alyx, but that comes as no surprise as not only does the Index boast the most impressive specs and features in a VR headset to date, but it was literally designed alongside development of the game.
The HTC Vive Pro and Pimax headsets are also good high-end VR headsets, but the Index outdoes them with superior refresh rates (unlike other headsets the Index can display up to 144Hz), the most immersive and intuitive controllers (with individual finger tracking), and the highest quality built-in audio. The Index also has a wider FOV (Field of View) than the Vive Pro (though not the Pimax, but that doesn't make the Pimax better overall).
The controllers that come with the Index are unquestionably the best of any VR headset on the market right now, and give the most hand presence and immersion in VR. This becomes apparent if you see what multiple gamers have to say when playing Half-Life: Alyx using the Valve Index vs other headsets - they universally concur that the Index controllers are a step ahead of the competition and feel the most intuitive and immersive. Same goes when playing Boneworks, a highly impressive VR physics/FPS demo, in that the Index controllers have the best feeling.
In terms of frame rate (ie smoothness), the Index also provides the best experience with its currently unmatched 120Hz and 144Hz refresh rate modes. That means if you have a high-end gaming PC with powerful enough specs, you can "see" 120FPS or 144FPS instead of the standard 90FPS or 80FPS of other headsets on the market (for example, the Oculus Rift S only does up to 80Hz). Nothing wrong with 80/90FPS, as it still provides a very smooth experience, but the Index takes things further for the fastest, smoothest VR experiences possible.
Obviously, getting your hands on the best VR headset that money can buy is going to cost you, with the Index coming in at more than double the price of the Oculus Rift S and Samsung Odyssey Plus, but unfortunately, even if you can afford the $1000 US price tag that doesn't necessarily mean you'll actually be able to get your head into one anytime soon.
Soon after Half-Life: Alyx was announced to be released, the Valve Index sold out (among other headsets), but it's still hard to get one today. Plus, if you order one directly from Valve on Steam, it can take 8 weeks to receive it. Buying it on Amazon is possible instead, but it will cost more. It's also difficult to get in certain countries like Australia or Canada, though not impossible if you do your research (but you gotta pay even more with import fees etc).
But if you want to experience VR to its absolute fullest with maximum immersion, image quality, smoothness, and hand-tracking, and specifically to get the full Half-Life: Alyx experience the way Valve would ideally want you to play it, the Valve Index is worth fighting for.
Donating a kidney to make it happen would not make you look crazy in my eyes; this is Half-Life we're talking about after all. But in all seriousness, yes the Index is the best, but the good news is that plenty of gamers have reported a great experience using other headsets too like our other cheaper recommended headsets for Half-Life: Alyx (Oculus Rift S and Samsung Odyssey). So there's no reason you can't get the full Half-Life: Alyx experience on a lesser headset. How much they're missing out on though by NOT using the Valve Index is up for debate, though.
Other headsets that didn't make our top 3 recommendations for this guide are still worth considering, as the picks in this article are just my opinion based on what testers and reviewers have reported about their experiences with various headsets, and how the current VR headset market stands as of 2020. That means other high-end VR headsets like the HTC Vive Pro and Pimax 5K Plus are worth a look, but objectively speaking, if you had to choose between those two and the Index (they're all similar prices), nobody in their right mind could argue that the Index takes the cake (and easily).