The 9 Best Audiophile Headphones for Gaming in 2021
Dec 27, 2020
Gamer headsets are overrated.
Sure, they have their place if you really want built-in mics or enjoy the flashing logos that tend to accompany them.
But for most of us, the question is “what headphones give me the best audio quality for gaming?”. And the answer is a pair of “audiophile” headphones from reputable manufacturers combined with a great stand-alone microphone.
The focus for these companies is more on the production of the best sound quality (and comfort) money can buy instead of marketing and design that appeals to “hardcore gamers” (many, myself included, prefer the designs of the below anyway!).
There are of course some things you want to look out for in a pair of gaming headphones specifically. Namely sound staging, imaging, and open-back vs closed-back. If you want to know more about any of these terms, they’re broken down at the bottom of this article.
So with that said, we’ve put this list together to guide you through the best audiophile gaming headphones available on the market today.
- Best Closed-Back Headphones for Gaming: Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO
- Best Open-Back Headphones for Gaming: Sennheiser HD 599 SE
- Best Closed-Back Runner-Up: Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
- Best Open-Back Runner-Up: Audio-Technica ATH-AD700X
- Best Gaming Headphones Under $100: Philips Audio Philips SHP9500
- Best Gaming Headphones Under $50: Audio-Technica ATH-M20x
- Best High-End Headphones for Gaming: Sennheiser HD 800 S
- Best Wireless Gaming Headphones: Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT
- Best Portable Gaming Headphones: Sony WH1000XM3
- Guide for Buying a Gaming Headset
Best Closed-Back Headphones for Gaming: Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO
Oh boy, we love these.
For the mid-range price, the DT 770 PROs tick all the boxes and are easily the best closed-back headphones for gaming.
Let’s start with the sound. Boasting very impressive accuracy across the bass and mid-levels (accentuated by the closed-back design, allowing you to really “feel” the bass in isolation). While the trebles don’t reach the same peaks as the other 2 ranges, they’re still great and are going to be perfectly suitable for gamers.
The sound staging and imaging are fantastic (particularly the latter) and will offer you a sense of “wideness” during your gameplay with a high positional accuracy/quality of individual noises in isolation, making arguably some of the best headphones for FPS gaming.
Then there’s the ergonomics. The DT 770 PROs someone seems to manage to feel very comfortable, well fitted, and isolating to outside noise, while also not “suffocating” your ears or making them overheat (likely due to the great material used on the cups).
Not to mention the fantastic build quality, the DT 770 PRO’s are more than capable of handling some drops and the high-quality outer materials really add to the “premium” design feel).
We simply can’t recommend these Beyerdynamic phones enough, both the physical and audible quality will lend themselves greatly to gaming in pretty much any setting (and your music/movies will sound great too!).
Best Open-Back Headphones for Gaming: Sennheiser HD 599 SE
A fantastic option if you’re not a fan of closed-backs is the HD 599 SE.
The Sennheiser’s sound excels in a lot of areas, but especially treble. The accuracy of high sounds on these headphones is very impressive. It performs similarly to the 770 PROs for mid ranges, however, it doesn’t pack quite the same punch for bass (this is to be expected). That’s not to say the bass isn’t good, especially for a pair of open-backs.
The imaging and sound staging on these are both great; you’re going to achieve an excellent sense of space and quality/depth to your game audio, fully capable of creating a realistic soundscape out of the box.
As you might expect from Sennheiser, the headphones shine in design and comfort. It’s all personal taste but we think these are some of the best looking on the list, and the material will lend itself well to long playing sessions.
HD 599 vs DT 770 PRO
If we had to put our two top picks head-to-head, who wins?
Let me preface this by saying the “open vs closed back” debate is largely a personal choice and I have detailed the reasons at the bottom of the article.
That being said: we’ve got to pick the DT 770 PROs in this battle. The HD 599s are a tad superior in the treble. But aside from that, the 770s have a slight edge in most other categories a gamer is concerned in (from sound stage to comfort).
But if your heart is set on something less isolated/treble focussed or you simply like the style of the HD 599s better, don’t fret. We still rate these as one of the best audiophile gaming headsets and think you’ll love them.
Best Closed-Back Runner-Up: Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
While we certainly consider DT 770 PRO the definitive winner, the M50X’s are a great second place closed-back option.
With very comparable bass, mid and treble performance to our top pick; your sound quality is still going to be on-point across games and other media.
The imaging on the M50x’s is also very comparable to the DT 770 PROs and will be fully suitable for high-quality positional accuracy in genres that need it.
The reason this is a runner-up is the slightly lackluster sound staging in comparison to the Beyerdynamics. It’s certainly not bad, a lower sound stage will produce a “tighter” sense of spacial sound. But from a gaming perspective, you usually want the opposite.
Audio-Technica has a great history of producing high quality, comfortable builds, and the M50X’s are no exception. More than suitable for long gaming sessions, these headphones also don’t feel cheap in any sense of the word are very impressive in these respects for their price point.
While we would recommend the DT 770 PROs over these, if you have a particular allegiance to Audio Technica, the style, or prefer the idea of a tighter/narrower sound stage, definitely don’t discount the ATH-M50xs. They’re a fantastic option.
Best Open-Back Runner-Up: Audio-Technica ATH-AD700X
Perhaps the most popular pair of headphones on this list, the ATH-AD700Xs are a great option if the HD 599s don’t appeal to your open-back tastes.
With decent bass, mids and trebles, and a fantastic imaging performance; the AD700Xs going to give you a great performance across various types of games and media.
The slight disappointing factor for these is the sound staging. Which is somewhat narrower than our other top picks; if you like this in headphones then great. But for most gamers, this is a negative.
The build quality and comfort are good. Perhaps not quite as strong as the above picks with some complaints about longer sessions due to the intensity that the band “clamps” to the head, but not a problem for most.
A final feature about the build we really appreciate is the weight. Clocking in at 0.57 lbs, these are the lightest gaming headphones we’d recommend. With most options on this list falling between 0.6 – 0.85 lbs.
ATH-AD700X vs HD 599
How are these not the top open-back pick?” I hear you ask.
To be honest, while these are great headphones and worthy of a “second place”, we’re quite comfortable that the HD 599s are better gaming headphones.
With the AD700X’s performing lower (albeit still decent) across pretty much all the main categories, from mids to imaging to comfort/style; you’re not going to get the same level of quality and depth of sound as you will from our Sennheiser pick.
If you are reading this set on the AD700Xs and I have just ruined your day, don’t worry! They’re still going to be great headphones for gaming. Sure, we’d would recommend the HD 599s, but there’s a reason why the AD700X’s are so popular.
Best Gaming Headphones Under $100: Philips Audio Philips SHP9500
Let me preface this by advising that to get the best balance of sound and price, the “sweet spot” is in the mid-range headphones above.
But with that said, if you are on a budget, these Philips headphones are very impressive for the price point.
Only lagging behind somewhat in the bass department, the headphones perform comparably in the other major sound quality metrics to the above picks with great mid and treble accuracy.
The sound staging and imaging are also fantastic and more than capable of providing you with the necessary sense of “wideness” for your games.
A small note: while any open-back pair typically lack isolation and output more sound leakage, these headphones, in particular, aren’t great in these departments! Performance tests show a lot of leaking sound and little outside noise is blocked. If you like to secretly play anime visual novels and listen to the Spice Girls in your small family house (we don’t judge!) maybe you want something more isolating.
Rest assured, these are the best cheap gaming headphones out there today. If you’re on a budget, you’re going to love these.
Best Gaming Headphones Under $50: Audio-Technica ATH-M20x
Yet another pair of Audio-Technica come in as our pick for the best budget gaming headphones (you can probably see why this brand is so popular).
The M20Xs are essentially the cheapest flagship model the company produces. Surprisingly, in many ways, they still manage to output some good results for bass, mid-levels, and imaging. You’re certainly still getting a good set of headphones for gaming when comparing them to a similarly priced cheap gaming headset.
Of course, at this price, you’re going to have some weaknesses. The M20Xs have 2 for gaming: treble accuracy (i.e. the quality of your “high” sounds are not going to be great) and the small sound stage (providing you with a “narrow” audio space that won’t serve you well in a lot of gaming genres, including FPS).
The build quality is very impressive for the price. The comfort isn’t perfect (the ear caps lack swiveling and are a bit on the smaller side) but again, when considering price here, it’s really impressive what Audio-Technica has managed to construct.
Put simply, these are the cheapest headphones for gaming we’d recommend. Sure you can go lower, but we promise it’s worth forking out at least this much to get a great audio experience.
Best High-End Headphones for Gaming: Sennheiser HD 800 S
On the opposite end of the spectrum to our <$50 pick is the almighty HD 800 S.
These headphones are amazing. While we respect a majority of our readers are not going to pay this much money for their headphones, we thought it worthy to include for the minority who really want the absolute best they can get for gaming (and everything else).
There are, of course, very large diminishing returns when buying such an expensive pair of headphones compared to our mid-range picks.
That being said…
The audio quality on these things is immense. With wonderful bass, mid and treble not just for games, but for listening to music/movies too.
The HD 800 S also really shines in two of our favorite gaming audio metrics: they are some of the best headphones for imaging and sound staging. Producing excellent levels of spacial sound at a fantastic positional accuracy, it’s hard to imagine you getting a better sense of real, quality “depth” to your game sound.
Of course, at this price point, the attention to build quality and comfort is fantastic. With a very strong metal frame and high-quality padding on the inner cups, they’re some of the most comfortable headphones available and more than suitable for long sessions.
Sure, these might be the most expensive headphones for gaming on the list. But if you happen to be a lucky individual who does not care about the price tag, then stop reading and pick these up. They’ll blow you away.
Like the sound of these but can’t go quite this far in $$? There’s a good middle-ground option in the HD 600 series.
Best Wireless Gaming Headphones: Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT
While we do prefer wired headphones from a perspective of performance and value, our final Audio-Technica pick is a great offering for someone who wants a wireless setup.
The headphones boast decent performance across bass, mid and treble accuracy levels. While not as good as our top picks above, the quality is certainly good enough for the average gamer to enjoy.
Very impressively, the headphones carry their own weight in imaging; producing a very decent positional quality for competitive/FPS gaming.
Where they fall flat, similarly to their non-wireless brother, is a slight lacking in the width of the soundstage, which is certainly lower than ideal for gaming (but certainly not bad).
ATH-M50X vs ATH50xBT
If you were set on this model and wanted to decide between the wireless and non-wired, know that the imaging and sound staging perform almost identically (a big win for the BTs).
That being said, relatively to the wired version, the BT model is really lacking in bass, mid, and treble accuracy. Meaning you’ll get a lesser sound quality (still good, but a notable difference).
Value-wise, the wireless version runs $30-50 more expensive. It doesn’t feel great paying more for headphones that don’t perform as well in quality. However, that is not outside of the norm for wireless. Simply put, how much are you willing to pay for wireless?
Please note: PS4 and Xbox One do not support most Bluetooth headsets. You will need to connect these via a wire for them to work on these systems.
If you are set on wireless, you can’t get much better than the M50XBT, they’ve created a great offering here for the wire-hating crowd.
Best Portable Gaming Headphones: Sony WH1000XM4
So this is a bit of a wildcard pick to end the list…
I’ll preface by saying that most people reading this list should go with the options above for their gaming headphones.
But I wanted to include the WH1000XM4’s as they are wonderful if you are focussed on portability and noise isolation.
With the best active noise cancellation available today, the WH1000XM4s silence outside noise to the point where it almost feels like magic (tech at its best!).
Believe me, I own a pair of these on top of my home headphones and in a situation where there is decent noise, I would happily sacrifice a little quality for less distracting background noise.
And that’s the thing with the WH10000XM4s, their audio quality is fantastic/comparable to the picks above.
With great bass, imaging, trebles, and (arguably) the best mid-levels on the entire list; it feels like these headphones defy their small form factor. Also boasting great comfort for their size, suitable to wear for hours on end.
With that said, there are 2 glaring problems for gaming.
Firstly, there is a notable latency for genres that specifically rely on reaction time. I simply wouldn’t recommend these for anyone focussed on fast-paced online multiplayer games.
But if you’re into single-player; these are great (I am very particular about having good sound/music quality in my games and have just completed FF7 Remake myself mostly wearing these).
Secondly, the sound staging is very narrow. This is the case with all active noise-canceling headphones, they’re designed to be “tighter” and “in your head” sounding to block off from the outside world. Again, for people into competitive gaming or fast paced FPS, this is a problem.
Please note: Like our other wireless pick, the headphones will need to be plugged in (with included cable) to work with PS4/Xbox unless you have a Bluetooth-compatible TV it can run through instead.
We appreciate these will be irrelevant for most of our home gamers, but if you like to game on the go, are looking also to get the best headphones for travel/your commute, or have the budget to have 2 pairs of headphones, we simply can’t recommend these enough.
Guide for Buying a Gaming Headset
The top picks have been written with a lot more than the below in mind (anything that’s important from a usual pair of headphones, mainly comfort/weight, consistency and sound quality across bass, mids, and trebles) however when looking for a headset for gaming specifically, here are a few that we paid extra special attention to that you may want to understand:
Open-Back vs Closed-Back Headphones
Closed-back headphones are designed so that the cups completely cover your ears and isolate them from outside-sound.
This is the primary advantage of closed-backs; what this isolating effect tends to do is create a type of sound that often feels like it is “in your head” (typically, closed-back headphones have slightly better bass due to less leakage too, but this is not universal).
Note that this sound isolation is different from active noise cancellation, which is when headphones use in-built mics to detect ambient noise in the outside world and output “contrasting” noise in order to “cancel out” external sounds as much as possible. The only headphones on the list that excel in ANC are the Sony WH-1000MX3s).
Open-back headphones take the other approach. They happily leak sound through the more freeing cup design. Although on paper this may not sound great, what this does is allow the headphones to output a more “realistic” sound profile that emulates the kind of noise one might expect in a live setting (the common example is it sounds like “an orchestra playing in a concert hall” vs “an orchestra playing in your head”).
This is why you’ll find that once you get to the $300+ range, most headphones will be Open-Back, as the manufacturer is assuming you’re listening in a quiet place and desire the more realistic “studio-like” sound.
Which is better for gaming?
Controversial opinion alert: I think for a majority of gamers reading this article, closed-back will be the better choice.
The noise isolation, “in your head” audio style and slightly improved bass (on average) all play into what I think the average gamer will prefer. If you are in an environment with any background noise, having that isolation is so valuable for anything from focusing in an e-sport to immersing yourself in a single-player game (what’s the point of good quality if you can hear your flatmate cooking?).
Of course, if you are in a very low-noise environment, would prefer a more natural sound and don’t have a problem with leakage then an open-air pair could easily be the better choice.
You may be wondering if open-air headphones leak sound to your microphone while gaming. In my experience, this isn’t an issue and usually isn’t picked up, but your mileage may vary (depends on your output volume and how close the mic is).
I will say that if I could choose anything on the list, it would definitely be the open-air Sennheiser HD 800 Ss (however it’s >$1,000 more expensive than the other options, so not a fair contest!).
Go with what your gut tells you between these two types, Closed or open, any of the choices on this list will be fantastic for your respective price range.
What is Sound Staging?
Sound staging is an important factor in your choice. Essentially, it’s the headphone’s ability to portray a large “stage” of noise. For example, a narrow sound stage portrays a smaller space like listening to an intimate performance; while a large stage will give you the audible “presence” of a large, epic space with lots of noise coming from various sources.
Both narrow and wide staging have their merits but for gaming, a larger sound stage is preferred (and is what we lean towards in our top picks).
What is Imaging?
Sound staging is often touted as the be-all-end-all of deciding gaming headphone quality. This is nonsense, imaging is just as important.
Imaging, simplistically, is the detailed positioning you can hear and the quality of those intricacies.
If you’re playing Counter-Strike, to what accuracy can you hear the footsteps of the guy behind you being accurately outputted in the right direction, is the intensity of the noise increasing as he comes closer to you? Is gunshot ricochetting of the wall to your right coming across clearly (not just in position but in quality)?
My favorite example is if sound staging is the stage, imaging is the orchestra; and the better the imaging is, the better and more clearly they play (in combination with treble, mid, and bass accuracy).
Unlike sound staging, imaging is either “good” or “bad” and we have focussed on headphones that produce excellent stereo imaging for the top picks.
There’s been a lot to go over in this list and you may feel overwhelmed by the end. If so, please let me reiterate one last time: these are all great options. For your average gamer, we most highly recommend the DT 770 PROs, but I assure you that if you’re new to the “audiophile world”, you’re going to have a great time using any of these headphones while gaming.
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