Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking about the various strides the audio world has taken in terms of innovation. Spatial audio has been quite the talking point in recent years, with Apple, Sony, Dobly, and various other brands trying to compete with each other to find out who has the better experience. On the other side of the coin, you have many gamers who prefer open-back headphones, with even some major streamers sporting models that will be very familiar to audiophiles.
I was recently watching a couple of different streamers wearing headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro, the Sennheiser HD650, and even the HD800s to name a few, and it piqued my interest significantly. One major prospect to consider though is that these streamers are mainly using a PC rig for their games, making the use of a DAC/amp interface a more ideal scenario. I find that many gamers are now considering open-back headphones over traditional gaming headphones, but both have their own utilities and characteristics to think about.
The Case For Open-Back Headphones For Gaming
When I was wondering why some streamers were opting for audiophile open-back headphones, I thought about how maybe the idea of a production-style headphone would be more useful in their eyes. Many of the models I see around are that of dynamic, reference headphones meant for accurate reproduction of sound. Mixers and engineers would wear these in order to hear the best representation of their mix without any added texture or color. I do not see a lot of gamers opting for planar headphones from the likes of HiFiMAN, but some Audeze products show up from time to time. So what exactly is the advantage of open-back headphones when it comes to gaming? One of the best attributes of an open-back headphone is its soundstage.
With this principle, open-back headphones are able to deliver a much more natural spatial image, while still adhering to a traditional stereo sound field. Even though most games are mixed with surround sound in mind, most surround sound headphones find trouble reproducing that sound accurately, so information is bound to be lost. With open-back headphones, you feel like the imaging is more true to the experience, as sound effects, music, and dialogue, are able to showcase their layers more effectively. This creates a sound signature that is a lot more transparent, clearly articulating the separation of elements within the stereo field.
When dealing with certain games, you want to hear the proper distinction between the most important features in a soundtrack. If I’m playing an RPG, I want to hear the lush, fantastical environments, with all of its unique sound design and immersive ambiances in their most complete fidelity, and when the music starts to swell in, there’s almost no greater feeling than when getting the whole scope of sound. Alternatively, when I’m playing a competitive shooter, I want to get a good idea of where sounds are placed so that I can make better decisions in-game.
The ever-popular battle royale genre benefits greatly from open-back headphones, as there is far more range between the quiet moments you have gathering supplies, to the crescendo of a climactic fight to the end of the game. Open-back headphones do a better job communicating this dynamic range, delivering its sound in a more realistic manner. In almost the same way some competitive games use open-back headphones to their gain, survival horror games possess similar characteristics, making them an ideal fit for this principle as well. In some casing, I think horror games take advantage of these headphones in order to create an even more engaging experience. The power possessed by sound design in horror games really brings the atmosphere to life, making the fear a part of your world rather than one inside your head.
Open-Back Headphone Recommendations For Gaming
Some of the most common open-back headphones for gaming that I see floating around are ones from the Sennheiser HD series. While there are plenty of great headphones in their selection to point to, there are two I wanted to mention more in detail. The first one is the Sennheiser HD 660s, the newest model in the 600 subseries of open-back headphones. What’s unique to this edition beyond the others is that the 660s has much more meat on its low-end than the rest. Some criticize other models in the HD series for not giving its listener too much to bite on in its bass response, but the 660s is one of the few in this series that really pushes its low-end detail forward.
Its soundstage might not be as wide as others, but the level of solidity on display here brings its imaging to a closer headspace, while still giving you that semi-holographic feel. For gaming, this can matter greatly when dealing with moments that are meant to provide impact in its sound design, and with the 660s, those moments are tight and effective.
The other popular Sennheiser model among audiophiles is the HD800s, and while the sound signature of this headphone is incredible, it might be more of a stretch for most gamers. Not only is the price a significant jump, but this can be a thinner sound even when compared to gaming headphones currently on the market. However, the advantage of the HD800s is that its soundstage is the widest you might ever experience. I have yet to hear a dynamic driver replicate the limitless spatial field of the HD800s, which is extremely important for the enjoyment of game audio. There aren’t a lot of headphones that suck you into its sound signature as effectively as the HD800s, making it more than a worthy candidate if you can get past its price.
Disadvantages Of Open-Back Headphones For Gaming
There are a few hurdles to get past when dealing with open-back headphones. One of the most important ones is headphone impedance. A lot of these open-back dynamic headphones I mentioned have significant resistance and will need outboard gear to drive. The most common solution is a headphone amp, which forces you to invest more money than you may be willing to spend. Some use an audio interface to power their headphones, which I’ve found effective with certain impedances around 80 – 150 Ohms, but 250 Ohms and above will be a lot more difficult. This still leaves you with a good selection of open-backs to try, but the better quality will cost a bit extra. There’s also the preference for a PC set-up, as console gamers are usually left out of the open-back headphone game.
You still have options available to you, but they also cost more money and require more adapters and gear. The price of these headphones themselves is another area for concern too, as some open-back models can end up being more costly than most traditional gaming headphones on the market. For a good pair of open-back headphones, you might spend around $400 to well above a thousand for some of the best. Most gaming headphones end up around the $300 price range at their highest.
The Case For Gaming Headphones
Not everyone is going to be looking for the purity that some open-back headphones deliver when experiencing their games. Some are solely looking for a headphone that gives them a punchy bass, spatial audio, and full optimization for their game system. As a piece of technology, gaming headphones are able to supply you with a ton of features, such as various sound modes, onboard mics for voice chat, and a more immediately gratifying sound signature. In the sound signature department, gaming headphones tend to deliver a flashier end of the spectrum, showcasing thick lows and upper-midrange emphasis that’s more colorized than that of audiophile open-backs. Open-back headphones want you to sit back a appreciate the details when you have time for them, while gaming headphones want to keep you energized with their vibrating tones and textured response.
Not all gaming headphones are exactly like this, but the most sought-after models on the market mostly share these characteristics. If you want those sweeteners that exaggerate the sound in a more theatrical manner, then you might enjoy a gaming headphone more than an open-back one. There’s also the case for spatial audio, which many newer models are heavily considering. What separates spatial audio from open-back headphones comes down to realism. Spatial audio is designed to mimic the feeling of surround sound rather than naturally wrapping around you. The sound is still in your head but can sound great with games that are meant to be a lot more cinematic.
Gaming Headphone Recommendations
Gaming headphones aren’t as niche or limited as open-backs are, so there’s a larger pool to choose from. Of course, this also depends on what game system you’re running, as some headphones are better optimized for certain consoles. For instance, one of one models I’d recommend is the Audeze Penrose, which has two different versions depending on if you play on Xbox, PC, or Playstation. Audeze is a brand that should be familiar to audiophiles, but they also make mean gaming headphones too. Their Mobius model helped revolutionize gaming headphones, and the Penrose is its more than worthy follow-up. This is also one of the few planar magnetic gaming headphones around and brings all the characteristics that its principle can deliver. You also have tons of options for EQ, and other controls using their HQ app. For a comparable experience, I would recommend the EPOS H3Pro Hybrid. It’s a unique gaming headphone in that the sound is a lot more concerned with clarity and clean textures than grand theatrics. The H3Pro Hybrid also supports a companion app with EQ, but also surround sound settings.
Headphones are able to provide you with a rich and satisfying experience no matter if it’s open-back or closed-back designed for gaming. Both kinds offer experiences that will cater to the type of response you want out of your game audio, with open-back headphones giving you the closest to natural experience, and gaming headphones giving you the most personalized. Each kind has its value, and there’s no harm in trying both to see which one you enjoy best.