How we're testing over 50 headsets and headphones

Objective and subjective tests

Aside from hard measurements, there are other important factors:

Overall sound

The charts aren't going to be able to tell you everything. Which is why I'll be spending essentially all my waking and sleeping hours listening to each headset and headphone to a wide variety of music. I'll also be testing them on a wide variety of headphone amplifiers as well as via onboard motherboard-audio.

Update: several people have asked what amps and DACs I'll be using, so here they are:

  • Oppo HA-1 DAC and solid state amp
  • Schiit Aduio Gungnir multi-bit DAC and Mjolnir 2 hybrid solid state/tub amp
  • Woo Audio WA7d Fireflies Duo DAC/tube amp
  • STAX SRM-727 Mark 2 solid state electrostatic amp
  • Fostex HPA4 DAC/amp

You can see some of them in the photo below.

COMFORT

A headphone's comfort goes a long way in its usage in everyday life. There's no point having a great pair of cans if you have to take them off in an hour due to fatigue.

Within this scope, we'll look at the headphone band as well as ear cups. Ear cups can be of several different materials. In hi-fi headphones, some sort of faux leather is frequently used, but manufacturers are now introducing lambskin and velour. Also keep in mind that ear cups directly impact the sound as well as the frequency response. Some ear pads will add or take away bass.

Right: lambskin; Left: velour

Right: lambskin; left: velour

Ear cup sizes will also help with comfort. Circumaural headphones are those that go around your entire ear. These usually provide the best comfort. Superaural headphones are those that sit directly on your ears and generally don't provide very good long-wear comfort. All gaming headsets are circumaural and most high-end headphones are also circumaural. Those who are familiar with Grados will find that most of the company's headphones are superaural; worst yet, the foam is stiff.

CABLE QUALITY

The quality of the cable definitely matters. Poor cables can introduce microphonics, which introduce noise into your output. Good headphones will also have cables that are removable. Imagine spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on your dream headphones only to accidentally run over your non-removable cable with your office chair. Ouch.

Obviously, this doesn't apply to wireless headsets.

BUILD QUALITY

We also examine overall build quality. Finish, fit, and materials are important. Does the finish come off easily? Do the headphones feel like they'll snap in two if you have an extra-large cranium? Of course, the more you spend on headphones, the better you expect the quality to be.

Removable boom mics are also a plus. If your mic happens to break, the headset essentially becomes useless for gaming. Thankfully, a good number of gaming headsets come with removable mics. Being able to change the pads will also give points in build quality. They wear and stink up over time due to sweat, so being able to change them out is a plus.

Sound off

We hope to establish a testing standard that can be used with all headphones and gaming headsets, and that going in-depth will allow you to see which products are standouts and which are just pure marketing. I'll be working closely with the folks at Brüel & Kjær and Listen Inc. to continue developing and fine tuning the tests.

I call this the headphone

I call this the headphone "Arena"

Aside from all the detailed measurements, how the headphones actually sound is up to personal preference. I'm tempted to leave out personal preferences entirely, but it does impact the rating some.

At the end of the day, there are just too many options on the market. The object is to weed out the good from the bad. Are the gaming headsets going to be able to compete with actual hi-fi headphones? Are there any substantial difference between one gaming headset to another? Does pricing actually make a real impact in quality? We'll find out!