Speakers or a headset?

(Image credit: Blizzard)

You're sitting down for a gaming session, and you have a choice to make. Will you use your PC's speakers? Or will you put on a headset?

There are pros and cons for both. Headphones submerge you much more deeply in the sounds of the game and make directional audio cues, like footsteps, much clearer—very important in multiplayer games. They also prevent game audio from passing through your mic if you're on voice chat. But speakers mean you aren't completely cut off from non-game related sounds like your doorbell ringing or your dog destroying something in the next room, and they don't make your head sweaty, either.

That's our question this week: Do you prefer gaming with speakers or a headset? Our answers are below, and we'd like to hear yours in the comments. While we're on the topic, here are some of our favorite headsets and the best PC speakers.

(Image credit: Valve)

Andy Chalk

Speakers all the way. Headsets deliver more detailed and immersive audio, but I hate being cut off from the outside world so I'm constantly slipping one of the cups off my ear take a listen to what's going on around me, and that's plenty immersion-breaking in its own right. They uncomfortable too, although that's not the worst thing: The worst thing is when they're not so uncomfortable that you can't forget you're wearing them, so you do forget, and then you stand up and walk away, gank yourself, and smoke the front headphone and mic jacks on your PC case in the process. Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything.

To be fair, I've never had the pleasure of using a really good headset, so that might change my perspective. But circumstances have forced me into exclusive headphone use recently, and I'll tell you this—I can't wait to go back to speakers.

Steven Messner

I don't even own any speakers for my computer—I'm a headphone boy all the way. Part of the reason is that I just think headphones are the more courteous option if you live with someone who doesn't want to constantly be subjected to the sound of gunfire or murder every day. It's already bad enough that she has to listen to the clack-clack of a mechanical keyboard or the furious clicking of me trying to avoid a gank in LoL. But I also prefer headphones for the superior sound quality and experience. 

When I first became a headphone devotee years ago, it's because a friend sold me a pair of Seinheisers studio headphones that were nothing but a revelation for my ears. I've changed headsets to these swanky Victrix Pros, but in my opinion, speakers just can't offer that same quality of audio unless you're willing to invest significantly in a good setup—which I'm not because I'm poor and can only afford one expensive sound device.

James Davenport

I prefer speakers, but alas, in this online gaming world picking up someone else's game audio through their mic is grounds for excommunication from PC gaming. I love filling a room with sound, juicing some juicy speakers, woofing that woofer, inciting my neighbors to punch the wall and scream at me. One of my greatest PC gaming memories is stealing a smelly, off-white Dell 7.1 speaker system from my high school school and setting it up with Half-Life 2. Didn't care how shrill and tinny it was; I could hear the Strider popping off behind me. Turned it up way too loud. My dad got upset. It was then that I learned PC gaming wasn't built for the speaker world unless you are also rich and powerful and don't have a mean dad. It's been headphones for me for some time now, even though my big weird head makes them all hurt after some time. I'll flirt with my speakers and throw on some music here and there, but I get anxious before too long and switch back to cans.

Joanna Nelius

Speakers whenever I can get away with it, even in a multiplayer game if I'm playing something like deathmatch mode in Overwatch. Most headsets irritate my industrial piercing and dig my glasses into my temples after a few hours, so that's my queue that it's time to switch to my speakers. Of course, I'll wear a headset in meetings, and if I'm reviewing one I'll wear it all day until I can't take it anymore, but I'm very pro-speakers. Not only it is more comfortable to game for long periods of time, but not having a sound source right next to your head is better for your hearing in the long run. Sure, noise-canceling headphones and over-the-ear cups both help protect your ear drums from damage (and turning the volume down), but I don't experience the same temporary noise-induced hearing loss from my speakers that I do my headset after several hours, even at the same volume.

The only exception is horror games. Speakers are cheating. Put that headset on and hear the monster breathing heavily into your ear canal.

(Image credit: Activision)

Lauren Morton

I'm the opposite of Steven. My partner is as much a PC gamer as I am. Our desks are right beside one another in our office and we have the same set of Bose speakers for both of our rigs. Oftentimes it's nice while I'm working through the evening to hear whatever streamer he's watching or game he's playing beside me. Though there are nights where he's playing R6 Siege and I'm trying to work so we'll both plug in a set of headphones to the 3.55mm jack on the front of our speakers to avoid disturbing each other. The only time I prioritize headphones is when I'm playing co-op with friends and using voice chat. Like James says, no one likes to hear their own voice feedback through the back of a studio microphone. Otherwise, we're always happy to fill the office with the competing sounds of gun and sword fights.

Morgan Park

I love my headset. Like Steven, I don't want to subject my roommates to the dulcet sound of angry Rainbow Six Siege teammates screaming obscenities at me, so I use a comfy headset. A headset is also important in a game with so many audio cues like Siege. If I tried to play using speakers, I wouldn't hear the Sledge creeping up behind me and then lose all of my gamer cred. That said, I wish I could fit some speakers on this tiny desk. My partner likes to watch whatever I'm doing while she eats dinner and it sucks that she has no way to listen. Moral of the story? Morgan needs a new desk.

Jarred Walton

I'm about 95 percent speakers, but if I ever play a multiplayer game, I'll pull out a headset. I also don a headset for our regular online meetings, so that people don't get a bunch of background clickity-clack noises. Like many others have said, I just can't manage to wear headphones for extended periods of time. They all become uncomfortable, some faster than others, and I'd rather just let my 15-year-old Logitech X-530 speakers do the work.

The other element is that I have a family, and like to be able to hear what's going on. If I put on headphones, I'm isolated from everyone and everything else. Plus, I have had FedEx and UPS package drop offs get missed because I had on headphones and didn't hear the doorbell. I'd rather deal with lower fidelity sound than a missed package delivery, I guess.

(Image credit: Rockstar)

Andy Kelly

I switch between both fairly regularly. If I really want to get lost in a game I'll go for headphones: specifically a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-M50X studio headphones going through a tube amp, which gives a nice warm, rich sound. Rambling around Red Dead, or another game with great ambient sound design, is a pretty special experience with these on. Same goes for horror games. 

But if I'm playing something more casually I'll just use my Logitech Z623 2.1 desktop speakers, which aren't exactly high-end but do a fine job. And if I'm playing a game with voice chat, or I just don't fancy being tethered to a cable, I'll use my Corsair HS70 wireless headset, which has decent sound quality and is comfortable to wear for long periods of time. I take audio quite seriously so I'm forever testing out new headphones, amps, speakers, and other gadgets, so if you asked me this question in a couple of months I'd probably have a completely different answer.

Wes Fenlon

I play with speakers whenever I can get away with it, because it’s simply more relaxing. Even with very comfortable headphones, I get tired of the weight and warmth on my head. I bought a set of cheap Logitech 5.1 PC speakers years ago, which are good enough; I don’t use the satellites, but it’s nice having a subwoofer and a center channel. My Sennheiser 598s definitely output the better sound, but ultimately, I am lazy and prefer not to have to take them off and put them back on every time I get up.

I always wear headphones when I’m playing multiplayer, though. I’m not a monster. 

Phil Savage

I'm pretty firmly in the pro-speaker camp, but mostly because the flat below me has been undergoing construction work for months. A decent set of speakers are pretty effective at drowning out the ceaseless drilling. There's a contextual benefit, too. If, while wearing headphones, I start swearing at my computer screen, it would probably seem like strange or alarming behaviour. But if I do it after the telltale sound of a Titan casting Fist of Havoc or a Hunter casting Spectral Blades, then it's just the natural order of Destiny 2's Crucible.

Tom Senior

Headphones every day, though I have bought a speaker setup from the Black Friday sales to see if a higher quality speaker setup makes a difference. I live in a flat above the ground floor, and I'm paranoid about a base unit pumping ugly throbbing noise into the flat of the folks who live below. I'm looking forward to trying it out nonetheless, because headphones struggle to replicate the sternum-shaking quality of a large bass speaker. 

If I had the cash I'd ideally opt for a surround sound speaker system. Headphones can emulate surround sound reasonably well, but you can't replace the effect of speakers actually projecting sounds at your head from different angles. However, even if I could afford the setup, finding space for it would be a nightmare. Headphones it is.

Christopher Livingston
Staff Writer

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.