Headsets vs. Headphones: Differences explained

Here are some of the most important differences between the two audio devices.

Here's our recommendations for the best mics and headphones for streaming.
Screengrab via Logitech

Sound is one of the most important components when playing games. Having high-quality audio allows the player to interpret many of the sound cues players will encounter in-game such as a countdown to the end of a round or footsteps that will help pinpoint a player’s location.

For many people searching for the right device to complement their setup, it comes down to two main options: a headset with an inbuilt microphone or a set of headphones with an external microphone. Both routes have their pros and cons and there are a series of main factors that separate the two options. Usually, however, it comes down to the user’s purpose in choosing which one will suit them more effectively.

So, what are the differences?

Image via HyperX

Communication

The most noticeable difference between the two options is the inbuilt microphone that comes on a headset. For many people, gamers specifically, having this inbuilt microphone is perfect to facilitate communication with other players. Headphones, on the other hand, do not have a built-in microphone and while some do offer the option to attach one, usually players who go the route of headphones have an external microphone.

So what’s better? For a player who is looking to save money while maintaining an effective outlet for communication with their team, it’s not possible to beat the headset. With that being said, if money is not the issue or the user already owns an external microphone, the quality that is produced through an inbuilt headset microphone is noticeably inferior most of the time. If microphone quality is the main concern, an external microphone paired with a set of quality headphones is the best choice available.

Sound Quality

Most headphones offer high-quality sound for their price as they are usually built with the user listening to music or watching movies in mind. There are a variety of different styles of headphones that offer superior audio quality in a range of prices starting from everyday headphones to studio-quality headphones commonly used when recording music. Headsets, on the other hand, often have slightly worse sound quality than headphones of the same price since a lot of the cost that goes into the headset ends up being used to manufacture the microphone instead of being allocated to sound production.

The purpose the user has for the product will dictate what is more effective. While headphones offer superior audio in terms of quality, this is not always what the user wants when playing games. A headset will commonly be set up out the box to produce surround sound that will assist in pinpointing enemy locations as well as increased bass to make the sounds in-game more cinematic. For strictly gamers, a headset might be the perfect option, but for users planning to watch movies or listen to music, headphones are the best quality.

Connectivity

Headsets have the perfect connectivity for the average gamer. Commonly connected via USB, most users will have a free port to connect the device. On top of this, many headsets have an accompanied mixer sometimes found on the cable or externally attached to the headset’s provided unit. This allows the user to adjust volume levels and mute their inbuilt microphone with ease manually instead of the need to do it on the computer. Headphones will connect through a 3.5mm jack that has been used for many years. You will usually be able to find a port for this in the case of a desktop computer or on the motherboard ports at the back of the PC.

At first glance it might seem that USB is the better option due to its commonality and included mixer, but this is not the case. Users that are using external headphones with a microphone often have access to a mixer that is used to connect higher quality microphones. To use such a mixer, they must have headphones with a 3.5mm jack; a USB connected headset will not work with this setup.

The 3.5mm jack offers more versatility in application since it can be used on a variety of devices that don’t have USB support such as phones or gaming controllers. Again, the decision will come down to the user’s purpose. If they plan on sticking with a gaming headset for a while, then having the USB connection setup with an attached mixer is more than sufficient to fulfill their needs. If the user is planning to upgrade their setup in the future and get a high-quality external microphone, they are going to need headphones that will connect through a 3.5mm jack.