Soundbars vs. speakers vs. headphones: Which is best for gaming?

Each has its merits.

Photo by Fausto Sandoval

Clear sound is just as important as high-resolution graphics in achieving the best gaming experience possible. Users typically have three choices when it comes to gaming audio. The most common options are soundbars, speakers, and headphones. 

Even within these categories, the sound performance may vary between options based on their quality and price. It’s always worth getting the best sound options possible to avoid distortion, muddy bass, and unclear vocals. 

Each category appeals to different users, and many players even switch between a couple of types of audio solutions. There’s no one-size-fits-all option, and each audio solution has its merits and drawbacks.

Soundbars

Image via Razer

Soundbars can be a more practical alternative to surround sound speakers, and they also tend to be more affordable. The reason for their practicality is that they don’t require much space and there aren’t many cables to run. 

Entry to mid-range options, like the Creative Stage Air and the Dell AC511, are inexpensive and usually consist of a single bar with dual drivers. These options are easy to install, and all users have to do is place them in front of their monitor and connect the power and audio cables. While these options are practical, they don’t have the best sound quality and can’t compete with surround sound speakers or more premium soundbar options.

More expensive soundbars, like the Razer Leviathan and Sound BlasterX Katana, take things up a notch by adding more drivers and a subwoofer. These soundbars are capable of 5.1 and 7.1 virtual surround sound and are compatible with Dolby Digital sound utilities. While these soundbars offer impressive sound quality, they aren’t quite on the same level as true surround sound speakers. The addition of a subwoofer makes installation marginally more complex, and many gamers store it out of the way under their desks.

Soundbars are a viable option for users who desire clear sound quality and a simple setup with minimal clutter. High-tier models with at least four drivers and a subwoofer provide deeper bass, making it better for gaming. They sound far better than bookshelf computer speakers in the same price range but can’t compare to true surround sound systems.

On the other hand, soundbars lack a microphone. This is a disadvantage for competitive gamers who need to communicate with other players.

Pros 

  • Can be affordable
  • Easy to install
  • No unnecessary cables
  • Less clutter
  • Decent sound quality

Cons 

  • Sound isn’t as robust as a full surround speaker system
  • Not upgradeable
  • Best sound can get pricey
  • No microphone for competitive gaming

Speakers

Image via Logitech

Computer speakers come in many formats ranging from basic 2.0 sets, like the Creative Pebble V2, to 5.1 surround sound sets, like the Logitech Z906 and Z-5500. Users are spoilt for choice and can buy speakers ranging from a few dollars up to thousands of dollars.

Basic computer speakers come as 2.0 sets, meaning there are only two satellite speakers with no subwoofer. These speakers offer basic sound with minimal bass. They also tend to have low overall volume and less clarity. While they don’t have the best sound quality, 2.0 speakers are usually more affordable than the other options and much easier to install. 

Most 2.0 speaker systems are compact and don’t take up much desk space. They often have minimal wiring, and all users have to do is plug in the power and audio cables to get them going.

Moving up from entry-level speakers are 2.1 sets, like the Logitech Z623 and Razer Nommo Pro, which add a subwoofer for better bass. These speakers have far better sound quality than the 2.0 versions but cost more. Since 2.1 sets only add a subwoofer, they aren’t too difficult to set up. 

Sitting near the top are 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound systems. These speaker sets have five satellite speakers and a subwoofer. Considering how many speakers these sets contain, it’s understandable that they offer the best sound quality. They usually have deep bass, and users can hear minute details like footsteps when gaming. Having the satellite speakers mounted in strategic positions allows the sound to come from multiple directions for an immersive experience. 

The main drawbacks of 5.1 speaker systems are that they’re expensive and can be challenging to set up. Having so many speakers and a subwoofer drastically increases the price, but it’s still worth it for the best sound quality possible. Mounting the speakers can be a challenge since they need to be placed in the correct positions to complement each other. It often means mounting them to a wall and running pesky cables around the room.

A disadvantage of speakers that affects gamers is the lack of a microphone. The lack of a microphone makes it difficult for competitive players to communicate and coordinate with their teammates. 

Speakers can be a far better option than a soundbar, provided it’s at least a 2.1 or 5.1 system. These speakers have the best sound quality, and users can pick up on the direction of footsteps and gunfire a little easier. Smaller 2.0 speakers can suffice in a pinch, but they deliver sub-par sound and aren’t ideal for gaming.

Pros

  • Many options and price points
  • Potentially better sound quality than soundbars
  • Can be easy to install depending on the type
  • Players can hear what’s going on around them

Cons

  • Compact 2.0 versions can have rough sound quality
  • High-end versions get expensive
  • 5.1 systems can be challenging to install
  • Take up more space
  • No built-in microphone

Headsets and headphones

Image via SteelSeries

Most competitive gamers use headphones and headsets because they offer immersive sound, with the latter having built-in microphones to communicate with teammates. Between the two, headsets are the optimal gaming choice. The best gaming headsets, like the SteelSeries Arctis Pro, Razer BlackShark V2, and Logitech G Pro X, come with USB sound cards and offer features like Hi-res audio, virtual 7.1 surround sound, and wireless connectivity. 

One of the biggest selling points of modern headsets is the inclusion of virtual 7.1 surround sound. Programs like DTS and Windows Sonic mix the sound through the left and right channels to emulate real surround sound speakers. For competitive players, virtual surround sound is a contentious topic, and many prefer stereo sound for gaming.

Since most headsets include software, users can tweak the settings and create different audio profiles. If players prefer stereo sound for gaming and surround sound for movies or shows, it’s easy to configure using the headsets included software.

Headsets are easy to transport and are compatible with many devices. Since headsets and headphones have a compact and lightweight design, users can take them to tournaments or wear them for mobile gaming. It gives users the advantage of having clear sound quality wherever they go. While some headsets can only work with a USB connection, most have a 3.5-millimeter connection compatible with multiple devices.

Manufacturers do their best to make headsets and headphones as comfortable as possible, but they can’t rival the freedom of speakers. Headsets are typically comfortable in small doses and can feel hot or heavy after hours of play. Some headsets can also have a tight fit, making them uncomfortable for users with glasses. 

The immersion offered by headsets can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on the user. Some users prefer playing with no distractions from the outside world so they can concentrate on their game. Other players don’t like headsets blocking out outside sounds because they want to be aware of what’s happening around them. However, headsets and headphones allow players to experience loud sounds, like explosions or crashes, without disturbing anyone around them, which can also be beneficial. There are also open-back alternatives that prefer immersion while staying keyed into their surroundings.

Pros 

  • Portable
  • Reliable sound quality
  • Built-in microphone
  • Compatible with many devices

Cons

  • Can be as expensive as surround sound speakers
  • Might get uncomfortable after long use

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Headphones, speakers, and soundbars all have their uses, and deciding which is best depends on users’ budgets and requirements.

Soundbars range from simulated surround sound to entry-level sound quality. They are easy to install and don’t cause as much clutter as speaker sets.

Speakers also range from basic 2.0 versions up to 5.1 surround systems. The basic versions aren’t the best for gaming but will do in a pinch. Speaker sets with a subwoofer have better sound, but the more speakers get added, the more complicated they are to install and more expensive.

Headphones and headsets are the number one choice for competitive gaming. The fact that headsets include a microphone makes them a must for competitive gaming. Headphones’ portable design and clear sound quality are two other significant advantages. The main drawback of headsets and headphones is that they can be uncomfortable at times.

At the end of the day, which is best comes down to personal preference, and there’s no reason why users can’t have more than one option depending on the situation. Some players use external speakers or soundbars for some gaming when they want to hear what’s going on around them and switch to headsets when playing competitive games or playing on the go. Whichever option you choose, it’s typically better to stick to reputable brands and avoid entry-level models that only offer basic sound.