Are studio headphones better for gaming?

Are studio headphones better for gaming?

Philipp Rüegg
Zurich, on 11.04.2019
Responsible for translation: Patrik Stainbrook
Why do we buy headphones from peripheral equipment manufacturers instead of companies that are actually audio specialists? It got me wondering if studio headphones are better than gaming headsets, especially when it comes to surround sound. I decided to compare the gaming Astro A50 headset with the Beyerdynamic DT880 Pro studio headphones to find out.

«Forget gaming headsets. If you appreciate good sound, get yourself proper studio headphones.» If I had a franc for every time I’d heard someone say that in the last few years while I’ve been grappling with the topic of sound in gaming... Even the digitec Community agrees with me about the new Logitech headsets (review in German). «You get the ultimate sound experience with the Creative Soundblaster AE5 and a Beyerdynamic DT 770 or 990,» according to user Schmisi. There must be something to it.

I must admit, I’m very happy with my Astro A50 but knowing the sound could potentially be a lot better is preying on my mind. That’s why I’m putting these headphones to the test. My colleagues in Category Management have been kind enough to ask Beyerdynamic for some headphones. I end up with a lovely chic set, but there was actually a specific model I was after, namely the DT 880. This seems to be the most popular set of headphones on the Internet. But rather than giving me just one headset, Beyerdynamic sent me three. Meet the DT 880 Pro, MMX 300 and the Custom Game.

Headphones
DT 880 PRO (Over-Ear, Grey)
202.–
Beyerdynamic DT 880 PRO (Over-Ear, Grey)

As I’m specifically interested in comparing studio and gaming headphones, I’ll be focussing on the DT 880 Pro (250 ohm) in this test.

Choosing the right headphones

On paper (or on screen), headphones from audio specialists and periphery manufacturers can seem incredibly similar. Sound pressure level, frequency response and driver size can be found in various forms in both types of headphones. The first thing that sets them apart is the impedance (ohm). While an average headset is usually somewhere between 16 and 80 ohm, you can buy studio headphones up to 650 ohm. Headphones with a higher impedance deliver higher resolution and in theory can produce a better sound. However, they often need amplifiers designed for performance. Smartphones and onboard sound cards are usually too weak for these headphones. That’s where a DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) comes in. More on that in a moment.

What the specifications don’t tell you is exactly how the speakers (drivers) are built. There’s a lot more at stake here than just the size of it (40 mm, 50 mm. etc.) – and that’s the extent of my knowledge. But that’s why I’m doing a listening test in the first place.

Professional test set-up
Professional test set-up

Other features where gaming headphones differ from studio headphones are macro keys, remote control, RGB lighting, mixing game and chat sounds. You’ll be looking for them in vain. If the money that is saved gets funnelled into improving speaker quality then it’s fine by me.

Another important question is whether the headphones should be open or closed. Open design headphones are popular in studios and reportedly deliver the most natural sound. But it also means you’ll hear sounds beyond your headset. So if you want to cut yourself off from everyone on the train, open headphones aren’t for you. Closed systems, on the other hand, provide a better seal between your ear and the driver, meaning they give you a stronger bass. But the trade-off here is that the pressure on your head is greater.

Don’t be fooled by the term «semi-open». With the DT 880 Pro you hear outside noise.
Don’t be fooled by the term «semi-open». With the DT 880 Pro you hear outside noise.

The DT 880 Pro is semi-open, which is a kind of compromise between the two systems. However, I can’t imagine how headphones could be any more open. When I’ve got these on, I can hear every word that’s uttered around me. There’s no sign of any isolation to block out external noise. But in terms of being comfortable to wear, they’re excellent as they don’t put much pressure on your head. And the velvet padding feels almost as smooth as a fluffy cat.

Headphone amplifier or onboard sound: which is better?

The most simple method is to connect the headphones directly to the mainboard. What used to be a no-no is now commonplace. Sound chips have come on a long way and don’t make you think they’re stuck in a bin any more. But if your headphones are connected via USB or TOSLINK like my Astro A50 are, the chip in the headphones will take over audio processing.

The SoundblasterX G6 is a USB sound card and headphone amplifier in one
The SoundblasterX G6 is a USB sound card and headphone amplifier in one

Conversely, if you plug in the headphones via an analog 3.5-mm cable, the onboard sound card will be activated. Depending how much electrical resistance is in the headphones, this could be the end of the show. Headphone amplifiers are too weak on even the best mainboards to be able to control demanding headphones with higher impedance. You end up with very low volume sound.

Discerning users will want to opt for a sound card (internal or USB) made of a DAC and amplifier. This is generally worth it for three reasons. Firstly, as mentioned above, it boosts the headphones with more electrical resistance. Secondly, sound processing is meant to be better. And lastly, because sound cards and DACs often boast a virtual surround sound feature. I opted for the Creative Sound BlasterX G6, as it gets such good reviews online. And as you well know, the Internet never lies.

Soundcheck: DAC vs onboard sound

It’s time to check the sound quality of the Beyerdynamic 880 Pro so I compare it with my reference headset, the Astro A50. Over the course of numerous tests, I switch between the headphones as quickly as I can. Bearing in mind I always have to alter the Windows settings first, there’s a few seconds switchover time. According to my colleague and audio expert Aurel Stevens, that should be long enough for the brain to forget the previous sound. Here’s a quick spoiler: the difference was very much audible.

For a while now, onboard sound cards haven’t been as bad as they’re made out to be.
For a while now, onboard sound cards haven’t been as bad as they’re made out to be.

But first, I compare the DAC with my mainboard to see if the amplifier really helps. I have a Gigabyte Z270X Gaming 5 that uses the audio chip Sound Blaster X-Fi MB5.

Test set-up * Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro * All sound effects deactivated * Stereo mode * Neutral equaliser * Same music choice (Google Music 320 kbits) * Same game choice («Overwatch», «Apex Legends», «The Division 2», «Battlefield 5», «Doom») * 7.1 «Soma» test audio

The first thing I notice is that the mainboard doesn’t deliver enough voltage for the 250-ohm headphones. When the volume is at the maximum, the sound is still quiet. One way you can get around this problem is by buying a 32-ohm model. But even aside from volume issues, the Sound BlasterX G6 performs distinctly better. You notice it most when listening to music. With the onboard card, it sounds as though there’s light fog floating over the music. As soon as I switch to the DAC, the fog lifts and the sound becomes clear and powerful.

Even in the «Soma» demo, the game where you go through dim corridors and creepy noises emerge from every which way, the sound is more three-dimensional and crisp with the DAC.

The 250-ohm Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro is not the ideal set of headphones to compare with an onboard card. The sound is just too quiet. However, you can tell the difference when you pit it against the Sound BlasterX G6. Nevertheless, I have to say that the onboard chip does a good job. If you don’t compare them side by side, you’re unlikely to find much fault with it.

Soundcheck: Beyerdynamic 880 Pro vs Astro A50

Test set-up * Once with and once without sound effects * Neutral equaliser * Same music choice (Google Music 320 kbits) * Same game choice («Overwatch», «Apex Legends», «The Division 2», «Battlefield 5», «Doom») * 7.1 «Soma» test audio * Test sounds for frequency response, driver, dynamic range, etc.

Without additional audio effects (DTS:X etc.), the DT 880 Pro sounds clearer and more precise overall. The sound from the Astro A50 is slightly unclear and directional change is less fluid from one ear to another. The difference in quality is particularly noticeable in «Apex Legends». That’s when the DT 880 Pro sounds as though it’s being fed a higher bit rate.

What takes a bit of getting used to is the semi-open design. It makes the sound appear incredibly floaty – maybe even too much so. Given I like a powerful bass, it’s no surprise I miss all the booms when I shoot a wingman in «Apex Legends» or cause a stir on the street with a shotgun in «The Division 2». It’s high time I get the DAC up and running.

I almost always use the Astro A50 with surround sound activated DTS Headphone:X 2.0. That’s why I decide to do another test to compare audio effects. Using the Sound BlasterX G6, I set the Sound Blaster Connect Software Surround to 40/100, the crystalizer to 50/100 and the bass to 50/100. I also activate the 7.1 mode.

The Soundblaster Connect 2 software helps with fine-tuning the headphones.
The Soundblaster Connect 2 software helps with fine-tuning the headphones.

And as a result, the DT 880 Pro really comes into its own. At the start of the «Soma» demo, I’m encased in a sound curtain of dripping water and creepy sounds. When the heavy automatic door opens, it emits a satisfying «kaching». On switching to the A50, I initially think I’ve got the wrong file. Where’s the water; where’s the rustling? The second time I listen to it, I detect those sounds but they blend in too much with the rest of the noises. Even the door ringing when it opens is utterly unspectacular.

The same thing goes for the test games. The DT 800 Pro offers a more complex and clearer sound than the Astro A50. While it does bang about more because of the closed design and DTS:X, I notice more zeal in the Beyerdynamic headphones. The acoustic pattern there is bigger and more varied, and with the Astro A50, sounds can be partly masked.

Since Beyerdynamic sent me another gaming headset along with the MMX 300, I tried that out too. It also boasts a closed design and in my opinion, gives the best mix of sound and bass of the three headphones.

Soundcheck: surround sound

The DT 880 Pro appears to be better but what is its surround sound like? As studio headphones don’t have their own software, you have to rely on external resources. In my case, I left this task to the Sound BlasterX G6. When I connect the headphones using the 3.5-mm cable, I can alternate the settings between stereo, 5.1 and 7.1. If, on the other hand, I plug the headphones into the mainboard, the only option is stereo. You can create virtual surround sound with various different programmes. For instance, Windows offers Windows Sonic for Headphones. For 10 Swiss francs you can use Dolby Atmos. Razer meanwhile offers Razer Surround and then there’s also Hesuvi, which is made up of a collection of different surround sound algorithms. This is a particularly sophisticated piece of software that requires you to have a bit more specialist knowledge.

Hesuvi software makes every set of headphones compatible with surround sound.
Hesuvi software makes every set of headphones compatible with surround sound.

All of the headphones sound surprisingly good. They all insulate the sound well and they can reach much higher volumes. However, where they all stumble is in simulating sounds directly behind you. As far as my ears are concerned, it usually seems like the sound is coming from in front and it’s just not as loud. There’s only been one time I’ve experienced the speaker effect where I instinctively wanted to turn round to see where the loud noise was coming from. And that was in «The Division 2». During a gun fight I got the impression there was something going on behind me. And then the next moment, I see one of these suicide bombers running into me and blowing themselves up. That’s an example of when surround sound really worked.

As with surround sound, the sound on headsets comes down to personal preference. My favourite would be Hesuvi where it not for the fact the settings are a bit cumbersome and it’s tricky to use. The software certainly doesn’t give you the most setting options. I stick with the Sound Blaster Connect, as that way I don’t have to deal with extra programmes and the result is almost as good.

Microphone

If you don’t want to upgrade your microphone, you can also just use the Beyerdynamic MMX300.
If you don’t want to upgrade your microphone, you can also just use the Beyerdynamic MMX300.

Something I’ve not yet touched on is the microphone. And it’s pretty important. After all, it’s a key reason you might be buying a headset. That’s why it’s worth pointing out that studio headphones such as the DT 880 Pro don’t come with a microphone. However, there are practical plug-in mics like the Antlion ModMic. You stick it onto the earcup and then feed the extra cable alongside the existing headphone cable. Alternatively, you can use a table microphone. The quality of the ModMic is top-notch according to digitec users.

Verdict: once you've heard it there's no going back

For me, it’s pretty clear cut. Studio headphones are better headsets for gaming. The Beyerdynamic 880 Pro is without doubt superior to my trusty Astro A50. It’s as though I had a veil over my ears before. When you combine these headphones with Creative’s DAC, they really come into their own. And it’s not like you even have to do without surround sound; you can still use surround sound software with all the headphones.

My new favourite set-up: Sound BlasterX G6 combined with the MMX 300.
My new favourite set-up: Sound BlasterX G6 combined with the MMX 300.

However, when it comes to the distinction between the Astro A50 and the DT 880 Pro with DAC, it’s not worlds apart. And if you don’t do a direct comparison, you’re unlikely to find much fault with them. That being said, I certainly noticed a difference and now there’s no going back. If you’re anything like me and appreciate a strong sound and base, I’d recommend the Beyerdynamic MMX 300. It also comes with an integrated mic. The headset might be a bit of a tighter fit, but the sound is right up my street.

Gaming headset or hi-fi headphones?

Which headphones do you use to game?

  • Gaming headset
    44%
  • Hifi headphones
    45%
  • Monitor/TV Speakers
    1%
  • Loudspeaker system
    7%

The competition has ended.

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Philipp Rüegg
Philipp Rüegg
Senior Editor, Zurich
Being the game and gadget geek that I am, working at digitec and Galaxus makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop – but it does take its toll on my wallet. I enjoy tinkering with my PC in Tim Taylor fashion and talking about games on my podcast . To satisfy my need for speed, I get on my full suspension mountain bike and set out to find some nice trails. My thirst for culture is quenched by deep conversations over a couple of cold ones at the mostly frustrating games of FC Winterthur.

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