For the casual gamer, a high-end headset is usually the last piece of "essential" peripheral equipment that one purchases. The first purchase, of course, is a precision mouse with strategically placed buttons and adjustable DPI. The second purchase is a mechanical keyboard, with key switches that provide tactile feedback and withstand high volume usage.
Why does the headset come last? Because to the casual gamer, it's not explicitly beneficial. Gamers tend to measure prowess in physicality. How many actions-per-minute can a player commit? How quick are a player's twitch reflexes when he or she rounds a corner, gun in hand?
But at some point, a player's physical prowess reaches its natural limit. More intangible abilities, like situational awareness and clear communication, differentiate one player from the next. And sound is a necessary component to that differentiation—sound that is both projected (out to one's partners in multiplayer) and received (from the feedback of virtual environments). Motherboard spoke to representatives and engineers at SteelSeries, Razer, and Logitech to learn about the crucial components that go into a high-quality headset.
Good sound starts with a good driver—the mechanism in a speaker or headphone that converts electric audio signals into sound waves. The conversion happens through use of a diaphragm, a thin piece of material that moves, back and forth, in response to the electrical signal. The physical composition of this diaphragm is essential to high quality sound. Too loose and flexible, and the sound will lose its highest and lowest frequencies. Too rigid, and the sound will be distorted. Logitech's latest Pro-G drivers, which are installed in their Logitech G933 and G533 headsets, use a patented hybrid mesh material to find a middle ground between flexible and rigid.
"A lot of other gamer headphones end up being really distorted in the low end and really harsh in the high end because developers boost those frequencies to try and make them sound more exciting," said Logitech Technical Marketing Manager Andrew Coonrad in an interview with Motherboard. "You want to have all those frequencies play well together."
A good gaming headset has a full and differentiated range of sound. A trending preponderance of bass, while allowing players to 'feel' their games, overpowers the mid and higher ranges. And in a competitive gaming environment, where winning is the primary goal, this is a negative.
"The overbearing emphasis of bass comes at the expense of clarity and the ability to pick out distinct sounds," said SteelSeries Audio Category Manager Brian Fallon in an interview with Motherboard. "Our ears detect direction by hearing high frequencies. The sound of reloading a gun, for example could be a subtle cue to go on the attack."
Razer expressed similar thoughts.
"Our custom tuned drivers have a distinct Razer sound signature that has distinct bass," said Razer Product Developer Brian Wong in an interview with Motherboard, "but it doesn't lose out on clarity of the mids and highs."
Still, many consumers define their listening experience by the quantity of bass rather than its balance. After all, they don't know what they haven't been exposed to, and thus miss out on a better aural experience.
"The best way to describe this is to compare it to wine tasting," said Coonrad. "There's good wine and there's bad wine. But there's also your base of knowledge and your palette. And if you've never had good wine, you could have a five dollar bottle and think it was delicious."
"If, however, you spent a year going to high-end tastings and wineries, and started drinking out of some rich dude's cellar, you're going to have a hard time going back to that five dollar bottle," continued Coonrad. "There's so much nuance and complexity out there."
Developers usually install unidirectional microphones into headsets, and for good reason. Unidirectional microphones receive sound from a single direction—the front, directly where the player's mouth is. The sound wave hits the front of the microphone's diaphragm,which moves and vibrates in response to pressure. That mechanical movement is then converted into electrical signals. It's essentially a speaker in reverse.
Both Razer and Logitech headsets use unidirectional microphones. The Logitech G533 wireless headset, for example, has a cardioid pickup pattern, an example of which is below. It's a visual representation for how well a microphone receives sound from different directions; this particular pattern is front-oriented.
Meanwhile, SteelSeries' Arctis line uses a bidirectional microphone, which means it picks up sound from both a front port and a rear port facing in opposite directions. This forms a figure-eight pickup pattern and enables "noise cancelling," which filters out unwanted, ambient sound.
Distant, ambient sound waves will reach both the front and rear ports at approximately the same time, "cancelling" each other out on the front and rear of the diaphragm.
Meanwhile, sound coming from directly in front of the microphone—from the person's mouth to the front port—creates one-way pressure on the diaphragm. This is how bi-directional microphones block out ambient noise while still registering the player's voice.
"You want to reject as much background noise as possible," said Fallon. "A player might think that his or her gaming environment isn't all that noisy. But it's probably more noisy than he thinks. There's the furnace, and fans, and people talking next door. There's a fair amount of noise that usually gets into your microphone and muddies up your speech."
Razer's Kraken 7.1 V2 also has noise cancelling, but rather than using a single bi-directional microphone, it uses dual microphones—one near the mouth, and another secondary microphone, at the back of the headset, to pick up and filter ambient noise.
And lastly, all three developers emphasized the primary importance of comfort. Gamers wear these devices for hours at a time, and the headsets need to be designed with that sort of prolonged use in mind. Say, for example, that a gamer wears prescription eyeglasses. Headphones sandwich the legs of the glasses frame between the ear and the skull, and over time, this can cause discomfort. Razer addresses that problem with a simple, structural convenience.
"All of our headsets from 2016 onwards feature a specially designed in mold channel for glasses," said Wong. "Based on e-sport athlete testing, this increases the long-term comfort for gamers wearing glasses."
Sometimes, the solution to long-standing problems requires an interdisciplinary approach.
"SteelSeries took inspiration from other industries," said Fallon. "Ski goggles are something you wear on your head for a long period of time. And so it made sense to use the elasticity of that material on our headsets."
In a similar way, Logitech uses "sports mesh" fabric in their headphones to allow for breathability during extended play sessions. If people treat gaming as an athletic competition (and there is certainly overlap at its highest levels), it follows that gaming wear will begin resembling sporting wear. And like sportswear, the most recent gaming headset models are sleek, monochromatic, and understated—fit for public use.
"Gaming has changed so much over the past few years," said Fallon. "There's lots of people who want gaming gear but also want to do other stuff [besides gaming]. The tendency to create a gaming headset that one would only wear in a gaming environment seems a little outdated. We took the time to create something that would fit into the gaming lifestyle, but also didn't look too garish."
It's an inevitable side effect of a fringe culture going mainstream. Competitive gaming in the United States, particularly in the last three years, is undergoing an unprecedented public exposure; Nielsen calculated in 2016 that 14 percent of all Americans, aged thirteen and older, consider themselves eSports fans—up from 8 percent in 2015. And wherever money is being invested, innovation and increased sophistication is soon to follow.