Headset vs. Speakers: Which is Best for Gamers?

A little over a year ago we ran an article looking at the differences between mechanical and membrane keyboards. These differences are worth looking into for anyone adjusting a computer setup, but they can be particularly important for gamers. As was noted in that article, gamers can often be tripped up by issues in membrane keyboards, and would thus do well to look into some of the perks of mechanical options.

In the time since that article ran, the topic of optimizing PC equipment for gaming only seems to have grown more prevalent. Today’s gamers sometimes customize every aspect of their computers and general gaming setups in order to make play reliable, comfortable, and as enjoyable as possible. And because much of this effort tends to revolve around picking and choosing between audio options, we thought we’d do a follow-up comparison piece on the issue of speakers versus headsets.

Of late, the perks of headset for PC gamers (as well as console gamers for that matter) have been generating a lot of discussion. A lot of people value high-end headsets for facilitating in-game communication, enhancing awareness in a virtual environment, fostering comfort, and drowning out the “real world.” Until recent years however, most gamers were content merely with high-quality speakers attached to their PCs.

So, which option is best for you? In the end it may come down to what kind of gaming it is you spend your time on.

The Argument for Speakers

Consider as one of the primary options online poker — still among the most popular forms of gaming people enjoy on the internet (and by some indications getting even more popular). The immediate impulse for a poker player may be to opt for headsets, on the grounds that they can bring about a greater sense of focus and concentration on content. Indeed, there’s even a compelling pro-headset argument to be made on the basis that some real-world poker competitors wear headphones at the tables.

On the other hand, some online poker players might also want to consider whether total immersion and deep focus are actually good things. While concentration is of course an essential element of the game, it is also widely accepted that winning at poker requires a certain degree of detachment as well. Tips for victory, that is, include avoiding predictable patterns (which can be easier to fall into when you’re completely zoned in), learning to accept defeat, and never getting too excited. These tips boil down to an ability to manage emotions and keep a level head, which some will find it much easier to do when not wholly immersed. It’s actually an argument in favour of speakers, which keep the game from becoming too all-encompassing. We’re not talking about a full home theatre system here, rather a more subtle set of desktop speaker.

Additionally, some people playing poker or other games that simulate real-world activities may find that speakers actually make for a more natural, realistic effect. A good set with surround-sound capabilities will do better to imitate the sounds of a poker game — the dealing of cards in open space, the stacking of chips around the table, and perhaps a bit of white noise in the background. This is what you get at a real table, as opposed to a concentrated audio feed directly into your ears.

The Counter for Headsets

Online poker serves as a clear example of how there are still instances in which the total immersion of modern headsets can actually be a drawback. And again, there are other games of this nature that simulate real-world activity that can be thought of similarly — such as digital board and tabletop games. However, for many if not most other popular PC games, there is tremendous value in headsets (and regular speakers can take away from the experience).

Instances like this essentially come down to the psychology of immersion — or as some in the industry call it, spatial presence. This is a term meant to describe the phenomenon when the elements of a game are perceived as real. It is not merely a synonym for realistic graphics either, so much as a means of characterizing environments that are meant to absorb gamers’ focus and create total sensory experiences. There are countless examples of games that strive to do this, but to encapsulate them we might simply say that a majority of modern action and adventure games, and a growing number of narrative and puzzle games as well, fit the description.

For gamers who tend to favor these types of PC games over the likes of online poker or digital tabletop experiences, headphones may in fact be the right answer. Where these games are concerned, there is less of a need to maintain real-world perspective or keep level emotions. In fact, one could argue that the idea is to leave the real world behind and get swept up completely in whatever it is the game has to offer. High-end headphones that block out surrounding noise and provide rich and immersive audio can help this idea to become a reality, and significantly enhance gaming experiences.


The good news in the end is that if you focus on newer and more high-quality equipment, you’ll get incredible sound out of whatever you choose — speakers or a headset. Approaching the decision as a gamer though, the best way to land on the “better” option is to do some real thinking about the types of games you lean toward and what you want or need out of the audio that comes with them.

Leave a Comment