Gaming Audio: Separating the Truth, the Myths, and the Marketing

Astro A40 Gaming Headphones


Today, gaming is the largest category in the entertainment industry with revenues that far exceed those of both the film and music industries. This year, the gaming industry is expected to be worth more than $170 billion in global revenues, five times greater than global movie box office revenues.

That is a direct quote from the FTC’s investigative report on Dec 8, 2022 regarding Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision for $70 bn. Other statistics show the gaming industry towering over both the film and music industries… combined. Even though a majority of that market share comes from the mobile segment (an estimated 60%), the point remains. Video games are serious business.

It’s no surprise then to see companies try to squeeze their way into the gaming market. Audio is no exception. From gaming-first companies such as Razer to audio giants like Sennheiser, a lot have invested in capturing a piece of the gaming pie. Part of that investment is marketing - companies trying to convince you why you need to buy their gaming gear. But how much of that marketing is pure spin and what are the grains of truth? This article will serve as a primer to understand what’s actually important when it comes to buying audio equipment for gaming.


Gaming Headphones

Nothing separates a gaming headphone from a normal one. That’s it. That’s the key takeaway of this article. In other words, just pick your favorite headphone. So how do companies convince gaming customers to buy their products? By adding in a boom mic to create a gaming headset. After all, games are best enjoyed with friends, right? Or at the very least, sharing misery with strangers.

Alright, I’m being a little facetious here. In general, there are a couple characteristics that customers have come to expect of so-called “gaming” headphones. For those primarily interested in atmospheric story-driven games, they’re looking for a cinematic and immersive sound experience. For those keen on gaining a competitive edge, it’s precise imaging. But what does that really mean? And does it matter?


What sounds good for listening to music is going to be good for gaming. If you’re playing a story-driven game, great audio leads to better quality sound that captures emotional moments. If you’re playing a competitive game, midrange clarity is key for listening to team communications and hearing detailed events in firefights such as gunshots (~1 - 3 kHz) without getting drowned out by excessive bass.

Thus, ideal tuning for a gaming headphone would be one that is “neutral” or “neutral bright,” with a clear midrange and no exaggeration in the bass or treble. That said, you don’t want to go too far in reducing bass in favor of midrange presence. Unlike music, where certain genres may have less emphasis on the lower octaves, bass energy is critical in games for dynamic sound effects like explosions, the faint growling of a hidden monster, or the subtle sounds of footsteps behind you (~100 - 300 Hz).


Imaging is a bit of a red herring in audio gear. The vast majority of imaging perception comes from the source material - the mixing of the music or game engine. To illustrate, listen to a binaural recording on YouTube. Even on dollar store earbuds, it'll have an uncanny amount of imaging simply due to the properties of its stereo recording. Similarly, in video games, the game’s audio engine is largely responsible for creating positional cues by calculating the character’s spatial orientation. Furthermore, absolute pinpoint precision isn’t necessary as players almost never rely solely on audio cues for decisions - visual confirmation tends to follow once a suspicious noise is heard in a general direction. As such, the imaging performance of your headphone is largely inconsequential for performance.

Professional Gamers

Professional gamers don’t actually use gaming headphones. At least not in a way a normal person would. If you ever see a pro player at a live tournament, they wear fairly generic in-ear monitors (IEMs) under their sponsor’s gaming headset. The IEMs provide isolation and audio input while the headset provides further isolation and the microphone is used for voice comms. In some cases, 3M noise-blocking headsets are used for further isolation and the headset is worn around the neck solely for the microphone.

Natus Vincere s1mple at the 2022 Antwerp Major. Universally considered one of the greatest CS:GO players of all time. Note the basic IEMs used under the headset. Photo credit to

Clearly, this is a subpar listening experience yet these players compete at the very highest level under these conditions. All of this reinforces the point that gaming audio hardly makes a difference. I doubt even a top-tier headphone like the Sennheiser HD800S will lead to landing more headshots.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say that having a good pair of headphones with great tuning and imaging ability is irrelevant. Enhancing the auditory experience will make games more enjoyable and having better imaging might make sounds like footsteps feel just a little more real. The fact is simply that buying audio gear is not a way to significantly improve your gaming skills or get that edge to bring you from bronze to gold.

Gaming IEMs

Though in their infancy, IEMs may be the future. Like gaming headphones, their only distinctive trait is the fact that they come with a boom mic. But given how the mobile market dominates such a large portion of the gaming industry, we might expect to see a rise in the number of gaming IEMs in the future. The portability of IEMs is not to be underestimated as on-the-go gaming becomes more prevalent.

In general, there are two major reasons why you might want to use IEMs over a traditional headset for gaming. Comfort and isolation. In warmer, more humid environments some people might find IEMs more comfortable whereas ear pads can quickly become swampy. The light weight of IEMs also adds to this comfort - no headband pressure or hotspots. Of course, while this means having ear tips in your ears, you do get vastly improved isolation compared to headphones. This improved isolation and the perceptual “closeness” of an IEM can help with maintaining focus in tense moments.

If you’re interested in an example, I wrote a review article of the Hidition T-1 gaming IEM from Korea here.

What Should You Do?

A great headphone is a great gaming headphone. The fact that gaming headphones are essentially just headphones with a mic is not a new revelation. Why buy gaming headphones of questionable quality when you get a proper headphone and microphone set-up? The increasing popularity of streaming and gaming gear has made this easier than ever with the advent of standalone USB mics such as the Audio Technica AT2020, eliminating the need for an audio interface. But if you want a headset-style mic, Antlion Audio has got you covered with their lineup of boom mics that attach to the cups of most any headphone.

As for recommended headphones, my choice is the ATH-R70x. It’s a great headphone for music and just so happens to have the ideal qualities for gaming: neutral tuning with a minor midbass hump, open soundstage, and outstanding imaging. The icing on the cake is its lightweight and breathable build that’s perfect for extended gaming sessions. The only real upgrade from the ATH-R70x would be the Sennheiser HD800S at 4 - 5x the cost.

If you’re a little more strapped for cash, let me remind you that it really doesn’t matter. Use whatever you have at your disposal. If you already have a pair of headphones, grab a basic lavalier mic from Amazon! If you’re starting completely from scratch, the Koss KSC75 is an unbeatable beginner option. Or you can try the IEM route with a Tin HiFi C2 + Celeste Ruyi boom mic cable for just around $60.


What was once seen as a niche market has quietly crept into the forefront of the entertainment industry. Though gaming is still often dismissed as child’s play by many, major companies have taken serious note. It seems like a new piece of gaming gear is released every other week. With such a plethora of options, it can be overwhelming to know what the right choice is. Thankfully, there is a straightforward answer. Use what you have because “gaming” headphones are nothing more than regular headphones with a boom mic and heavy marketing. And by all means, if you’re looking to step-up your audio game, I encourage you to grab a pair of higher quality headphones. But don’t do it in hopes of increasing your KDA. Do it for the love of sound.

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