Best Headphone Systems for PC Gaming
For games, you need a soundcard with the surround sound is achieved with a “Dolby Digital 5.1 Headphone” soundcard (Dolby is better than CMSS-3D from Titanium cards for music/game immersiveness, but is slightly behind in fps gaming ie positioning where your enemy is). For Dolby AND super quality sound, the cheap internal soundcard of Asus Xonar DG/DGX can passthrough Dolby to a DAC (external soundcard) that will encode/process the sound (not the cheap soundcard), then to the Amp to power headphones (analog speakers don’t need amp).
For more headphone info, see bottom section, and when buying, try to get them discounted at Amazon (refurbished or open box) or Headphone.com (B Stock). Also, headphones are good in that you can get amazing fidelity and surround sound for a low cost/space, but the richness and listening pleasure of speakers cannot be bested by a headphone.
[Super Budget, Digital Soundcard Only ~$70] Asus Xonar DG $15 [PCI Version, don't recommend DGX/PCI-X for this setup because it currently has front panel headphone jack power issues currently Amazon] –> Panasonic RP-HTF600-S [Amazon] + Beyerdynamic Velour Pads [Amazon]
[Great Setup, Solid State Combined DAC+Amp $570] Asus Xonar DG $15 [PCI Version Amazon] or DGX $40 [PCI-X Version Amazon] –> optical –> NFB-12 (Solid State) $250 [Audio GD] –> MrSpeakers Mad Dogs $299 [Amazon]
[Best Setup, Expensive DAC and Tube Amp ~$1300] Asus Xonar DG $15 [PCI Version Amazon] or DGX $40 [PCI-X Version Amazon] -> optical -> Schiit Bifrost $450 [Amazon or Schiit] -> Schiit Lyr $400 (Tube/SS Hybrid) [Amazon --> Hifiman HE-400 $400 [Amazon] Add Velour Pads from head-direct.com and set of 2 better tubes for the Lyr (Miniwatt 6BZ7 from pietroburgo77 on ebay $90, or Telefunken PCC88 from Upscale Audio ~$120, or Lorenz PCC88) or to save $150 but little less quality/”tube fun” substitute the Lyr for Asgard $250 (Solid State) [Amazon], Note: To save $300, instead of the Bifrost get the ODAC $150 from [Audio Poutine]
Notes: Can use Mad Dogs or HE-400 headphones with either Great Setup or Best Setup
I would get any of these options over Fiio Systems (D3 to E7, E9, or E11), Little Dot mkii or chinese tubes like Qinpu Q-2.
Ohm rating on your headphones should be 10 times or more higher than the output impedance (Ohm) of the sound card.
For United States and Canada, the voltage is 115 (Europe and many other countries should be 230).
To use an Asus Xonar DG/DGX with a DAC, enable Dolby Headphone and then enable SPDIFF (be sure EAX/GX disabled). Instead of using Asus drivers for DG/DGX, use the Unified Xonar. Also, if you’re experiencing errors, disable the onboard audio in the BIOS (deleting on-board sound’s audio driver/software may help also). Cables – Depending on the DAC, it will connect to the PC via USB or SPDIFF (optical) or both. USB won’t be able to connect to an internal soundcard for Dolby surround sound (but still great for non-gaming). Optical/spdiff is better quality but USB input is nice for laptop usage. To connect DAC to Amp, you will need a simple 2x RCA -> 2x RCA cable. (monoprice cables off amazon are good quality, inexpensive $6-$20, varying lengths but more choice at monoprice.com).
Best Speaker System
For speakers, you can use the Bifrost or NFB-12, with its one set of L/R RCA outputs, to output to any system (directly to a 2.0 system, receiver, preamp, amp, etc). A good 2.0 or 2.1 system (2 speakers, subwoofer optional) is great, even for imaging, immersion, and surround. A quality 2.0 speaker system is always better than cheap 5 or 7 speaker system.
[Powered Speakers] (All-In-One Solution without big bass)
Value 5.1: (Need cheap receiver, need to research) Monoprice 8247 Surround System $62+$24 shipping [Monoprice] (CNET review)
Value 2.0: Swan D1080 IV $180 [Audio Insider] (these are more the level of high-level computer speakers)
Great 2.0: Swan M200mkiii $420 [Audio Insider] (these are more the level of studio monitors)
The 2.0 choices are better if you aren’t a basshead or if your headphones cover your bass/gaming needs. The lack of sub/bass means they’re great for most types of music, but a little lacking in “fun” for movies/gaming (albeit still good).
[Receiver + Passive Speakers + Bass] Better quality sound for cheaper price, and better for mixing and matching components (ie add Bass)
Best Value Mid-Range (this setup is better than M200mkiii above): Sonic T-amp $40, Yamaha NS-6490, HSU STF-2 Subwoofer [HSU] – substitute: Outlaw Audio M8 $250 [Outlaw Audio]
Best Value High-Range: RECEIVER: Denon AVR 2312, SUB: Better quality SVS PB12-NSD $770 [SVSound] or better value Rythmik FV12 $500 (currently sold out) [Rythmik Audio]
Absolute Best: SUB: SVS Ultra (beats any sub at any price) $2k [SVSound]
The Best Headphones – In-Depth
Note: Try to get refurbished or open box headphones for a good discount (especially at Amazon or Headphone.com B Stock). Also, headphones are good in that you can get amazing fidelity for a low cost, but the richness and sheer listening pleasure of speakers cannot be bested by a headphone. I left out the $50-$100 pricepoint due to not being great value.
Best Headphone Under $1k: Hifiman HE-400 $400 [Amazon] (Open Air) Unrivalled in its price range. Add Velour Pads and better tubes.
Closed Headphones – Better Isolation/Bass
Best Closed Headphones: MrSpeakers Mad Dogs $299 [MrSpeakers] better than both the Denon D2000 and Denon D5000
Secondary: Denon D2000 $290 [Amazon] – It’s linear/neutral headphone with sub-bass capability unmatched by others in its class. An excellent headphone in all ways. (Denon D5000 $433-$460 [Amazon] are better than D2000, but are getting too expensive b/c discontinued, more fun than D7000 even though those are more accurate, bassy, Look for refurb @$300.
Pure Bassheads: Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 80ohm $180 [Amazon] [Amazon-250ohm] (Don’t think this is worth it unless you’re a basshead and HAVE to have huge bass + closed ear, I think DT770 is too much bass IMO I’d get DT990 Pro for great details and bass is more refined but still big, or just cheaper headphone over this like Fischer FA003, soundstage is lacking on the Pro models due to clamps)
Best Cheap Headphones (Best Value Ever): Panasonic RP-HTF600-S $30 [Amazon] + Beyerdynamic Velour Pads [Amazon] I’d get these over the HD650 $490, Secondary: Incipio Forte F38 $30 [Amazon] (less bass and smaller soundstage but better mids/treble/clarity than HTF600, more closed than RP-HTF600-S, “not as fun”, this is a rebranded Fischer FA004 like the Brainwavz HM3 $68, some say better than the ~$120 FA003/HM5, change out for Shure SRH750DJ pads [Amazon])
Best Dirt Cheap, Clip-On/Portable: Koss KSC75 $15 [Amazon] (sound better on a headband, ie Parts-express headband, or Portapro headband if you don’t mind more clampage), Secondary: Coby CV185 ($10)
Note: Don’t get Bose or Dre Beats (both VERY overpriced for their level of sound quality). Although the Bose has some of the best noise cancellation, with noise cancellation you lose lots of sound quality and people complain they get headaches from the noise cancelling high pitched “whine” (and it uses up batteries within the headphone).
Best Isolating Noise Cancellation Headphones: Instead of noise cancellation headphones for better noise isolation, I’d get IEMs (In-Ear Headphones), but if you must get Noise Cancellation headphones get the Audio Technica ATH-ANC7 $120 Amazon, Secondarily: Sennheiser HD25-1-II (Shure SRH840 $180 are good but not portable). While better, I don’t think the sound quality of the ATH-ANC9 $219 or Bose QC15 $300 warrant the additional cost unless you NEED noise cancellation and want the “best” of them.
Open-Air – Bigger Soundstage, Better sound fidelity, Leaks a little sound outside
Best Quality Open-Air for Immersive Gaming, Still great at Non-Gaming: Beyerdynamic DT990 Premium $245-$330 [Amazon] is bright and does bass wonderfully. Con: Need a good tube amp and a warm source to smooth its bright treble (can be fatiguing so if you’re worried about its brightness, consider the HD650)
Sennheiser HD650 $490 [Amazon] Also a bassy, “smoother” headphone, warm (has better mids than the DT990, more analytical but less controlled bass – more muddy). Some people say HD600 sounds tiny bit better but less bass. [I'd get the Panasonic RP-HTF600-S $30 + Beyerdynamic Pads over this]
Better at Competitive than DT990/HD650 but Worse at Immersive (more analytical, less bass, shorter soundstage): AKG Q701 $240 [Amazon] (great at competitive, good at immersive gaming)
Best Competitive FPS Gaming Value and Quality: Audio Technica ATH-AD700 $100 [Amazon] – great headphones, but analytical, no bass = much less “immersive” gaming [I'd get Panasonic HTF600 over this)
Bassheads: DT990 Pro $172 (250ohm only) [Amazon] is a superb value, but you must be a basshead (more bass than even DT990 Premium but not as controlled, less airy/bright), so the Pro is very immersive but worse competitively and less comfortable (harder clamp down for the bass)
Source: Head-Fi Forum research and MalVeauX, Mad Lust Envy Guide to Headphones, Shootout Portable Headphones
See Also: Best IEM (In-Ear Headphones)