Studio Headphones VS Consumer Headphones VS Gaming Headsets: “The Top 3 Reasons to Choose Each One!”
There are a billion million headphones to choose from right now, thanks to an explosion in the modern marketplace brought about by the success of Beats.
Headphones fall into three main categories in my mind: Studio Headphones, Consumer Headphones, and Gaming Headsets.
All three of these do the same thing, at a fundamental level: they play sound into your ears for you to enjoy.
But why would you choose one type over the other?
Studio headphones are built primarily for professional work, and have sound signatures best suited to recording or mixing. However, they’re often versatile enough to make for great entertainment listening as well. The big names in the studio headphone space are Audio-Technica, Beyerdynamic, Sony, Shure, Fostex, and Pioneer, just to name a few!
Top 3 Reasons To Choose a Studio Headphone
Do you like durable stuff? Studio-style headphones are almost always built to last. They’re meant to be tough enough to survive field recording work. They’re able to take chairs rolling over the cables. They often have user-replaceable parts, so on the off-chance that something does break, you can order a new part from the manufacturer and quickly swap it out yourself.
Every studio headphone I’ve ever used has had a metal headband at its core. And you often get metal parts in the ear cups and other parts of the frame as well. Plastics, when used, are generally of a higher grade than the average too.
You often give up design flair in favor of these materials, but I think the trade off is worth it. I do a lot of portable headphone listening, so decent build is a must since I toss these things in a bag and haul them around all the time. It’s a big part of why I like so many studio pairs.
Neutral Sound Signature
Thanks to physics, no headphone can be completely neutral. However, studio headphones tend to have tunings that try to render the source audio as faithfully as possible. The upside to this is that studio headphones are often brighter and more detailed than consumer-oriented pairs.
The downside is that you’re going to hear every flaw in the recording, mixing, mastering, and compression. Once you start hearing these flaws, you’ll have a hard time stopping. Distortion, background noise, awkward edits, and more will all jump out at you thanks to the typical studio tuning.
Audio engineering is a difficult thing to do, and most pop music is mixed to be heard on consumer-style gear, so it has a particular sound to it. This sound doesn’t always play well with studio gear. Also, audio mixing is not always the highest-budgeted part of album production, and even well-produced albums can have little issues.
To me this is all part of the fun. Becoming a more critical listener is one of the most entertaining parts of the audio hobby, for me, and it’s easier to do that if you’ve got at least one decently-neutral studio pair to listen to.
Studio headphones are almost never marketed or advertised outside certain internet circles, and they are frequently based on older designs that have already made back their development costs. That means they tend to be cheaper than other pairs, and provide better audio performance for that dollar.
Most of what you’re paying for in consumer audio is the R and D and marketing budgets. Lots of the older studio designs have been making pure profit for years now, so companies can afford to make a little less per unit sold.
This is why studio headphones fluctuate wildly up and down in pricing week-to-week, while most consumer headphones stay at stable price points.
If you’re a fan of good deals and looking for headphones, check out studio models first!
The Beyerdynamic DT770 is probably my favorite example of studio headphones on the market right now. Comfy, durable, and great-sounding, and starting at about $149.
Consumer headphones are the models you’re probably the most familiar with. The vast majority of headphones sold today have a Beats logo, a Bose logo, or a Sony logo on them (Sony makes all three kinds of headphones in this article). Other big competitors in this market include companies like Skullcandy and JVC.
Top 3 reasons to choose consumer headphones
Style and Design
Do you want to look cool wearing a pair of headphones? Do you want headphones that will fit into your personal style/attire? Do you want headphones that will look sleek and fold down to fit into a small bag?
Then you probably want consumer headphones. They do design better than anything else. They hide all the screws. They don’t have exposed cables. They sit close to the head. They come in lots of fun colors.
Sometimes, this design-focus comes at the expense of other things, like comfort, build, and sound. You’re often paying to help subsidize the design and marketing of consumer headphones.
Also, I’m not saying I don’t like the design of other styles of headphones. Heck, I just spent a few minutes lovingly holding my DT770s that I’m wearing while writing this.
I’m not joking.
But consumer headphones are almost always design-first, everything else later.
Consumer headphones are the most feature-packed. I’m talking about things like wireless functionality, multiple device connection, phone control and call support, and active noise-cancelling. If you want your headphones to do more than just play audio, you probably want a consumer-style pair.
Most of the latest feature advancements happen in the consumer space. It’s where all the “innovation” is, beyond just trying to make the headphones sound good. My favorite new trend is auto headphone calibration. Both Sony and JVC have models that will try and adjust their sound based on how good the headphones are sealed on your head, accounting for things like glasses and different haircuts. Cool stuff!
Consumer headphones often have warmer signatures, with boosted bass and relaxed treble. This tends to be quite forgiving of badly-mastered material, and makes for a more pleasant listening experience that’s comfy for hours and hours.
Is it the most detailed, accurate type of sound? No. But for average ears, it’s more fun to listen to for a longer period of time. If you’re planning to have some epic gaming marathons or use your headphones for background music, you’ll probably prefer a consumer style pair. Provided you can find one that didn’t sacrifice too much comfort for design.
The Sony MDR-1000X is my favorite pair of consumer-style headphones on the market right now. Note how they smoothly hug my head compared to the DT770s above? They’re also feature-packed. And expensive. You can expect to pay more, in general, for consumer headphones than you pay for either of the other two types here.
“Gaming Headsets” are really just pairs of headphones with microphones included in some fashion. Many folks recommend buying a separate pair of headphones and a dedicated microphone over a gaming headset…but I think that’s a little bit silly today with how many good gaming headsets are out there. Big players in the headset market include HyperX, Razer, Turtle Beach, and Steelseries, among many others.
Top 3 reasons to buy a gaming headset
Do you need a mic for gaming? Then go ahead and get a top-rated gaming headset. I know, I know, you could just get a separate mic or a mic that clips to your shirt, or one that magnetizes to the side of your headphones. But I think that’s silly and then you have to deal with an extra cable.
Microphone and audio quality have both come far enough in gaming headsets that you shouldn’t feel ashamed for buying one out of convenience.
Virtual Surround Sound
If you want virtual surround features, software or hardware solutions often come packed in with gaming headsets. These range from middling to great. Now true, if you’re on PC you could just check out the excellent free Razer Surround software, but that’s not an option for everyone.
On PS4, Sony’s virtual surround modes are exclusive to their headsets. Microsoft just added free virtual surround for all headphones in apps to the Xbox One through Windows Sonic, and that feature will expand to support games soon. More on that in a future article!
Many gaming headsets have retractable or removable microphones, and they can do double duty as a regular pair of headphones. If you’re looking for the most versatile headphones for the least amount of money, a well-reviewed gaming headset is not a terrible option.
If you don’t want to own a million pairs of headphones or you’re just starting out, a good gaming headset might serve you better than a more- specialized and more- expensive pair. The jack-of-all-trades approach to sound won’t be as high quality as dedicated headphones, perhaps, but something well-regarded like the HyperX Cloud or the Arctis gets you 90 percent of the way there. A good gaming headset can serve equally well as your portable setup, your home setup, and your gaming setup with mic!
I hope that set you in the right direction! When you manage to pick one of these categories, don’t forget about comfort! All three categories contain plenty of models across the entire comfort spectrum. The more comfy headphones are always better. Don’t tolerate uncomfortable headphones. You’ll quickly grow to hate them even if the sound is perfect. Return them if they don’t fit you nicely!