Although gamers mostly opt for traditional headphones, earbuds still remain a staple of the audio industry. They’re highly portable, and prove great in closing off your ears to your environment. But what makes earbuds great for gaming? We’ll tell you all you need to know, in our gaming earbuds buying guide.
For gamers, earbuds might seem like an unusual choice, but they certainly have a strong appeal. Our guide will talk you through common and/or desired features on gaming earbuds. Let’s get started with some strong points on which to consider earbuds over your traditional headset.
Why would anyone choose earbuds over traditional headphones? We’ve touched on this in our recommendations on the Best Gaming Earbuds, but it can boil down to many different factors. We’ll list some of the pros and cons, for your consideration.
Earbuds’ primary function for years — and the catalyst for their increase in popularity — is their portability. They’re small, making them easy to carry around with you, wherever you go. As opposed to headsets and headphones, earbuds fit in smaller pockets.
Having some solid earbuds on you can be highly beneficial to most gamers. Not only do they complement handheld gaming, they’re great on stationary systems too. Even if you’re over at a friend’s set-up, you’ll still have your trusty audio on hand. Considering most run a 3.5mm audio jack, you can hook them up to nearly anything.
Not everyone favors over-ear audio. Earbuds don’t “clamp” your face together; they are suspended directly in your ear. This results in less irritation around your skull, as well as less interference with your hairstyle — in cases you care for that.
This form factor can also be a downside to earbuds. Some ears are pickier than others, and won’t easily find a fit with certain earbuds. As many established earbud manufacturers supplement replaceable ear tips (and sometimes even ear wings) your chances at a comfortable fit increase greatly.
As earbuds are suspended in your ear, they auditively close off a lot of the surrounding environment. This can result in a higher sense of immersion, which is highly beneficial to gamers. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you can pinpoint positions in-game easier, but it might help you focus on your gaming experience.
Headphones can do this too, but usually to a lesser extent. Over-ear solutions rarely “close off” environmental sounds entirely, while earbuds lean towards it by default.
Let’s not kid ourselves: price matters. And yes, while traditional headphones have a higher ceiling for top-tier luxury, earbuds usually sit around lower price points. If you need portable audio in a pinch, earbuds often provide the most cost-effective way of getting there. Their entry point can be astonishingly low.
Do note that in most cases, cost-comparable headphones will outperform their bud-shaped competitors. Manufacturers can cut down prices due to smaller amounts of material needed, but bigger drivers will sound better overall — especially among budget-friendly offerings. If you favor spatial awareness over portability, your first go-to should still be a cheap gaming headset.
If there’s one thing defining gaming audio from regular audio, it’s gamers’ need for quick communication. There are shots to be called, and teammates to be scorned. Therefore, we highly recommend any gamer to choose earbuds with microphones.
These microphones will be embedded within the cable in most cases — the so-called in-line microphone — although more expensive earbuds could come with microphones integrated in their own housing. In really rare cases, earbuds could come with a (detachable) boom mic.
The quality of these microphones most likely isn’t stellar, but that’s okay. Overall, they usually do well with getting your call-outs heard, or a having a quick talk over Discord. In case the earbud is connected over a 3.5mm combo jack, the microphones can often be picked up by the controllers on gaming consoles, too.
Almost all earbuds are meant to be noise isolating, the passive kind of noise control. As they plug up your ear, environmental sounds are kept outside. The more effective the isolation of the plug, the less you’ll hear what’s around you. It’s as simple as that.
Noise cancellation is an entirely different beast. This relates to equipment’s ability to cancel out unwanted sound around you, by sending out “anti sound” to your ears. This type of active noise control requires the device to not only produce sound, but also pick up what’s around you. It’s a smart solution, but quite complex in practice.
This means that noise cancelling earbuds have at least one additional microphone, as well as an embedded sound controller and its own power source. And, you guessed it, that comes with additional costs. Earbuds that offer active noise cancellation usually cost quite a bit more than their mere noise isolating counterparts.
For most gamers, noise cancellation is overkill. It might help a bit with gaming immersion, but you’re likely to game at places that aren’t all too noisy to begin with. In many use cases, some light noise isolation is good enough.
In the audio industry, the term “driver” doesn’t relate to software, but to the actual speaker found within equipment. It’s the component that produces the airwaves that you’ll eventually hear as sound. In most cases, bigger drivers mean a bigger sound, creating more depth.
In reality, the size of a diaphragm is only one of the many variables that go into determining the quality of the sound. Bigger ones usually have more range, but it’s also about how well the component is made, how it’s oriented towards your ear, and the exact tuning of the sound too. Larger can be better, but it’s not an exact science.
In some cases, manufacturers might opt for multiple drivers per earbud. This can add additional depth and clarity to the sound stage, but again: it’s not directly better than a solid, singular driver.
The frequency range (measured in Hz) basically tells you how low and how high of a sound a particular driver can reproduce. Lower values mean deeper basses, higher ones speak for screechy pitches.
The average human ear can pick up frequencies ranging from 20 to 20,000 Hz, although bassy sounds below 20 can be felt as well. The low end is something you want to keep an eye on when choosing the right earbuds for you, as better quality speakers can often produce lower frequencies than their competitors.
Wider frequency responses don’t directly mean the driver will sound great, it just means the driver can go there. Whether it sounds good, depends on build quality and personal preference too.
As wireless technology has had a surge in popularity, many earbuds have cut their wires too. From AirPods to Galaxy Buds — the in-ear pills are everywhere. These models can go hand-in-hand with mobile gaming, but do come with some downsides as well.
For one, wireless connections are less flexible than the traditional 3.5mm audio jack, ironically enough. Not every device can utilize (all features over) Bluetooth, their connection comes with latency, and the earbuds themselves are tethered to their battery life. In addition, wireless earbuds still cost a hefty amount more than their analog counterparts. But do they sound better for that price? Sometimes, but not as a rule of thumb.
If you’re all into mobile gaming, luxurious wireless earbuds can be great daily drivers. If you want to game on Nintendo Switch, stationary consoles, or a traditional gaming PC too, it might be better to stick with the wires. Many wired models sound just as good, at lower price points nonetheless.
And that’s about all you need to know before browsing earbuds. They can be complex products, but at least you’ll know what to look for, and what you’d want to avoid. We hope our gaming earbuds buying guide will get you choosing your next purchase wisely.
If you’re ready to look at some great recommendations, head on over to our top picks for the Best Gaming Earbuds.
Looking to stick with less portable audio solutions? We cover those too! Check out our article on the Best Analog Headsets for Gaming, or find your next audio upgrade with some of the Best External Gaming DACs.