If you’re looking at a new gaming audio accessory, then you may well be trying to decide who wins the gaming headset vs gaming earbuds battle in order to inform your purchasing decision. With both options offering excellent benefits, their own characteristics, and different best use cases, navigating the choice can be tricky. But we’re here to help you weigh up both options and get to the core of what a gaming headset or gaming earbud set can offer you.
The last two generations of consoles in particular have seen the range of gaming headsets and earbuds increase exponentially. Audio options offering various connectivity types, differing surround sound solutions, a variety of different drivers, and more, have allowed the market to flourish with excellent PS5 headsets, Xbox Series X headsets, and Nintendo Switch headsets. Even the last generation’s PS4 headsets and Xbox One headsets are still excellent performers on current-gen systems.
While the best gaming headsets will always attract attention, the role of portable and mobile gaming in recent years - in part due to the incredible popularity of the Nintendo Switch, Steam Deck, and PlayStation Portal - has seen gaming earbuds make a surging rise too.
As a result, choosing between a gaming headset and gaming earbuds has become tougher than ever. But fear not - read on, and we’ll go over all the core details and characteristics to help you come down on one side of the fence.
Gaming headset vs gaming earbuds - Design & features
The key design difference between a headset and earbuds is how each will sit on your head and in your ears. In brief, a gaming headset will sit over your whole head, with each earcup encasing your ears. By comparison, gaming earbuds will sit directly within your ears, often being ergonomic and using a variety of tips to ensure you get a snug fit. While both can be exceptionally comfortable, this is very much a personal and subjective thing - everybody’s ears are different. However, it’s not unfair to say that the extra cushioning, weight distribution, and general design form of a gaming headset means that it has more comfort built directly into its DNA. Gaming earbuds are much more reliant on your ears being a good match.
The smaller design of earbuds is less intrusive, however, so would be a good choice for someone who streams and doesn’t want bulky bits of gaming gear getting in the way of their face or presentation. This small design also means that earbuds are far more portable than gaming headsets, be it in small carry pouches or neat charging cases.
Both headsets and earbuds can be wired or wireless so there’s no clear divide here. Generally, wired variants of both will be cheaper which may help to guide a price-driven approach.
Features are where the two sets are often closely aligned nowadays. Despite there being more opportunity for features on a headset due to its size and thus the ability to house buttons and controls et al, modern gaming earbuds do offer a range of audio features too. Mid-range to premium sets on both sides can sometimes be tinkered with via software or companion apps too so flexibility and customization aren’t reserved for one or the other. Relatedly, gaming headsets’ microphones will be superior as dedicated mics can be attached or built-in to the headset’s greater size; built-in mics found in earbuds are serviceable but can’t compete with boom mics (which only a few earbud sets have).
Controls are easier to interact with on headsets too given the space for buttons and rollers. Some earbuds might offer in-line controls on the cable if they’re wired, but wireless buds have very small buttons or touch controls that will need to be memorized.
Gaming headset vs gaming earbuds - Performance
In terms of outright performance, modern gaming headsets and earbuds both do a tremendous job of offering fulsome soundscapes. However, there will be compromises in what earbuds can offer due to their smaller drivers. Being so small, earbuds can only pack in drivers of a certain size. As a result, the range of audio, overall detail, and bass capability are not up to the standard that headsets can offer. Overall, gaming headsets can deliver a more dynamic and varied audio profile.
Looking at compatibility, it’s a close-run thing. All wired variations on both sides will be compatible with all major devices due to the audio jack connection, and there’s a range of wireless options for all platforms too. Cross-compatibility in wireless audio devices is only starting to become a mainstream feature, so you’ll have to ensure you get the right model for your platform/s when choosing.
With regard to immersion, gaming headsets and earbuds can offer noise cancellation, while the design of some close-fitting headsets and earbud tips can also do a great job of sound isolation, blocking exterior noise by design too.
In terms of battery life for wireless variants of each, a gaming headset will be the better option here. With more space for larger batteries within them, gaming headsets can easily offer longer battery life than earbuds, despite the latter’s offering of a charging case.
When it comes to use cases, some differences become clear. Their smaller design and portability mean that gaming earbuds are more natural partners for mobile play. It’s incredibly neat and tidy to plug a wired set into a Switch, Portal, Steam Deck, or mobile phone and then stow them away in your bag’s smallest pocket after use. A headset takes up much more space and is less at home when on the go. On the other hand, if you mainly game at home in front of a TV and want something that offers well-rounded game audio and a clear way to communicate with your friends, then a headset will be a better fit.
Gaming headset vs gaming earbuds - Price & value
With both markets bursting at the seams, there are budget, mid-range, and premium (and everything in between) options available for both headsets and earbuds.
However, earbuds are generally cheaper, as a rule. This is especially true at the premium end of the spectrum, where gaming headsets’ price tags can extend further into the stratosphere. For example, a premium set of earbuds like the Sony Inzone Buds or Sony PlayStation Pulse Explore will cost you $200 / £200 while premium gaming headsets like the SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro Wireless or the Astro A50 have listing prices that break the $300 / £300 barrier.
Things get a little closer at the cheaper end of the price spectrum. You can pick up some robust budget earbuds like the Turtle Beach Battle Buds for around $30 / £30, and the same brand offers great budget headsets like the Recon 70 which have about the same listing price.
Our overarching advice here is to first think carefully about the other factors and characteristics we’ve discussed here. This will help guide your investment, based specifically on what you’re after. Once you’ve decided on which device you need, you’ll find it easier to then make subsequent decisions about the appropriate amount you want to spend.
Gaming headset vs gaming earbuds - Verdict
As is often the case, there’s plenty that divides these two audio devices and plenty that makes a strong case for either. There’s also a very strong case to be had, budget dependent, on having both in your setup, especially if you game across multiple devices.
In summary, we are big advocates for both kinds of devices and many of the team use both across our setups. However, if your main concern is quality audio with clarity and detail, we’d recommend sticking with a headset as the larger drivers and feature sets on offer support this. If you want something more portable, and potentially cheaper, then gaming earbuds are also an excellent option.
Buy a gaming headset if...
You want the most immersive soundscape
Combining an ear-enclosing design and larger drivers to present game audio to you, gaming headsets will give you a better overall soundscape and experience.
You want a premium, feature-filled device
If you’re after premium audio features like sidetone, EQ flexibility, and more, then a gaming headset will be the better choice, especially when you start upping the price category.
You want a top mic
Gaming headsets will offer better microphones. They’ve got a bit more room to work with for built-in mics, and boom mics will almost always be far superior to something attached to or found inside gaming earbuds.
You’re worried about comfort
While both types can offer incredible comfort for hours of use, gaming headsets will, on the whole, be the comfier option. The extra padding in the headband and on the earcups is something earbuds can’t compete with.
Buy gaming earbuds if...
You want something for mobile use
Gaming earbuds are a better fit for mobile and handheld gaming use given their overall smaller form factor and greater portability.
You have a modest budget
While you can get cheap gaming headsets and expensive earbuds, the overall pricing scale of both means that buds offer the cheaper option on a broad level.
You’re a streamer
Earbuds are great for streamers as they’ll provide great audio, work well with standalone mics, and ensure your face and head are unblocked by a bulky gaming accessory.
You already have a gaming headset
Gaming headsets are well established now, so if you already have one, gaming earbuds might be worth trying out to broaden the horizons and fill a gap you might have in your setup.
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Rob is Deputy Editor of TechRadar Gaming, a video games journalist, critic, editor, and writer, and has years of experience gained from multiple publications. Prior to being TechRadar Gaming's Deputy Editor, he was a longstanding member of GamesRadar+, being the Commissioning Editor for Hardware there for years, while also squeezing in a short stint as Gaming Editor at WePC before joining TechRadar Gaming. He is also a freelance writer on tech, gaming hardware, video games, gardens, and landscapes and is crowdfunding a book on video game landscapes that you can back and pre-order now too.