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Are Wired Gaming Headsets Still Better Than Wireless?

Gaming is bigger than ever, and more and more people are recognising the pivotal role that sound design plays in the gaming experience. From the slap of the best boss OST in the world to the pitter-patter of footsteps in multiplayer fps' and of course the shriek-inducing jump scares of indie horror; sound design accounts for moment-to-moment gameplay decisions and climactic cinematics alike.

With the importance of audio cues in games so revered, it makes sense that gamers would want a headset that makes the most of that design. Tinny, out-of-sync audio is the last thing you want when you sit down to play and for years these qualities were associated with wireless gaming headsets.

Let's look at the facts of the most recent technology and if wired headsets will ever be replaced for good with wireless. Recent efforts from PlayStation for the Pulse seem to imply that maybe, wireless tech is finally catching up.

Setting the Scene

Sometimes comparisons are needlessly derivative and reductionist, and gaming is rife with that sort of content. It only takes one glance at Crash being called a Souls-Like or any water-based steampunk game being "Bioshock but..." to notice the industry is obsessed with comparison.

In this case, however, it's actually going to be helpful to directly compare the stats and ins-and-outs of a wired headset to a wireless one and see just exactly how they measure up in 2023.

Wired Headset Pros

Firstly, ignoring wireless for the moment, the main benefits of wired headsets are:

  • Plug & Play Compatibility with 3.5mm / USB Ports
  • Lossless Sound Transfer Via Cable
  • Stereo Sound with Microphone Input Too
  • Immersive Driver Units for High Fidelity Audio
  • No Need to Recharge / Change Batteries

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but paints a general picture of why a wired headset is so vital to gaming.

Now, how does a wireless headset stack up?

Round 1, FIGHT

Wireless Headset Challenge

The pros of the wired headset will now be contextualised against a wireless one

Pro 1 - Plug and Play Compatibility

This is one way in which wired headsets claim an early lead, because the universal appeal of both 3.5mm and USB ports make wired options incredibly compatible. For PC gaming, console and even mobile the same wired headset can service them all.

Meanwhile, a wireless headset will have more restrictions. For one, the connection will need to be established either via Bluetooth (Something the PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch didn't even support at launch) or direct RF Radio Frequency which requires dongles and adapters to work.

Both of those connection options are arguably more hassle than a 3.5mm port and an AUX cable, so wired headsets get some credit for that Plug & Play appeal.

Pro 2 - Lossless Sound Transfer Via Cable

This is where things get tricky, because while there is no denying that data transfer through a cable results in lower latency, wireless technology can rival the speeds of cables to the nearest frame at 30fps.

To explain a little more: Wireless connections are slower than wired, they have a higher latency. However, a latency of 33ms is the "perfect" response time to line up with 30fps gameplay. What this means is that even if a cable was as fast as 1ms latency, the audio experience would line up just the same with the visuals.

What this means is that while wireless audio is slower, the best connections are not slower enough that it will make a difference to 30fps gameplay.

The quick-thinkers among you have already worked out that 60fps gameplay would need around 16ms of latency to remain in perfect sync, and in this case a cable would be required to achieve frame-sync with the audio.

Fortunately for wireless headphones, "frame perfect" audio is a luxury rather than a requirement. When most games played online feature a native ping of up to 80 - 90ms anyway, a few ms of delay in your audio isn't going to be enough to cause any issues or break immersion. I am not here to say wireless is as fast as wired, but I would like to argue that wireless has gotten fast enough.

Bear in mind that Bluetooth 5.0 can reach latency as low as 40ms natively, without any enhancements. While RF connections can be as fast as 15 - 20ms! These are both suitable for 30fps sync and even almost 60fps frame-sync.

Pro 3 - Stereo Audio and Microphone Channels All in One Cable

This is another simpler debate, as wired headsets are able to not only carry audio but also microphone inputs simultaneously with no bearing on audio quality.

Wireless headphones rely on needing both a receiver, and transmitter. This means that whenever the microphone is engaged, the entire headset changes its Bluetooth arrangement and lowers sound quality.

If the microphone is disabled, then the wireless headset will perform on-par with a wired headset. But, the moment you need a mic as well, the wired options will prevail.

Pro 4 - Powerful Driver Units and High Fidelity Audio

This is a little bit of a red herring because nothing about the wired or wireless nature of a headset affects which driver units are built-in. That is more a matter of the brand, cost and goal of the product itself. For example August headphones use premium 50mm drivers in some cases where big-brands stick to 40mm! A larger driver unit takes more power but can provide a deeper, high-ranging sound.

When it comes to wired vs wireless, be sure you really know what that is affecting. Just because a headset is wireless doesn't mean you should skimp on sound quality, and you should always compare the driver units to make sure that both wired and wireless headsets are making the most of that technology.

Pro 5 - No Need to Recharge

Of course, the largest difference between the two is that wireless headsets will inevitably need a recharge. While that fact isn't going away, there are ways to mitigate the effects.

Many wireless headphones allow you to use them wired when they are charging as a sort of hybrid. This means you can still benefit from your headphones when they do need charging, so you're never stopped from gaming when you want.

In addition, wireless headsets are wireless, and the cost of that freedom to switch console easily, use on-the-go and take on trips is unfortunately the need to charge them from time to time.

Are Wired Headsets Better Than Wireless?

Overall, wired headsets hold one primary advantage which is the compatibility of Plug & Play cables. All the expectations about sound quality and latency are ultimately unfounded in 2023 given all the upgrades Bluetooth has had in recent years.

If you value plug and play, and know you'll be using the microphone all the time, then wired is the way to go.

However, if you aren't going to be using the microphone as much and need a high-quality headset for portable gaming on a commute or just cosy sofa-sitting at home then a wireless headset will serve you as well as any wired headset could!

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