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We Tested Game Mode in Headphones & Earbuds: Here’s What We’ve Found

Last updated: 4 months ago
7 min read

Game Mode is a feature in Bluetooth headphones and earbuds that minimizes the audio delay between a transmitting and receiving device.

Using it makes watching movies and playing mobile video games more enjoyable. Especially if you play them competitively. In this article, we’ll show you:

  • What precisely is Game Mode?
  • How it works
  • How it affects your listening experience
  • When is the latency unperceivable to the human eye?
  • Test results for audio latency in Bluetooth headphones we reviewed
Gaming mode earbuds headphones

KEY TAKEAWAY

  • Game Mode aims to reduce audio delay when watching video content or playing mobile games.
  • Bluetooth typically doubles its sampling rate to lower its latency. It can also prioritize other Bluetooth audio codecs with a lower latency.
  • Based on our tests, most Bluetooth headphones and earbuds with a Game Mode exceed the visible audio delay threshold.
  • Apple AirPods offer low-latency audio only in conjunction with the MacOS’s Game Mode feature.
  • Game Mode is worth it for casual gamers, but not competitive or professional ones.
CONTENTS (show more)

    What is the Game Mode in Headphones and Earbuds?

    Game Mode (or low latency mode) is a feature that reduces audio lag between Bluetooth headphones (or true wireless earbuds) and a transmitting device (smartphone, laptop, etc.).

    Bluetooth can reduce its latency in different ways.

    Every data packet that carries audio information has a buffer or “data capacity”. Increasing the sample rate means creating more data, which fills up the buffer more quickly. Consequently, more packets are sent per second.

    Note that processing more samples means a greater strain on the processor, which consumes more power. It results in a slightly worse battery life when using the Game Mode (on earbuds and transmitting device).

    To humans, audio latency below 30ms (milliseconds) is practically indistinguishable. Some individuals can still see it, but rarely.

    EarFun Free Pro 3 mobile gaming
    While you might get away with using high latency headphones playing casual games, shooters are unplayable with audio lag.

    Don’t confuse it with the “Game Mode” feature on smartphones and gaming PCs. The latter works by reducing the number of background tasks so the central (CPU) and graphic (GPU) processors put more effort into generating in-game frames.

    Why does Bluetooth have a delay?

    Bluetooth has a delay because transferring audio involves multiple steps. Audio needs to be encoded, stored in data pockets, modulated onto a frequency, sent over the air, unpacked, decoded, processed, and sent to the amplifier.

    All of those steps contribute to some delay.

    How bluetooth transmits audio files
    There’s a lot of background processing involved in sending data from a phone to your headphones.

    We Tested Different Game Modes: Here are the Results

    We gathered a bunch of Bluetooth headphones with a Game Mode functionality for the test.

    The fascinating discovery is that except for one (SoundPEATS Air3 Deluxe HS), the rest are way above the visible threshold, meaning their lag is visible to the human eye.

    Here are the results:

    Headphones
    or earbuds
    Latency with
    Game Mode OFF
    Latency with
    Game Mode ON
    Reduction
    in latency
    Samsung
    Galaxy Buds 2
    170ms160ms-5.8%
    SoundPEATS Air3
    Deluxe HS
    140ms60ms-57%
    SoundPEATS Clear260ms150ms-42%
    SoundPEATS
    RunFree Lite
    130ms100ms-23%
    SoundPEATS
    RunFree
    170ms90ms-47%
    SoundPEATS Space120ms70ms-42%
    Edifier
    NeoBuds Pro
    150ms160ms+6.6%
    Edifier
    NeoBuds Pro 2
    160ms150ms-6.2%
    EarFun
    Free Pro
    200ms100ms-50%
    EarFun
    Free Pro 2
    190ms120ms-37%
    EarFun
    Free Pro 3
    220ms120ms-45%
    A visible threshold is anything more than 30-40ms, but you still enjoy gaming at 60ms.

    How we tested for latency

    We used a digital camera for recording video and a MiniDSP H.E.A.R.S to record our Bluetooth headphones.

    • We set the camera to record our smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S21 with Bluetooth 5.0, using AAC codec by default) at 60 frames per second.
    • MiniDSP H.E.A.R.S was connected to our Windows laptop while we recorded the audio using Audacity software.
    • We used the “Gun Sounds Gun Simulator” mobile app.
    Measuring recording audio-latency
    Our setup for recording and measuring audio latency in headphones.

    Listening to gunshots is the simplest way to determine the audio latency (the difference between a nozzle flash and an audible bang).

    Using the video and audio files, which were imported and synced in the Adobe Premiere Pro video editing software, we calculated the difference between the shot and the noise down to 10ms accuracy.

    Furthermore, to ensure our numbers are even more accurate, we recorded our smartphone using built-in speakers (which should have a minuscule latency of just a few milliseconds) and analyzed the video.

    Using both calculations, we got pretty reliable scores (as seen in the table above).

    Should You Use Game Mode with Your Headphones & Earbuds

    You should only use Game Mode if you see a noticeable lag between what you see and hear from your device (smartphone, laptop, etc.).

    Otherwise, it’s not worth bothering with.

    Puro Sound Labs PuroPro on a laptop
    Some headphones might have too high latency to make your gaming enjoyable, even if they have a Game mode.

    Forcing Bluetooth to reduce latency affects battery life and sound quality. Although this wasn’t the case during our tests.

    Many apps are now optimized to sync audio with Bluetooth headphones. This means that even if you get a delay in mobile games, you don’t get it while watching YouTube, Instagram reels, or TikTok.

    That’s because those videos don’t change based on your actions. On the other hand, when playing mobile games, your inputs constantly change what’s happening on the screen (in-game characters moving and looking around).

    SoundPEATS RunFree gaming
    Playing mobile games is the best indicator of how much latency your wireless earphones and headphones have.

    Because of the processing steps involved in transferring audio via Bluetooth, there’ll always be some delay. But using Game Mode should help make it unnoticeable.

    On the other hand, based on results from our tests, it can be challenging to find Bluetooth headphones with a latency low enough to be unnoticeable.

    Understanding Low Latency: How It Enhances Your Gaming Experience.

    Anything below 60ms delay is considered unproblematic or at least passable for watching videos and playing games. The ideal latency for gaming is around 30ms.

    That said, some studies suggest humans can notice as little as 30ms or even 20ms delay. 

    However, those are instant changes and aren’t used in the context of watching content, where your brains can adjust to make the delay less noticeable (even in real life, brains must “sync the visuals with auditory information“).

    When does the audio delay become annoying?

    Based on the research done by Stanford University regarding lip sync, the offset between -20ms (audio is faster than video) and +40ms (video is faster than audio) is unnoticeable to humans.

    Audio delay
    (lip sync offset)
    Noticeable to humans
    -20ms/+40msNo
    -40ms/+90msYes

    The lag between -40ms and +90ms is ever so slightly annoying, whereas anything below or above those numbers is considered noticeable.

    Using this information puts the numbers from our measurement table into a better context. This means that some headphones still boast overly high latency despite using their gaming mode.

    How does Game Mode enhance mobile gaming experience?

    Having low latency during gaming is crucial. Apart from being annoyed by a visible audio delay, hearing things instantaneously can be a matter of winning or losing.

    For example, hearing opponents’ footsteps or gunshots can help you locate them more quickly. Since reaction time is crucial in competitive games, even a little delay matters.

    But it’s redundant for casual games as long as it’s not annoying you.

    SoundPEATS Clear mobile gaming
    If you’re truly bothered by latency, you will probably have to resort to a wired connection.

    How Can You Reduce Audio Lag?

    How you use your Bluetooth headphones reduces or at least maintains optimal audio latency.

    Here’s what you can do:

    Avoid connection interferences

    To avoid connection interference, turn OFF Bluetooth from devices near you when playing mobile games with wireless headphones.

    Other connections can interfere with your audio signal, which means data packets don’t arrive at their destination. Consequently, they need to be sent again, which contributes to stutters and increased latency.

    Sometimes, turning OFF devices is easier said than done, especially if you live in a crowded area with many wireless connections around you (like an apartment building).

    In that case, ensure you’re using devices with the latest Bluetooth versions (Bluetooth 5.4 is the latest as of the time of writing).

    Note that both devices have to support identical versions. Otherwise, the connection runs on the oldest Bluetooth version of the two.

    Bluetooth wall interference
    Obstacles between the transmitting device and your headphones also contribute to some extra latency.

    Keep your devices close

    By keeping connected devices close, they don’t have to use as much energy to communicate. Since the signal is stronger, it’s less likely to get interfered with by other signals.

    That said, if you’re playing games on your smartphone, you’re already holding it close to your headphones.

    Use Bluetooth codecs with the lowest latency

    Some Bluetooth codecs are less efficient and, therefore, have a higher latency, like SBC or LDAC (the latter prioritizes audio over connection quality).

    Android-Bluetooth-audio codec selection menu
    A list of supported Bluetooth codecs in Developer settings on Android (the list varies from phone to phone).

    Codecs with low latency are:

    • aptX Low Latency (aptX LL)
    • aptX Adaptive (great solution if audio matters to you)
    • LLAC or LHDC LL
    • LC3

    That said, you need headphones and a transmitting device that supports the same low-latency codec.

    Special Focus: AirPods for Gaming

    Last year, Macs and MacBooks got the Game Mode feature with the MacOS Sonoma update. The feature combines CPU/GPU optimization and reduces Bluetooth latency by increasing the sampling rate.

    As a result, users get noticeably lower latency when using Apple AirPods. That said, the MacOS and the game need to support the feature, so it doesn’t work with all of them.

    Furthermore, Apple’s Game Mode is currently only available on MacOS, not iOS.

    Can you use AirPods for gaming?

    You can use AirPods for gaming, but it’s best to use it with the MacOS’s Game Mode.

    Based on our test (and tests from RTINGS), AirPods have a noticeable delay, which would be too annoying even for casual gamers.

    • Apple AirPods 3 – 187ms
    • Apple AirPods Pro 2 – 160ms
    • Apple AirPods Max – 170ms

    FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

    What is Game mode for?

    The game mode is for reducing the audio delay between your transmitting device (smartphone, laptop, etc.) and your Bluetooth headphones or earbuds.

    How do I turn on earbuds’ gaming mode?

    You turn on the earbuds’ gaming mode inside their mobile apps. It usually works if you triple-press the controls on the left earbud (see the user manual for more accurate control gestures).

    Why don’t gamers use wireless headphones?

    Gamers don’t use wireless headphones because, by default, they have a noticeable audio delay. However, features like Game Mode help minimize the delay.

    What’s the difference between music mode and game mode?

    Music mode prioritizes sound quality, which uses more Bluetooth bandwidth and increases latency (audio delay). In contrast, Game mode prioritizes low latency, which can affect audio quality (and a bit of battery life).

    Conclusion: Is Game Mode Worth It?

    As a feature, Game Mode sounds like a terrific solution for wireless gamers. However, based on our results, Bluetooth headphones and earbuds offer less than desirable latency performance.

    If you’re a casual, non-demanding player, you shouldn’t have any issues with a slightly poorer Game Mode performance.

    On the other hand, more demanding, competitive players, or even professionals, won’t find Game Mode worth it.

    Note that we haven’t tested all wireless earbuds out there, so some might truly deliver an invisible delay.

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