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Headset vs. Headphones: The Difference & Which Is Right for You?

Last updated: 7 months ago
7 min read

Quick answer: A headset is headphones with a microphone for calls. But it’s not that simple. It affects numerous things we’ll discuss in this article.

Learn all the differences and find out which type is the best for you.

Headsets vs headphones
CONTENTS (show more)

    Quick Comparison Between Headsets and Headphones

    HeadsetsHeadphones
    What can you
    do with them?
    Listen to audio, music,
    videos, movies, games,
    etc.
    Listen to audio, music,
    videos, movies, games,
    etc.
    Do they have
    a mic?
    One or more microphonesNo microphone
    Can they
    make calls?
    Perfect for calls, video calls,
    Zoom calls, Skype, etc.
    Can’t make calls
    Can they
    have ANC?
    Can use microphones
    for ANC (active noise
    cancellation)
    Can’t support ANC due
    to lack of microphones
    Are they big?Usually bulkier
    (with a boom mic)
    Both sleek and
    bulky types
    Can they sound
    audiophile?
    Headsets are rarely
    considered “audiophile”
    All audiophile
    headphones are
    over-ear headphones

    As the name suggests, a headset is a set of headphones (for listening) and a microphone (for talking).

    Headset vs. Headphones: Which Should You Buy?

    A headset with a microphone gives you access to more features that regular headphones don’t have. However, both have pros and cons.

    Note: The majority of wireless Bluetooth headphones are technically headsets. But most people call them “headphones” out of habit. While “headset” is primarily understood as headphones with a boom microphone, e.g., gaming headsets.

    You should buy a headset if …

    Fabric ear pads on a SteelSeries gaming headset
    SteelSeries Arctis 5 headset has a retraceable boom microphone that hides in the cup.

    1. You need a microphone

    You need a microphone for:

    • Playing online games
    • Work calls and video conferences
    • Chatting with friends
    • Having phone calls over a headset

    You can buy a standalone mic for your gaming needs, but unless you’re a professional streamer, an integrated microphone is more than good enough.

    2. You want active noise cancelling (ANC)

    All ANC headphones require microphones to work.

    So, while most ANC models are called “headphones,” the correct naming would be “ANC headsets.”

    Microphones also support extra features. Features like ambient sound mode and smart assistants.

    You should buy headphones if …

    Person listening to headphones
    Sennheiser HD 6xx can only play music, not other features included.

    1. You don’t need a built-in mic

    If having a microphone isn’t important or you already have a standalone mic, buying a headset isn’t necessary.

    Also, if you plan to use them at home, ANC isn’t that useful.

    2. You want higher sound quality

    There are no high-end headsets (apart from professional broadcaster ones), whereas all audiophile cans are headphones.

    3. You want longevity/durability

    Headphones are more basic in functionality, so fewer parts could break or malfunction. Consequently, they last longer.

    Headset vs. Headphones: Differences by Category

    We’ve glanced over the main differences between the two types. Now let’s go into more detail about why one is better than the other.

    Sound quality

    As mentioned above, all audiophile models are headphones, not headsets.

    All audiophile headphones are “headphones,” not “headsets.”

    But to avoid confusion: that doesn’t mean all headsets have worse sound quality than headphones.

    It’s not that you shouldn’t buy headsets if you want audio quality. However, buying a headphone is the only option if you want top-of-the-line audio performance.

    It is not that headsets can’t sound great. But if you want top of the line audio quality, you must resort to headphones.

    Comfort and ergonomics

    For the most part, there’s zero difference between headphones and headsets in terms of comfort and ergonomics.

    Most headsets, especially wireless Bluetooth ones, have microphones discretely built into the cups, so they don’t add to the bulk.

    On the flip side, gaming headsets have boom microphones that stick out from one side of the headset. It doesn’t affect comfort. But may affect ergonomics in some models.

    Use cases and applications

    The biggest difference between headsets and headphones is in how and where you use them.

    Headphones

    • Regular headphones are best for music listening or professional work in studios.
    • They’re perfect for enjoying multimedia content like movies or listening to audiobooks.
    • Best for listening without extra features.

    Headsets

    • Headsets are best used when you expect to make calls, like in the office, for video conferencing, homeschooling, or online gaming.
    • They’re the only option to reduce background noise using ANC on public transport, during traveling, etc.
    • Headsets are best for everyday use thanks to their versatility.
    Apple AirPods Max on the streets
    ANC cancels out unwanted ambient noise, but to do that, it requires a microphone.

    Noise cancellation and isolation

    ANC needs microphones. Knowing a little about how ANC works, you need at least 1 microphone to capture ambient sound and to do the “noise cancelling magic”—more on that in how ANC works.

    So, for headphones to implement active noise cancelling technology, they must have a microphone. Which technically makes them a headset. This technically means no headphones can have ANC. Though we still call them that.

    Sure, some obscure models like QuietOn sleep earbuds have ANC (they have a mic) but can’t reproduce music or receive phone calls. So, they’re technically headphones with ANC.

    Connectivity

    Connection-wise, headphones are mostly wired. While headsets are mostly wireless using Bluetooth.

    We have yet to see over-ear headphones with wireless connectivity that lack a microphone.

    Headphone manufacturers decided that making wireless headphones without the ability to answer calls isn’t an option. Therefore, all wireless Bluetooth over-ears are headsets.

    HyperX-Cloud-Stinger-headset
    Headsets can be both wireless and wired, like these HyperX Cloud Stinger gaming headsets.

    Design and form factor

    Headphones are often built to showcase luxurious materials and provide maximum comfort, whereas headsets are usually made of plastic to keep the weight down. Some also have a big attached mic to their earcups.

    Headphones

    Headphones can be:

    • Over-ear
    • In-ear
    • On-ear
    • Closed-back
    • Open-back

    You can find all types of headphones when it comes to materials and size.

    They can be entirely plastic or use luxurious building materials such as wood, carbon fiber, and different types of metal, not just aluminum.

    Depending on driver size and cushioning, they can be slim or bulky.

    The cable can be detachable or fixed, but they always use an analog plug (3.5mm, 6.35mm, etc.).

    Headsets

    Headsets can be:

    • Over-ear
    • In-ear
    • On-ear
    • Closed-back
    • Open-back (although rarely, to avoid the audio creeping into the microphone)
    • Mono-ear

    Headsets use various construction materials but are generally plastic to keep weight down.

    They can have a detachable cable, usually with a 4-pole connector (or double 3-pole) instead of single 3-poles for microphone signal. And some headsets use a single USB plug for audio and microphone signal.

    Antlion Y-adapter
    Antlion Kimura Duo use double 3-pole connectors and an adapter to combine them into one 4-pole plug.

    Manufacturers decide on different ways to implement a microphone inside a headset. You can have a:

    • Boom microphone with an arm that extends towards your mouth. The arm can be retractable, detachable, or flippable (flips up). Boom mic headsets are common in offices and gaming headsets where voice quality is a priority.
    Antlion Kimura Duo during gaming
    An example of a boom mic.
    • A built-in microphone is hidden inside an inline module or in the earcup. All Bluetooth headsets including true wireless earbuds have a built-in microphone.
    Aukey EP-N12 microphone
    A built-in microphone is hidden under the “+” shaped hole.

    Furthermore, the first-ever Bluetooth headphones were a mono headset that you put on your ear, and answered calls while doing other things.

    Pricing and budget

    You can find headphones and headsets at all price ranges. Generally, headphones can be more expensive than headsets.

    If the price for headsets maxes out below $1,000, the price for ultra-premium headphones can go as high as $50,000. See the most expensive headphones list.

    The reason for that is:

    • Headsets target a wider audience and specific occupations that want a microphone in a bundle, so they have to offer more at an attractive price. Therefore, they need to take some shortcuts.
    • Headphones primarily sell sound quality, so they need to be as masterful as possible at it. Using various driver types, careful tuning, and expensive materials to give a luxurious experience increases the price. However, diehard audiophiles are willing to pay anything to get the best sound quality.

    Gaming performance and features

    Headsets have more features.

    Because headsets can do more things, manufacturers keep implementing new features that improve user experience.

    For instance:

    • Gaming headsets typically support virtual surround sound, either the manufacturer’s version or from DTS or Dolby.
    • Office headsets have stronger noise reduction technology and other features that clear your voice.
    • Almost all Bluetooth headsets around $100 now arrive with active noise cancellation and ambient sound mode.

    Headphones are more basic.

    Headphones have less features. The most they usually offer is removable cable. 

    However, you can use regular open-back headphones for gaming for a wider sound stage that increases immersion. You need a standalone mic or add-on like the Antlion ModMic Wireless.

    Antlion ModMic Wireless microphone
    A wireless microphone from Antlion on Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro wired headphones.

    Headset vs. Earphones

    1. A headset consists of headphones and a microphone.
    2. Earphones are a smaller type of headphones like earbuds or in-ear headphones, but they don’t go into your ear canal.

    This means earphones can also be a headset.

    Many true wireless earphones that don’t go in the ear, have a microphone.

    For example, SoundPEATS Air4 are true wireless earphones and headsets because they have a built-in microphone.

    SoundPEATS Air4 earbud comparison
    SoundPEATS Air3 Deluxe HS (above) and Air4 (below).

    You can use smaller headsets the same way as full-sized ones. They’re good for making phone calls, video calls, and even gaming. But not so good for active noise cancelling due to lack of passive isolation.

    Earbuds and in-ear monitors (IEMs) that go into your ear canal are much better headsets due to passive noise isolation.

    Antlion Kimura Solo is a gaming headset with a detachable boom mic.

    Antlion Kimura Solo gaming IEMs
    A boom mic on the Kimura Solo is attached to the removable cable.

    Related:

    FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About Headsets and Headphones

    What is the difference between headset and headphone?

    The difference between headset and headphone is that a headset has a microphone, attached or built-in, whereas a headphone doesn’t have a microphone.

    Are headsets better than headphones?

    Headsets are better than headphones by offering more features, like receiving and answering calls, active noise cancellation, transparency mode, and voice assistants. On the other hand, headphones typically output better sound quality.

    What is the difference between headphones, headsets, and earphones?

    The key difference between headphones, headsets, and earphones is that headphones don’t have a mic, headsets have a mic, and earphones are earbuds that don’t go in ear, but can either have a mic or not.

    Can you use headphones as a headset?

    No, you can’t use headphones as a headset without add-ons. However, you can adapt headphones to become a headset by mounting a separate microphone add-on or changing the cable with one that has an inline built-in mic.

    Are headsets better for gaming?

    Headsets are better for gaming if you like playing and chatting with friends. Also, gaming headsets typically come with virtual surround sound for a more immersive listening experience. That said, some regular headphones can have a huge soundstage and more detailed sound, increasing immersion.

    Conclusion

    Hopefully, you now understand headsets and headphones inside out. And you can make an educated decision on which type suits you. To recap:

    • If you plan to make calls by phone, video, or during online matches with your friends, you should pick the best headset with a mic. Sure, you can adapt headphones to become headsets, but the extra expense isn’t worth it for most people.
    • Pick the best audiophile headphones if you focus primarily on music and don’t care about the extra features a microphone brings. As mentioned, you can later buy a separate microphone if needed.

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