USB vs. Soundcard for your Headset
We have recently been looking at quite a few headsets for gamers and as you know headsets hold a special place in the hearts of myself and Doug. When we started the review we saw some analog and some USB sets but since none of them were really the same headset a proper comparison was just not fair. However I REAALY wanted to do a comparison and talked to a few companies about this. Our friends at Steelseries though this was a good idea and sent me their Diablo III headsets which are very close in design to their Siberia v2 headsets we already had.
So with these two headsets in our hot greedy little hands it was time to let the testing begin. For the purpose of our test we used my main gaming rig and put in a Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Champion Series card with the front I/O Port. Four our USB hookup we used the front USB ports on our Thermaltake Level 10 GT case. I considered using the rear hookups because they would have less cabling in them and could give a cleaner signal but I wanted a realistic setup and the front connections were more likely.
As we do with all our headset testing we ran sound comparisons using music, movies, games and a microphone comparison done by recording me speaking. The testing was done in two rounds, the first with the sound set at default, stock settings and the second with the sound tweaked using the control software for both methods.
At the stock settings the X-Fi and Analog headset were clear winners with the sound having a much richer tone to it. Bass in my musical choices was clear and thumped nicely, the movie playback had clear sound with explosions and special effects having good rich tones and the game playback was really nice to listen to. The USB headset was not awful, I have heard much worse over the years but it was not close to the sound delivered by the X-Fi. The bass was lacking and this resulted in everything having a sound that was just not pleasing, the depth of sound did not seem to be there.
Opening the controls for the USB headset I found that Steelseries has some very basic software with a nice feature. You are not seeing wrong, that is a simple 5 band EQ. Now the sound guy in me cringed when I looked at this, a 5 band EQ is not going to give me a lot of control but I was pleasantly surprised at much effect it did have. With just a few minutes of tweaking I was able to pull in a sound that I really enjoyed, equaling if not being a little better than the X-Fi at stock.
Now the cool feature I mention is under the properties tab. There I can select an EXE and have the sound dynamic I created with the EQ change automatically for the program I am using. Now in fairness I am personally not likely to use this. I like to get my sound tuned in the way I like it and find that it works well for me in anything I am listening to, but I do know a lot of people that like to tweak sound for specific uses and this would be very handy.
Opening the software for the sound card gives a much richer set of tools to adjust the sound. We double the EQ controls to 10 channel as well as have controls to add other effects. Playing with the settings I was able to take the sound to an even higher quality level again passing the USB solution but not by much. While I was able to achieve some more bass and a bit more sound depth the difference was not enough to really effect my listening pleasure.
After we got the listening testing done it was time to turn to the recording, using the microphone. Again I tested at basic settings and then tweaked the settings. The USB solution had no real tweaks to the microphone other than adjust the levels. The X-Fi however has a very rich sound recording package that essentially gives you a small mixing board for your PC. However even with these extra tools the recorded audio quality was nearly identical.
Now looking at this setup I can imagine some of you are wondering why I would compare a good quality sound card to a USB solution. Why not instead compare to the onboard sound that can be found on most motherboards? Well I did actually start there and what I found was that the USB solution was better at stock than the sound on 3 different motherboards, all using Realtek solutions. I realized I needed to up the level of this testing a bit. Further looking at the USB headsets I have looked at, they are all running around $80 or better, this means to get a meaningful headset comparisons you need a similar quality analog set, something someone that is just using onboard sound is likely to pay.
So lets begin putting our conclusions together by first looking at cost. A good sound card is around $100 and the card I chose to use is closer to $150. The basic Siberia v2 headset is around $80 and the USB solution of the Diablo III set is around $110 on Amazon. If you are spending this much on a headset then the odds are you are going to tweak it to get the sound you truly want so the base settings while an interesting exercise can be thrown out for the final conclusion.
From a pure sound quality point of view the analog set with a good sound card wins, however the margin of victory is not all that large and when you realize that 200% or better cost of that solution it is definitely not a value. While the sound card approach in this case offered some nice features for recording, the simple truth is most people do not need those features and again for the cost difference did not really matter.
Now you can see were I am heading I am sure, the USB is the better solution from a cost to performance perspective in the case I mentioned. However take that conclusion with a grain of salt. What I mean is that not all USB headsets are created equal and so this might not always play out this way. In the review I have done here I am comparing two headsets that are VERY close to identical hardware with the exception of the USB connection. This means we are actually testing the headsets less than the USB sound solution they are using.
This at the end of the day is the real test we are seeing here, can a USB solution keep up with a good analog solution and the answer is yes. The USB solution from Steelseries beat out onboard sound on a few different boards and after tweaking gave an X-Fi a run for it’s money. I have recently look at another solution that produce sound close to the X-Fi as well. The key is to make sure you get a good USB sound solution.
What this means for gamers is you can have the high end headset and great sound without the added cost of the sound card. The onboard sound is usually enough for everyday use but when it comes time to delve a dungeon in Skyrim and you want the immersion of a headset then these work great and with a little less cost than getting the same quality headset with a good soundcard to make it worth the headsets cost.
USB sound has come a long way and for a gaming headset it seems a solid way to go.
Show Segment as aired 14 April 2012
Let me take the time to say thank you to Steelseries for giving us the headsets used in this comparison as well as to Kingston for providing the RAM and SSDs used in our test systems and Thermaltake for the PSUs and Cases used for our test builds.