Cutting the cord
I thought it would be simple.
Toward the end of 2019, I bought my first “decent” headset as I started streaming – the Corsair HS35. I managed to pick it up in a sale for £30 – which at the time felt like a lot of money to be spending on headphones compared to the earbuds included with my phone. But with the increasing use the buds had started to irritate my ears, and it seemed worth the plunge. For a few hours of gaming or streaming per night, I was definitely going to get my money’s worth.
Roll forward just a few months, and I have to work from home. I’m suddenly wearing the HS35’s all day, in and out of meetings, sometimes 12 hours at a time, with few breaks. They held up shockingly well. They were extremely comfortable, with breathable fabric earcups and a thick wodge of padding on the headband. The cable was perhaps a little short, but manageable.
But after wearing them this way every day for weeks, the plastic headband was starting to feel the strain. Cracks had started to form along the joints, and I was in need of a replacement. Given the sudden increase in usage, and therefore importance, I thought to do it properly. I wanted comfort. I wanted wireless. Preferably a set that wouldn’t be too obtrusive on work calls, but with enough power for playing games later in the evening. And I was hoping to get all this for less than £80 because that’s how much I had in Amazon vouchers.
Essentially, I wanted my existing headset – with one less wire. Surely I thought – this can’t be too hard? Or cost too much?
12 headsets and many trips to the post office later, I finally have the headset that works for what I need. Journey with me through the difficulties of buying headsets online when you have no ability to go into a store…
Lessons learned TL;DR
This is a bit of a long post, mostly therapy, with a little bit of headphone review. I wrote this so that I didn’t feel quite as bad about having spent three months ordering & returning stuff, filling my house with boxes, and getting familiar with the local drop-off point staff. I won’t blame you if you don’t read it! But I did learn a few things throughout my experience that I thought to summarise at the top, for the TL;DR:
- RTINGS.com has one of the best review processes for these things that I’ve found. I only discovered their reviews midway through research and testing, but I would thoroughly recommend checking over this list when buying. I’d also recommend Soundguys for the sheer volume of sets they test.
- Fit is everything! So what’s worked for me might be completely different for you. RTINGS also do a great job at breaking down everything comprehensively into different categories – so if you’ve had one or two headsets/headphones they’ve reviewed that you can compare to, that’s a really solid starting point (one which I only discovered late on).
- Wireless headsets are – inevitably – heavier than wired ones. Batteries aren’t light. And headsets, in general, seem to be an issue for glasses-wearers. I would recommend fabric wherever possible for the earcups to keep your ears relatively cool, and get good padding on the headband, for maximum comfort.
- These are also premium products – and the sound is generally pretty good across all of them. I won’t make too many comments on the sound overall because my ears are not good enough to pick out the huge differences – particularly given that a lot of these comparisons are not side-by-side. But the step up from any relatively cheap wired headset/headphones to these is night-and-day. If you’re an audiophile, there is probably better value in dedicated headphones though.
Practicalities of shopping online
- Love ’em or hate ’em, Amazon has one of the best return systems and policies of retailers I used as part of this. Not only do they sell some second-hand options that can keep your costs down, but I also got a full refund with no quibble for every headset returned – just by re-boxing it and dropping it to a local corner shop. This applied to both new and used headsets – although I generally stuck to second-hand stuff for money reasons. This was usually after a few days of testing, too – in one case I held on to a pair for 12 days and had no issue returning them.
- When buying second-hand, be aware that they deliver slower and they’re not always very specific about any issues. One headset that was listed as “missing a cable or wire” was missing the wireless receiver, making it pretty much useless as a wireless headset.
- PC World on the other hand had the worst system – only allowing a visual inspection of products bought online when accepting returns. The one headset I did try with them (the first of the Cloud Flights) got held up in a customer service wrangle before I got a refund from them, and led to me not trying with them again.
- If you can’t stomach Amazon, I would highly recommend trying with them first, then returning and buying elsewhere if giving them your money isn’t to your tastes.
- The best value is found in sales obviously – if you can wait, I would set up price alerts on CamelCamelCamel (for Amazon) or wherever you choose to shop and wait. It seems obvious, but the step up from sub-£100 to over £100 headsets is substantial in the wireless space. It’s worth the wait if you can hack it. Black Friday sales were excellent for me, and sites like Techradar, Eurogamer, or wherever you get your tech news from will track deals for you so you don’t have to. There are some direct-from-maker sales I wouldn’t have spotted if it hadn’t been for Eurogamer.
Anyway. With that out of the way, welcome to the-thing-that-kept-me-distracted-during-a-pandemic.
The logical first step
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? I thought that if I had joy with the entry-level wired headset from Corsair, surely the entry-level wireless one by the same brand would do the job? Enter the Corsair HS70 Pro Wireless.
A few things struck me immediately about the HS70. Firstly, the build quality. This is by no means a budget headset in the way the HS35 is. Metal, leather, and a stitched headband offer a real step up in overall look and feel. It remains relatively low-profile – a plus for the working-from-home-bee. And the audio delivered a real additional punch versus my existing kit – bass, in particular, had a lot more power, with everything else a lot more clear and crisp.
Confusingly, the HS70 Wireless is equivalent to the HS60 wired headset, while the HS70 wired headset is closer to the HS75 wireless headset, in case you’re moving from one of these up to the wireless versions. Go figure.
The first few hours were a joy. The surround sound in particular was a highlight – really enhancing (even superficially) the tiny bit of FPS I tested it out with and was possibly the best surround sound I tried. I was having a blast taking calls and being able to get up and stretch instead of being tethered to the desk all day. It was all starting out so well.
But I hadn’t accounted for something. You see, I’m a glasses wearer – and the HS70 clamps HARD to the sides of your head. This is great for stability, but not so good when you have rigid-framed glasses that have no flex to compensate for headphones. The clamping force – combined with firm leather earcups that offered a good deal of padding but not much give themselves – drove the arms of my glasses into my head. Soon, I was getting headaches after only an hour of wear.
The next day, they were nearly unwearable. The damage was done. Back in the box they went – with a lesson learned. Softer earcups and less clamp were a must – not features that are heavily focused on in reviews. Not to be deterred though, I thought I’d try another established gaming brand next.
The great unknown
Am I a bit of heathen for saying I didn’t really know HyperX before this? Other than those bright-red Quadcast mics some streamers have? While I buy gadgets, most stuff I own is often cheaper/no-name brands, or functional rather than fun. So plumping next for the HyperX Cloud Stinger Wireless was partly a few hours of research, partly gut feeling based on the reputation of HyperX producing decent products – like the Quadcast.
I actually was warned off this headset. A friend of a friend had the wired version of this headset and advised the padding wasn’t all that great. Unfortunately, they weren’t wrong. While the band of padding was plenty thick, it was too narrow – so the weight of the headset was focused on one part of your head. It was a bit like wearing a pair of headphones you might get on a plane – fine for a bit, but you end up with a sore spot where they’ve been resting.
The earcups were small – combined with the leather, it left your ears getting hot very quickly. Not ideal for longer calls. As with the Corsair above, the sound was strong – but the surround was very, very distorted. The flip-to-mute mic was actually a really cool feature and very helpful to get it out of the way when I wasn’t using it. And the wireless range could reach further than any other set I tested. But the comfort was a problem – fine for bursts of an hour or two, maybe for a single raid in an online game. But not something to rely on for longer sessions. A shame really. It was the cheapest set I tried at around £65 (which was a lot more than my old Corsair’s still) and I think it showed. I’d clearly be looking at the upper limit of my budget.
Following the Stinger coming short, I thought I might need to try quite a few more before I found what I needed. So I started ordering several headsets at a time – taking advantage of Amazon’s good returns policy and my local return point only being five minutes away. After all – it’s a pandemic. What else was I going to be doing? I didn’t think the Stinger was hundreds of miles away from what I needed, and the audio was great, so my next picks were the steps up from HyperX – the Cloud Flight and Cloud Mix – and a bit of a punt on a Logitech headset, too, because why not at this point?
Learning the postie’s name
So about that Logitech headset? It was a BEAST.
This one I was quickly done with – I didn’t test it too much, to be perfectly honest. It was MASSIVE. It was well-padded and worked great with my glasses, but had a form factor that rather made me look like a Cyberman. If it was a pure gaming headset and I’d never be seen wearing it, I would’ve more seriously considered it. But it was a little too conspicuous for work purposes. This almost went back in the box as quickly as it came out.
This gave me more time to spend with the HyperX Cloud Flight. Or rather it should’ve done. Turns out I had the best luck imaginable – and picked up a faulty pair with no sound in the left earcup at all over wireless. And funnily enough, I kinda liked hearing both sides of my music. For some reason, wired use was fine. And wired, it seemed to have potential. So I ordered another two sets, to give me a decent shot at the hardware lottery not letting me down again – and we’ll return to these later.
Finally, the Cloud Mix. Not a bad headset, in the same vein as the Cloud Flight. Similar build and audio quality and highly recommended if you needed a headset that can be used via Bluetooth. My PC, however, did not have this essential ingredient. It worked great with my phone and tablet, so I’d recommend it for xCloud or if you like playing games primarily on phone. It’s an expensive option for that, but hey. It was reassuring to see that the Cloud Flight would likely be a good fit for me when I had a working set.
By this point, the staff at my local drop point had gotten to know me fairly well from all the returns and were doing a booming trade in Dairy Milk Caramel. As it turned out I wasn’t even halfway through my search, either.
Partly out of frustration with the little niggly issues I was encountering, I decided to stretch my budget a bit further too. After all – I wanted to get the right set for me, hopefully for the next few years. I didn’t mind expanding my search upwards if it meant getting the right thing – it would still only be a small actual cost to me because I was still using vouchers. I figured I could test something out of my range and then return it until I saw a sale. So the next few headsets came in between £80-120 (except the Cloud Flight replacement sets), the tier up from the sub-£80 sets tested so far.
The Home Stretch?
I said earlier we’d come back to the Cloud Flight. Well. This time I got two!
As it turned out, this wasn’t necessary – I ended up with two working sets. And these initially felt like the answer to my problem – so much so that I recommended them to someone else, who loves them. They were solid, well-featured, and even took me through some longer charity streams without any issues. There were some quirks – this is one of the few sets on which the volume wheel sets the volume at software level rather than hardware level. This means if you’re using them wired the volume wheel won’t adjust anything.
But more importantly, my persnickety need for comfort reared its head again. Because the earcups use leather like many of the others so far – and relatively well-padded leather at that – my ears were getting really hot by the end of a few hours of use. Not usually an issue, normally I’d go make a coffee or something here and there. But it did see the return of an earlier issue – I was starting to get headaches.
If I wore my glasses less often (something I did to try and get by), or if I was at my PC less day-to-day, I would’ve stopped there – this would’ve been my headset. My other finicky complaint about the headband not quite having enough padding would’ve been ignored or managed. I would – and have – continued to recommend this headset to others if you can find it on sale or second-hand because it’s great value for money otherwise. But for my specific (perhaps overly so) requirements, they wouldn’t cut it. Top 5, but not quite enough… In the post they went. More Caramel consumed.
But hey, we were close right? Maybe they’d make some tweaks with the next generation. Enter the Cloud Flight S.
The bigger brother of the Flights, the Cloud Flight S has the same quality build married with some additional premium features – like Qi wireless charging (if you have compatible chargers) and an “improved” sound stage. I’m not sure about all that – the sound was perhaps a degree or two better, but not night-and-day. The upgrades I hoped to see here were some extra padding in the headband and a softer earcup. This would’ve made it a perfect purchase for me – and I was genuinely gutted that wasn’t a thing.
It did feel a little better padded, but I can’t be sure that wasn’t just me desperately hoping it was at this point. The earcups were definitely softer, but I did eventually develop a sore spot on my head from the band. To be honest, at nearly £50 above the basic Flight, I didn’t want something that was a little bit too warm, a little bit too tight on the glasses, and a volume wheel that was a little too sensitive still. Such a shame.
And here, we have a brief footnote on the Corsair Virtuoso Wireless. Recommended to me by another streamer following a desperate cry on Twitter for a glasses-friendly recommendation, I had high hopes for this.
But herein lie the perils of buying “Very Good” condition items on Amazon, as noted in the summary. Described as missing a cable, I figured this might mean there was no AUX cable or Micro-USB charging cable, neither of which would’ve been an issue. You can replace these pretty easily. In this case, however, the missing cable was the actual wireless dongle for the headset. For my money, I would’ve thought Amazon would list this at a lower grade than “Very Good”. It sounded fine wired, but that’s not really the point. So, no real testing of this one was done – and a new set was unfortunately way outside my budget – even when they did eventually go on sale.
The Top 3
It was at this point in my search that some Actual Science finally came into the hunt. I discovered RTINGS.com and their filterable database of headset reviews! It felt like I’d already tested half of their database anyway (I hadn’t), and that gave me a great frame of reference for what each setting meant. You can even sort by clamping force, and headset weight! Two things I’ve just spent nearly 2,000 words complaining about. What magic. I’ve put a link to that very list in the TL;DR section above, and here.
A surprise contender on that list was the Razer Nari Ultimate – which just so happened to be on sale at the time, bringing it under £100 and close to my ideal price bracket.
This really set me on the path to my eventual winning headset. As a gaming headset, this arrived firmly in my top 3 – even if not so much as a piece of workwear. The sound was strong and punchy, the ski-goggle headband was an absolute joy on my head and the mic did a pretty good job to boot. The retractable mic was actually a great idea and felt a much better solution than flip-up or removable ones. The earpads apparently were “cooling gel” which I’m not 100% convinced did the job. The slightly too shallow nature of the cup meant your ears touched the speakers, but they were very comfortable with a fabric-y finish.
I really, really liked these. Even the bulk – while significant – didn’t feel unmanageable. The haptic feedback was… Weird. There was nothing I tested on it that made me feel like it was anything other than an odd marketing gimmick. I mean. Who actually wants their headphones vibrating along with their music or games? Maybe it’s just me. I’m not a huge fan of controller vibration on the whole either, but it was just weird. But hey – cool to try something new. My only quibble with it really was the battery life which was noticeably short. But I’m at my desk nearly all the time anyway – so charging when I’m stuck on a video call made this manageable.
So surely now I’d done it? I’d cracked the puzzle and found my crown. The journey was over and I could stop writing this daft article?
I think we should all know better by now. Unfortunately, the Nari had been too successful at refining what I wanted. The ski goggle headband made me start thinking that actually, after all this, maybe I should’ve just been going for the headset many, many “best headset” lists rated top – the Steelseries Arctis 7. It featured a ski goggle headband. Fabric earcups. Retractable mic. And highly commended across the board (including by WGN’s own Jordamundo)!
Maybe I should be going in for a penny, in for a pound, and really stretching to get the best I could if I was committed to this. But I stood firm. It was still out of my price bracket – and no matter how many times I’d looked, there just did not seem to be second-hand ones available at a low enough price. I would stick with this humongous set of Razer cans and my work colleagues could just marvel at how I looked sort of like the King out of Katamari Damacy.
But Black Friday rolled around a week later.
And the Arctis 7 went on sale.
As soon as it did, I put my order in. I’d actually been saving for a few weeks to do the bulk of my Christmas shopping during Black Friday sales anyway, and following another headset recommendation, I decided to make these two last throws of the dice. If neither of these last two worked out, I had a headset I was pleased with already in the Nari. But I couldn’t come this far and just NOT try. What do you take me for? A responsible adult with more pressing concerns than a headset?
So that recommendation first? That would be the Corsair Void Elite Wireless. These are gamer – through and through. Actually, head-on they don’t look too bad – but from the side, there’s no mistaking it. All angles and edges and RGB.
And in fairness, these were my runner up. Purely on comfort, these were king. Finally, a headset that didn’t feel the need to use leather! The fabric padding in the headband and earcups were reminiscent of my old HS35’s (by the same manufacturer no less). They were breathable and didn’t press too much on ye olde spectacles. The mic did the job, and while the audio maybe lacked a bit of the oomph of some of the other headsets I tested, this seemed a fair compromise for the sheer comfort I experienced wearing this set. The on-set controls worked really nicely too. The flip-up microphone was a little conspicuous and non-removable, but I quickly learned that push-to-talk was a better option here rather than fiddling about with it.
Would I have picked these over the Nari’s? It’s hard to say. I think the Nari Ultimate was a better overall product. But for what I was looking for? The Void Elite won out. Ultimately, there can be only one winner – and I can’t help but agree with all those top headset articles. The Arctis 7 is a beast of a headset at this price range – if you can nab it on sale.
And the winner!
So let’s start at my traditional sticking point – comfort. This headset has that in spades. The Arctis 7 married the ski-style headband of the Nari Ultimate that I loved so much with the fabric earcups of the Void Elite. It is perfect for me, going most of the day through work, and well into the evening while playing some multiplayer games or watching streams. Quality-of-life things like a retractable microphone, on-ear audio mixing to adjust the mix between voice chat & game audio (something I didn’t realise was missing from the others until I used it), and even a wired solution that allows you to use this with the Xbox One are huge bonuses. It really looks the part too – premium build, low profile. Just great for work calls where you don’t want to look like you’re about to light up a nightclub with RGB.
The sound too is solid. As I mentioned before, I’m not qualified to review sound quality overall but this is close to the best, if not the best, that I tried, according to my puny ears. The microphone is pretty clear by a headset standard too – not overly sensitive so it doesn’t pick up loads of breathing, while still clear enough for calls and chat. You wouldn’t want to use these for streaming or voiceover on their own – nor should you want any of these tested for that purpose. But the mic is great for everyday use.
The battery life is really good too. I only find I need to charge it every two or three days of heavy use. I hadn’t really noticed a need to charge any headset too quickly, but the life on this is notably good. The wireless receiver too is great – running off a long wire you can place on your desk, rather than being stuck in your PC in an awkward place where you might not get the best signal. All in all, I can’t really find much to fault it.
I love this headset. It’s been worth the hunt and the wait for it to come on sale – I do feel like I actually grabbed a rare Black Friday bargain, not just some clearance stock reduced to go. Throughout this whole
ordeal experience, I’ve found more than a few headsets that I’d recommend for different use cases, but this was the perfect one for my lofty and exacting standards.
If you’re not needing absolute comfort for 12-hour wear, then there are some other options that can save you some money. The Cloud Flight, Nari Ultimate, and Void Elite get a big recommendation from me. But above them all, the Arctis 7 stands tall if you’re looking for a wireless set under £100 and you have the patience for a price drop.