There are two basic types of headsets: binaural and monaural. In simplest terms, a binaural headset is one that you wear on (or in) both ears, while a monaural headset only has a single speaker cup, pad, or earbud. Monaural headsets are most commonly used for VoIP, and you’ve probably seen pictures of people wearing them in call centers. However, you can also get monaural gaming headsets, and you’ve almost certainly seen one before.
Binaural Vs. Monaural
If you ever owned one of these, you’re probably cringing right now as you recall the shoddy build quality. That doesn’t mean all monaural headsets are bad, and some people actually prefer them since it’s a little easier to separate out voice chat when it’s only coming through one ear, but binaural headsets really provide a completely different experience.
The main drawback of monaural headsets is that they only provide one sound option: mono. There’s only one speaker, so there’s only one channel. Now, that’s not to say that “binaural” is synonymous with “stereo,” because it isn’t. The term binaural literally just means that the headset (or headphones) are providing sound to both ears at the same time. Technically, you could have a mono headset that sent the same sound channel to both ears.
Binaural headsets do make stereo possible, though, and that’s the bare minimum that you should look for. The other main benefit of going binaural is that it makes some level of noise dampening (or even cancellation) possible. When you use a monaural headset, like the stinker to the left, you not only hear the game you’re playing through your free ear, you also hear everything else in the room. If you’re in a noisy environment (like, say, a LAN party), then you’re probably not going to hear that zombie that’s sneaking up on you, all ready to take a bite out of your head.
Of course, binaural headsets don’t have to stop at stereo either. Virtual surround sound is great and all, but you can get headsets that provide both 5.1 and 7.1 full surround sound. Think about that. Seven complete channels of sound (plus an LFE channel) dumping straight into your head. That sort of listening experience isn’t just limited to high end headphones, and it makes for a completely different gaming experience.
Choosing Between Monaural and Binaural Headsets
With the obvious benefits provided by binaural headsets, the choice seems like it would be a no-brainer. So why do monaural headsets exist, and why would you want to get one? The most obvious answer is price, and single-speaker headsets do tend to be the less expensive option. However, there are also a couple practical reasons that you might want to go monaural. The biggest one is that if you don’t want to mess around with plugging a headset into your gaming system and/or TV (which can be a complicated process in some situations), then using a binaural headset just for voice chat is actually sort of annoying. Since the game is still coming out over your speakers, the fact that both of your ears are covered up will muffle the sound, which may lead you to sliding one of the ear cups of your headset off your ear. Not only is that counterproductive, it’s also uncomfortable.
The other reason to choose a monaural headset is if you actually need to be able to hear what’s going on around you. While a high quality stereo (or surround sound) headset makes for a great gaming experience, it will also drown out (or completely mute) the outside world. If you’re listening for the delivery guy, keeping an eye on your kids, or have any responsibilities other than your game, a monaural headset makes it a lot easier to cope.