"Work headphones" is a thing. After my MacBook Pro, there isn't a piece of hardware that I use more than my headphones. As a manager, I'm in a lot of meetings, and being remote, those meetings take place online. My headphones need to be great.
After much experimentation, I settled on the Sennheiser Game ONE headset connected to the Sound Blaster Omni Surround 5.1 external sound card. I tried a couple of different headsets that I didn't care for, including the Bose Quietcomfort 35, and I'll share my thinking there. First, how I got into this mess.
Fool me twice, time to find a new headset
I went searching for a new headset after the mic broke on my second pair of Sennheiser U320 headphones. This was the second pair that had broken in as many years, so it was clear I needed to go in a different direction, but there is a lot about the U320s I like.
First, I like the USB connection. I use this headset exclusively for work, so I like the super long cord and the USB connection. The USB connection frees up the headphone port, which I use to connect my speakers. That's nice—no unplugging a cord and plugging in another cord to change audio. Because I'm fancy, I have an Alfred keyword for headphones and speakers which automatically changes my audio settings on my Mac.
The U320s also has a "side tone" that lets you monitor your own voice. As you speak through the microphone, you ear yourself a little bit in the headset. Sometimes headsets make you feel a little disjointed and this helps with that.
In my quest, I needed two things: USB and the ability to hear myself while I'm talking.
Trouble Finding the Ideal Work Headphones
The challenge with finding great work headphones is that the market doesn't quite exist yet. On one hand, you have "office headsets" and on the other hand you have "gaming headsets." The office headsets belong in a cubicle and the gaming headsets come packaged with a Red Bull. There's nothing in between. I'm leaving out the entire category of "plain old headphones" because I'm assuming you want something with a built-in mic.
The thing is, you want something in between. You want a headset that provides a great conference call experience, but you also want a headset that's great for listening to music. And you want it to look like something you'd wear to work, not to a LAN party. For me, I also want to be able to plug it in via USB and I also want a boom mic. (I know there are plenty of people who use their webcam mic or their earbuds, but I think those are pretty crappy. If I'm spending so much time on video calls, I want to give the person I'm meeting the best possible audio experience. The mic can't suck).
I almost nailed it on my first attempt. I asked our IT department to order a pair of the Sennheiser Game ONE headphones and a cheap external sound card (to convert the mic and headphone cords to USB). Everything came in and I started testing right away. (Spoiler Alert: the cheap external sound card sucked and was the only problem).
When I plugged everything in, the headphone part worked, but the microphone did not. I thought it might be the cable but I wasn't sure. What was really frustrating was that I had no great way to isolate which part was the problem. I finally realized the headset was fine when I booted up a five year old Windows laptop. Ugh. Stupid external sound card.
The Sennheiser ONEs were okay, but I wasn't an instant fan. They were a little tight on my head and the mic was very hot and seemed to easily clip. I thought I might be able to do better.
Second Attempt, a Trip to Fry's
I'd already spent more time than I wanted testing a broken setup, so I decided to head to Fry's and pick out a few different pairs of headphones to try out. I also wanted to see about getting an external sound card to solve the USB problem.
I picked up the following headsets:
I also grabbed the Sound Blaster Omni Surround 5.1 external sound card to solve the USB problem. This ended up being a great find and solved my USB problem and even some of my mic problems.
The HyperX Cloud Revolver is pretty crappy. The microphone is much worse than either of the Sennheisers and the audio is just okay. The boom mic detaches but doesn't flip up, which I find annoying. Wirecutter has one of the HyperX headsets as the best choice for "most people", but honestly, if you're buying a gaming headset, get something good.
As a pair of headphones, the Bose Quietcomfort 35s are phenomenal. The noise canceling is amazing and the Bluetooth works perfectly. Oh, and they're so comfortable. They were easily the most comfortable pair of headphones I tested. I wanted to love these headphones so bad, but I couldn't do it, for two reasons. First, the mic isn't great. It's got a decent mic on the front of the headset, but it isn't any better than what you'd get from your webcam. It might even be worse. Second, I could not get used to talking in a meeting with the sound isolating noise cancellation. It was too jarring. I felt like I had ear plugs in or was swimming in my own head. I had to stop halfway through a meeting and switch headphones.
The Sennheiser Game ZERO headphones are great in so many ways, but they have the same closed back design as the Bose and so I ran into the same issues while talking during meetings. It felt stuffy and hard to process my own voice. What's frustrating is that there are several things I like better about the Game ZERO over the Game ONE: 1) The headphones lie flat. This is a really nice touch and makes the headphones easier to put away. 2) The mic is less sensitive and doesn't seem to clip as often as the Game ONE. 3) It comes with a case! While I would rarely use it, it's nice to have a case to stow your headphones in while traveling.
Why I Prefer the Sennheiser Game ONE Headset
In contrast to the closed back design of the Game ZERO headset, the Sennheiser Game ONE headset has an open back design. This is super important because it means I can hear my surroundings—and my own voice—while talking on a call. Remember the side tone that I liked about the U320s? The open back design solves the same problem. There's absolutely no feeling of "being inside my head" while talking with the Game ONE headphones on. That's what ultimately won me over, even though I liked the overall design of the Game ZERO headset better and loved the convenience and quality of the Bose.
I've spent a week with the Game ONE headset and so far it's working great. It's started to loosen up a bit on my head, which is nice because it was tight at first. I've even updated my Alfred script to know about the new headphones.
Doing the research was a pain, but hopefully I'm good for another year.
Coda: If you're thinking about getting the Game ONE headset for work, you should also look at the Sennheiser PC 363d headset. From what I can tell, it's very similar to the Game ONE and has the same open back design. However it also includes its own external sound card, allowing you to plug the 1/8" inputs into the USB sound card without having to buy additional hardware.