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Some headsets use an USB connection instead of connecting to the motherboard's regular audio output jack. Does that make them inferior in any way to other headsets? What about USB 2.0?
I'm looking for any possible decrease in sound quality, voice quality, bandwidth, anything.

I've been searching around for this, but I can't find any sourced info on it. I game a lot, and I'm shopping for a quality headset to use with my PC, but I need to know if I should stay clear of USB headsets or not.

EDIT: Obviously, actual sound quality depends greatly on the device: a crappy regular headset will have worse sound quality than a great usb headset. What I'm asking is: is there a general limitation that applies to any usb headset? Is a great usb headset necessarily inferior to other great headsets, simply because it's usb?

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So seems the consensus is that it's not that much worse but it comes with an insane amount of inconveniences. –  digitxp Oct 14 '10 at 2:44
    
I bought some USB speakers a while back and found that they could either do silence or ear-splittingly loud with no middle ground. A google search showed this was a common problem so as a result I never buy USB speakers or headsets again. –  Richard Oct 19 '13 at 23:08
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12 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The interesting part of a USB headset is the fact that you're going to have to go from digital to analog audio at some point during the transition. The problem is, good D/A converters are not cheap - last I checked, the majority of USB headsets were made of very cheap components that do not account for high fidelity listening. This can create sound coloring that is satisfactory to 95% of all listeners, but a discerning ear will be able to tell. So to answer your question, unless there's a niche headset out there with excellent converters, it isn't going to sound as clear/transparent as an audio interface with dedicated/premium converters like the Apogee Duet (when using a normal audio headset).


Just for some more background, I produce music and have been doing so for quite some time. I've run the gauntlet on different audio interfaces, ranging from consumer to full professional gear. Currently, I use the Apogee Duet as my audio interface for recording and playback. When I don't have the Duet with me and am running off of my laptop sound (which is a RealTek chipset), there is an immediate difference in response to my earphones. The difference between the Duet and the RealTek is that the Duet is much more transparent in that it is playing back the audio with as little effect on the signal as possible. The majority of that happens in the D/A converters. The Duet carries a hefty pricetag for this ability - I just can't see a $30-90 solution that includes headphones, microphone, and A/D - D/A as having the type of quality as a prosumer device. Probably because Joe Consumer doesn't really care, as long as it sounds good.


Edit 3: More information = better answer

By reading your responses to comments and what we have discussed, the short answer is No, there are not limitations of USB that jeopardize quality of sound versus onboard or internal soundcards.

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So, you're saying I can get the same quality from a USB interface, but it'll have to come at a higher price because it needs a converter? So in the $50 range I'm less likely to find a decent USB headset than a regular one. –  Bruce Connor Oct 13 '10 at 22:57
    
At the $50 range it is a tossup, and comes down to what kind of chipset is in your motherboard vs the chipset in the USB headset. If I had to choose, I'd take the traditional headset, as there's a better chance that the headphone/microphone component is better. –  Nic Oct 13 '10 at 23:54
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I believe he's saying that all USB interfaces require a converter from digital to analog (D/A). Most D/A's are satisfactory for 95% of the consumers ears but the other 5% need higher quality D/A's as they have trained their ears to hear the minute differences in the sound. –  wbeard52 Oct 14 '10 at 0:06
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Wouldn't the cheap the D/As in USB headsets also be in the vast majority of cheap soundcards too though? –  Matthew Lock Oct 14 '10 at 1:39
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In a lot of motherboards, the audio subsystem is still connected by USB, but entirely on the motherboard. A USB headset would have a USB audio chipset in the headset itself. The possible advantage is that the headset is not inside the PC, and isn't space constrained by other, more important, motherboard functions. Now, a cheap headset has other limitations, but they aren't the fault of the USB connection itself. Any headset on a PC is going to pass through a D/A converter at some point, after all. –  RBerteig Oct 14 '10 at 7:36
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I've just found this post on Ethiopian Review which lists the pros and cons of both. It lists these as the negatives for USB:

The main negative of USB headphones is that they can be finicky in regards to being bumped or unplugged. If you unplug a standard audio jack headset, it can be plugged back in and immediately be receiving sound. However, due to the USB headset being an actual device that is technically installed, it is not so immediate. The second part of this problem is that sometimes it can be difficult to get sound back in a program that is already operating, forcing a restart.

The second negative of USB headphones is that they take up a USB slot. This problem is generally easily solved, but for those with a large amount of USB related equipment it may become an issue.

But doesn't really mention the sound quality.

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Thanks, that's a good read. –  Bruce Connor Oct 13 '10 at 19:45
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The solution to the first is PulseAudio. It can pick up and drop hotplug audio devices, rerouting audio streams as necessary. –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Oct 13 '10 at 19:56
    
+1. My USB headset works flawlessly on Ubuntu 10.10, as well as Windows 7. –  Mikel Jan 23 '11 at 1:51
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In general, there's no reason for a USB device to have better or worse quality than one plugged into a sound card. It all depends on the details of the specific item.

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I own a couple of headsets, USB and non-usb. The USB one I have is the Creative Fatlity ($40). As for regular ones I have Bose Quiet Comfort (i know a stupid impulse buy) and a cheapo $20 altec lansing.

To answer your question first, no there's not much difference that I can tell (I am not a sound aficionado by any stretch). Though I feel that the USB sounds better cause the one I have stops outside noise better :). Though the Bose feel/sound even superior due to even lesser interference from outside :).

Here's my take, when you need multiple audio streams to different devices or quickly need to switch from speaker to headphones, then usb is great. However it also becomes single use, i.e. only with a PC/laptop. This is a big limitation, if you get a nice headset and want to use it with an mp3 player or stereo or share two headsets on a laptop while watching a movie, it can get difficult. AFAIK there are no USB to standard headphone jack converters.

But if you get a decent pair of analog (i.e. regular) headsets you can use them with majority of the devices in the world and no problemo! So my recommendation is still get the regular pair unless you have a specialized role that can be filled with a usb pair.

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+1 for pointing out that analog headsets are more flexible. –  CarlF Oct 14 '10 at 18:42
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USB sound cards (including those used with usb headphones) rely on your cpu to do all the work. This is true of most cheap onboard and pci/pci-e sound cards as well. But if you have a nice sound card in your gaming rig, you probably don't want a usb headset.

Personally, I'd stick with a traditional headset and just get a simple usb audio adapter if I needed that ability. They go for less than $5 shipped.

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Those USB adaptors that you linked to are actually USB soundcards. USB headsets include their own USB soundcards in exactly the same way. –  paradroid Oct 13 '10 at 20:20
    
I don't need that ability, I'm asking because some of the headsets I'm finding are usb-only. I don't have a dedicated sound card either, but I might get one in the future, so that's relevant information. –  Bruce Connor Oct 13 '10 at 20:20
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A USB audio device can have better quality than a traditional analog audio device, since it can be moved outside of the relatively (electrically) noisy environment of the PC case (which obviously does not apply to traditional digital audio such as S/PDIF).

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I have never heard of an issue with standard headphones but I have had several friends who couldn't get their usb headsets to function properly.

One friend recently ran into a static issue on his usb headset. The only thing that helped the problem was plugging his phone into one of the other usb slots.

I think you will run into more problems with a usb driven headset than you will with a traditional one.

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I've read all the posts and I don't see anyone mentioning the aspect that on USB headset you could get a 7.1 sound system. If you only use an analog headset you will have to connect about 3~4 plugs.

I don't know much about sound quality but it would be good for you to check this headset out.

http://www.amazon.com/Logitech-Wireless-Gaming-Headset-Surround/dp/B003VANOFY/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1287014961&sr=8-3

http://www.amazon.com/Logitech-7-1-Channel-Surround-Sound-Headset/dp/B001O5CCQK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1287014961&sr=8-1

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I have to admit I have not tried this headset. But I quite doubt that you'll get enough separation to make a real difference with 7.1 on a headset ... –  Guillaume Oct 14 '10 at 7:35
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I have found that you can actually change the sound by the use of different software/drivers. I've actually had sound problems that I corrected by changing the environment.

For instance, you can change the environment from:

  • room to hallway
  • hallway to club
  • club to arena, etc.

It makes all the difference in the world.

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On my system, I found a USB headset was better quality than a 3.5 mm wired headset. Presumably there is some interference on the front audio ports on my PC.

I now have a Plantronics USB 625 headset. I'm not an audiophile, but I detect far less noise with these than anything else I tried in the sub-$100 range anyway.

Also note that this model is in fact an analog model with a Plantronics USB adapter, so you can try both connection types and see which you prefer.

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USB headphones have one practical advantage - the USB cable won't tear like the audio cable does. I hate it changing headsets every year or so because of torn cables. Moreover audio cables twist horribly sometimes while USB cables do not.

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I would guess that, since USB headphones would always have to include a D/A converter and analogue preamp stage, they would be more likely to compromise on the quality of the mechanical parts of the speakers themselves, i.e. the magnets, coils, membranes etc. (which always operate in an analogue fashion natively). So for the same price, a regular headset should provide higher quality. -- OTOH, with a regular headset you're depending on the D/A converter and preamp that are built into the host device's audio adapter -- and that might compromise on quality too, e.g. if you think of things like smartphones and their headphone jacks. For ultimate quality, your best bet might be to transfer the sound via DLNA (or Airplay or some other digital streaming protocol) to a high-end (DLNA/Airplay-enabled) amplifier and use your (regular/analogue) headphones on that, or use the USB audio output and connect that to a dedicated high-end USB audio box and connect your analogue headphones to that.

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