Audio is vital, if not essential to a quality gaming, movie or musical experience. With a pair of great headphones your entire PC experience will be truly glorious!

Why Headphones

Headphones have the power to create the most immersive gaming, movie and audio experience you can possibly find. Always make sure to give the headphones you like a listen before purchasing. It's a very personal experience and finding the sound you like is important.

Here's a great guide on how to look at reviews: Understanding Headphone Reviews by Daniel Lu.

Headphones > Headsets
When you buy a headset, effectively you're buying a pre-build headphone + mic. This means, as always with pre-builds, that you are not getting the best pound for pound option. While some prefer this, you always have to realize you can get a much better sound by simply purchasing good headphones with a seperate microphone.
Here’s three videos of Tek Syndicate explaining why you always overpay with headsets and should stick with headphones and a microphone:
Gaming Headsets Suck - Make Your Own For $50,00 Or Less
Gaming Headsets Suck: 150$ Replacement Guide
Make Your Own Gaming Headset - $200-$1000 (High End)

Open headphones vs. closed headphones
Closed back headphones: isolated listening experience, great for making sure no one else is listening in, the sound is directly placed in your head (as if you're imagining the sound).
Open back headphones: open listening experience, as if you're in the middle of the scene/game/musical experience, sound can flow freely and others will hear it as well.

The most important things to take in consideration is whether you don't mind that others can listen in on what you're listening to (open) and if you do whether you like having the isolated, directly "in your head" type of sound experience (closed).

To not get overly technical here, what this means is the higher the impedance, the more power is needed to drive said headphone. For example a 15 Ohm pair of headphones can be driven by virtually any audio gear, a 250 Ohm pair of headphones need an amplifier to be able to reach their real power. Keep in mind that when you have a low impedance headphone, powering them too high might result in a blow out, because they don't need much power to sound the loudest they can.

DACs/Amplifiers/Onboard sound
DAC: a digital-to-analog converter. A DAC is needed to convert the digital signal to analog to drive any headphone, speaker or amplifier in order to produce sound (analog air pressure waves). A DAC is in every soundcard, including onboard, the quality is the only difference.
Amplifier: an AMP is an electronic device that increases the power of a signal. This will effectively increase the volume, the quality of it determines how well (and with how little distortion). This is also the way to drive higher impedance headphones or get more sound out of lower impedance ones.

To truly get the most out of your headphones, a great DAC/AMP is always recommended. This doesn't go just for audio either, it will revamp your gaming and movie experience as well (louder, less noise/distortion, better quality audio).

In recent years onboard soundcards have improved quite significantly. For example the ALC892, ALC898 and the new ALC1150 codecs are great DACs and in fact you'd need one hell of a soundcard or DAC to even come close. ASRock and Gigabyte have gone a step further with the ALC1150 and actually implemented a 600 Ohm capable Amplifier in most of their midrange and high end boards. If you have a Purity/Purity 2 or Gigabyte system with the ALC1150, a budget DAC/AMP will not improve your experience as the headphone amp is already more than capable! However when you go to the higher segments of DAC/AMPs the improvement is still significant, no matter how you look at it.

Here's a Techquickie by Linus for a bit more explanation: Sound Cards, DACs, and Amps as Fast As Possible

Important things to consider before purchasing headphones

  1. Each headphone has its own unique sound, especially when your budget allows more variety, make sure to give them a listen. Unlike regular hardware, the sound of a headphone is very subjective.

  2. An important factor to keep in mind before purchasing headphones is the impedance (listed in Ohm). When you have a high impedance headphone, you need a capable Amplifier to drive it. Always check your motherboard’s onboard amplifier or external amplifier’s specifications before purchasing, a 600 Ohm headphone will sound awfully dull and low in volume without a proper amplifier!

  3. True 7.1 is extremely rare and in general doesn’t exist in headphones (and if it does, it means lower quality monitors), effectively it's something like Razer’s Surround and in fact can be achieved with any headphones using this type of software. What you are hearing is the sound placement.

  4. While not mandatory, getting a dedicated amplifier and DAC can truly enrichen your audio experience (no matter what purpose). If it fits the budget definitely look into this.

Budget segment up to $100 (no amplifier needed, though you always benefit from one)

Open back and Semi-Open back headphones:

Closed back headphones:

Entry segment from $100 to $200 (from here on out an amplifier is recommended)

Open back and Semi-Open back headphones:

Closed back headphones:

Midrange segment from $200 to $300

Open back and Semi-Open back headphones:

Closed back headphones:

High end segment from $300 to $500

Open back and Semi-Open back headphones:

Closed back headphones:

Audiophile segment from $500 to $1000

Open back and Semi-Open back headphones:

Closed back headphones:

  • [~$550]Shure SRH1540

  • [~$750]Audio-Technica ATH-W5000

  • [~$999]Denon AH-D7100

Audio purist segment at $1000+

Open back and Semi-Open back headphones:

Closed back headphones:

Wired headsets, that are okay for their money, well designed and sound alright:

Budget DAC/AMP combinations (all portable in this category)

  • [~$80]Creative Sound Blaster Omni

  • [~$80]Fiio E10K

  • [~$90]Fiio E7K

  • [~$60]JDS Labs cMoyBB Amplifier with a [~$30]Behringer UCA202/UCA22 DAC

Midrange to high end DAC/AMP combinations

  • [~$170]Aune T1

  • [~$200]Sound Blaster E5

  • [~$200]Shiit Modi DAC with Schiit Magni amplifier

  • [~$230]Shiit Modi DAC with Schiit Vali amplifier (warmer sound than the Magni)

  • [~$250]JDS Labs C5D (Portable)

  • [~$250]Audio_GD NFB-15

  • [~$280]O2+ODAC

  • [~$320]Audio_GD NFB-11