IEMs vs Open-Back Headphones for Gaming
Audio has become an integral part of a good gaming experience and your headphones can vastly change that experience for better or for worse. Everybody has their preferences but lately, a new trend of using IEMs (in-ear monitors) for gaming has been sprouting, slowly gaining more followers.
Today we will compare IEMs vs the current reigning champions of gaming audio, the open-back headphones, and see whether you might want to move over as well. Since we are talking about audio and different types of hardware related to audio this will be a choice between preferences, therefore, do not expect a definite yes-or-no answer since that will depend heavily on individual tastes.
The main feature of open-back headphones vs closed-back headphones is the fact that they can produce a very wide soundstage which aids in stereo imaging. This means that while wearing open-back headphones and playing games you can pinpoint your enemies easier in space simply based on sound cues.
In tactical shooters like CS:GO or Valorant where the TTK (time to kill) is extremely short, knowing where your enemy is coming from before they have made visual contact is valuable information that can give you a competitive edge.
This example applies to most competitive games and that is why open-back headphones have been crowd favorites for a long time now.
By comparison, IEMs will not give you that type of wide soundstage since they sit directly in your ear canals but will create a more intimate sounding bass that certain individuals might prefer. It is also not like the IEMs will completely gut your sound stage and will make you miss sound cues in games, it is simply that these will feel a lot more boxed in than open-back headphones which can either be a plus or a detriment depending on what you prefer.
Talking purely about how they sound then, IEMs cannot beat open-back headphones simply because we are comparing tiny drivers against huge full-sized headphones drivers which is understandably an uphill battle for our tiny companions.
A big reason why people move away from open-back headphones like the ever-so-popular DT 990 Pro is exactly because of their open nature. If you live in a noisy household and have no private gaming room or office space playing games with open-back headphones will be a miserable experience as you will clearly be able to hear people talk across the house interrupting your immersion.
This also works the other way around since open-back headphones leak sound easily so you might also be annoying people around you if you play on high volumes. In such situations going with a pair of IEMs rids you of both problems since these naturally isolate sound and also do not bleed sound at all. A win for the IEMs!
Open-back headphones tend to be expensive and that is a truth many gamers and audiophiles deal with. By comparison, you can find very good IEMs that are inexpensive and that will sound significantly better than anything at their price range like the KZ ZS10 Pro.
There are also expensive IEMs out there but for gaming purposes, you can most surely settle for the cheaper options that will give you a decent experience without breaking your bank. If budget is a big consideration and you want to improve your gaming audio IEMs are most definitely the better choice.
Another big reason why IEMs are amazing bang-for-buck purchases that will allow you to significantly scale your gaming audio up without spending a fortune is because these tiny headphones can be powered by anything most of the time.
Big over-ear headphones require a lot more power to sound decent therefore along with your open-back headphones you will need to buy an AMP/DAC that will pile up the costs of the overall purchase.
This makes the entry barrier into the IEM market relatively low compared to other headphones making them an attractive purchase even though they might not sound as good as an open-back with a decent AMP/DAC combo.
Although over-ear open-back headphones can be quite comfy these will still sit on your head and cause certain discomfort during prolonged periods of gaming. By comparison, IEMs stick in your ears and give you a sense of freedom that cannot be replicated.
Open-back headphones are bigger and bulkier and you need to make sure the clamping force, ear cup size, and the padding is adequate. All of those considerations are non-existent when looking at IEMs since all you need to do is choose an appropriate silicon tip that will fit well in your ear.
Just by their nature, IEMs will end up dominating in the comfort department so the winner is clear in this category.
The conclusion here is a bit convoluted and depends on what exactly do you value most in a pair of headphones. If you need the absolute best sound while gaming with the widest soundstage and best stereo imaging then there is no debate that open-back headphones win.
The overall cost and the extra hardware needed for said open-back headphones make them a bit of a harder sell if you are also trying to be budget-friendly.
On the other hand, IEMs are cheap, need no extra hardware to work at their full potential, are comfortable, and will sound good enough for gaming so you will not feel like you are missing out on audio cues.
Personally, I will stick with my open-back headphones for gaming because the sound stage and maximum clarity is the most important aspect for me but your choice might be different.
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