“Why buy a headset when you could just buy a great pair of headphones and a good microphone for the same price?” So goes the conventional wisdom in comment sections around the world, every time someone dares to suggest that a gaming headset might not be so bad a purchase.
But what if the self-professed audiophiles are right? And what if you could get the same form factor as a headset, but with any top-tier pair of headphones? Wouldn’t that be a better deal?
We went hands on with the ModMic to find out.
(See our roundup of best gaming headsets for a thorough comparison of headset solutions.)
Hand in hand
ModMic isn’t new by any means. Since 2011, Antlion Audio has done one thing and done it well: It’s allowed gamers to take their high-end headphones, attach a microphone on the side, and thus get great sound with (most of) the convenience of a dedicated gaming headset.
It works exactly as you’d expect, basically. The ModMic costs $69.95 on Amazon and arrives in a tiny little box. After all, it’s just a microphone. Nothing too surprising here. Inside the box is a padded carrying case, and inside the case is the mic itself, along with a bundle of cables.
You then take the ModMic and affix it to the side of your headphones, probably the left ear as is standard. A bit of 3M double-sided tape holds it in place, and...that’s it. Your headphones are now a headset.
It’s a somewhat permanent installation, which can be a bit hair-raising when you’re talking about audiophile headphones. The Sennheiser HD 280s I had lying around aren’t even that nice, but I did hesitate as I affixed the ModMic to the outside. “Am I okay with this? Forever?”
The good news is that it’s somewhat permanent. The ModMic is actually two pieces. The larger piece is the mic itself, along with the boom arm. But the part that’s actually affixed to your headphones is just a small disc, about the size of a dime. The microphone attaches magnetically to the disc, so you’re free to remove the bulk whenever you’d like. All that’s left over is the weird magnetic rivet on the outside (as seen in the image below).
The next challenge is cable routing. With a headset, you usually have both your audio and mic cables combined into one, at least until they reach the PC. With the ModMic, you obviously don’t have that luxury. Instead you run a second 3.5mm cable from the ModMic to your computer, with the option to insert a mute toggle in the middle.
Our ModMic review unit came supplied with some cable sheathes, in order to wrapthe ModMic and headphone cables together. The problem is that the HD 280s use a coiled, telephone-style cable for most of their length, so I was only able to wrap the top section effectively. The result was a bit of a mess, aesthetically. With other headphones that use conventional cables, you’d probably achieve a relatively sleek result.
Still, overall, a dedicated headset is going to win out aesthetically. No surprise there—that’s why they exist. Combining headphones and a microphone into a single device allows for a more elegant and efficient design.
But what about performance? After all, that’s what people are talking about when they say you should separate your headphone and microphone purchases. The theory is that you could buy audiophile-grade equipment in both categories for the price of a single, middling headset.
Well, my HD 280 headphones are great. I can attest to that. Especially for the price.
The construction is pretty flimsy, and they’re not the most comfortable pair of headphones I own, but $100 for studio-grade sound? They handily beat out any $100 headset I’ve used, that’s for sure. Yes, even our best overall pick, the HyperX Cloud Alpha.
The ModMic is headphones-agnostic. Other fairly affordable and popular choices include Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x, the upgraded Sennheiser HD 380 Pro, and Sony’s MDR7506. And obviously there’s a whole litany of more expensive options out there.
It certainly sounds better. First, I should mention that the ModMic actually has two microphones. Loud environment? There’s a unidirectional mic with a cardioid pickup pattern, which is what you’ll find on most headsets. But for quieter environments, there’s what ModMic terms a “studio-quality” omnidirectional mic.
First up, the unidirectional microphone. It sounds like a headset mic, yeah. A good headset microphone, one with a broader frequency reproduction than the tinny, phone-quality mics you get on certain headsets. And to be honest, it’s the one I’d probably recommend for gaming—it’s reliable, it’s clear, and it’ll cut back on the noise.
The omnidirectional microphone is the one audio purists would use to justify their ModMic purchase though. It sounds great. I actually went in blind, having not looked at the symbols on the ModMic. I didn’t know which recording was done with the omnidirectional and which the unidirectional. I immediately gravitated towards the omnidirectional though. It’s warmer, livelier, with a richer range of tones reproduced.
Of course, it’s also an omnidirectional microphone, which means it’s noisy as hell. And I’m not convinced it works great mere inches from your face—I picked up a lot more breath noise in the microphone than I’d be comfortable with my friends hearing. You could run the ModMic through a noise gate or what-have-you but at that point we’re really getting into the weeds, as far as what you could do. It’s a microphone, and you can do all the usual microphone things.
My biggest complaint though is the cabling. Considering the ModMic 5 costs $70, you’d think it could include some properly shielded extension cables. Alas, no—the ModMic picks up a ton of buzzing if you have, for instance, an unshielded power cable nearby. One solution: Spring for a USB audio adapter, which should cut down on some of the noise from front-facing case ports. And of course, there’s a ModMic-branded one. Convenient.
You can also replace the ModMic’s included 3.5mm cable with a properly shielded extension, but again: It seems like the ModMic should already come with one. A weird place to cut corners on an otherwise premium microphone.
I’m torn. If you’re an audio snob and have an expensive pair of headphones kicking around, the ModMic could be interesting. It’s certainly a better solution than using a Blue Snowball/Yeti or some other desk mic as your voice chat input, especially in noisy environments. The ModMic is probably the best way to play Battlefield if you insist on playing Battlefield with a $600 pair of headphones or whatever.
Me, though? I’d probably take the convenience of a headset, and I say that as someone who generally cares a lot about audio fidelity. Headsets have come a long way in the past five years or so, and while we’re still not rocking studio-quality sound at the $150 tier, it’s at least close enough to make the convenience of a single, dedicated device appealing, especially with the ModMic a pretty pricey $70 addition. That’s a lot to pay just so your friends can hear the rich timbre of your gorgeous, radio-ready voice.
So yes, anonymous internet commenter: You can get better sound by purchasing a great pair of headphones and a separate microphone. Whether that’s worth your time and effort though? More debatable.