Virtual Reality Headset: A Buying Guide

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Since its reemergence in 2012, the virtual reality (VR) market has experienced a significant amount of growth. Recently, the pace of that growth has accelerated, thanks in part to improved technologies, better content, and lower costs of equipment. However, despite its growing influence, VR remains, for many, a new and unfamiliar technology. To help educate those who might be interested in VR, we’ve put together a guide on one of the the most critical components of any virtual reality system: The VR headset.

Oculus Go VR Headset
Oculus Go VR Headset

What is a VR headset?

At its most basic, a VR headset is simply a delivery device for VR. As the name implies, it’s worn on the head, and it typically features either a pair of stereoscopic displays or specialized lenses that allow the wearer to experience VR. Some headsets also include built-in stereo sound systems—for a more immersive audio experience—and any combination of tracking sensors, which can translate the wearer’s movements into the virtual world.

What are the different types of VR headsets?

While there are countless numbers of makers and models of VR headsets, there are only a few different types you need to know about. Understanding the general design of each will help inform your decision if and when you decide to purchase a VR headset of your own.

Tethered headsets are VR headsets that have a connection cable linking the headset to a PC or console, depending on the system. The connection cable allows the PC or console to transmit VR signals to the headset, which are then passed on to the user for them to experience. We’ll get into more specifics later but, for now, you can think of tethered headsets as the most powerful type of VR headsets.

Sony PlayStation VR Five Game Mega Pack Bundle
Sony PlayStation VR Five Game Mega Pack Bundle

Untethered headsets are stand-alone devices that don’t require a connection cable to facilitate a VR experience. Instead, these headsets typically rely on a Wi-Fi connection to receive and transmit VR content. Because they are wireless, untethered headsets are often credited with providing a more immersive VR experience than their tethered siblings, though they often lack the same amount of power.

Smartphone headsets are unique because the source of the VR signal (i.e., your phone) is placed directly into the headset. Smartphone VR headsets vary greatly in terms of design, compatibility, features, and performance. The most important thing to recognize about them is that they have strict limitations on the type of content they can access and support. For this reason, smartphone headsets are the least powerful type of VR headset.

Merge VR Goggles Headset for Smartphones
Merge VR Goggles Headset for Smartphones

What are the pros and cons of VR headsets?

Now that we know the different design types of VR headsets, let’s talk about the general pros and cons of each. As we go over them, keep in mind that while each design type has a specific set of pros and cons, that doesn’t mean the various models within that design type embody those qualities equally.

For example, one of the major selling points of tethered VR headsets is their inherent power. That’s considered a big pro. However, just because tethered headsets are typically more powerful than the other types of headsets, that doesn’t make them equal to each other. Some tethered headsets are more powerful than others. That sounds obvious, sure, but it’s still something to keep in mind, especially once you’ve figured out the type of headset you want and are ready to shop models.

Tethered Headsets

Because they are connected to a PC or console, tethered VR headsets are generally more powerful than their untethered counterparts. More power often translates to better all-around performance, the ability to handle more graphically intensive applications, and better access to a larger catalog of games and content.

However, in exchange for the added horsepower, tethered headsets are often more restrictive in terms of user mobility. Depending on the model, that restriction might be small, but it’s not imperceptible, and, in extreme cases, the connection cable can cause users to trip, or can become tangled around their legs. Also, being physically tied to another device does have an impact on the wearer’s sense of immersion and, depending on wearer, could hinder the overall experience.

A good example of the benefits and limitations of a tethered VR headset is the Oculus Rift S. The Oculus Rift S is a PC-powered headset that’s able to access and handle the most graphically demanding VR content available. Likewise, its overall performance is consistent and high caliber. However, because it is tethered to a PC by a connection cable, the Oculus Rift S doesn’t offer the same freedom of movement and level of immersion as some of its untethered peers.

Oculus Rift S PC-Powered VR Gaming Headset
Oculus Rift S PC-Powered VR Gaming Headset

Untethered Headsets

Thanks to their wireless design, untethered headsets can deliver a more unencumbered experience than their cable-connected counterparts. This extra level of freedom and movement can make the VR experience more immersive for the user.

Total freedom of movement typically comes at a cost, however, and for most untethered headsets, that cost is power. Without the muscle of a PC or gaming console behind it, most untethered headsets can’t handle the most demanding VR content, nor can they access certain content libraries.

Consider the Oculus Quest, for example. Thanks to its wireless design, the Oculus Quest offers total freedom of movement and a heightened sense of immersion—more so than its tethered sibling, the Oculus Rift S. However, the Oculus Quest isn’t as powerful as the Oculus Rift S, so it doesn’t support all the same titles, nor is it able to access all the same content libraries.

Oculus Quest All-in-One VR Gaming System
Oculus Quest All-in-One VR Gaming System

Smartphone Headsets

In terms of convenience and usability, a good smartphone headset can’t be beat. They’re easy to set up, you can pretty much wear them anywhere, and they are as user-friendly as a VR headset gets. On top of that, there’s a ton of supported content and, compared to the other types of headsets, the investment is relatively small.

Of course, the reason smartphone headsets are so easy to use is because they don’t do a whole lot—at least, not compared to the other types of headsets. They can’t handle most VR games or interactive content. They typically don’t include advanced features like stereo sound or motion tracking. Smartphone headsets allow you to watch, look around, and, to a certain extent, immerse yourself inside certain VR videos, but that’s pretty much it.

Things to consider when choosing a VR headset

Now that we know the different types of VR headsets, along with some of their inherent abilities and limitations, it’s time to figure out which one is right for you. To help make that decision, let’s use the information we’ve learned so far to answer a couple of key questions you should ask yourself before buying a VR headset.

What type of content do you want?

There is so much VR content currently available: games, videos, tours, live events, training tutorials, seminars, interactive narratives. The list goes on and on. Deciding on the type of content you’re most interested in and likely to explore will help you choose the right type of headset.

Are you primarily focused on doing some serious VR gaming? You’re probably going to want a tethered system. New to VR or just looking to stream the occasional 360° video? Try a smartphone headset before going all in on a more powerful system.

Which performance features are most important to you?

It’s easy to think of the different types of VR headsets as tiers of performance. Tethered headsets are more powerful than untethered headsets, so they must offer better performance. Unfortunately, while there is logic in that assumption, it doesn’t always hold true, especially when you start looking at individual performance metrics.

So how should we approach performance? The “more power equals better performance” approach is a good place to start. If you’re looking for a headset with high resolution and refresh rate, then beginning your search in the tethered systems section is a good bet. However, when it comes to performance, there are exceptions, especially when you start looking at individual specs.

Consider the HP Reverb, for example. The Reverb is an untethered VR headset. From that description, we can assume it offers more freedom of movement than its tethered peers and, depending on the user, a more immersive experience. We might also assume that, as an untethered headset, the Reverb is less powerful than those same tethered devices, and that its performance isn’t quite as impressive. But there we would be wrong. Because, yes, while it’s true that most tethered systems are more powerful than the Reverb, few, if any, can match its refresh rate or resolution (which is 2160 x 2160 per eye, by the way).

HP Reverb Virtual Reality Headset
HP Reverb Virtual Reality Headset

However, most users are better off viewing performance as a whole. For those who do, the “more power equals better performance” rule is a good place to start. But for those who do prize one metric above the rest (resolution, for example), be sure to keep the Reverb in mind and explore the other tier types, as well.

How big is your play area?

One of the ironies about VR is although it is a gateway to a world of infinite possibilities and far-reaching horizons, reaching those worlds and horizons is largely dependent on the size of your cramped studio apartment. In other words, the size of your real-world play area dictates which virtual worlds you’re able to access.

To use a VR headset, you need space to operate. That space is your play area. How big a play area you need depends on the headset type, tracking system, and content. In addition to a play area, you also need room for any external components—a cable-connected PC, for example.

Based on what we’ve discussed so far, you can probably figure out which type of headset generally requires the most amount of room. If you guessed tethered, you are correct. Not only do tethered systems have specific space requirements for optimal performance, they also require room to store your connected PC and peripherals (base stations, external speakers, etc.)

HTC Vive Controller
HTC Vive Controller

Untethered headsets generally require the same amount of play area as tethered headsets, though without additional storage needs for a computer or additional components. In terms of optimal performance, you’re looking at a play area in the 6.5 x 6.5' range. However, some headsets do have a “reduced area” mode that will let you play select titles in a more confined space.

As far as optimal performance goes, only smartphone headsets allow you to fully explore the headset’s potential with little to no play area. The reason for that, of course, is because smartphone headsets offer mostly passive VR experiences, where movement and interaction don’t come into play.

So bottom line: Size matters. If you want to experience the best VR has to offer, you’re going to need room to move. If that’s not currently an option, you’re probably better off with a smartphone headset.

How much do you want to spend?

As recently as a few years ago, experiencing the best VR on the market meant forking over a sizable amount of cash. Top-tier VR content required a powerful PC, a tethered headset, and a substantial investment.

Luckily, times have changed, and today’s VR isn’t quite as financially prohibitive. It’s still true that the most powerful VR systems cost the largest amount of money, but now you can get decent approximations of those top-tier systems for considerably less coin. This is good news for anyone who’s curious about VR, but doesn’t want to max out their credit card trying to decide if VR is right for them.

However, the different price tiers for each type of headset follow a pattern that’s similar to what we saw with power and performance. The more powerful a headset, the better its performance. The better the performance, the more it’s going to cost. So, on the whole, you can assume that tethered headsets are going to be more expensive than untethered headsets, which in turn are usually more expensive than smartphone headsets.

What’s your comfort level?

Despite the fact that it’s literally strapped to your face, one of the questions prospective VR users forget to ask themselves is whether or not they’re comfortable wearing a headset for prolonged periods of time. It’s an important question, one that has a considerable impact on your overall VR experience.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the different types of VR headsets, there is no correlative truth about comfort. Part of the reason why is because comfort levels are pretty subjective. What one person thinks is too big or heavy, another judges as the perfect size. That double-padded headband might be extra comfortable to you, but your neighbor thinks it’s cutting off the circulation to their face. You get the idea.

So what do you do? Well, the easiest way to figure out whether a headset is comfortable or not is just to try it on. At our New York SuperStore, we’ve got quite a few floor demos you can try on and test.

Of course, not everyone is able to visit the B&H store. If you want to know how comfortable a headset is, but you’re unable to test it in person, there are some factors you can look at online to help gain insight.

For starters, look at the weight. If a headset is on the heavier side, it might not be comfortable to wear for long periods of time. Likewise, examine the build. What materials were used? Does the headset have padding? Are the straps adjustable? A padded headset with an adjustable fit is more likely to be comfortable because you can tailor it to your needs. Users who wear glasses should check to see if the headset is compatible with their specs and/or prescription. Finally, read the reviews. Feedback from your fellow customers and the VR community at large can help you figure out whether or not a particular headset is going to be a good fit.

And that’s it! Having read this guide, you now have all the information you need to make an informed decision on purchasing a VR headset. You know the different types of VR headsets, the major pros and cons of each, and, if you answered our questions, you should know which type of headset is best for you.

If you have any additional questions about VR headsets—either in general or about specific models—please drop us a line in the Comments section, below.

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