For years, enthusiasts have extolled the magic of virtual reality. Admittedly, VR technology has taken a long time to mature. However, towards the end of last year, VR finally gained mainstream attention. Everyone is suddenly talking about the Metaverse, which means that more and more people will soon be looking for a VR headset to help them experience the promised immersive future.
VR technology has evolved quite a bit in the last five years. So if you’re one of the early adopters with a first-gen headset or someone who’s abstained from VR altogether, now might be the time to take another look.
When VR headsets first hit the market, early adopters had to accept low-resolution displays, poorly optimized optics, low frame rates, and often poor tracking accuracy. Not to mention, headset manufacturers have struggled to make their devices comfortable for years. Thankfully, most of the earlier VR devices’ problems have been solved with the most recent HMD designs.
The format of VR devices has evolved. We used to see VR headsets powered by smartphones, and while those still exist, they have largely been phased out of the market. The PlayStation VR remains the only console-based VR headset, and will soon be replaced by the PlayStation VR2. Xbox head Phil Spencer recently reiterated that he has no current plans to bring VR to Xbox consoles.
The highest-end VR headsets offer incredible resolutions and advanced features like eye-tracking. However, they typically require a high-end gaming computer to maximize their superior pixel count, refresh rates, and feature sets.
The standalone HMD segment is benefiting from rapid innovation. Qualcomm’s SnapDragon XR-2 SoC has proven to be a robust VR platform, with many companies choosing it to power their HMDs, including Meta (formerly Facebook/Oculus), Pico Interactive, and HTC Vive. Pimax is also planning to use Qualcomm’s hardware in its next-generation VR headsets, which will launch late next year.
The VR headset market is evolving rapidly, and it’s easy to get confused with all the choices. To help you skip all the confusion, we’ve prepared a bit of a cheat sheet that should save you some time. Below you will find our recommendations for the best VR headsets worth your money. You should also check out our Best Gaming Headsets page.
When looking for the best VR headset for gaming, consider the following:
- PC-connected VR has the best experience but requires an expensive system. The best VR gaming comes from headsets that you tether to a PC. When VR headsets first hit the market, you could find a VR-ready gaming PC for under $1000, and for a time, you could build one for even less than that. With the current state of the graphics card market, you could be looking at double that figure for a system with a powerful GPU. For more wallet-friendly VR, consider standalone HMDs that don’t connect to any system. Just know you generally won’t get the same level of graphical detail.
- Is your PC powerful enough for VR? Before buying a VR headset that relies on a PC, you should ensure your computer at least meets the headset’s minimum requirements. However, it’s an excellent idea to overshoot the minimum requirements by a large margin. As we’ve learned from testing the most advanced headsets, you can never have too much GPU power for VR. With the resolutions that modern HMDs boast, even an RTX 2080 can inhibit your experience with a top-tier headset. If your PC doesn’t meet the headset’s requirements, you might want to increase your budget or buy a standalone HMD instead.
- When it comes to specs, bigger is better. In general, the greater the headset’s refresh rate, field of view (FOV), total resolution, and pixel density (measured in pixels per inch or PPI), the sharper games will look. Just remember anything that increases the number of pixels your GPU needs to process every second will demand more from your graphics card.
- Make sure your home has enough square footage. Depending on the headset, you may need a notable amount of physical space to game properly. For example, the Oculus Rift S recommends a 3 x 3-foot space minimum, and the PSVR suggests a 10 x 10-foot area. Generally, you need at least enough open space to stretch your arms to the side and rotate 360 degrees for standing-only VR. If you want to move around, you’ll need more than that.
- Mind your glasses. You can usually wear glasses in VR, but some HMDs make this more comfortable than others. Some headsets are too narrow to accommodate wider frame designs, while others have cut-outs in the foam cushions to make space. Many headsets also have accommodations for glasses by adjusting the depth of the lenses, either with a mechanical adjustment, like with the Valve Index or with a glasses spacer, like with the Oculus Quest 2.
Best VR Headsets You Can Buy Today
The Meta Quest 2 (formerly known as Oculus Quest 2) is the best VR headset to buy for most people. It offers the most versatility and the best value in the most affordable package available.
As mentioned above, the Quest 2 is powered by a Qualcomm SnapDragon XR-2 SoC, a processor and graphics chip derived from the company’s flagship smartphone processors but optimized for VR and AR capabilities. The Quest 2 is a self-contained device that doesn’t need a computer. However, it also offers the ability to play PC VR content through a USB tether or a Wi-Fi connection, giving you the best of both worlds.
Quest 2 offers a high-resolution VR experience without the need for a computer. The headset provides 1832 x 1920 pixels per eye, a higher resolution than the Valve Index and HTC Vive Cosmos tethered PC headsets. Quest 2 also offers variable refresh rates, with developers able to target 60hz, 90Hz, and 120Hz configurations depending on the performance demands of the games.
Meta Quest 2 is currently available in a 128GB entry model and a larger 256GB model. The original 64GB edition is no longer sold. If you find one on the shelf, we recommend leaving it unless it’s an outstanding deal. Some of the newest Quest games barely fit on the smaller 64GB model. Headsets manufactured after August 2021 will also include an updated face cover (opens in new tab) for better hygiene.
Read: Oculus Quest 2 review
The Valve Index is an old dog in this market, but Valve’s first, and so far only, VR headset remains one of the best that money can buy today. Unfortunately, in terms of resolution, the Index lags behind the rest of the market. The headset boasts dual 1440 x 1600 LCD panels for crisp but not mind-blowing image clarity. The variable refresh rate settings allow you to dial in displays to match your PC’s performance, which is an incredible help when you have a less-powerful graphics card in your system. The Index supports 80, 90, 120, and 144 Hz configurations.
The best part of the Index is the versatility of its tracking system. The Index headset uses the SteamVR tracking system, first introduced on the original HTC Vive and improved for the Vive Pro. However, the Lighthouse IR tracking system is still the most accurate tracking system for home-based VR systems, especially if you have a set of SteamVR 2.0-based stations. In addition, the SteamVR tracking system is compatible with many accessories, including the Valve Index controllers (colloquially known as Knuckles controllers), Vive Trackers, and the recently Kickstarter-funded Tundra Trackers.
Valve offers the Index as a solo HMD, which you can use to upgrade an existing SteamVR system, such as an old Vive system. You can also get the Valve Index controllers alone or bundle them with a headset. The best value for VR newcomers is the complete kit, including the headset, two controllers, two 2.0 base stations, and wall mounting hardware.
Read: Valve Index review
If money is no object and you’re after the most immersive VR experience you can get, look no further than the Pimax 8K X. Sure, there are more expensive headsets on the market with arguably fancier features, but nothing compares to an ultrawide headset for the ultimate gaming experience.
Pimax offers a variety of headsets, of which we’ve reviewed many. The Pimax 5K+ was the first Pimax headset we formally reviewed, leaving a lot to be desired. However, by the time the Pimax 8K X landed in our lab, the company had addressed many of the software issues we had initially. In addition, it continues to improve the headset’s performance with every subsequent firmware update.
The 8K X features dual 4K screens, one per eye. The default refresh rate on these displays is 75Hz, but you can push them to 90Hz if you have an RTX 3000-series GPU to drive the pixels. The most important feature of the Pimax headset is the 170-degree horizontal field of view, which is a good 30 to 40 degrees above the competition.
The ultrawide headset doesn’t provide must benefit for games like Beat Saber. Still, if you’re into racing, flight, and space simulations, the extra peripheral vision makes the experience much more realistic.
More: Pimax Vision 8K X review
If you’re after the VR headset with the best visual experience possible, then you should look at the Varjo Aero. This headset is by far the most expensive HMD available in the consumer market, and that’s for a good reason. Varjo is an enterprise headset maker that caters to the highest tier of the VR market. As a result, Varjo’s products are typically only available for enterprise-level businesses. Still, it recently made its technology available to a broader audience, albeit one that can afford a $2,000 price tag for an HMD.
Varjo sets itself apart from the competition with professional-grade components. The individual displays in this headset are not only ludicrous 2880 x 2720 pixels, but they are the first VR LCDs to offer Mini LED backlighting for precise color accuracy. Varjo also calibrates the panels for 99% sRGB and 95% DCI-P3 color, and 150 NIT brightness.
The Varjo Aero also includes additional advanced features that help justify the incredible price, such as eye-tracking cameras that enable gaze interaction and foveated rendering. The headset also has a motorized IPD adjustment that works with the eye-tracker to ensure that the headset is always dialed in perfectly for your eye position.
If you’re going to pick up an Aero, remember that it does not include everything you need to get it up and running. The Aero is a SteamVR headset that will require SteamVR base stations and a set of controllers, which you must acquire separately.
Read: Varjo Aero review
The Oculus Quest 2 is the best standalone VR headset that most people can buy, but it’s not the best standalone VR headset that exists. Instead, that title belongs to the HTC Vive Focus 3, a business-oriented headset that ticks so many boxes that make up an incredible HMD that we had to mention it here.
Sadly, you can’t buy a Vive Focus 3 unless you run a business, and even if you did buy one, there’s not much you can do with it as a consumer. The headset doesn’t have a formal storefront for game distribution, and HTC isn’t making any attempt to bring the headset to the consumer market in North America.
Despite it not being readily available for consumers, the Focus 3 is the best standalone headset for many reasons. HTC packed the headset with a Qualcomm XR-3 but with an active cooling system so the company could push the silicon even further than Facebook did for the Quest 2. The Focus 3 has high-resolution displays and more memory than the Quest 2. It also offers expandable memory with a microSD slot and has a removable and replaceable battery.
HTC’s Focus 3 is also one of the most comfortable HMDs that we’ve tested. The rear-mounted battery helps keep the device’s weight well balanced, and the sturdy headband helps keep the device secure on your head. The Focus 3 even comes pre-equipped with removable, moisture-resistant cushions that are easy to wash.
Read: HTC Vive Focus 3 review
MORE: Virtual Reality Basics
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