Gaming has become a multi-billion dollar industry and those who are serious about it have demonstrated a willingness to open their wallets for components and accessories that make the experience better and also more immersive. Products like the Master & Dynamic MG20 Wireless Gaming Headphones are designed to do just that.
As a parent, I know just how popular gaming is and how much my children want me to invest in their experience. EIC Ian White has raised three gamers and we are both children of Pong and the original Atari 2600.
As much as I dislike the addictive nature of it for kids, I understand the appeal; it’s not as rewarding as reading, riding a bike, learning how to fish or spending time outdoors — but it’s a social thing for kids and teenagers.
I’m puzzled by the adults (who make up a big percentage of the community) who make it their life, but that’s a topic for another column.
I’ve seen the evolution of gaming since nearly the very beginning. Early games were ASCII character based and didn’t have graphics; we then evolved to Hercules monochrome graphics. Sounds were beeps produced by a simple speaker or piezo buzzer.
The evolution from games from brands like Infocom which were text-based adventures to more visual games with rudimentary graphics was a quantum leap for the industry.
Four color CGA graphics came with games like the original “Test Drive” in black, white, cyan, and magenta, and then quickly gave way to 16 color EGA graphics and then VGA came along with its leap to 256 colors.
When I think about the evolution from arcade games like Pac-Man, Missile Command, Pole Position, Donkey Kong, and Tempest to the games we have today that feel so lifelike — it’s almost shocking how far things have come.
I’m not a huge fan of the violence but it’s hard not to be impressed by how far the technology has evolved.
But what about sound?
Sound arguable took a lot longer to improve as early games had no sounds or a simple buzzer; then came the static soundtrack with a few in-game noises mixed in. Screeching tires, laser blasters firing, police sirens were common additions to a short loop that played repeatedly.
Even popular sports games like the EA Sports franchises were rather limited in the sound department for many years.
It took quite some time for sound to be considered a real part of game content and sound cards really didn’t become a common add-in to PCs until the age of VGA when Soundblaster became a household name.
There were a few sound cards available before the soundblaster (any old folks remember Adlib?) but the Soundblaster made it important to include audio in your game because the mainstream audience was ready for it.
The other game changer was the CD.
In the mid-1980s it was making in-roads and by 1991 it was the most popular format for new music and at the same time was becoming the medium of choice for delivering computer software.
With digital music now the norm, PCs were now expected to be able to produce music, not just sound. In-game sounds improved a lot but it would be almost another decade before multi-player games made in-game voice a thing.
As internet speeds ramped up, more and more data could be sent between players in multi-player games. First it was chat windows often with a handful of pre-formatted text so as not to distract from the game play itself.
Then full chat windows became popular in some games that were not as fast paced or required co-ordination between groups of players and finally voice chat took hold.
The high-end audio industry is barely 1/10th the size of the gaming industry in 2022 and anyone with a calculator and some marketing acumen can see that there are so many opportunities for smart companies to make money from this group of consumers.
Do you know what also changed things?
Did you spend countless hours on Zoom calls over the past 26 months? Some of us transitioned from office jobs to 3-4 hours per day on Zoom calls and that also meant working from a home office.
A lot of parents found themselves in a pickle and had to raid their kids’ gaming systems for a headphone with mic to survive in the first month of the pandemic.
A lot of inexpensive headsets put emphasis on voice quality but not necessarily on audio quality and until fairly recently soundtracks and in-game noises have been simple enough that an audiophile headphone didn’t seem necessary.
I can’t pinpoint the exact date but internet influencers and players onTwitch started showing up with Sennheiser HD800s with a boom mic attached and the conversation around the need for better headphones in gaming took off.
Today, most of the big players in the headphone market offer at least one model aimed at the gamer market and many times these new models use an existing audiophile model as the base and add features aimed at gamers.
In other cases, these headphones are designed from the ground up to suit the needs of today’s gamer.
I recently received the Master & Dynamic MG20 that is a new hybrid model that is equally at home in a gamer’s collection, a home office, or for just kicking back and enjoying the music.
Master & Dynamic started out making headphones in 2014 with a goal of elevating both the sound and build quality of the average headphone and earphones. Over the past 8 years, they have continued to innovate and improve their products and now offer 10 models to select from; which also includes a beautiful collaboration with Lamborghini and an innovative loudspeaker.
The MG20 is their first gaming model, but like every other Master & Dynamic headphone — you would think they have been doing this for decades and lead the pack.
I’m sure there are some who will take a quick look at the MG20 and think it’s a rebadged MH40 with a boom microphone and feel the need to post about it online. If that makes you feel better about yourself — it’s going to be a short moment of joy.
Minus some aesthetic similarities, the two headphones share very little in common.
The build materials are typical of Master & Dynamic with a steel headband wrapped in a coated canvas top strap and memory foam covered in Alcantara where the headband touches skin.
The adjustments are steel for durability with aluminum gimbals to save weight and maximize comfort. The ear cups are magnesium again providing good durability without making the MG20 uncomfortably heavy.
The ear pads are lambskin leather and provide good passive isolation as the MG20 does not offer ANC.
Color options are Black or White with both models having stainless adjustments and aluminum gimbals, although the black has a gunmetal gray anodizing while the white uses raw aluminum.
As an example of how far the brand goes to raise the bar, all of the controls are brushed aluminum including the separate volume dials for the mic and drivers. This all but guarantees that M&D has to have every control custom made.
Unlike many of its competitors, the only plastic you’ll find on the MG20 is the interior of the cups and the frame that holds the drivers. Even with a nearly all metal construction, the MG20 weighs in at 322 grams including the boom mic and that puts it dead even with the Audeze Penrose and lighter than the SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless at 357 grams.
Weight matters to games because they often play for hours uninterrupted.
I love the attachment mechanism for the pads; the pads have ports at the top and bottom center with matching index pins in the driver frame along with a raised lip around the edge of the pad.
These design features line up the pads perfectly and a set of magnets adjacent to the index pin/port pairs locks the pads firmly in place. Pads should always be this easy to change and this well attached as too often either it’s a fight to get pads off without breaking something (Sennheiser HD700) or a fight to keep them on when put in a case (Campfire Cascade).
Overall, the exterior shows a lot of high end materials, and attention to detail and craftsmanship that sets the MG20 apart from the average gaming headphone.
Connectivity is provided by a 3.5mm to USB-C cable for wired connections. It should be noted that the cable uses a TRRS jack for use with a microphone enabled port such as a laptop but also comes with a splitter cable to allow use of an external mic or use with products that don’t support a mic (DAPS).
A USB Type-A to USB Type-C cable is provided but is only for charging and does not support direct USB connection from device to headphones. For wireless connections, the MG20 supports Bluetooth 5.0 using either AAC or aptX HD for music and aptX LL for gaming and movies.
In addition, a 2.4 GHz USB dongle is provided and allows for simultaneous connection to PC via the USB dongle and cell phone via Bluetooth so game audio can be carried separately from team chat. I did find that I could use the Bluetooth connected to the PC and use the headphone for zoom meetings while sourcing audio from another PC via the USB dongle but there are limitations.
Reversing the connections so I could use the dongle on the work PC and Bluetooth to a phone for TIDAL, worked except the mic which connected to the phone in spite of showing up in control panel on the PC and being connected per the instructions. This may be a firmware issue that will be resolved at some point or it may just be a limitation of the 2.4 GHz connection.
Controls are split between the ear cups with most on the left cup and a single multi-function button and volume dial on the right cup. Starting at top, both cups have a vent that is mostly hidden under the gimbals, moving down the back side of the cup we have an internal microphone, the microphone volume adjustment dial, the 7.1 virtual surround switch, Bluetooth/Power button, USB Type-C port, 2.5mm boom-mic port, and finally another internal microphone on the left cup.
The controls are fairly straight forward once you get to know which side does what and when in operation the most use comes from the single right hand button for me.
The Master & Dynamic app allows some functions to be controlled remotely but is not as robust as some competitors with only 3 preset EQ options and the auto-shut-off timer being available during use.
There is a firmware update available that requires the app to install so right now that is the best use of the app but in-use controls are best handled by the physical controls.
Battery life is a claimed at 22 hours and I found in normal use that was a realistic measurement with my usage generating times of 21 hours, 19.5, and 23 hours in the 3 measured sessions I conducted. This will vary with volume, 7.1 use, and which connectivity options are used.
Internally, the MG20 centers around a pair of 50mm Beryllium plated dynamic drivers with a nominal 32 ohms impedance and a measured sensitivity of 101dB/mW ±3 @1KHz according to my test rig.
This is not the same driver used in any other current M&D product and was developed specifically with the virtual 7.1 surround of gaming in mind so the tuning is a bit different than other M&D products as well.
The Master & Dynamic MG20 isn’t inexpensive and it needed to deliver excellent sound quality for me to recommend it over the Audeze Penrose or other gaming headphones.
Does it deliver? I have grown somewhat jaded and whenever I see “gaming” on the package, I lower my expectations somewhat.
As an example, a couple years ago a new gaming headphone showed up and was highly touted; the Kingston HyperX impressed people who didn’t know any better. Those of us in audio circles immediately recognized the headphone as the Takstar Pro-80 rebadged and marked up 25%.
The Takstar Pro-80 isn’t a bad headphone but in audiophile circles it is an entry level product at best so the hype about its fantastic sound quality was coming from the gaming community and not the audio side.
Unlike those earlier models, the MG20 takes full advantage of M&D’s background in high end headphones and delivers sonic quality at the level one would expect from this price in the audiophile market.
Bass is deep and clear without notable compression (unless the bass boost is turned on in the EQ). There is a bit of a boost to the sub bass with a center around 65Hz and slow drop on either side of that with roll-off well into the 20s before becoming evident.
The mid bass is fast and clean with good texture and is just forward enough to give the MG20 a bit of warmth to its overall signature.
The lower midrange has good detail and is not obscured by the bass emphasis with male vocals cutting well through the mix. This is important as the microphone volume adjustment controls how well you hear your own voice but can’t raise the level of your teammates so a bit of extra vocal presence is needed and well suited to a gaming headphone.
Guitar has good growl with raspy edges and enough power to sound realistic. Strings are way better than I expected on a gaming headset and in line with headphones like the HD660 and Beyerdynamic DT1990 in quality.
There is a lift of the upper midrange that pushes female voices forward in the mix.
The treble is well extended but not particularly emphasized with no harshness or stridency found. Snare rattle is sharp edged and cymbals have realistic timbre with no metallic clicks. Cymbals could have more airiness but it’s part of the balance that makes these headphones work.
The soundstage is good with a bit more depth than width and a reasonable sense of height in the mix. Overall, proportions are quite good and the above average instrument and stereo separation help make placing the orchestra easy. Imaging is also quite good as movements were easily tracked both during gameplay and while listening to music.
I found the 7.1 surround worked quite well when paired with PC or PS4 games but was a distraction when paired with music that wasn’t recorded with this virtualization in mind.
When the 7.1 surround is enabled a lot of tracks have an echo to the main vocals that is distracting and off-putting but thankfully it is a single button press to enable or disable 7.1 as desired for different applications.
The exponential growth of the gaming market has finally caught the attention of the high end audio industry and it is not a surprise that more and more companies are jumping into the space.
The issue is that not everyone is capable of delivering what the market needs.
The MG20 proves that Master & Dynamic is capable of delivering a very serious option for those who can afford to spend. They offer durability, comfort, solid gaming performance, the ability to use both WiFi and Bluetooth for better latency performance when gaming or watching movies.
Add to that, the mild “V” sonic signature with good detail and tonality and enough warmth to give a nice full sound, and you have a premium headphone that would sell without the boom mic on the audiophile market.
In addition to the gaming market, the MG20 makes an excellent home office companion and for the last week has been my daily headphone for Webex, Zoom, and Teams meetings.
Those looking for a premium quality headphone for office use will appreciate the passive isolation, above average microphone, battery life, and all day comfort of the MG20 as well. Gaming headphones have finally grown up and the Master & Dynamic MG20 is certainly an adult-oriented gaming headphone.