Valve finally revealed their new Index headset and it’s got some pretty impressive specs. From improved resolution and field of view to a display which can run up to 144Hz, there’s a lot to like. But one of the headset’s most surprising innovations is its headphones.

I love seeing ‘stupid simple’ design—those things that seem so obvious once you see them for the first time, but somehow never thought of before.

The ‘off-ear’ headphones on Valve’s Index headset definitely fit the ‘stupid simple’ definition for me. Normal headphones need the friction of your head and ears to keep them in place. But if you’re wearing a VR headset which is already secure on your head, why not just ‘float’ the headphones near your ears so that they don’t get in the way or become uncomfortable?

On Oculus Go sound is channeled along the head strap and emitted from small slits near your ear. | Photo by Road to VR

Oculus Go was among the first headsets to eliminate on-ear headphones on a VR headset by moving to an ‘audio pipe’ solution which channels sound down the head straps to openings near your ears. That means you don’t have headphones to get in your way or be adjusted every time you put the headset on, nor the discomfort of having something pressing against your sensitive ears during long play sessions. That’s a good thing, but it comes at a pretty substantial cost to audio quality, not just in range but also in positional audio accuracy—as it’s easy to tell that the sound is coming from a point in space which is substantially on one side of your ear and not the other.

Image courtesy Valve

Valve’s ‘floating’ headphone solution effectively has all the same benefits of the audio pipe solution—getting the headphones out of the way when putting the headset on and eliminating anything from pressing against your ears—but enables far, far better audio quality and positional audio accuracy (because the positioning of the headphones allows for equal amplitude across the ear). With nothing touching your ears—but the sound still entering the ear ‘directly’—it can even feel more immersive than on-ear headphones. The unique shape of your ear plays a major role in how you spatialize sound; the sound emitted by Index headphones is able interact with much more of the geometry of your ear compared to an on-ear headphone pressed directly against your ear.

‘Floating’ the headphones also makes it easier to use larger, higher quality drivers. Valve says Index’s headphones are actually “speakers,” not headphone drivers; the company says the headset uses “composite honeycomb-panel speaker drivers” which “provide their full-frequency range across a nearly 180-degree dispersion pattern.”

Spec wise, Valve claims the following on the speakers: “37.5mm off-ear Balanced Mode Radiators (BMR), Frequency Response: 40Hz – 24KHz, Impedance: 6 Ohm, SPL: 98.96 dBSPL at 1cm.” Also worth noting, if for some reason you hate Index’s headphones, they’re removable, and the headset includes a 3.5mm audio jack for plugging in your own.

Photo by Road to VR

The difference in audio quality on Index compared to an audio pipe solution (like on Oculus Go or Quest Quest) is vast—not even in the same league. Positional accuracy also stands to be substantially better. Even compared to the Oculus Rift, which I would say has the best audio of any headset currently available, Index’s speakers are clearly a step up.

Read our full Index hands-on preview

The only major downside to this approach is a lack of isolation from external sound, but that’s also an issue with the audio pipe approach. Otherwise, the benefits are so great—at least as far as Valve has achieved—that I expect we’ll be seeing a lot of these floating ‘off-ear’ headphones on future headsets.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • Nepenthe

    I’ve mentioned this in another comment, but this is similar to the Sony MDR-F1 and AKG-K1000. Audio is such an important part of positional immersion, I’m really glad Valve pushed for a different solution (although I do worry about environmental sound coming in and hurting immersion due to having very little isolation).

    • wow

      At that point you can plug your own in. It’s a win-win really

      • Andrew Jakobs

        But then again, they could have created large cones which close off everything with the same ‘speaker design’ as now..

    • The Bard

      How is that similar? Not similar at all. Sony and AKG have big speakers, isolated with round circle which closes around your ears. This here is like…Fiat compared to Mercedes. Not smart to experiment with headphones separated from ear. where you can hear distracting sounds from near.

      • Jistuce

        I suggest doing an image search on the two models mentioned, as they are not “isolated with round circle which closes around your ears.” Both models hover the audio element free in the air.
        One of them doesn’t even have circles. Square earpieces.

      • noumuon

        You clearly don’t know what headphones he’s referring to. Your comment is also indicating ignorance of the difference between open back and close backed headphones. Having cups that go around your ear aren’t an indication that they block out external sounds. If you ever read that a headphone is open back, that means it does nothing to mute environmental sounds.

        Comparing this between cars like you are is just incredibly poor form, particularly when you’re ignorant of the technologies involved.

    • You play outside?

      Outside sounds aren’t distracting anyway, then again I always have a fan on and its loud.

      • Nepenthe

        I don’t play outside, no. But all kinds of sounds come in. Construction, military jets, commercial jets, motorcycles, loud bass cars, loud cars, kids bouncing basketballs, kids screaming, the train whistle, weather sounds, dogs barking, and big utility / delivery trucks all intrude… but I was also talking about sounds inside the house. Wife sounds.

        • michi2112

          where you’re living sounds like my personal hell :D

          • Nepenthe

            Just the sounds of a normal city. It’s not quiet.

  • Tapi

    But what abou using mic? (I play mainly flight simulators operated via voice commands) I guess the Index has not the built-in mic… An if I use an external one, won’t it be interfered with teh sound from off-ear hedaphons?

    • Gerald Terveen

      The specs say there is a double mic arry on the Index and I would expect they filter out the audio from the speakers.

    • dk

      why would u assume it doesn’t have it …when the full package is $1000

    • Tapi

      OK, thx. Did’t read specs carefully :-)

  • Henrik ‘Walter’ Peytz

    I haven’t seen any mention of this anywhere, but another plus of the off-ear construct is that you no longer have to listen to your own voice reverbrating inside your cranium when talking to people in, for instance, VRChat because of the headphones isolating the sound. As someone who sounds like I’m chronically breathing sulphur hexaflouride, I welcome this.

  • The Bard

    “The only major downside to this approach is a lack of isolation from external sound”
    You get the main point in the last sentence. It kills immersion when you hear your wife doing stuff in kitchen… Such solution might only work in special sound isolated rooms.

    • impurekind

      Just play when you have some time on your own.

    • dk

      it sounds pretty interesting to me ….but u can replace it with the jack ….with headphones or some solution sitting on the strap but that will be annoying and additional money

    • noumuon

      It’s literally the difference between open and closed back headphones. You give up audio quality in order to not have environmental sounds bleed in. You actually get the best audio quality by having open back headphones and a quiet environment, so this opens the possibility for the most immersive audio, but also as you indicate, is dependent on what your environment is like, and for some / a lot of people can produce less immersive quality.

    • Martin355

      Have you tried not having a wife? It works for me.

    • Rosko

      Yeah i’m concerned the busy road i live next to will be an issue. I use DT990 in my studio because these are open backed i prefer that sound but they still cut out external sound. Hoping these will be the same.

      • Wonder if a loud fan would help you. Loud consistence noise vs loud inconsistent noise.

        Like smooth 30fps vs unstable 60 fps.

    • Then maybe you should find such a place seeing as you wont get the best of both worlds(sound quality of Index and the Isolation of other headphones).

      So buying the Index you search for your own earphone solution and buy it and plug it into the Index.

      Or you can buy a loud fan that blocks out other noises. Loud consistence noise vs loud inconsistent noise.

      Outter sounds don’t really bother me anyway, you get use to it.

      Your desired solution(including sound quality) wont exist for a while(going by what others say).

  • Francesco Fazio

    Yeah. What about outside in tracking back to the 1st generation ? What about 999 dollars preposterous price tag ? What about the fact that it is still come with a damn cable ? What about the fact that the resolution is just slightly better than the one of the Oculus Rift ? I dont see any real improvement here … just a way to fool newcomers and make them spend an insane and unjustified amount of money for a piece of junk that does not innovate anything basically.

    • Anders Eismann

      What about 3 times bigger fill factor than HTC Vive Pro due to custom made RGB screens which they are very fast (no motion sickness anymore if you have good graphics)? What about 144hz? You cant imagine how much is better comparing to 90hz. What about basically no SDE? Yes, very hard to see any pixels. What about wider FOV around 130 degrees? What about build quality and comfortable wearing? What about amazing sound on those speakers provide and ton of other small but very good things on those glasses? What about the best tracking available on the market? What about Index controllers which are very good and best on the market?1000 USD very good price what you get for that money. Its big step up comparing to other glasses. HP reverb have approx same quality picture but smaller FOV, much smaller refreshrate and not so good quality and those cheaper looking controllers? Valve Index is way more advanced than any other headset on the market and people dont understand that because they have not tryed yet those glasses but when they try then they understand. Wait reviews!

      • impurekind

        Although the Pimax does still have a higher resolution and much larger field of view. ;-)

        • Anders Eismann

          Pimax has higher resolution but not sharper picture and edges are still blurry but Valve all the way clear. Pimax quality is lower, not so comfy to wear and lower refreshrate. No go for me. I was considering Pimax 5K but after trying it I did not like the picture quality. I have HTC Vive Pro and liked this much more than Pimax 5K. Valve is much more promising and those controllers are top notch.

          • impurekind

            I expect you’re right on all those points, but man do I want all VR headsets to get up to that 200 degrees field of view range, and soon.

      • Engineer_92

        Norm from Tested said that the higher frame rate, 120Hz – 144Hz, actually has a noticeable increase in immersion. He said 90hz is akin to being groggy and 120-144Hz is like being on caffeine. I think Valve really understands the difference higher frame rate will be and a lot of people are writing it off as a gimmick.

        • Francesco Fazio

          This is good indeed but I am not really sure of how much difference it would make. According to some scientific papers I am reading through only few people with an exceptionally good and precise vision can get the difference when frequency goes over 90 hz.

          • Engineer_92

            I am sure those studies are valid, but when dealing with a screen that close to your face, frame rate may play a bigger part in ‘immersion’ and the experience as a whole.

          • noumuon

            I’m not sure they are. Once you’ve used a 144hz variable refresh monitor, it becomes really obvious when it starts dipping down near 100hz. 120-144hz probably isn’t noticeable by many. The difference between 90hz and 144hz is absolutely visible, and as you said, it’s even more important when it’s very close to your face.

          • Engineer_92

            Refer back to my original comment

          • noumuon

            Anyone who has used a high refresh rate monitor knows that your “scientific papers” are likely flawed, because it’s very easy to notice the difference in frame rate dips when you’re accustomed to things running at 144hz. The difference between 120hz and 144hz isn’t very noticeable, but once you get to 100hz, it’s definitely noticeable.

          • Gerald Terveen

            I have a slow perception and don’t really benefit as much from framerate increases as others do. BUT limiting this to the framerate is missing that the real benefit is coming from the fast pixel switch times that reduce the blur during head movements and that blur is something I do perceive on current gen headsets.

            And I think you put your finger on the big problem here currently “not really sure of how much difference it would make” … which is another level of “you have to try it to get it!”.

            I do trust those that have tried it and are focused enough on VR to give an educated feedback here – and they are saying it is the next level of fidelity.

        • Des Dearman

          I’m so with you on that, for me that is one of the major features. The 120/40, dual lenses, increases in density, it’s new school, I can’t wait to see it in person.

          Sure other devices like the Reverb are going for higher res, but i’m hedging my bets that 3 solid years of development on the index headset, the software interfacing, and control integration as a package wins the day.

    • impurekind

      Nah, there are some pretty good improvements in a few areas (resolution, refresh rate, sound, etc)–but that price.

      As I’ve said in a few other articles: You can literally get BOTH a Quest and Rift S for $200 less than the Index and still have enough left to buy a Quest carry case and a bunch of extra games too (many of which are already cross play between Quest and Rift).

      That’s a major point there.

      • Minisith

        Good point for mainstream VR users. Once again, Valve Index is for the enthusiasts. People that are looking to spend a little more for higher quality than trying to penny pinch for VR. I mean if you are looking to penny pinch in gaming than just stick to flat screen and console.

        • zeitfarbe

          Or just buy an Odyssey+, no? Seems like the best mainstream choice right now. Beneath the index.

          • Chris Edwards

            I think most enthusiast would want better tracking than what the Odyssey+ can provide. The same goes for the HP Reverb.

      • Chris Edwards

        I was one of the lucky ones to get in on the pre-order of the Index and knuckles. Since I come from the Vive ecosystem and have a crapload of games on Steam decided to go with the Index. The knuckles will be pretty cool also. I will be getting the Quest 128GB when it comes out for my mobile VR.

    • noumuon

      Outside in tracking and having a cable still produce the best quality. This has better resolution, better refresh rate, better FOV, reduces screen door.

      Sounds like you’re the fool in this situation.

    • Martin355

      > What about outside in tracking

      It’s great and the best tracking available! I’m so happy they didn’t go with inside-out.

    • Chris Edwards

      Stay with your Rift while we play with our state of the art Valve Index.

    • beestee

      The lighthouse setup is inside-out tracking.

      Good audiophile headphones can set you back more than $500, a great set could set you back $1000 or more.

      Valve explained clearly that they are laser focused on top tier fidelity. Resolution is one attribute of display technology that affects the VR experience, there are many others and those are greatly improved with the displays in the Index.

    • Etailer

      If the Index is junk what is the Rift? Sounds like your a little jealous that you can’t afford one.

  • impurekind

    I do like the sound of this off-ear solution–pun kinda intended.

  • Have to agree here, this solution is just fantastic. The piped audio solution on Go may struggle with frequency response, but it comes with some surprising wins. There have been times where particular sounds in the right frequency spectrum have caused my brain to question whether the sound came from the digital or real world, like a sort of audio driven form of presence.
    The fact that Valve have taken the off ear approach here to the extreme is really exciting to me. I imagine you’d get many more of those types of moments and the thought that you have the potential for audio presence enhancing a visual moment of presence could have a really profound effect.

  • Jarilo

    Everyone can hear your “movies” now. Thanks. lol

  • care package

    lol. Ya we all know, who cares. When people use IO they mean no external devices and the HMD scans the room, not lighthouse.

  • At least w/ external sound you can hear your house being robbed or someone dying :3

  • Ghosty

    I hate the off ear idea for the simple reason that I don’t want to hear things going on in the real world and I don’t want them to hear my audio either! Hearing my kids playing or my wife watching tv spilling into my vr is mega immersion breaking! This solution only works in a quiet place!

  • Hivemind9000

    My ears seem to be radiators for my brain, so off-the-ear headphones is music to my… um.. ears.

  • saintkamus

    They look similar to the ones shown at Michael Abrash’s keynote last year.

    • Tharny

      Pretty sure that if Oculus went for this solution people would be crying their eyes out.

  • wooties

    I can only see these headphones working in isolated environments. Open headphones provide outstanding audio and sound stage but they DO NOT provide the most immersive audio.. it’s not immersive if you hear ambient sounds like kids, doors, cars outside, fans, people’s voices. It’s the exact opposite of immersive.

    • Gerald Terveen

      most people don’t use headphones when watching tv, which makes me conclude most people have an environment that is suitable to this kind of solution.
      and if you do feel you need headphones you can just detach the solution and use headphones of your choice

      • wooties

        Playing VR != watching TV. Immersion, man.

    • Immersive_Computing

      Open headphones are fantastic in a quiet setting (perhaps a house in the countryside) but not in houses in urban environments. I am sitting here typing in my house in North London and I can hear all kinds of background noise typically cars rumbling past, buses braking, police sirens. Its rarely quiet in a busy city.

      I have been to numerous VR demos over the past 3 years and immersion-breaking background noise has been a constant issue; many of the demos are held on the trading floors of busy retail stores, I could hear store music playing, people talking, phones ringing. Perhaps the best demos were on the old HTC Vive-Pre were one store had a large pair of Sennheiser closed back headphones.

      With the Valve Index I look forward to trying out the off-ear audio system, but am thankful that they can be removed and 3.5mm audio jack used to plug in my closed back headphones. For very early morning or early evening VR sessions when the City is quiet I can see the off-ear solution working well, and then use closed-back headphones during the daytime.

      I will report back in July when my Index arrives.

    • Fourfoldroot

      It should also be noted that headphones allowing for ambient noise are better for many people – whether that be to keep an ear out for kids in their bedroom or whatever…

      • wooties

        Yes that’s true, all that breaks immersion.. which was my point.

        • Fourfoldroot

          Sure, I wasn’t doubting that.

  • crim3

    The noise from the computer’s fans may be a problem. I like when I put on my headphones and that annoying and ubiquitous noise fades away.

    • Etailer

      You may want to replace your computer fans. I have a new computer and can barely hear them without a head set on. Put on a headset no way that I could hear them.

  • I’ve heard amazing things about this and about the 144hz display…

  • I can’t wait to try them… I have read so many amazing things about them

  • Twa Corbies

    Don’t like it. Won’t buy anything, that isn’t giving me full isolation. And this audio pipe thing… my god, what a total crap.

  • Frank Oldale

    I will have to remove them as I do with all my headsets as I require over the ear in order to avoid complaints from my family who don’t want to listen to what I am doing :)