Virtual reality has been gaming’s “the next frontier” for years now. At this point, VR is current technology that most people can at least try, from disposable cardboard eyepieces that work with smartphones to full-fledged VR gear. The barrier for entry has never been lower, but it is still relatively new, niche tech for gaming, fitness, and people who are enamored with the idea of being in a virtual world. The best VR headset for each of these people—for everyone, really—comes down to what you want to do and how far you’re willing to go to get an immersive experience.
How we picked the best VR headsets
We’re now several years and hardware generations into real consumer VR, and you really can see it in milestones like the success of the fully wireless Quest 2. However, the level of investment and specialized knowledge required to compete is still high enough that VR headsets still come from a small group of dominant manufacturers, including Meta (Oculus), HTC, and Sony. Selecting the best from among this relatively small field then is just a matter of choosing categories that best reflect your options from how the different manufacturers have chosen to specialize, like portability, display quality, or immersive interfaces.
In addition to collating and analyzing both professional and customer reviews, our selections were also rooted in years of journalistic and critical experience covering the VR space professionally. We also drew on a lifetime of enthusiasm for the medium’s promise, and hands-on time with many of these products, as well as with both their immediate and more ancestral predecessors.
Things to consider when picking out a VR headset
Comparing VR headsets gets very tricky, very fast. Not only are there two fundamentally different types of headsets–standalone and PC-based–but even specs like resolution, which you may know from TVs and gaming monitors, work a little differently. Here’s a basic overview of a few things to keep in mind when picking out your VR headset.
Standalone or PC-based?
Before you begin looking for a device, consider which avenue of connection best suits your lifestyle and entertainment center set-up.
For many people, smartphones were the gateway drug into VR: In 2015, the New York Times sent 1.1 million cardboard VR headsets to subscribers for free. Many other companies made it similarly easy to easily get a taste of the technology. At this point, though, the phone-based VR headset has been largely eclipsed by dedicated headsets: Some of them, like the Meta, aka Oculus, Quest, are self-contained. Others, like the HTC Vive and the now-defunct Oculus Rift, offer superior visuals and tracking but require more dedicated space and a powerful gaming PC.
For new VR users, we generally recommend a standalone headset with “inside out” tracking, which tends to be more affordable and requires minimal setup. PC-based headsets tend to offer superior performance and fidelity, but require a modern gaming PC with a dedicated GPU. In many cases, they also feature outside tracking, where you place sensors around the VR playspace to track your movement. Setting up and calibrating these sensors takes time, so you’ll need a semi-permanent setup in a dedicated space. By contrast, the standalone VR is easy to set up in any room where you can clear out enough floor space. If you’ve seen what the Quest can do and want higher fidelity, tethered VR experiences call for hobby-grade work, but deliver higher fidelity and immersion as a reward.
Weight and comfort
One of the biggest hurdles VR faces is people’s reluctance to strap a large electronic device directly to their face for long periods of time. It can get uncomfortable in many different ways: The headset can feel heavy if it weighs too much or isn’t balanced properly. It can be hard to see if you can’t calibrate the screen lens to match the positions of your eyes. It can get hot in there, too, which can make your face and eyes sweat.
It can be hard to pick a headset for fit or comfort, especially if you can’t try them on in person, but keep an eye out for how much the headset weighs. The difference between 1.0 to 1.3 pounds doesn’t seem like much but may determine how long you can wear the headset without neck pain. Also, look for information on how you can adjust the lens: Many headsets allow you to adjust the distance between the lens to fit different face shapes. Some, like the PlayStation VR, allow you to adjust the lens distance from your eyes as well, which is helpful if you wear glasses.
Another consideration for comfort once you’ve invested in a headset is the variety of modifications and replacement components available for customizing to your preferences. The basic included Oculus Quest 2 strap, for instance, is very minimal and has few considerations for weight distribution. Oculus sells an official adjustable Elite Strap with an added battery, but there’s a whole cottage industry of third-party alternatives and upgrades.
Where are you going to set up your VR?
Space has long been a limiting factor for people getting the most out of a home VR setup, and you typically want as much room as you can get. With this restriction in mind, many VR games and experiences are designed for being seated or stationary, in which case you just need as much room as you can safely lean and wave your arms around inside. For room-scale experiences where you move around, however, HTC requires a minimum of 5 x 6.6 feet, while Meta recommends a more generous 6.6 x 6.6. Any additional space you can find will open up even more possibilities.
Your VR area needs to be indoors, even for the Quest 2, since too much sun can hamper tracking and damage the lenses. It needs to be clear of any obstacles at all levels (both things you could step/trip on and that you could bump into or hit with your arms), with a bit of margin for error to buffer outside of your defined play area—don’t just put the virtual wall right up against the real wall, because you will probably hit it. Obviously, you want an area with minimal foot traffic, and if other people will be around, just be sure to establish good, clear communication protocols for the safety of everyone involved.
As with any other kind of monitor, resolution is typically expressed as (pixel width) x (pixel height). The one wrinkle here is that the underlying magic trick of VR operates entirely around having two screens—one for each eye. Typically if a headset’s resolution is expressed as an unqualified and wider ratio, like 2650 x 1440, that is adding up the total resolution of the two screens together, side by side. Alternatively, the per-eye resolution is also often shared and labeled as such and will be more square with half the stated width of the full resolution (like 1832 x 1920). Higher resolution is generally seen as better in all cases, but it’s particularly relevant in VR because it reduces the so-called “screen-door effect” that comes from having screens held right against your eyes.
SteamVR versus the Oculus/Meta store
Just as with video game consoles, every VR headset is also tied to a digital content store. Valve (and historically HTC) use SteamVR, obviously built out of Valve’s PC gaming juggernaut, Steam. In addition to having such a robust foundation and the most content (although the least curation), SteamVR’s main advantage is that it’s the most platform agnostic. The Valve Index may offer the easiest access out of the box, but any other headset can access it, including the Quest (although that requires either a USB-C cable for direct connection or a strong enough wireless network to support Air Link). The Oculus/Meta store for all of their hardware is more of a walled garden, unfortunately. Although company representatives have expressed interest in bringing the store to third-party headsets, at time of writing it isn’t supported. The newest content store is HTC’s Viveport, which they rolled out in response to Valve’s Index signaling the end of the companies’ hardware partnership. Broadly similar to the other two (with perhaps a less explicit gaming focus), its main distinction is Viveport Infinity, the first VR monthly subscription service for accessing a library of content. PSVR of course is limited to Sony’s PlayStation Store. As with consoles, there are some exclusive games to each respective marketplace, sometimes timed, so if there’s a particular game you’re excited to play, be sure to purchase a headset that can access it.
The best VR headsets: Reviews & Recommendations
The best VR headset for you depends on what you want to do, and how much you want to spend. Until recently, the latter was really the dominant consideration, as any headset better than a phone required tethering to a powerful PC or console. However, the Quest 2’s standalone portability combined with its relatively accessible price point has opened up VR to a whole new audience.
Best standalone VR headset: Oculus Quest 2
Why it made the cut: The fully wireless and portable Quest 2 blows every other headset away in terms of quality to cost.
- Resolution: 1832 x 1920 per eye
- Refresh rate: 120Hz
- Weight: 503g
- Completely standalone
- Great and growing library
- Excellent value for capability
- Also pairs with PC
- Supporting Facebook/Meta
- Flimsy stock strap
Oculus is at the forefront of VR technology, and their standalone Quest 2 is the complete package for an advanced, immersive VR experience. Equipped with two touch controllers that make for smooth, intuitive interaction and a chargeable headset that delivers high-resolution imagery and cinematic 3D positional audio, the Oculus Quest 2 is the real deal. Oculus also has partnerships that guarantee quality content such as Star Wars: Tales from The Galaxy’s Edge, Jurassic World: Aftermath, and The Climb 2.
Best VR headset tracking: HTC VIVE Cosmos Elite
Why it made the cut: HTC combined the best features of all their previous headsets in the HTC Vive Cosmos Elite to create immersive positional tracking.
- Resolution: 1440 x 1700 per eye
- Refresh rate: 90Hz
- Weight: 645g
- The best and most feature-rich position tracking available
- High resolution and refresh rate
HTC established itself as one of the primary manufacturers of VR headsets very early in the modern VR market with the original HTC Vive headset, which used “room scale” technology to allow unrestricted and immersive movement using external sensors. There are now many Vives, but the HTC Cosmos Elite 2 is currently the best true successor to that original device, creating an expansive space without the limitations of other headsets.
The Cosmos Elite 2 combines the newer “inside-out” headset-based tracking of the first Cosmos with the external sensors of the original Vive to achieve an unparalleled level of movement fidelity. If you are going to spend a lot on high-end PC VR, precise tracking is arguably one of the best ways to get immediate bang for your buck—a lot of content won’t take advantage of the maximum resolution or most cutting-edge controllers available, but the system getting confused about your head and hands’ locations is always immersion-breaking.
Best displays in a VR headset: HTC Vive Pro 2
Why it made the cut: If crisp, seamless visuals are your biggest priority, then HTC’s Vive Pro is still the best of the best.
- Resolution: 2448 × 2448 per eye
- Refresh rate: 120Hz
- Weight: 850g
- Highest resolution and refresh screen available
- High FOV
- Excellent construction
- Requires a lot of space/outlets
Since release, HTC’s Vive headsets have always served as the money-is-no-object option for investing in the most cutting-edge and future-proofed VR system currently available, and the current flagship Vive Pro 2 headset is no different. Where the Vive Cosmos line has focused more on tracking and modular features, the Vive Pro 2 has all top-tier components, including the best display currently available of any headset in the market at 4896 x 2448 resolution, 120Hz, and a 120-degree field of view.
Best controllers on a VR headset: Valve Index VR
Why it made the cut: The Valve Index is a solid, high-end headset with the most advanced and tactile controllers currently available.
- Resolution: 1600 x 1440 per eye
- Refresh rate: 120Hz
- Weight: 809g
- Incredibly precise and innovative controllers
- Overall excellent quality
- Vertical integration with SteamVR
Valve’s hardware partnership with HTC apparently ended with the Index’s launch, which is an all-around powerful headset with unique and intuitive controllers. The Valve Index’s twin controllers strap firmly to your hands, and the contoured handles rest comfortably over your palms. You don’t have to worry about dropping them, and the buttons and triggers are perfectly placed to avoid blind fumbling. They function as a standard game controller, but can also sense finger proximity—which allows a finger to point, or your onscreen avatar to give a thumbs-up if you raise a thumb. It may not be a haptic glove, but it feels pretty close.
The Index’s unique qualities don’t come into play that often, though. Only a few applications there currently take advantage of the controllers’ range (Half-Life: Alyx being their flagship tech demo). Even when you aren’t using the controllers to their full potential, the strong specs of the Valve Index, including 1600 x 1440 per eye resolution and 120Hz refresh rate, make it an enticing headset for any kind of VR software.
Best VR headset for console gamers: Sony PlayStation VR
Why it made the cut: Until its successor arrives, PSVR remains the only game in town for console-based VR.
- Resolution: 960 x 1080 per eye
- Refresh rate: 120Hz
- Weight: 600g
- Fantastic library with exclusives
- Relies on popular PS4/coveted PS5 instead of expensive PC
- Light and comfortable
- Little chance of new software
- Lower resolution than alternatives
Released in 2016, PlayStation VR is a mid-range, console-focused alternative to the PC-tethered VR headsets. It connects to a PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 5 (with an adapter) and features a robust library of games through the console, designed to run to its 1920 x 1080-per-eye specifications, including VR modes for PS4 games like Resident Evil 7 and Hitman 3. As an added bonus, if you don’t have a 3D capable TV and 3D Blu-ray player but do have a few Blu-ray sets that came with a 3D disc, you can watch them through the PlayStation VR headset and recreate the cinema experience.
That said, since it is five years old, our PSVR recommendation comes with a couple of caveats. First, Sony recently announced that the PlayStation VR 2 is on the way. Rumors suggest it may hit stores by the end of the year, so you should know going in that developers are largely done making PS VR games at this point, so the library that exists now will not expand much.
Even then, though, PSVR may be uniquely well-suited for console gamers looking to try VR. The Meta Quest 2 is more versatile, but PSVR is a great alternative, whether you are already more invested in Sony’s ecosystem, or would prefer not to engage with Facebook/Meta’s.
Best budget VR headset: DESTEK V5
Why it made the cut: In the dwindling smartphone VR space, DESTEK has claimed its victory chicken dinner.
- Resolution: Depends on paired smartphone
- Refresh rate: Depends on paired smartphone
- Weight: 320g
- Very affordable
- Substantial comfort and control upgrade over most smartphone VR systems
- Smartphone VR offers limited functionality and immersion
While the Quest 2 is making incredible ground on the value proposition for standalone VR, it costs at least $299.99. Frankly, there aren’t many low-budget alternatives that we would currently recommend. Though they’re largely out of the limelight, cheaper, phone-powered VR headsets are still out there, and the DESTEK V5 VR headset is a reliable option in that vein. It’s compatible with most smartphones and creates a strong sense of immersion. If you’re primarily looking for a vehicle for 360 YouTube videos and other non-interactive content, the DESTEK will open that door for you.
Q: Are there wireless PC VR headsets?
It is possible to use a PC-based VR headset without all those cumbersome wires. HTC sells a wireless adapter that works with both their Pro and Cosmos headsets and, as of an April 2021 software update, the Meta Quest 2 is also capable of wirelessly pairing with a PC to run more demanding content than it might be able to otherwise.
Q: What is inside-out tracking in VR?
Inside-out tracking refers to when the cameras and sensors that determine the VR headset’s position are mounted on the device itself, projecting into the environment, as opposed to outside-in tracking, like with the Vive, which uses fixed, external sensors.
Q: How do I care for my VR headset?
Besides the same general considerations for any piece of expensive electronics, be sure to have a microfiber cloth for wiping the lenses without scratching them. Dab it in water if necessary, but avoid using antibacterial wipes or alcohol on the lenses directly if disinfecting the faceplate between different people using it, as you could damage the lens coating.
The bottom line on the best VR headsets
There’s a big world out there … if you have the right gear. We may very well look back at these years and laugh at our current bulky headsets, like we do at the enormous brick phones that pop up in 80s movies, but this is our reality, virtual or not. One day, the best VR headsets will be sleek and simple and everyone will have them but, for now, there are a few different ways into the category and a lot of room to figure out what you like and what experiences you’re looking for. It won’t be a fun novelty for long, so dive in and get familiarized with VR tech now.