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Best Overall: Oculus Go at Amazon
"An entirely standalone headset, meaning it doesn't require an expensive gaming laptop or console to operate."
Best Splurge: HTC Vive Pro at Amazon
"Truly is the latest and greatest in consumer-level VR tech."
Best for PS4 Users: PlayStation VR at Amazon
"One of the few designs that attempts to mitigate the discomfort problem with a bigger, more substantial strap."
Best All-in-One: Oculus Quest at Amazon
"The newest Oculus is also the best, out of the box, for having fun."
Best Tracking: HTC Vive at Amazon
"Despite its age, it's still one of the best bang-for-buck options available today."
Best for iPhone Users: Pansonite VR Headset at Amazon
"It works not only regardless of operating system, but its hardware support is unrelenting as well."
Best Mid-Range: Oculus Rift S at Amazon
"Designed as a replacement to the original Oculus Rift, it matches it in price and hardware and can work with the same software."
Best for Samsung Phone Users: Samsung Gear VR at Amazon
"One of the best VR sets you can buy if you own a Samsung phone."
Best Innovation: Valve Index at store.steampowered.com
"The best VR headset in its class in terms of raw specs and features."
The best VR headsets transport you out of the mundane world we find ourselves normally surrounded by and into spectacular landscapes, alien worlds, and fantastical realms that were only previously accessible through giant leaps of imagination. After an initial explosion of interest, virtual reality adoption has slowed a little in recent months, but it continues to steadily drive sales and innovation, and every time there's a big step forward technologically there's an attendant spike in coverage.
If you've never gotten your hands on a virtual reality headset before, you may be very confused at to where to begin shopping around. The most important factor you should consider before diving is in a headset's library. PlayStation VR, for instance, doesn't have the massive number of titles that some of the PC HMDs offer, but it does have some of the most incredible exclusives available anywhere. You always want to think about your play space, and whether you have room to set up sensors, or if multiple cables are feasible.
Minimal screen door effect
Up to 144Hz
Individual finger tracking
Requires a beefy GPU
After partnering with HTC to help build two previous VR headsets, gaming giant Valve has ventured directly into its own hardware, producing the first VR headset under its own brand, the Valve Index — the best VR headset in its class in terms of raw specs and features. First, you’re getting a display that offers an unprecedented field of view, thanks to a new dial on the front that allows you to move the lenses right up to your eyes, thereby improving your peripheral vision.
While the 1440x1600-pixel displays are only LCD, rather than OLED, we suspect this is a deliberate design choice on Valve’s part, since LCD pixels are subtler and minimize the screen door effect — something that would otherwise be a glaring problem when the lenses are crammed up to your eyeballs. The Index starts at 120Hz but also features an “experimental” 144Hz mode. At any rate, the net gain is not only a gorgeous and immersive VR experience but the ability to game for longer without concern for eye fatigue.
Two base stations provide a 10x10 gaming field, although these are only modest improvements over the HTC Vive versions, with which the Index is also compatible. The two controllers that come with the Valve Index are also a huge step forward, offering the ability to track each of your fingers individually, and even the difference between simply closing your hand or squeezing it. That said, you’ll still need a fairly powerful PC with a decent GeForce or Radeon GPU, but no more than any other premium VR headset. After extensive testing, Emily heaped praise on the Index, largely for its superwide, crisp display.
"If you’re looking for the best VR experience possible, then you should buy the Valve Index." — Emily Ramirez, Product Tester
No PC required
Not as powerful as the Rift
Facebook acquired Oculus back in 2014, and in 2018 they released their first ground-up VR headset. It comes with a notable innovation: the Oculus Go is entirely standalone, meaning it doesn’t require an expensive gaming laptop or console to operate. Just don the sleek, gray headset, adjust the straps and jump into an immersive VR experience on a premium-feeling device.
With this headset, Oculus is ushering in a new era of VR for everyone, not just those on the vanguard of tech development. And while the VR hardware is not quite as powerful as the Oculus Rift, it does deliver a fairly high-end experience. The headset also comes with an Oculus Go controller, which is sort of like a point-and-click remote that, while not as immersive as the Oculus Touch, is intuitive and works for games or experiences like watching a concert.
At launch, the Go is compatible with more than 1,000 apps, streaming services, games, and 360-degree experiences, a number that is guaranteed to grow as time goes on. In her review, Emily called the Go "an affordable foray into virtual reality for those who want a simple, immersive experience without cables."
"At about $200, it is perhaps the best headset for VR film right now, and its games are a lot of fun." — Emily Ramirez, Product Tester
Requires a fairly powerful PC
The HTC Vive Pro is great for VR enthusiasts with some extra money to spend. It’s an expensive piece of hardware, but it's been given a graphical upgrade that offers some of the best visuals on the market.
With a dazzling 2880 x 1600 resolution (versus the 2160 x 1200 resolution on the original Vive), the Pro’s OLED screen is its best asset. It has a 110-degree view which is standard for most headsets on the market and comes with a number of design improvements that make it comfortable to wear, even over an extended period of time. These include a simple strap and built-in headphones that sit directly on top of your ears.
The bottom line is that the HTC Vive Pro has stunning visuals, reducing the number of grainy edges sometimes seen on HTC's older headsets. It truly is the latest and greatest in consumer VR tech. But the price is, of course, the main factor here — if you don’t already have HTC sensors or controllers, you can buy the headset in a bundle with those accessories. In testing, our reviewer Emily called the Vive Pro the best currently available headset for room-scale VR.
"The display on the Vive Pro is breathtaking. Everything looks crystal clear, with little ghosting, screen door effect, or low refresh rates to hinder your experience." — Emily Ramirez, Product Tester
Best exclusives in VR
Awesome refresh rate
Impressive 3D audio
Lower resolution than many PC HMDs
Now that VR has become such a ubiquitous thing — something that seemed ultra-futuristic not even 5 years ago — we’ve seen a barrage of headsets coming to the market. While most of them contain some padding and foam for comfort on the face and around the eyes, it’s somewhat surprising how many of them are still heavy, clunky blocks you strap to your face with just one horizontal support strap.
For our money, the PlayStation VR is one of the few physical designs that attempts to mitigate that with a bigger, more substantial strap that balances at an angle on your head. This takes some of the pressure off your forehead, theoretically allowing you to use it for longer. The PlayStation VR's 5.7-inch OLED display sports 1080p resolution and a super-fast 120 fps refresh rate, which isn’t that much of a surprise considering it was designed by a leading gaming manufacturer. Roll that in with an impressive 3D audio system and this is one immersive unit.
One thing to keep in mind is that this does require a PS4 for operation, as opposed to just strapping your smartphone in like the cheaper VR headsets, but with the gameplay quality, you’ll be glad you invested in the system. The PS4’s camera receiver will read the LEDs around the headset and the wireless controller to track your movement in the room. PlayStation also regularly releases VR-first games for you to make the most out of the unit. It’s expensive, but if gaming is your thing, it just might be worth it. Andrew, who reviewed the PSVR for us, loved the selection of games and reasonable price.
"A must-buy for any existing PlayStation 4 owner with even the slightest interest in VR, given the stellar game library and very reasonable cost as an add-on experience." — Andrew Hayward, Product Tester
Best standalone headset available
Big library of titles
Oculus Link gives access to more titles
Link requires cabling to a PC
Most other virtual reality sets are dependent on other devices. Whether you’re going for Google’s headset to work with your phone or you’re using a peripheral for your PS4, these devices are often meant as accompaniments, not as standalone products.
The Quest is Oculus’s latest foray into truly standalone VR headsets, meant to work no matter where you set up to play. It thrives in any environment because of the built-in room scale-tracking sensors. Coupled with the proprietary Guardian boundary system, you can play games that map you to your specific room, but also set up virtual room limits intelligently.
The two controllers that come with the system offer solid motion controls that, when paired with the motion tracking headset, give you a wide range of movements from arm gestures to ducking.
The built-in audio engine also provides a degree of surround coverage, meaning you’ll be fully immersed in your game. And because the whole thing works on the Oculus engine, it is perfectly poised for developers to add to the library for future features and iterations. Thanks to that engine and developer support, you’ll have a ton of options for compatible games and apps long into the future. Andrew reviewed the Quest for Lifewire and heaped praise on it for how well it functioned despite being completely wireless.
"The Oculus Quest is the standalone, affordable VR headset that we've been waiting for." — Andrew Hayward, Product Tester
Great balance of price and power
Beautiful OLED display
Excellent touchpad controllers
Requires sensors and cables
Having aided in its initial pioneering, the HTC Vive was one of the first on the premium VR headset market. Yet despite its age, it's still one of the best bang-for-buck options available today. Its hefty weight and typical design won't sway the unconverted, but for existing VR fans, the Vive doesn't disappoint.
Its 2160x1200 display, for instance, has now become the standard resolution among higher-end headsets, and the natural 110-degree field of view and controllers are still the best you’ll find on a VR headset. Meanwhile, the internal display is OLED and offers a buttery smooth 90Hz refresh rate.
A pair of base stations allow for a relatively sizable tracking area (up to 15 by 15 feet), and the included pair of controllers are versatile due in part to their large clickable touchpads and two-stage rear triggers. What's more, the Vive is millimeter-accurate with no noticeable lag. In other words, it works the way you’d expect it to out of the box — no laborious tweaking necessary.
The other big bonus with HTC Vive is that it was made in partnership with Valve, the creator of wildly popular digital games marketplace Steam, so it's one of the best virtual reality headsets to buy if you're already invested in that ecosystem. That said, you’ll need a powerful PC to use it, as HTC recommends at least an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480 GPU, an Intel Core i5-4590 CPU, and 4 GB of RAM. Our reviewer Emily was very impressed by the durable design and amazing tracking.
"The HTC Vive is a fine headset, with excellent tracking and durable build." — Emily Ramirez, Product Tester
Great for phones
Works with most OSes
Underpowered compared to PC headsets
If you’re looking to simply dip your toes into the world of VR and don’t want to spend a lot of money, then a mobile smartphone-based VR headset is the way to go. Among the best of these budget options is the Pansonite VR Headset.
Compatible with both iOS and Android smartphones, it works not only regardless of operating system, but its hardware support is unrelenting as well. In other words, you don’t need the latest iPhone XS or Samsung Galaxy S10 to drive it — most smartphones made in the last three to four years should do the trick.
Of course, because it uses lenses and sensors to augment what’s shown on your smartphone screen, your experience with the Pansonite VR Headset won’t be as immersive as an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. But since there are no cables, you’ll get complete freedom of movement. High-definition lenses and a 110-degree viewing angle mean it’ll still look visually stunning, while accelerometers and gyroscopes allow for fairly precise head tracking.
The headset itself is made of a light and flexible plastic along with faux leather pads inside, so the build quality feels a little cheap, but it’s comfortable to wear even for long periods of time. While you’re not going to be playing Skyrim VR or Beat Saber on a headset like this, it’s still a competitive entryway into the world of VR. And it’s especially compelling if you’re looking for a headset that’ll play VR films and documentaries rather than triple-A games. While testing, Emily appreciated the Pansonite's cozy design and built-in headphones.
"A thoughtful accessory for phone-based VR experiences." — Emily Ramirez, Product Tester
Cameras add a little bulk
With the Oculus Rift S, you get to make your own reality. The PC-powered VR gaming system requires no external sensors and boasts sharper graphics and more powerful responses. The graphics have been upgraded to 1280 x 1440 pixels per eye, and while refresh rate is reduced from the original Oculus Rift, the headset includes ASW, a technology that is said to optimize quality across PCs.
Upgraded with comfort in mind, the VR headset is padded and can be tightened easily with the fit wheel, though it might feel bulkier due to the outward facing cameras: two front-facing, two side-facing, and one pointing upwards. The headset includes two touch controllers, which are light and responsive as you play. The tracking ring is positioned at the top, rather than the bottom, of each, which allows the headset to better detect them and create a smoother, more realistic gaming experience.
Designed as a replacement to the original Oculus Rift, it matches it in price and hardware and can work with the same software. Like its forerunner, the Oculus Rift S is wired and is connected to your PC via a USB 3.0 port and a DisplayPort connection. Zach, who reviewed the S, appreciated the comfy, glasses-compatible fit and improved resolution.
"The Oculus Rift S is a solid and affordable option for those just getting into VR." — Zach Sweat, Product Tester
Perfect for Samsung phones
Growing number of titles
Larger than some smartphone headsets
If you own a Samsung phone released in the past two years, the Samsung Gear is one of the best VR sets that you can buy. In fact, even if you own an incompatible phone, this accessory might inspire you to convert.
Compared to other smartphone headsets, this might seem big, but its size is also an advantage. Inside, its optics can be adjusted using the top-mounted dial, giving you a more comfortable picture. And it’s pretty breathable considering you’re strapped in tightly. This updated Gear comes with a motion controller, which is a small remote that pairs easily with your smartphone and adds new levels of interactivity. It has a circular touchpad on the front and a single trigger on the back.
The headset also has a USB-C port on the bottom for charging purposes. Perhaps most important for any VR system is its content library, and the Samsung Gear has solid but growing shelves, so you’ll never get bored of diving into new realities.
If you want the best VR experience currently available, an incredible balance of visual quality, extra features, and library size, pull the trigger on the Valve Index. For an affordable, completely standalone headset, the Oculus Go is perfect for those who crave a VR experience without the clutter and cables.
Meredith Popolo is an experienced tech journalist who specializes in PC hardware, peripherals, and accessories, and a number of other corners of the consumer technology landscape. Originally from New York, she now resides in Stockholm, Sweden.
Emily Ramirez is a tech writer and narrative designer who's extensively covered AR, VR, and XR trends, and specializes in wearable technology and audio and visual equipment.
Andrew Hayward has been covering the tech industry for more than 14 years now, and developed expertise in wearable technology, smartphones, and gaming. His work has appeared in a number of top tech publications.
Zach Sweat is a tech writer, photographer, and editor, who specializes in gaming, mobile tech, and consumer electronics. He earned a dual degree in multimedia journalism and photography from the University of North Florida.
Platform - Just as some video games are only available on specific platforms, different virtual reality experiences can only be sought on specific headsets. Fully immersive platforms will provide you with the best experiences for a price, while others will merely use your phone and rely on your device’s app store for content.
Screen - With your eyes placed only an inch-or-so from a device’s screen, it is essential to be aware of each headset’s display resolution — the higher the resolution, the clearer and more immersive your experience. Some headsets rely on your smartphone’s screen, so you’ll want to make sure you have a smartphone that is sufficient.
Controllers - Some platforms offer fully trackable controllers that follow your hands in virtual reality, while others provide a simple controller. Keep an eye out for the different controllers included with each headset to get a better idea of what experience you can expect.