Your eyes can only see what is directly in front of you, but your hearing can detect hazards all around you. In gaming, being able to hear an attacker approaching from behind is a huge advantage. Surround sound isn’t nearly as ubiquitous in gaming setups as, say, game monitors or televisions, which is surprising. However, to provide a directional effect, the technique normally uses many speakers spaced out around you. That’s a significant barrier for PC gamers who use headsets, or even console players who don’t have the space for a complete surround system.
Fortunately, with just two speakers or a set of headphones and a lot of audio processing, you can still enjoy the benefits of surround sound. Higher-end gaming headsets are increasingly featuring simulated surround sound and spatial audio, but with the correct software, you can enjoy it on any headphones you can connect to your PC (or console).
We have everything you need to know about getting the greatest surround sound for gaming, whether you’re using headphones or a 5.1 speaker system (or more).
What Is Simulated Surround Sound, and How Does It Work?
Multiple speakers (typically six, plus a subwoofer, but many more for a high-end home theater) are used in traditional surround sound to offer multiple outlets for distinct sounds to pass through. If the movie or game you’re viewing or playing supports surround sound, it can send the appropriate sound to the appropriate speaker to give you a sense of directionality. That means that the sound of something approaching from behind you will emanate from behind you.
For the majority of the technology’s existence, surround sound has been essentially channel-based, mixing sounds especially for a specific number of channels. Spatial audio (or object-based audio) is a newer approach that is even more complex. Rather than mixing sound into channels at the content level, it is mixed around a 360-degree circle or sphere, with each audio source in the content put precisely. Although this sort of surround sound is more technically challenging, it can scale to any size speaker system and supports height for genuine 3D playback that can originate from above or below you. Many movies are blended with spatial audio for theaters and even home viewing; two such spatial audio systems are Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
Because of how their engines work, most 3D games use some type of spatial audio on the fly. The game engine determines where sounds originate before converting them to stereo, 5.1-channel, or 7.1-channel streams. The difficulty is that while downmixing all of those sources to a fixed number of channels is simple, processing, drawing, and exporting a complete 3D audio stream is far more time-consuming, which is why the great majority of games avoid it. Several notable games, such as Call of Duty: Warzone, Forza Horizon 4, and Borderlands 3, do support Dolby or DTS spatial audio in some way, at least for headphones, however the majority of them output audio in traditional channel-based surround sound.
Obviously, headphones’ stereo drivers can’t produce the same immersive, directed impact as many speakers, which is where surround audio processing technologies come in. Dolby Atmos for Headphones, DTS Headphone:X, THX Spatial Audio, and Windows Sonic all use directional audio data to determine how to best mix it into the left and right channels of your headphones on the fly. It’s more than just figuring out which ear receives which sound. These systems work out how to pan and fade every part of what you’re listening to in the greatest possible way based on their direction to offer your ears the finest sense of that direction.
This may appear to just downmix audio into stereo, with no feeling of forward or backward direction. In truth, that was my initial impression of the technology, but after seeing it improve over time, I can tell that it truly does make a difference. No, you won’t be able to detect the difference between a sound coming from in front of you and one coming from behind you with headphones, but with the perfect mixing, you’ll get a strong sensation of it, as well as incredibly precise imaging from left to right. It can be a significant tactical advantage for first-person shooters.
It can also enhance the immersion of movies and games. Even if you don’t have a surround speaker system, good directional audio processing through headphones may make whatever you’re seeing or listening to feel bigger and more realistic.
With a Gaming Headset, You Can Enjoy Surround Sound
Simulated surround sound is built into many higher-end gaming headsets. These headsets often link to your PC or console through USB, either with built-in surround-processing sound cards or with a token or code that enables the usage of software that provides the capability.
This is straightforward, but device-specific, and if your headset isn’t designed for spatial audio, you may be limited to channel-based surround sound. When you connect your headset (or transmitter if you’re using a wireless headset), it automatically configures as a surround-capable device. To use the surround feature, you may need to download a companion app, but it’s usually just a simple toggle, with additional settings to let you customize how it sounds for you. The ease of setup varies by model and platform, with PCs typically requiring setting via an app and consoles typically handling it automatically.
Our Favorite Gaming Headsets
With PC and Xbox Software, You Can Get Surround Sound
You can set up spatial audio entirely with an app if you choose to utilize an analog headset or headphones with a 3.5mm connector, or simply don’t have surround on your USB headphones. For Windows 10 and the Xbox One X/S and Xbox Series X/S, Microsoft offers free surround processing with Windows Sonic, or you can pay for commercial apps like Dolby Access, DTS Sound Unbound, or (PC-only) Razer THX Spatial Audio.
Typically, these alternatives cost between $10 and $20. (not necessarily to download the app, but to license the audio processing feature). You might prefer them over Windows Sonic, which doesn’t sound as well as Dolby, DTS, or THX, in our opinion.
Our guide to surround sound software will bring you through the many alternatives and illustrate the differences.
With the PlayStation 5’s Automatic 3D Audio, you can enjoy surround sound.
The PlayStation 5 is a one-of-a-kind surround sound casing. The bad news is that the PS5 was built as an audio-walled garden, so you won’t be able to use the same surround sound and spatial audio apps that you can on Windows 10 and Xbox. The good news is that they’re not required because the console uses Tempest 3D Audiotech spatial audio processing, which is proprietary to the firm. Any 3.5mm headset inserted into the DualSense controller, as well as any PS5-compatible wireless headset, including Sony’s Pulse 3D Wireless headset, will function. What Is the Best Simulated Surround Sound Technology?
All of these simulated surround technologies achieve the same thing in the end: they blend directional audio to make it sound more immersive through headphones. However, beneath what is pushed out to your ears are several approaches that adjust how things sound. We can’t truly do a step-by-step examination or compare and contrast the technological aspects because the particular procedures are usually secret.
We can look at it in broad strokes in terms of the ultimate result and how immersive and directional the music is when it hits your headphones. Non-licensed headset surround processing (in headsets with their own app or sound card but no Dolby, DTS, or THX technology) is the least effective in general. It definitely performs some processing and mixing, but it’s mainly channel-based and lacks the finer spatial audio processing that other systems provide.
The PlayStation 5 with Sony’s Tempest 3D Audiotech is an exception. Sony has invested a great deal of time and effort into its 3D audio processing, and it shows. We discovered that the console’s spatial audio is comparable to that of Dolby, DTS, and THX.
Dolby Atmos for Headphones, DTS Headphone:X, THX Spatial Audio, and Windows Sonic for Headphones are examples of pure software-based solutions. While Windows Sonic is free, we’ve discovered that it handles directional audio with the lightest touch, and its effects aren’t as useful or immersive as the other three. In terms of surround and spatial audio processing, Dolby, DTS, and THX are all outstanding. Each technology is quite effective, and a gaming headset may provide an excellent sensation of directionality.
The Best Computer Speakers
Soundbars and Speakers for Surround Sound
Spatial audio solutions designed for headphones function best with headsets, although the underlying technology can also be used with speakers. Before Dolby Atmos for Headphones and DTS Headphone:X, there was just Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, as well as Dolby Digital and DTS multi-channel surround sound (THX Spatial Audio is designed specifically for headphones, and is only available on Windows 10).
Surround sound is considerably easier to set up between your game console or PC and your speakers, but you’ll need the correct material and equipment. If your games or movies have surround sound, it will be produced as a multi-channel stream for your speakers to mix and place. You’ll experience the benefits of that audio if your speakers, soundbar, or surround sound system support that multi-channel stream. You’ll get a stereo mix if you don’t.
Speakers, soundbars, and multi-speaker surround systems can be configured in a variety of ways, and any audio that comes out of them must be processed and mixed properly. Surround sound and Dolby Atmos/DTS:X compatibility, or at the very least multi-channel surround sound, must therefore be built into the speakers. For you to receive significant advantage from surround streams, your speakers must specifically support 5.1-channel surround, 7.1-channel surround, Dolby Atmos, or DTS:X, because the mixing and output to each driver in your system is done at the audio device level.
The Xbox One/Series X and PlayStation 4/5 can both play multi-channel surround sound, with the Xboxes being able to play Dolby Atmos and DTS:X audio streams in particular (with the apps installed and licenses purchased). The Dolby and DTS apps on Windows 10 PCs can achieve the same thing.
Because most TVs prioritize picture quality over audio, you’ll find a limited number of TVs with built-in speakers that support Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. Soundbars featuring rear speakers, as well as full surround systems (and practically all modern A/V receivers if you go that route) are more likely to support surround and spatial sounds.