Surround sound in cinemas is one of the best audio experiences one can have while consuming media. Imagine being able to have the same experience from a pair of headphones that you can use at home while gaming.
Unfortunately, it’s mostly a waste of time and money. We’re here to uncover the snake oil and tell you what works and what doesn’t.
What Is Surround Sound?
Surround sound is an audio technique that uses multiple channels (multiple speakers). The speakers are set up in specific locations around the listener to create a 360-degree listening experience. There are different types of surround sound, but the main and most popular types are 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1.
If you’re wondering what the numbers mean, they represent the number of speakers. The first number is the number of main speakers, and the “.1” refers to the subwoofer. 7.1 would mean there are seven speakers and one subwoofer.
Why Is 7.1 Surround Bad on Stereo Headphones?
As mentioned previously, you need multiple speakers to create the surround sound experience. Headphones only have two channels: the left and right speakers. How do you expect to hear from more than two speakers if that’s all you have?
Some headphones, like the Razer Tiamat, have multiple drivers on each ear cup. However, there has been very little proof of the Tiamat actually being a better experience. This is probably why Razer stopped updating that product line. If the Tiamat was actually good, audiophiles would’ve caught wind of it and proved its value.
Essentially, surround sound features on gaming headphones are just exaggerated audio processing techniques. Some aren’t even audio processing techniques, they just use an equalizer preset that they’re charging a large amount of money for.
If audio separation is what you’re looking for, open-back headphones are a great choice. Check out a comparison of open-back vs. closed-back headphones to learn more about why they might suit your use case.
Virtual Surround Sound That Actually Works
It is inevitable that we talk about Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF) when it comes to surround sound. Avoiding complicated mathematics, this is simply a way to calculate how sound waves would hit the human head and ear. This calculation is then applied to the signal to simulate how it would sound on your headphones.
HRTF is not perfect and the math is based on a generic model head and ear shape. This model may not be exactly like yours, but it will be good enough for most people.
Surround sound processors that use and implement HRTF well can provide great experiences. DTS Headphone:X and Dolby Atmos software audio processing are great examples of this.
They both use HRTF technology and they are able to process audio quite well. You can even hear sounds coming from below you. Dolby Atmos and DTS Headphone:X only cost $14.99 and $19.99 respectively and work with all stereo headphones. These are also available on consoles—however, DTS Headphone:X is not available for PS5.
If you want to learn more about the software mentioned, you can learn about how Dolby Atmos works for all sorts of entertainment consumption.
The most common problem for HRTF on stereo headphones however is distinguishing the front and back. A January 2022 paper published on SpringerOpen discusses the front-back confusion effect and says that it may have something to do with visual cues.
Dolby Atmos and DTS Headphone:X do a decent job at representing the back, but the front usually sounds like it’s above you. Your experience may vary depending on your head and the headphones you’re using.
What Kind of Headphones Should You Buy?
If you’re looking for a good audio experience and 3D sound, you might as well buy a pair of headphones that sound great on their own. You can then couple those headphones with Dolby Atmos or DTS Headphone:X. Microsoft even has its own HRTF software built into Windows. However, it’s not as good at distinguishing between above and below compared to the previously mentioned software.
If you live in a quiet place, you could even buy open-back headphones as they already have great spatial separation and sound great. However, they do leak out sound and outside sounds can be heard quite easily. Consult our guide to important headphone terms to learn more.
Good Headphones Are Enough
Honestly, you don’t even need Dolby Atmos or DTS Headphone:X. You can just stick to a good pair of headphones that sound good and let the game’s audio design do its own thing. You could even buy a USB microphone for a low price and it will still sound better than an all-in-one gaming headset.
These suggestions are based on price to performance. There are certainly great-sounding gaming headphones out there, but very few can justify their price. DTS Headphone:X and Dolby Atmos are also used as the surround sound feature processors for a few gaming headphones, but you’d be overpaying for the feature.