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Guide to Surround Sound Headphones

The term “Surround Sound” has been around for a long time. From the newfangled ‘Stereo’ records of yore, to the familiar Dolby 5.1 and 7.1, to more recent ‘object-based’ setups like Dolby Atmos, it seems that sound will only keep getting more… surround. 

This is a good thing for audio, but could be a bad thing for your wallet. Not everyone has the cash or the room for all those extra speakers that Surround Sound requires, but nobody likes to compromise on audio. And especially not gamers! In no other medium can sound quality so quickly spell the difference between victory and defeat, between virtual life and death!

Yes, you can probably find a 5.1 setup on the cheaper end, or buy yourself one of those soundbars, but here at Headphone Dungeon, we talk about two things. Headphones, and dungeons. And I’m fresh out of dungeons, so it looks like I’ll be talking about headphones, and how they intersect with the world of Surround Sound audio.

What Are Surround Sound Headphones?

Surround Sound Basics

First, a quick refresher for those who are unfamiliar with Surround Sound terminology. Skip this section if you’re already familiar.

The baseline standard is Stereo, which means 2 speakers: Left and Right. This standard also applies to headphones and earbuds, which have 2 tiny speakers for each ear, and pretty much everything else. Even most built-in TV and phone speakers function as a stereo pair.

Broadly speaking, we can consider ‘Surround Sound’ any sound system that provides more than the regular stereo pair. The whole point of Surround Sound is to literally surround you with sound, so the extra speakers get placed behind, in front, to the sides, up and down, etc, all to make it sound like bullets, dinosaurs, whatever, are flying around you from all sides.

Surround Sound has a long and colorful history filled with dueling companies and dead formats (like Quadraphonic) that I’m not going to delve into. The short of it is that the number in a surround system corresponds to the number of speakers being used. Dolby 5.1 uses 5 speakers, and the .1 indicates that 1 speaker (the subwoofer) is being used for the lowest frequencies , so it’s really 6 speakers.

7.1 Surround Sound is 7 speakers plus 1 subwoofer, 9.2 Surround Sound is 9 speakers plus 2 subwoofers… you get the gist.

So how do you get surround sound without buying a dozen and a half speakers? Would surround sound even work in a pair of headphones? Yes, it turns out. And there are a few different ways:

Virtual Surround Sound

The most common solution can be found in headphones, soundbars and even stereo speaker setups. That solution is virtual surround sound. Using just 2 speakers, a whole bunch of complicated algorithmic math takes places that processes the sound and makes it seem like it’s coming from more than 2 speakers. This accounts for the vast majority of gaming headphones that advertise surround sound compatibility.

The software used for this process varies wildly, and several companies use their own proprietary designs. And while it may seem like the sound of 2 speakers pretending to be 8 speakers can never stand up to the actual sound of 8 speakers, virtual surround sound actually does a very good job of replicating it.

Now for some anatomy. Our sense of direction comes partially from the fact that we have 2 different ears that hear the same thing. If a sound is coming from your left, your left ear will hear it .0005 seconds before your right ear. The sound will also be different to your right ear because of the extra air it traveled through, the reflections of the space around it, even the variation in the shape of your right ear compared to your left.

Virtual surround sound attempts to mimic all these discrepancies in the sound, like playing the sound in the left speaker .0005 seconds before the right speaker, EQ’ing differently, and so on. And without getting into a trippy conversation about perception-being-reality and all that, just know that these virtual tricks can get the job done.

True Surround Sound

true 7.1 Surround Sound headphone, for example. would have to have 7 speakers and a subwoofer, and not a virtual mirage of those things. Impossible, you say? Well think again!

Granted, true Surround Sound headphones are much rarer than their virtual counterparts. They are often (but not always) more expensive, and bulkier as well. This is because instead of housing 1 speaker for each side of the headphone, they house several. True Surround Sound headphones take the surround sound concept, shrink it down, and stuff it into a headphone- subwoofer and all. But besides looking cooler and being ‘truer’, does this design offer any advantage over virtual surround sound?

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The general consensus is: not really. And by general consensus I mean the handful of forums out there like Reddit that hold “True 7.1 vs Virtual 7.1 ” debates. There’s also a great YouTube video by Linus Tech Tips that does a blind shootout between the two.

In Conclusion

So, there you have it. True surround sound headphones exist, but probably won’t improve much upon your gaming experience, especially if you already have a pair of immersive cans already like the Audeze Mobius.

But who knows? As virtual surround sound improves, we may see true surround designs improve as well. Either way, you can rest assured that 1) as long as you get a solid pair of headphones, virtual or true, you should be set. And 2) gaming audio and visuals will keep continuing to improve until one day somebody has to give us the red pill and wake us up from our virtual-and-indistinguishable-from-reality existence. So there’s that to look forward to!

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