The right audio processing technology can deliver surround sound that makes your games more immersive and gives you an edge over the competition, whether you have a sizable speaker system or just a pair of headphones.
Your ears can alert you to threats all around you where your eyes can only see what is directly in front of you. Additionally, hearing an enemy approach from behind is a big advantage when playing video games. Therefore, it comes as a surprise that surround sound isn't a bigger part of the typical gaming setup than, say, gaming monitors or TVs. On the other hand, the technology typically produces a directional effect by dispersing multiple speakers all around you. That presents a significant challenge for console and PC gamers who use headsets or simply lack the space for a full surround system.
Fortunately, with only two speakers or a set of headphones and a lot of audio processing, you can still take advantage of surround sound. Spatial audio and simulated surround sound are increasingly common features on higher-end gaming headsets, but with the right software, you can enjoy them on any headphones you can connect to your PC (or console).
In order to get the best surround sound for gaming, you can use headphones or a 5.1 speaker system (or more), and we have all the information you need to do so.
What Is Simulated Surround Sound?
Conventional surround sound uses multiple speakers to provide multiple outlets for various sounds to travel through (typically six speakers, including a subwoofer, but a high-end home theatre may use many more). If the video or game you're playing has surround sound support, it can send the appropriate sound to the appropriate speaker to give the impression of directionality. This implies that the sound of something approaching you from behind will actually come from that direction.
For the majority of the technology's existence, surround sound has been channel-based, mixing audio specifically for a specific number of channels. Spatial audio, also known as object-based audio, is a more recent and sophisticated model. Every audio source in the content is precisely placed, and instead of mixing sound into channels at the content level, sound is mixed around a 360-degree circle or sphere. Although it is more technically challenging, this kind of surround sound can be scaled to any size speaker system and supports height for real 3D playback that can be heard above or below you. Dolby Atmos and DTS:X are two examples of spatial audio technologies that are used in many movies to enhance the listening experience in theatres and at home.
Due to the way their engines function, the majority of 3D games automatically use some sort of spatial audio. The sound source is identified by the game engine, which then mixes the sound into a stereo, 5.1-channel, or 7.1-channel stream. The issue is that while downmixing all of those sources to a predetermined number of channels is relatively simple, processing, rendering, and outputting a full 3D audio stream is much more time-consuming, and the vast majority of games don't bother with that approach. Call of Duty: Warzone, Forza Horizon 4, and Borderlands 3 are just a few popular games that do, at least for headphones, support Dolby or DTS spatial audio, but the majority of them only output traditional channel-based surround sound.
Given that headphones only have stereo drivers, multiple speakers are necessary to achieve the same immersive, directional effect. This is where surround audio processing technologies come into play. Technology like Windows Sonic, DTS Headphone:X, THX Spatial Audio, Dolby Atmos for Headphones, and DTS Headphone:X use directional audio data to decide on the fly how to mix it into the left and right channels of your headphones. Sorting out which sound goes into which ear is only one aspect of the problem. Based on their direction, these systems determine how to pan and fade each element of what you're listening to so that your ears get the clearest impression possible of that direction.
It may appear that this merely downmixes audio into stereo without providing any sense of forward-backward direction. In fact, that's how I felt about the technology for years, but now that I've seen it advance steadily, I can say it actually does make a difference. However, with the right mixing, you can at least get a strong sense of it, along with very precise imaging from left to right. No, you can't get the proper acoustics from headphones to let you really tell the difference between a sound coming from in front of or behind you. It can be a significant tactical advantage for first-person shooters.
Movies and video games may become much more immersive as a result. Proper directional audio processing through headphones can actually make whatever you're watching or listening to feel bigger and more realistic, even without the acoustic precision of a surround speaker system.
Surround Sound With a Gaming Headset
High-end gaming headsets frequently include built-in virtual surround sound. These headsets typically use USB connections to connect to your PC or gaming console, either with built-in surround-processing sound cards or with a token or code that permits the use of third-party software that offers the feature.
This is straightforward but device-specific, and if your headset isn't made for spatial audio, you might only be able to get channel-based surround sound. Your headset is configured to function as a surround-capable device as soon as you plug it in (or the transmitter if you're using a wireless headset). To activate the surround feature, you might need to instal a companion app, but it's usually just a simple toggle with a few extra settings so you can customise the sound to your preferences. The model and platform determine how simple it is to set up, with PCs frequently requiring configuration through an app and consoles typically handling it automatically.
Surround Sound With PC and Xbox Software
You can configure spatial audio entirely through an app if you would rather use an analogue 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 provides free surround processing with Windows Sonic. Alternatively, you can purchase a commercial app such as Dolby Access(Opens in a new window), DTS Sound Unbound(Opens in a new window), or (PC-only) Razer THX Spatial Audio.
Typically, these choices cost between $10 and $20. (not necessarily to download the app, but to licence the audio processing feature). They may sound better to you than Windows Sonic, which we believe doesn't have the same quality of sound as Dolby, DTS, or THX.
You can learn about these options and their distinctions in our guide to surround sound software.
Surround Sound With the PlayStation 5's Automatic 3D Audio
A special application for surround sound is the PlayStation 5. The bad news is that you can't use the same surround sound and spatial audio apps as you can for Windows 10 and the Xbox because Sony designed the PS5 as an audio-walled garden. The good news is that since the console uses Tempest 3D Audiotech spatial audio processing from the company, they are not required. Any 3.5mm headset connected to the DualSense controller and any wireless headset compatible with the PS5, including Sony's Pulse 3D Wireless headset, are compatible with it.
Which Simulated Surround Sound Technology Is Best?
While the overall effect of all these simulated surround technologies is the same—mixing directional audio to sound more immersive through headphones—behind the scenes, various techniques are used to adjust the sound. We can't really perform a step-by-step analysis or compare the technical specifics because those precise techniques are typically proprietary.
We can examine it in broad strokes in terms of the final product and how immersive and directional the audio is when it enters your headphones. The least effective surround processing is typically found in non-licensed headsets (headsets that don't use Dolby, DTS, or THX technology but have their own app or sound card). It obviously performs some processing and mixing, but since it is typically channel-based, it falls short of other systems' ability to process spatial audio with greater accuracy.
The PlayStation 5 with Sony's Tempest 3D Audiotech is an exception in this case. Sony has worked hard to perfect its 3D audio processing, and it is evident. We've discovered that the spatial audio on the console is on par with that of Dolby, DTS, and THX.
That brings us to the solely software-based options, which include Windows Sonic for Headphones, Dolby Atmos for Headphones, DTS Headphone:X, THX Spatial Audio, and DTS Headphone:X. Although Windows Sonic is free, we've discovered that it handles directional audio with the lightest touch and that its effects aren't as helpful or immersive as the other three. Dolby, DTS, and THX are all top-notch in terms of their spatial and surround audio processing. Each innovation is highly efficient and provides a clear sense of directionality when used with a gaming headset.
Surround Sound With Soundbars and Speakers
Although the underlying technology can be used with speakers as well, spatial audio technologies designed specifically for headphones work best with headsets. After all, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X were the only options available before Dolby Atmos for Headphones and DTS Headphone:X, along with Dolby Digital and DTS Multi-Channel Surround (THX Spatial Audio is designed specifically for headphones, and is only available on Windows 10).
In essence, surround sound setup between your game console or PC and speakers is much simpler, but you still need the appropriate content and tools. If your video games or movies offer surround sound, it will be output in a multi-channel stream so that your speakers can mix and place the audio. You'll benefit from that audio if your speakers, soundbar, or surround sound system can handle that multi-channel stream. If not, a stereo mix will be delivered.
Any audio that comes out of speakers, soundbars, and multi-speaker surround systems needs to be processed and mixed with the appropriate configuration because there are numerous possible configurations for these devices. Due to this, the speakers themselves must support multi-channel surround sound and Dolby Atmos/DTS:X compatibility, if not surround sound. For you to fully benefit from surround streams, the speakers must explicitly support 5.1-channel surround, 7.1-channel surround, Dolby Atmos, or DTS:X. This is because, at that point, the mixing and output to each driver in your system is handled at the audio device level.
The PlayStation 4/5 and Xbox One/Series X both support multi-channel surround sound, with the Xboxes in particular supporting Dolby Atmos and DTS:X audio streams (with the apps installed and licences purchased). The Dolby and DTS apps on Windows 10 PCs allow users to accomplish the same thing.
Most TVs prioritise the picture quality over the audio, so you won't find many of them with built-in speakers that support Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. In soundbars, particularly those with rear speakers, as well as full surround systems (and practically all modern A/V receivers if you're going that route), surround and spatial audio compatibility is more common.