Headphone Surround on Consoles – Windows Sonic, Dolby Atmos and More – Magazine Tips & Tricks

Important note in advance: Video examples are already pre-coded and should therefore be heard in stereo playback.

Ideal sound and ideal location, both are becoming increasingly important for gamers. Localization is of course particularly important for shooter fans and pro gamers. But not everyone has the space or the money for a good surround set. One or the other cannot hear so loud, or simply not at a late hour. If you play competitively, you may also want to use a headset to shield yourself and to talk to teammates anyway. However, headphones and headsets have a problem, they are usually only designed for stereo, there is often a pronounced in-head localization and even high-quality hi-fi headphones are intended for stereo, so they cannot represent front-back sounds on their own. So-called true surround headsets with virtual systems vie for the favor of buyers. Meanwhile, there are also hidden system options here and there, and even apps. Not to mention headsets with “built-in” surround.

Why True Surround is crap and virtual systems don’t always work well

Long headline, but unfortunately important. Worse, the following section might be boring, sorry. One or the other may have noticed that we hear with two ears. Interestingly, this is enough for all directions. The reasons for this are complex, but have to do with how sounds are received by our two hearing organs. Our head and the individual Head Related Transfer Function (HRTF for short) have a huge influence on this. A sound from right behind hits the back of our head. Since we have no eyes and no other face, the back of our head influences the sound, as do our ears, which tend to point forward. This gives our hearing bones a completely different frequency response, which the brain then kindly bends straight and provides with the information BACK. Differences in transit time, i.e. how long it takes for a sound to reach the left and right ear, or the phase position also play a role. Incidentally, we also have the reason why deep tones are difficult to locate.

So-called true surround sets, which offer three to four small loudspeakers per ear cup, cannot represent all of this in a reasonable way. Even if a rudimentary sense of space may arise here, all the header information is completely missing. At the same time, the individual drivers have to be much cheaper (and smaller) than in a stereo headset of the same price.

So it seems more than sensible that software does the actual work and uses a virtual HRTF to calculate how a sound should arrive at our ears. Of course, you don’t need more than one loudspeaker per ear. Nevertheless, this variant is not without problems either. The problem: our own heads, including our ears, of course. The better it matches the virtual HRTF, the more coherent the result will be. The further away he is, the worse. In addition, there would be the respective headset or headphones, which can have an influence on the result with their frequency response.

What is there and why apps are better

There are not so few virtual sound formats. Even the Wii U was able to output virtual surround on the gamepad, unfortunately the Switch currently lacks a comparable option. But that can still change. Of course, there are a number of headsets that offer Dolby Headphone, Dolby Atmos for Headphone or DTS Headphone X. On the PC mostly via software anyway. On the Xbox One (and PC) in particular, there’s also Windows Sonic and the Dolby Access app, and more recently DTS Headphone X. And both are surprisingly powerful. Both apps can display up to 16 channels of sound, including height display, provided games are specifically developed for this. Theoretically, by the way, this can also be done from below. However, games have to support such extensive sound features. Currently, Dolby Atmos also has a slight advantage here because it is also widely supported in films.


In terms of quality, the two systems don’t differ much in the corresponding titles. The sound is not identical, but both are really good. In most cases, however, 5.1 and 7.1 sound are still the standard in games. And that’s where the Dolby Access app with Atmos for Headsets can score first in terms of sound. This is mainly due to the fact that the virtual loudspeakers are not quite as “hard” in the room, while the channel jumps in Windows Sonic are often more violent here. Certain headphone effects cannot always be avoided, at least in a normal multi-channel mix. It can happen that a constant noise, such as a running engine, comes from the left or right. Just headphone-like. But that can happen with both formats. In fact, there are also differences in spatiality, although Dolby is not necessarily always better than Windows Sonic here. Advantage with Windows Sonic, it’s free. Dolby Access, on the other hand, can be paid for after a test phase, but offers cross-buy with the Windows 10 Store. It is very important that the headphones also have an influence on how successful the spatial imaging is in the end. In particular, the rear location was sometimes very different with different headphones and headsets. Mind you with both apps. If games offer altitude information at all, there are always differences, but corresponding titles have been the exception so far.

This also shows a very serious advantage of the apps. You are neither tied to a specific headset (or headphone) nor to a single surround format. Instead, you can even switch between formats fairly quickly and easily. In theory, the software solutions also offer interesting options that are currently unused. Changing different HRTFs would be just as conceivable as repositioning virtual loudspeakers. Of course, this would allow the surround experience to be improved and personalized even further. Such pro options would be desirable, especially with the Dolby Access app, as it is not exactly cheap at €15.

Please an X

It would be desirable for the future if there were corresponding options and additional apps for all formats. The simple stereo option for fans of good headphones and “unadulterated” playback does not have to be neglected. Because the different systems don’t all work equally well, I’ve wanted a DTS Headphone X app for a long time. There are now ones for the Xbox One and DTS Headphone X not only works better for me here, there are also profiles for many headphones that can be used to optimize the sound experience a bit. And yes, definitely there should be the option and preferably the apps on every platform. There is still nothing in sight for Switch, Sony’s PlayStation 4 is still missing something comparable to Dolby Access. This has only changed with the PlayStation 5 and the possibilities of the new audio engine are definitely promising. In the first games, however, it is ‘only’ sufficient for the time being for a simulated 7.1 sound, so it will probably take a little time before the system is really exhausted.

What you should definitely keep in mind is that the individual formats do not work equally well for everyone (or their head) and your headphones or headset also have a major influence here. So there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s why it’s difficult to give absolute recommendations for or against a single format. Of course, players currently also have the option of directly accessing a headset with surround. Then you can also choose DTS Headphone X, but depending on the console you have to live with a fixed combination of headset and surround format and are correspondingly less flexible.

src: https://gamingnerd.net/magazin/tipps-tricks/headphone-surround-auf-konsolen-windows-sonic-dolby-atmos-und-mehr-3522705/

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