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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Are Virtual Surround Gaming Headsets Worth It?

Gamers like myself love to obsess over graphics settings, HDR, and frame rates to get the best picture possible. But sound quality is arguably just as important, whether you're looking to be immersed in a cinematic single-player game or gain the upper hand in a competitive esports match. The subtle sound of footsteps can warn you of an enemy homing in on your position, and even the specific sound a gun makes can affect your kill ratio.

Hardware manufacturers know this, which is why they've locked on to "virtual surround sound" headsets, claiming that their solution provides a more immersive experience (à la surround sound in a home theater). But despite marketing terms like "7.1 surround," most of them aren't really providing 7.1 sound at all—after all, headphones only have two drivers. (The rather absurd Razer Tiamat is an exception, with five separate drivers in each earcup.) Instead, most gaming headsets use software processing to try and mimic the more spacious feeling of surround sound. But after years of reviewing audio gear and virtual surround features, I—and many of my peers—have found they fall short of their claims. But if you're intrigued by the potential, I've learned some tips that can help you find the right solution.


First, let's talk about how gaming headsets create this virtual effect. Ideally, the manufacturer is taking the audio from a game and running it through a head-related transfer function (HRTF) algorithm to make different audio cues sound like they're coming from a certain point in space. This is rather challenging, especially since everyone's heads and ears are different—so an HRTF algorithm built for one person may not work well for another. Sony's lead system architect for the PS5, Mark Cerny, explained this well in his Road to PS5 announcement if you're curious to learn more.

Furthermore, different headsets may receive audio from the game in different ways. Take HyperX's lineup, for example—they're widely regarded as some of the best on the market, and they informed me over email that not all of their headsets work the same. Their wired Cloud II, for example, merely takes two-channel stereo output and passes the content through an HRTF algorithm to produce a surround-like effect. The Cloud II Wireless, however, can accept 7.1 signals on a PC—provided you configure it as such in Windows' sound settings. Since many games support 7.1 surround, that multichannel signal has more information about where those sounds are supposed to come from than a stereo signal. As a result, it's more likely to produce a convincing result when run through the HRTF algorithm. And then you have HyperX's top-end Cloud Orbit headsets, which not only use the full 7.1 audio to create the surround effect but also allow you to fine-tune certain parameters like head size to try to improve the accuracy.

Other companies may split up their product line a little differently. The Cooler Master MH751, for example, is a stereo headset, while the more expensive MH752 is identical except for the included USB surround dongle, allowing you to choose whether that feature is worth an extra $20 to you. You can see how there are a lot of variables at play, and your experience can vary depending on how well a headset implements virtual surround, and how close your ear is to their HRTF tuning.

Some headsets are certainly better than others. But far too many fail to deliver on their virtual surround promises. Instead of improving the positional accuracy, many just sound like they've added a pronounced echo or reverb effect, making sound effects muddier than in the standard mix. Some algorithms even make certain sounds (like background music, ambient noises, or your character's footsteps) louder than they should be. When that happens, it's actually harder to hear your enemies sneaking up behind you. The folks at Linus Tech Tips tested this with a few of their staff members, and they found that while virtual surround did have the potential to improve positional accuracy for certain users, it was more often a downgrade from the regular stereo mix.

This can also vary from game to game. Just look at the painstakingly crafted sound design of Overwatch, where every footstep and vocal cue conveys crucial information to the player. Or how Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice uses binaural audio recording techniques to reproduce the effects of psychosis, with the voices in Senua's head feeling like they're whispering just above you. Adding filters that adjust the game's sound mix—at least, without the influence of the game's developers—could very well harm the intention of the game's design.

That's why, after years of testing headsets and experimenting with different games, I generally don't recommend the virtual surround feature built into gaming headsets. But if you're still interested in the tech, here's some buying advice as you filter through the noise.

First, remember that virtual surround is an enhancement, not a make-or-break feature—so prioritize it accordingly. There are a lot of other things that go into a good gaming headset, like comfort, reliable wireless connectivity, and the general sound quality (for standard stereo signals). All of these are crucial to a good experience, and there's no sense in compromising on those for a "nice to have" extra like virtual surround.

Next, consider software solutions that aren't tied to specific headsets. Some games, like Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, have their own free surround features in their respective settings, which are often better than what comes with gaming headsets. And even if a game doesn't have an option for "virtual surround," it may allow you to choose between speakers and headphones, which can make a difference in how the audio is presented.

In addition, Xbox and PC users can try the built-in Windows Sonic surround feature, which is free and works with any game. You can also download the Dolby Access app to try out Dolby Atmos for Headphones and DTS Sound Unbound for DTS Headphone:X, two other virtual surround algorithms that work with Windows' system-wide spatial audio. They work with any game, but some games come with baked-in support for positional data that will provide more accurate results. In my testing, both Dolby and DTS sound much better than your typical "7.1" gaming headset. DTS even has some configuration options to tune their algorithm to your preferences and the specific set of headphones you're using—whether it's a gaming headset or a pair of traditional over-ear cans. Dolby and DTS cost $15 and $20 respectively, but you can give their free trial a shot before you buy.

If you're gaming on the PS5, you can't use Dolby or DTS, but Sony has its own 3D audio system that you can configure in the Sound settings.

None of this is to say you need to avoid headsets with virtual surround built in. The feature tends to come standard on mid-range and high-end headsets, and many of those are still worth the money on their other merits. I myself love the HyperX Cloud Flight S for its comfort, ease of use, and wireless charging—I just leave the surround feature off most of the time (though I do play with Dolby Atmos occasionally). And at my PC, I often play with wired audiophile headphones since I don't need wireless connectivity—and they provide better sound quality than just about any gaming headset out there.

Of course, your ears are different from mine, which are different from your favorite hardware reviewer's, so no one can tell you what sounds best to you. It depends heavily on how well your ear matches that specific HRTF algorithm, and how a given game's sound interacts with it. I would merely caution against paying extra for a headset's USB surround add-on, or paying extra for a headset just because it has the feature. Instead, grab whatever headphones fit your needs best. If they contain a virtual surround feature, feel free to try it out—but compare it with the software-based options out there too, along with the standard two-channel mix. That way, when you finally decide what to use, you'll be confident it's actually an improvement—and not an echoey mess propped up by marketing.

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