Everyone's talking about buying a new TV for their PS5 or Xbox Series X, and sure, HDR is going to make your games look better than ever. But in my opinion, surround sound is just as impressive an upgrade, whether you're playing cinematic masterpieces like God of War or competitive multiplayer games like Overwatch.
I'm a big fan of surround sound in all its forms. In movies, it can boost the wow factor of the events happening onscreen, which immerses you all the more in the story. But unlike with games, you aren't usually watching a movie from the view of the main character. You see the world through the eyes of the director. This allows for some fantastic storytelling, but games put you right in the head of the main character, in many cases literally.
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In a game, you aren't watching the story unfold through a camera. You are the story, seeing the world through the character's point of view at all times, right in the middle of the action. With a proper surround sound setup, every noise happens exactly as your character hears it—gunfire coming from behind you? You'll instinctively whip your character around to face the fury. Enemies sneaking around to flank you? You'll hear them as they move toward you more precisely than a pair of stereo speakers or "virtual surround" headphones could allow for. And if you're lucky enough to have a Dolby Atmos system, you'll even hear helicopters and enemies shooting overhead.
So if you haven't factored in a sound upgrade to go with your new PS5 or Xbox Series X, you should seriously consider it. A proper multispeaker setup with a receiver is the way to go, if you have the space—but even a 5.1 or Dolby Atmos soundbar will do the trick, from the budget-focused Vizio V-Series to the Atmos-enabled Vizio Elevate or Sonos Arc (provided you have some Sonos speakers to put behind you for the latter). Check out our list of the best soundbars for good picks at every budget.
Once you have your system set up, here are a few games you absolutely have to try.
- Shadow of the Tomb Raider (PlayStation, Xbox, PC): The modern Tomb Raider series is incredibly cinematic, so surround sound makes the game feel more movielike than ever. Your entire setup will get its due as you hear rocks falling behind you or the musical score filling your room at tense moments. And it supports Dolby Atmos, so if you're playing on an Xbox or PC with height channels, you'll get the full effect.
- Gears 5 (Xbox, PC): Gears of War has sold me on surround sound like few other games have. In the first mission, you explore an abandoned facility that begins to crumble around you, with room-rumbling bass and falling debris coming from all around—including above, if you have an Atmos-capable setup. After returning to the city, the Swarm attacks, and you hear them invade from all around your periphery during an intense action sequence that not only impresses your ears but also helps you locate your enemies in battle. Even if you've played the campaign before, it's worth revisiting after you upgrade your sound system.
- Alien: Isolation (PlayStation, Xbox, PC): Some people think good surround sound is all about those loud action sequences, but it can be just as effective in near silence. Alien: Isolation uses your rear speakers to create a sense of space that a stereo setup just can't match: as you creep through the dark halls, you hear very little except the sound of your footsteps, the flickering of the emergency lights, and the echoes of the creaky station all around you—while you anxiously wait for a hiding Xenomorph to ambush you. It's hard to explain how good the sound design is for this game—you have to experience it yourself.
- Battlefield V (PlayStation, Xbox, PC): Whether or not you're a fan of first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield, there's no denying that the cacophony of war makes for a great surround sound demo. In the single-player campaigns, surround sound makes you feel like you're right in the middle of the battlefield, with gunfire and bombs assaulting your ears from all sides—with a solid workout for your subwoofer too. In multiplayer, surround sound allows you to hear other players behind you before they fire a shot, giving you a leg up on your enemies.
- Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Xbox, PC): You might think a 2D side-scrolling platformer can't make much use for surround sound, but you'd be wrong. Much like Alien: Isolation, it's all about ambiance: You'll hear the echoes of the forest, the dripping of water, or the tweeting of birds all around on your 5.1, 7.1, or Dolby Atmos system as your front speakers play the game's beautiful soundtrack. It's a more subtle improvement than some of the games above, but it still draws you into the setting more than a typical stereo setup would.
Once you've installed your soundbar or speaker system, make sure you have your console (or PC) set up to properly output all those channels. For the PS4 and PS5, head to Settings > Sound > Audio Output, change the HDMI Device Type to AV Amplifier, and choose your number of speakers. On the Xbox, you'll go to Settings > General > Volume & Audio Output, and set your Speaker Audio to 5.1 or 7.1 uncompressed (or, if that doesn't work, use Bitstream Out). If you have an Atmos-capable setup, you'll need to download the Dolby Access app and set the Xbox audio to Bitstream Out. (You don't need to pay the $15 license—that's just for Atmos-on-headphone usage.) If you have a PC hooked up to your sound system over HDMI, right-click on the sound icon in the bottom-right corner and go to Speaker Setup > 5.1 or 7.1, depending on your number of speakers. Again, if you have Dolby Atmos, you'll need the Dolby Access app, then choose Dolby Atmos from this list to make full use of it in supported games. You'll wonder how you ever played without it.