Surround sound is a common feature of modern games, but how well can it translate to headphones?Audiophiles know that a good pair of headphones can produce sound better than any speaker, not least because they can deliver a far more nuanced set of frequencies directly into your ears. That’s fine if you’re listening to something that was mixed in stereo – most audiophiles are, after all – but what if you’re a gamer or a movie fan? Are there headphones that can give you the full immersive experience of surround speakers AND the nuance and subtlety of high-quality, up-close output?
If you believe manufacturers, the answer is ‘yes’. Surround-sound headphones – that is, headphones that deliver positional audio to each ear in the same way speaker systems aim to – have been slowly growing in popularity in recent times. Through a combination of engineering tricks and software processing they claim to offer the same type of three-dimensional experience that surround sound speakers are famed for. The difference is, they do it using a fraction of the space, cost a quarter of the price, and do it in a way that means you won’t have the neighbours banging on your wall at 3am.
Surround sound headsets are particularly aimed at gamers on the basis that they let them take advantage of positional audio in games. In theory, you get greater awareness of 3D space in-game, which makes the experience more immersive and – at least in professional gaming circles – is something seen to give you an edge over the competition. Whether it’s true or not is debatable. It probably depends on your individual play style and how much attention you play to the audio versus other feedback mechanisms in a game. Certainly, it isn’t going to hurt your chances, though!If you want to try surround headphones out for yourself and discover for yourself whether their claims stack up, there’s a little jargon associated with the technology that you need to learn. Primarily, there are two types of surround sound that can be offered by headphones: virtual and true.
In virtual surround headphones, the surround sound effect comes from a combination of two stereo speakers and software processing that aims to simulate a surround effect. This is considerably less expensive than the alternative, and it can also provide sound that’s more powerful and with a greater dynamic range. As you might guess, though, the surround effect is considered weaker than true surround and may be almost indistinguishable from a pair of high-end stereo headphones.
If you want to make sure whether headphones are simple stereo or stereo with virtual surround, look for mention of HRTF abilities. HRTF stands for ‘Head-Related Transfer Function’ and it uses a binaural effect to create positional audio. Without HRTF processing, you’ll only hear a standard, non-positional stereo sound. Similarly, any headphones claiming 5.1 or 7.1 equivalence while only containing two drivers are also virtual surround.
True surround headphones contain multiple speaker drivers per ear – usually a single large driver for the main audio, and then smaller ‘satellite’ drivers positioned around it to help create the feeling of positional or moving sound. The effect on this type of hardware is far more pronounced, but also far more expensive – especially if you go for one offering full 7.1 sound. We’ve actually yet to see a pair of headphones with seven drivers per ear, but read our box-out or why the issue of 5.1 versus 7.1 sound is already contentious with regards to gaming.
Regardless of the type of surround sound they contain, it’s worth noting that surround sound headphones tend to offer a lowerquality sound than similarly-priced stereo headphones, either because part of their price is put towards audio-processing hardware instead of high-quality drivers or because they have more drivers rather than better ones. If you’re sensitive to audio quality, keep in mind that you have to spend a lot more money on surround sound headphones to hit the high levels you might be accustomed to.
Other than that, surround sound headphones generally have the same levels of variation in terms of specification (ans, indeed, quality) as you’ll see in standard headphones, which is to say some will be wireless, some will be wired, some will have microphones or detachable cables or a foldable headband or carry case. However, since those aren’t the main selling points of surround sound headphones, we won’t go into too much detail over those features in this article, suffice to say that the market for surround headphones is smaller, so the chance of finding one with every feature you want declines rapidly if you get too specific. You may have to accept some level of compromise!Buying surround headphones isn’t the only way to experience surround-sound, of course. There’s always the option of buying a surround speaker system, assuming you have the relevant audio outputs on your PC’s backpanel (most desktop systems should support it, but you may need an external sound card on laptops).
Another alternative is to convert your existing headphones into a pair of surround headphones. This is a good way to avoid the quality drop associated with low- and mid-price surround headphones. Adding true surround is impossible, because it requires extra drivers in the headphone itself, but normal stereo eadphones can be converted into virtual surround versions through the addition of a preamplifier or a sound card that includes the necessary processing capability.
This has a number of other benefits, not least the fact that you can re-use the hardware with any future pairs of headphones. While it may make the initial outlay more expensive, it should save money in the long term, though it is admittedly not as compact or as simple a solution as buying headphones with virtual surround built-in.
There’s also a fairly compelling argument against bothering with surround headphones at all, which states that since most people only have two ears, ‘true’ surround is theoretically no better than good virtual surround. Ultimately the sound is going into your left or right ear, and especially with headphones there should be no obstacle to creation a positional effect using only two speakers – because that’s how we do it in real life, after all!Still, others claim that they can hear a difference. It’s a phenomenon that not only resembles arguments concerning quite a lot of high-end audio equipment, but also between people who claim they can’t see differences in game framerates higher than a certain amount, and those who think they can. Maybe you’ll have to try for yourself to find out.
Figuring the surround sound headset that is right for you means taking stock of a wide range of models at a wide variety of price points. Since most of these headphones are designed for gaming, they tend to incorporate a microphone, and land somewhere inside the ‘industrial stealth’ end of the design spectrum – but rest assured they’re fine for watching movies with as well.It’s easy to find the Corsair Raptor H5 headset for well under its RRP. That makes it cheap for a pair of headphones full stop, let alone surround sound ones. What’s more, Corsair is a name with plenty of credibility for in terms of its gaming hardware, so how does the Raptor H5 fare?Things start off quite well. The package includes a USB adaptor so you can use either dual analogue or USB connections, and the built-in audio processor simulates a 5.1 surround experience. This gives it a fairly good range of use – if you have a decent sound card with surround support it’ll use that, and if you don’t it’ll take care of that for you. There’s a built-in noise cancelling microphone and in addition to volume control, you also get stereo balance so you can favour one driver over the other. The cable is an almost over-generous 5.2m in total – 2m on the headphones, a 1.2m in-line USB audio extension, and another 2m extension cable.
The H5 is an update to the older H3 headset, and like its predecessor it’s a surprisingly good performer for its price range, though we admit that’s not hugely inspiring praise. If you want to go a little better, the Corsair Raptor HS40 costs only a little more and supports virtual 7.1 output, so it may be worth considering. If you’re on a tight budget, though, we doubt you can do better than this!.
The quality of Logitech’s hardware can be inconsistent, but few would say that its ever less than adequate – especially when it comes to the higher-end G-series of gaming peripherals. As these G35s, adequate alone isn’t anough, though – so it’s lucky that they seem to be punching at, if not slightly above, their weight as far as surround headphones are concerned.
Although they offer virtual rather than true surround sound, the G35 headphones are fully compatible with Dolby 7.1. In addition, they have three programmable keys that can help you toggle signal-to-noise ratios, activate and deactivate in-game features (like background music) or offer instant voice morphing. There’s a 3m integrated cable, a retractable microphone, and an indicator LED to show when the mic is muted. Helpfully, the headband comes with three different sleeves so you can pick the one most suited to your head size and shape.
As you may have guessed, the features require a USB connection. So, anyone hoping to get analogue sound is going to be disappointed. That does leave an audio jack free on your system, but if you have a high-end gold plated sound card it’s probably not going to be much comfort. That alone makes it tough to recommend to true audiophones, but if you’re just a gamer out for decent sound rather than trying to make sure you hear every frequency in an orchestra, it’ll probably be enough. The sound quality is good, and the software even gives you notice of when the last genuine surround sound stream was used, so you can check whether you’re actually getting one.
The Razer Tiamat 7.1 is about as high-end as a pair of headphones gets in this market. If you’re looking for a pair of headphones with true surround, which means multiple drivers, this has it (no fewer than 10 drives, in fact), as well as a separate volume unit allowing you to set the volume, audio positioning and bass depth independently so you can lower or raise the positional sensitivity from full surround down to simple, non-positional stereo.
However you feel about surround sound, it’s easy to see that this pair of headphones was built with a good audio experience in mind. Because it’s true surround, you’ll need to make sure you have outputs for the front, rear, centre and subwoofer speakers, and the volume unit requires a spare USB port. The cable is braided for strength and a comfortably long 3m, and the headphones themselves weight 350g in total. As a headset it does, of course, include a built-in microphone.
There’s no doubt that this is a great set of headphones, and while it’s not as good as an actual surround system it’s hard to argue against it being the next best thing. If you think true surround is worth paying extra for in the first place, you should be rewarded by these headphones. If you’re on the fence, we can’t help thinking that the price is just going to put you off. In terms of disadvantages of the actual hardware, the only case we can make against it is that the volume control is absolutely monstrous. Other than that, there’s little else you could ask for.
One thing that’s hard to tell is whether a set of headphones produces a 5.1 or 7.1 effect. The former is more popular, but even those that offer the latter are often emulating 7.1 sound from a 5.1 signal. Which leads to an obvious question: if 7.1 sound is full surround, why do headphones stop at 5.1?The answer is simple: there just isn’t the support for it. While many movies are mixed with full 7.1 sound, it’s much less common in games. Surround headphones tend to be aimed at gamers, rather than movie enthusiasts, so it’s simply not cost effective for manufacturers to add the extra support at the high end. Indeed, older consoles, such as the Xbox 360 (and the games of that era) don’t even support output greater than 5.1, so you can’t use it even if you have the hardware necessary.
It’s not out of the question for a headphone set to true 7.1 outputs, but it is far less likely at the low end. Even if the headset has a 7.1 output, you also have to make sure your audio signal is 7.1 so you can use it, which requires a decent sound card. So in a way, it’s good news that you don’t need to pay extra for 7.1, because it’s just throwing money away. However, if you do want 7.1, make sure you check what you’re buying first.