Not everyone has space or money to enjoy real surround sound at home, with 5 or more speakers placed around them, and a subwoofer in the corner. Usually, we watch movies and listen to music with a pair of stereo speakers or headphones. Thankfully, even with those setups, you can still experience 3D audio. It’s called virtual surround sound.
What exactly is virtual surround sound, and how does it work?
Can you experience it on all headphones?
How do you get the software needed to run virtual surround sound?
In this article, we tried to answer as many questions as possible to determine if virtual 3D audio is something that you want to consider.
What is Virtual Surround Sound and How It Works?
First, we need to understand what is a true surround sound. If you ever watched a movie in a cinema, you already experienced true surround sound.
You need to have around 5 to 7 speakers around you at home, with one or two subwoofers to add the low-end rumble. In cinemas, a number of speakers can reach well above 10. That is why you can distinctly hear the planes or bullets woosh pass your head.
However, if you don’t have multiple speakers, you need to take a psychoacoustic approach.
A typical stereo or multichannel sound recording goes through software, which, based on the algorithm, creates a fake multi-speaker experience. Virtual surround sound is basically tricking your brains into thinking that a particular sound is coming from a specific direction. The latter is achieved by adjusting the volume of a particular sound in each speaker.
For example: when someone speaks in your left ear, this voice is the loudest on your left side. However, a little bit of that person’s voice is also heard in your right ear, which gives it a sense of direction. That is why you can tell from which direction and angle the person is speaking. The more this person moves around, the more or less sound comes to your ears.
An excellent example of how a dual speaker system can achieve a virtual surround sound is a “barbershop” video on YouTube LINKZ, recorded using binaural microphones.
Therefore, by perfectly adjusting the loudness of the sound coming from 2 speakers, you can pinpoint a specific object’s location accurately.
You probably already know a few of the virtual surround sound standards.
- Dolby Atmos
- DTS Headphone:X
- CMSS-3D (Creative Media Surround Sound 3D)
- Windows Sonic
- Razer’s proprietary surround sound
Do You Need Special Headphones to Get Virtual Surround Sound?
There are 2 kinds of headphones on the market:
- stereo (dual drivers)
- multiple drivers
These are the most common headphones out there, with people having at least one pair laying somewhere in the house. They have 2 drivers, one for each cup. Even though this setup seems very limited, you can achieve a surprisingly good surround image out of these.
Even typical stereo recordings use a little bit of virtual surround sound effect to make you feel like the sound is happening around you. The intensity of the effect differs from headphones to headphones and is usually referred to as imaging: the directional accuracy of a specific sound.
When applying the software-based virtual surround sound, this effect takes a step further, making you feel like you’re in a bigger room than before. Also, directional awareness can be exaggerated to explicitly show you the direction of the sound.
That mostly helps in videogames, where a great surround sound provides immersion and hit rate. Movies and music also benefit from good 3D audio, especially if they’re already mastered in one of the surround sound standards.
In most cases, you’re getting virtual surround sound software included with the purchase of gaming headsets. Games are the perfect environment for experiencing 3D sound.
Gaming headphones with surround sound offer better value for money, rather than buying dedicated software later.
While much rarer multiple-driver headphones often have a see-through plate on the outside of the earcup, exposing 5 or 7 small drivers inside (like Razer Tiamat 7.1). They’re strategically positioned around the ear to project the sound from different directions.
While multiple-driver headphones might give you a better surround experience than the stereo setup, it’s also more expensive. There is also a lack of game titles to fully utilize the 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. Therefore buying these headphones might be an overkill.
Is It Worth Getting Virtual Surround Sound?
While regular stereo headphones already provide virtual surround sound, getting yourself a more pronounced surround experience can bring some advantages. For instance, if you game a lot, better positional accuracy gives a more immersive experience.
While people think a crispier picture quality improves the movie, it’s the sound that keeps you immersed. With boosted surround sound, you can feel like you’re a part of the action inside the film, with sounds flying all around your head.
Music can also benefit from surround sound implementation. However, it’s still better to listen to the tracks that are purposely mixed for a specific surround sound standard.
There are also some disadvantages when it comes to using surround sound features.
The main problem is that it affects the overall sound.
Although that is the exact point of having surround sound, if the source isn’t mixed with a specific standard, it can end up sounding a bit off. Certain noises might get muffled for no reason, with sound also changing the color ever so slightly.
That is why you should try many different virtual surround sounds before deciding for a specific one. Some might not work all that great for you, maybe because of the tuning, perhaps because of the shape of your ears. Getting things right is tricky, so don’t hesitate to take your time.
Can You Add Virtual Surround Sound to Any Headphone?
Since virtual surround sound is a software-based solution that is applicable to all stereo headphones, you can download it. There are many applications out there, all of them promising the best virtual 3D audio. While you need to pay for the majority of them, there are also free ones with optional Pro versions.
Keep in mind that since these apps take slightly different approaches to boost the surround sound, some might not work very well for you. Thankfully you can try even the payable ones since they mostly offer free trial periods.
Windows Sonic for Headphones
There is a virtual surround sound solution right in front of you, baked in Windows OS, and ready for your test. You can access it by right-clicking the “sound” icon in the taskbar and clicking on Surround Sound/Windows Sonic for Headphones.
Some specific programs and games support the feature. However, even if a movie or a game doesn’t explicitly say it works with Windows Sonic, the feature still amplifies the surround experience, regardless of what you’re listening to. Just make sure you don’t have any other surround sound options turned on. Check our list of best PC gaming headsets right now.
360 Reality Audio
Sony also made their own version of object-based surround sound, but this one aims mainly to music listeners. There are quite a few catches with this standard. Firstly, you need to own Sony headphones (for example, Sony WH-1000XM4). Then you need to download their mobile app where you take a picture of each ear (that is right, the app asks you to take selfies). Based on those pictures you get a personalized sound profile.
This sound profile needs to be transferred into one of the supported streaming services (Tidal, 360 Deezer, nugs.net). Thankfully you do get a subscription coupon when you purchase the headphones since those subscriptions can be quite expensive (up to $20 per month or more).
Dolby Atmos for Headphones
Apart from regular Dolby Atmos, which uses multiple speaker system, with some of them mounted above you, the Windows version works in conjunction with Windows Sonic. One of the improvements Dolby brings to the table is that it doesn’t colorize the sound as much as the Windows Sonic does. That makes for a more true to the original experience.
However, it’s not free, unless you get it bundled with a pair of gaming headset. You have to download the Dolby Access app, inside which you can purchase the license for $15. Thankfully there is a free 7-day trial to find out if it suits your needs.
We made a separate article regarding this feature, how it works, and where to get it. As with Dolby Atmos, you can get DTS Headphone:X bundled with specific gaming headsets. But usually, you need to buy the license from their Windows app called DTS Sound Unbound.
Compared to previously mentioned standards, DTS Headphones:X tends to create a bigger soundstage. By focusing on a larger stage, ambient sounds don’t come out as clean as Windows Sonic or Atmos. It comes to personal preference as what makes you more immersed in a game or a movie.
You can also try it out for 14 days free of charge, and then decide if you want to buy it for $20 (€20).
Razer 7.1 Surround Sound
It’s the Razer’s proprietary surround sound feature that imitates the 7.1 systems. Usually, it’s bundled with their gaming headsets, and it works really well. If you don’t mind searching through the internet, you can find previous versions of the Razer app for free. That way, you can experience everything Razer can offer. For better control over the way surround sound works, you’ll need to opt for a paid version, which costs around $20.
Their app can be downloaded on Razer’s website.
THX Spatial Audio
Another software to boost your surrounding game. Apart from providing the same advantages as its competitors, during gaming, you can choose from different presets. Environmental mode brings you the most immersive experience, with enlarged soundstage and positional audio. However, in Competitive mode, low-end gets reduced to subdue the explosions and other noises, that could mask your enemy’s footsteps.
You can download the THX app straight from the Razer website. There is a free trial, with $20 being the full price.
Spatial Sound Card (SSC)
Developed by New Audio Technology, it supposedly creates a more natural-sounding virtual surround compared to the competition. You can also choose from different headphones presets from well-known brands or headphone models.
Thankfully you can test it for free or pay $10 if you want more options.
This software created by Global Delight is highly recommended as one of the best options if you want to create virtual surround sound. The main reason lays in software flexibility when it comes to auto-calibrating itself to whatever sound card or sound system you’re rocking.
there are also plenty of things you can adjust inside the app, like EQ, the intensity of the virtual surround, what speakers you want to mute, boosting the bass, and many more.
There is a trial period, after which you need to pay around $9 full license (currently on sale).
SBX Pro Studio Suite
Another great software with many professional tools to enhance your spatial awareness. In a similar fashion as the others, the audio signal goes through an algorithm that identifies spatial information. Based on the output format (headphones or speakers) the surround signal is optimized. It works on both stereo and multichannel setups.
You can also find tools for upscaling compressed audio signals, bass enhancements, volume levelers (volume stays the same across all apps), and dialog enhancer, providing better clarity to vocals inside movies and games.
Should You Use Wired or Wireless Headphones?
Both work with virtual surround sound software. Some of them have built-in processors to work with a specific surround sound standard.
Convenience is the most significant difference here. You might prefer wired headphones, not caring about the wobbling cable.
Or you prefer to keep your wireless headphones on your head at all times. Even when you need to walk in the next room to grab a snack.
Both have their advantages and limitations. Wired ones are more flexible in terms of where you can use them and for how long. Wireless headphones usually need some USB dongle to transfer audio to your headset. You also have to charge them every now or then, although most of them offer a 3.5mm port for wired listening as well.