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What is Virtual Surround Sound and How It Works?

Last updated: 6 months ago
8 min read

In short, virtual surround sound is a technology that recreates the multi-speaker audio experience in stereo devices like headphones and 2-speaker systems. It mimics the effect of sound coming from different directions. As if you’re listening with multiple speakers around you.

SteelSeries gaming headset

Not everyone has space or money to enjoy real surround sound at home, with 5, 7, or more speakers placed around them and a subwoofer in the corner.

Usually, we watch movies and listen to music with a pair of headphones or stereo speakers. Thankfully, you can still experience 3D audio with those. But you need virtual surround sound.

We’ll answer:

  • What exactly is virtual surround sound
  • 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 try to answer all the questions to determine if virtual 3D audio is something that you need.

CONTENTS (show more)

    What is Virtual Surround Sound and How It Works?

    First, you need to understand what is a true surround sound. If you’ve ever been to a movie theater, you already experienced true surround sound.

    Surround sound requires a minimum of 5 to 7 speakers positioned around you, with one or two subwoofers to add the low-end. In cinemas, the number of speakers can reach over 10. That is why you can distinctly hear the planes or bullets woosh past your head.

    Virtual surround sound software simulates a multi-speaker system to achieve true surround sound effect on only 2 speakers.

    And when you don’t have multiple speakers, you need to use 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 brain into thinking that a particular sound is coming from a specific direction. This is achieved by adjusting the volume of a particular sound in each speaker.

    LST 3D Surround Sound Test HD || Use Headphones

    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.

    Therefore, by perfectly adjusting the loudness of the sound coming from 2 speakers, you can pinpoint the location of an object accurately.

    The 3D sound test

    The “barbershop” video below is an excellent example of how a dual-speaker system achieves a virtual surround sound.

    Use the video as a 3D sound test for your headphones (some perform better than others):

    Virtual Barber Shop (Audio…use headphones, close ur eyes)
    This video was recorded using binaural microphones. Put on your headphones and hear the difference in sound direction.

    What are the most popular virtual surround sounds?

    You probably already know a few of the standards:

    Do You Need Special Headphones to Get Virtual Surround Sound?

    There are 2 kinds of headphones on the market:

    • stereo (dual drivers)
    • multiple drivers

    Stereo headphones

    Stereo headphones are the most common. Most people have at least one pair laying somewhere in the house. They have 2 drivers, one for each earcup. Even though this setup seems limited, you can get a surprisingly good surround sound out of these.

    Even typical stereo recordings use a bit of virtual surround sound effects to make you feel like the sound is present 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.

    HyperX gaming headphones

    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 video games, where great surround sound provides immersion and environment awareness. 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.

    Multiple-driver headphones

    Multiple-driver headphones are much rarer. They 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.

    Razer 101 | Tiamat 7.1 V2

    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 a waste.

    Is It Worth Getting Virtual Surround Sound?

    If you watch movies and play games with headphones, it’s worth getting virtual surround sound.

    While regular stereo headphones provide some surround sound effect, getting yourself a more pronounced surround experience is an advantage. For instance, in competitive FPS games, better positional accuracy gives a more immersive experience and a competitive advantage.

    In FPS games you can hear your enemy and recognize their location better with virtual surround sound.

    While some think a crispier picture quality improves the movie, it’s the sound that keeps you immersed. With improved surround sound, you can feel you’re 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 disadvantages to using surround sound

    The main problem is that it affects the sound quality.

    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 on a specific one. Some might not work that great for you. Maybe because of the tuning, or 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 Headphones?

    You can. And here’s how to do it.

    Since virtual surround sound is a software-based solution, it’s 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 paid Pro versions. See them below.

    Windows Sonic vs Dolby Atmos vs Stereo comparison

    Keep in mind that these apps take slightly different approaches to boost the surround sound. So, some might not work very well for you., while work great for others. Thankfully you can try them all for free since most offer free trial periods.

    Windows Sonic for Headphones

    On PC, Windows Sonic is a virtual surround sound you already have. It’s baked into Windows OS. 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.

    See this article on how to enable Windows Sonic.

    Some 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.

    360 Reality Audio

    Sony also made their own version of object-based surround sound. But this one aims mainly at music listeners.

    360 Reality Audio surround sound setup

    There are quite a few catches with this standard:

    1. Firstly, you need to own Sony headphones (for example, Sony WH-1000XM4).
    2. 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.
    3. Finally, the sound profile needs to be transferred into one of the supported music 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

    Dolby Atmos for Headphones is a paid software. It’s different from regular Dolby Atmos, which uses multiple speakers, with some of them mounted above you. The Windows version works in conjunction with Windows Sonic.

    One of the improvements Dolby Atmos for Headphones brings to the table is that it doesn’t colorize the sound as much as Windows Sonic. It keeps sound true to the original.

    However, it’s not free unless you get it bundled with a gaming headset. You have to download the Dolby Access app. Inside it, you can purchase the license for $15. Thankfully there is a free 7-day trial to test it if it suits your needs.

    DTS Headphone:X

    DTS Headphone:X is a paid virtual surround sound. 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.

    See this article on DTS Headphone:X.

    DTS Sound Unbound Microsoft Windows app

    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. But it comes down to personal preference as to 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 Razer’s proprietary surround sound that imitates the 7.1 system. Usually, it’s bundled with their gaming headsets and 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 the Razer website.

    THX Spatial Audio

    THX Spatial Audio is 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 an enlarged soundstage and positional audio.
    • In Competitive mode, low-end gets reduced to subdue the explosions and other noise 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.

    What is THX Spatial Audio?

    Spatial Sound Card (SSC)

    SSC is developed by New Audio Technology. It supposedly creates a more natural-sounding virtual surround compared to the competition. You can also choose from different headphone presets from well-known brands.

    Thankfully you can test it for free or pay $10 if you want more options.

    Boom 3D

    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.

    Boom 3D surround sound software

    There are also plenty of things you can adjust inside the app, like:

    • EQ
    • The intensity of the virtual surround
    • What speakers 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)
    • Dialog enhancer, providing better clarity to vocals inside movies and games

    Read more:

    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.

    It’s a matter of convenience.

    • You might prefer wired headphones if you don’t care about the wobbling cable and want a hassle-free experience
    • Or you might prefer wireless headphones if you want to keep them on your head at all times, even to grab a snack in the next room (and don’t might keeping them charged)

    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 a USB dongle to transfer audio to your headset. You also have to charge them, although most offer a 3.5mm port for wired listening as well.

    Conclusion

    Virtual surround sound can dramatically improve the audio experience of your stereo headphones in video games and movies.

    Unfortunately, there’s no best virtual surround sound. Which one’s best for you depends on your subjective preference.

    That’s why we encourage you to try more than one. Take advantage of their free trials, and you’ll surely find one that fits you.

    Related gaming headphones & headsets: