The recent release of the official Xbox Wireless Headset and the included 6 month trial of Dolby Atmos sparked heated conversations about headset audio this week. Internet warriors have been arguing back-and-forth about whether Dolby Atmos is worth a premium, and if Sony’s own Tempest 3D audio included free with the PlayStation 5 is actually superior.
I usually try to steer well clear of arguments between console fans. On this occasion I welcome them because the discourse on audio is so overdue. A lot of us focus so hard on graphics, obsessing over pixel counts, frame rates, and lighting but the fact of the matter is that good audio is every bit as important as good visuals, yet we seldom talk about it.
I’ve put together a video comparing and celebrating some examples of 3D Headset audio. If you have a pair of headphones to hand place them appropriately on your head or in your ear holes (whatever is most comfortable), and have a listen. You don’t need any special hardware; the consoles have already done all the fancy processing and you’ll get the full effect on any stereo headphones.
Yes, any stereo headphones. That surprises a lot of people, so I’ll explain at a high level. To understand the magic of 3D headset audio I find it helps to have a basic explanation of Spatial Surround Sound and Virtual Surround Sound.
Object-based Spatial Surround Sound
For a long time audio was mixed into distinct channels. A 7.1 surround sound setup would have distinct audio channels for 7 speakers placed around the room on a flat plane (and .1 for bass, but we won’t worry about that here). Audio was mixed specifically for these channels, with audio engineers responsible for which speakers play sounds at which volume and time and audiences expected to place those speakers in reference positions.
Object-based spatial surround is something of a revolution in audio engineering. Instead of mixing for distinct channels, audio sources are positioned anywhere within a 3D space without consideration for the speakers and channels that the audience has available. The audio receiver/decoder is then responsible for making best use of the speakers that you have, be it 2, 7, 32, or any other number, at any position and height. That isn’t to say speaker position no longer matters, just that the options are massively more flexible and powerful.
Object-based Spatial Surround Sound is a natural fit for games, where positional sound is more dynamic than any other medium and often out of the hands of any director.
Virtual Surround for Headphones
Virtual surround is the product of good understanding of how humans hear and interpret sound with 2 ears. In a very simple example, imagine you’re sitting in the driver’s seat of a car focused on the road ahead, and your passanger is talking to you. I immediately regret this example because a lot of you will have the passanger on your right, but here in the UK they’re sitting you your left. When the person talks the sound very clearly and directly hits your left ear, but crucially it will also reach your right ear as well. The version of the sound that hits your right ear carries different properties; it’s less direct, fractionally delayed, and reverberation around the car lands differently. The shapes of our ears alter the way we head sounds from in-front or behind us, and it is these properties that we use to recognise the direction and distance from which sounds originate.
By understanding and applying these properties to sounds playing through stereo headphones, it is possible to fake direction of sound. This is the core concept of virtual surround sound. Note that it relies on fully isolating the sound playing in each ear; any sound that bleeds across would ruin the effect, which is why it is so suited to headphones.
Next-gen Console Sound
Both next-gen consoles marry these concepts to deliver 3D Spatial Audio through any stereo (2 channel) headphones.
Sony developed Tempest 3D Audio specifically for the PlayStation 5. The PlayStation 4 was sorely lacking in good headset audio.
Microsoft have supported Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos since early in the Xbox One lifecycle, and more recently DTS:X. Atmos and DTS:X headphone technologies have a license fee necessary to use them, and both typically act as a layer of additional audio balancing on top of Windows Sonic.
New for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles is dedicated audio hardware that leverages ray tracing, which is a powerful and effective tool to determine the properties that need to be applied to the sounds that hit each ear.
Strangely at this point in time Sony’s Tempest has more consistent support than Xbox spatial audio, despite that being around for significantly longer. However, Gears of War 5 is a fantastic showcase of 3D audio so we can rest easy knowing that the console is capable and hopefully we’ll be hearing many more fantastic examples in the years to come.
Headset vs Home Theater
There’s a strong case to be made for headsets offering more accurate positional sound than even high-end speaker systems. After all, the sound playing from a headset doesn’t spill at all, it is unhindered by the actual positions of speakers and natural reverberation around the room.
Home Theaters do carry other advantages that will carry more weight for some people; Full speakers are capable of richer, higher quality sound and having real distance from the audio can make an appreciable difference in quality and comfort. I cannot possibly capture or express this in a youtube video, but it is worth noting.
An Xbox owner with a lavish home theater setup can take advantage of Dolby Atmos or DTS:X for home theaters.
The PlayStation 5 does not currently offer an equivalent, so PlayStation owners are limited to traditional multi-channel 7.1 surround. Sony have promised to bring Tempest to speaker systems at a later date, but it is difficult to see how they can fully deliver on this promise, as Atmos and DTS:X home theater output requires a receiver that supports those codecs; it is quite a different proposition to headset audio in that regard.
What do you hear?
Have a watch of the video with headphones in, and let us know what you think of the audio on both consoles. If you have any questions then fire away, and I’ll answer as best I can!