Upon booting up Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice for the first time a few weeks ago I was greeted with a fairly unique message - “Hellblade is best experienced with headphones for full 3D binaural sound.” It’s not unknown for a game to recommend the best setup, but this was one of the few games which seemed absolutely intent on me isolating myself with headphones in order to achieve the best possible experience.
This got me thinking. Telling me I should play a game with headphones instantly makes me want to play it both with and without cans on my lugs, just to see what the fuss is all about. And damn if it wasn’t worth trying with Hellblade. The 3D binaural audio is a sort of hack to achieve an approximation of full 3D sound using just a pair of headphones with its two speakers. It’s different to stereo audio in that it factors in ear space and the position of your head, apparently delivering the sensation of 3D sound. As I found out in Hellblade - it definitely works. Voices shout out from behind you. Sometimes it feels as if someone is actually leaning into your ear to whisper. It’s awesome. Taking my headphones off and just playing Hellblade using my TV and a pair of speakers just could not simulate the same experience. It felt flat; it made Hellblade a significantly worse game.
Normally I’m not really a headphone gamer. I don’t particularly like being too cut off from the outside world. It’s always nice to get some pre-warning when someone’s burgling my home or there’s a knock at the door. After Hellblade I decided to burn through a few other games though, and the effect ranged from transformative, in the case of Uncharted 4’s hectic shoot-outs, to the benign with Rocket League. Some games benefit greatly, others don’t, unsurprisingly enough.
Without a full surround sound setup at home though, my only touchstones for this are some faux-3D headphones and a two speaker setup. I should imagine proper 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound is on a level even beyond this, negating the need for headphones in Hellblade. Actually investing in surround sound for gaming is an expensive and resource intensive process though. Entire rooms need to be rearranged to get the speaker positions just ‘so’. For anyone who’s got a setup like this, is the payoff really worth it?
So for all you audiophiles out there, how important is a great speaker / headphone setup for gaming? Do you think the best experience can be achieved with a fantastic pair of headphones, or would you recommend going all in on surround sound? Let us know your thoughts below!