Up For Debate - Headphones v Surround Sound For Gaming

Written by Jon Sutton on Sun, Sep 3, 2017 9:00 AM
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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!

What's your preferred audio setup for gaming?

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06:55 Sep-05-2017

I have RIG 500e headphones and they are so light and flexible, I prefer these headphones over any speaker, especially for gaming, since sometimes you don't pick up the most subtle sounds on speakers, unless you turn them up, and that annoys everyone.


For Music, definitely speakers. I like "feeling" the bass.

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22:57 Sep-04-2017

I'm using both and I have to admit that nothing beats the bass from a good surround system. It makes the books fall from the bookcase.

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17:39 Sep-04-2017

Honestly, it entirely depends on if I'm playing alone or not. A few years ago I invested in a 5.1 surround sound system and it really is amazing. However, while I could totally use my sound system while playing with friends, I would have to buy a stand alone mic (which admittedly isn't really a big deal) and they would probably be able to hear my sound and it could be messy. So I just always use my headphones. While the "surround sound" advertised with my headphones is simulated, it is actually fairly good, and I (usually) tell which direction a sound is coming from.

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12:39 Sep-04-2017

I prefer surround sound. Especially when playing FPS games cause it feels like you're totally on that game like counterstrike, battlefield, star wars, and other FPS games. Headphones are good. But finding a good quality headphone is hard!

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14:07 Sep-04-2017

It's not hard.
1) Ignore all the "gaming" brands
2) Go with a reputable brand (Audio Technica, Sennheiser, etc)
3) Don't go for a cheap option. You get what you pay for.

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06:55 Sep-04-2017

Full surround sound guys, the best way to get the real feeling!
Logitech Z906 here! Peace!

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08:08 Sep-04-2017

I have the same speakers, they sure are great for their price :)

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08:42 Sep-04-2017

A really powerful surround system! Not an average piece!

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11:41 Sep-04-2017

I bet they don't compare to a proper 5.1 though. I have a Klipsch/Infinity 7.1 with a velodyne sub and Ive yet to see PC speakers that come even remotely close.

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12:52 Sep-04-2017

Well that's to be expected, considering we are talking about 200€ speakers here, they are doing well for that price IMO :)

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14:39 Sep-04-2017

Yea that's what i mean something will always sound better. I'm in southern France and its still 25°C outside and we don't have AC so windows stay open. Theres too much ambient noise to use speakers for gaming, headphones at least reduces most of that so i can actually hear what I'm playing.

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06:26 Sep-04-2017

I got 5.1 full surround sound system and it's quite immersive for gaming (or movies, tv shows) and listening music in 432Hz with 5.1 is on a whole other level and you don't even have to turn up the volume too loud where your ears start to bleed unlike 2.0 system lol :D

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23:04 Sep-03-2017

Headphones so I can blast the sound directly into my ears without anything getting the way.

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18:10 Sep-03-2017

Headphones with noise canceling features are better and sounds clearer to me around my noisy PC.. and now that I'm having high frequency hearing problems, speakers and noisy environments are just bad combination for me.

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11:32 Sep-05-2017

Mind recommend me some affordable headphones with noise cancelling feature? An' when I said affordable, I meant cheap as dirt. :}

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17:04 Sep-03-2017

As I don't play competitively I use my 300W speaker system for the big boomy sound, but headphones are a weapon of choice when I play Quake or something that wants that immersion.


As for binaural sound - that is THE true surround sound. Don't be fooled with BS "7.1 surround" headphones - there's no way to create 3D sound without a properly mastered source. We have TWO ears and we only need TWO drivers in our headphones to recreate a full 3D spacial environment. Once the games start using pathtraced audio (simulating echoes and the inverse-cube law) and binaral voice recordings - that is when the immersion will REALLY take off! And you only need a pair of earbuds or headphones for that ;)

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17:24 Sep-03-2017

Here's an explanation on how binaural works
Here's a sample of binaural audio - USE HEADPHONES!
Here's an explanation and a sample of how pathtraced audio works - USE HEADPHONES!


Listen to all that and you'll see why "7.1 surround", especially in headphones is BS :D

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16:51 Sep-03-2017

I use headphones with Razer Surround to mimic a surround sound system. It sounds much better than Stereo and I still get to wear headphones.

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09:21 Sep-05-2017

It more closely mimics how ears detect the direction of sound anyways as compared to other methods. It also got me some hackusations to that was fun.

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16:40 Sep-03-2017

good 2.0 speakers are enough for very immersive experience,
I have just pair of 8 inch studio-grade monitors and the spatial imaging is better than most budget "gaming" surround systems I've heard

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16:31 Sep-03-2017

I've never use a high quality headphone, but as far as my experience with standard headphones go, I don't like them. I only use one when it's necessary and so I'm not disturbing anyone.

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16:09 Sep-03-2017

I never player with 7.1 speaker. I only have logitech g633 and i can hear everything. From right left back even up and down

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14:48 Sep-03-2017

I think headphones are always superior (obviously depends on quality).
I almost never use them though just because I dont find them comfortable.

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14:26 Sep-03-2017

You can get 7.1 headsets tho, like I have. So you don't need to have speakers for it.

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17:09 Sep-03-2017

"7.1" headsets are a massive scam though. They don't work properly, the fade between the channels is usually pretty sh*t and to make matters worse the fact that you only need TWO drivers (one for each ear) to be able to recreate a full 3D environment (Physics. We have TWO ears) means it's all smoke and mirrors.
Explanation
Binaural recording and, later, 3D pathtraced audio will make these fake "7.1" scams to rest in the near future...I hope...

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22:13 Sep-03-2017

For me on headsets anyways it is always 2.1 so i don't bother with the 5.1/7.1 type of headsets cause i find it is just a big waste of money.

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12:45 Sep-03-2017

Could someone suggest me a poor man's headphone? Lost my Xiaomi piston 3 pro.
Money kinda tight now.

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13:35 Sep-03-2017

Superlux HD681. It's less than $30 and sounds amazing; check the reviews. It's over-ear rather than in-ear, though. Any earpad replacements for the AKG K240 will work if you need extra comfort.

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16:24 Sep-03-2017

How bout superlux hd 300?

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13:38 Sep-03-2017

I managed to get a cheap set of SkullCandy Hesh 2's which have been serving brilliantly for over a year now.

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13:42 Sep-03-2017

Some Skullcandy headphones are ok on sound quality, but I've never had a pair last longer than that. The cord gets frayed or loses connection eventually.

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16:51 Sep-04-2017

Thanks for the advice. Well, sometimes ignorance is bliss and since these are serving me fine, I doubt I'll be upgrading anytime soon (my cord is detachable)

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12:40 Sep-03-2017

I personally have logitech x540 5.1 pc speakers and noise canceling headset hyperx cloud II.. Usually when i want to relax and listen to music i use my 5.1 system because the bass is far stronger and i dont have to wear anything. But i hate hearing my pc fans and other stuff so when i want to play seriously any single player game or especially csgo, headphones is the way to go for me.

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11:40 Sep-03-2017

Depends on the game and the situation. While playing with friends, headphones, if not.... I rather use my 1200W sound system. The entire room shakes from the 600W subwoofer and the actual sound is really loud and clear

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11:38 Sep-03-2017

In my living room on the TV? Surround sound. If only I had a cord that supported 5.1.


At my desk? I have a pretty awesome pair of AKG K240 knockoffs that cost me less than $30 called the Superlux HD681. Reviews said they beat a lot of +$100 headphones, and they were right.

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11:25 Sep-03-2017

5.1 surround all the way for me.
headsets are uncomfortable to me, especially if I want to game for several hours
You just can't beat 5.1 surround. it sounds amazing and it is very affordable

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