Virtual Surround Sound: What Does it Even Mean?

You’ve probably seen it around modern gaming headsets: “virtual surround”. Two earcups, pretending to be a cinema-like sound system. The technology is heavily targeted towards gamers, and can be rather useful, but it’s rooted in a lie. How did this marketing trick become a part of most gaming set-ups? We’ll tell you all you need to know about virtual surround, and whose upscaling you can rely on. 

Virtual Surround — The lie we all want to believe

Let’s be brutally honest here: “virtual surround” on a gaming headset is hardly a replacement for physical surround sound systems. Even though marketing terms are often paired with promises of “7.1 sound”, the technology still runs on two audio drivers — which is effectively 2.0. 

What most gaming brands mean with their talk of surround-in-a-stereo-headset, is that said audio drivers are tweaked to further immerse you in the sound stage. It’s still a stereo set-up, but certain frequencies are tweaked to grant you more spatial awareness. For example, the “ping” of a grenade pin being pulled is slightly sharpened, so you can pinpoint the direction of the sound more effectively. That’s the general idea.

This upscaling premise might sound a bit vague, ironically, but spatial awareness can prove highly beneficial to your gaming experience. A great headset doesn’t require seven speakers around you, to fully immerse you in the audio. With the right calibration, just two drivers can make you feel like the sound is “all around you”. And that is exactly what most gamers look for in a headset.

Photograph of a gamer in front of their display, experiencing virtual surround upscaling from Dolby Atmos.

Not all virtual sound is upscaled equally

So, what’s the problem then? Well, it’s mostly a matter of semantics. It’s not really that much of a problem, either. Spatial awareness is what gamers want, but promises of “7.1 Surround” come across as blatant lies — further proven by the amount of physical speakers. But still, there is something to be said for these emerging technologies.

Their naming schemes and marketing might be rooted in contradiction, but some of these calibration tools have proven quite effective. That boils down to a few factors. The hardest hitting one, being the amount of commitment the upscaling tool is built on. 

Some hardware companies merely boost a bunch of frequencies, slap “7.1 Surround” on the box, and call it a day. Others curate their sound stage with more care. They analyze ear profiles and binaural effects, while keeping the science behind head-related transfer function (HRTF) in mind. With that due diligence, we can actually net some bigger sound stages to get immersed in. 

So, let’s go over a few upscaling tools that actually have proven to be quite decent, when it comes to spatial awareness in games.

Dolby Atmos for Headphones

In recent years, we have seen Dolby schooling headset brands, with their Dolby Atmos for Headphones upscaling. This sidestep in Atmos technology will work on most stereo headphones, but needs to be engineered from both ways. Dolby provides a high-end positional toolkit for movie makers and game developers, that will convert audio signals into a more immersive soundstage, no matter what kind of headset is used in the end. As long as a movie or game supports Dolby Atmos, and you have it enabled on your side, it will sound incredibly immersive on any solid stereo headset.  

Dolby Atmos for Headphones isn’t free — although some products come with a license pre-packaged — but is generally considered one of the better virtual upscaling tools. Not surprising, as Dolby is commonly known as the brand associated with surround sound in general. They know their audio.

On the other hand, Dolby Atmos only has a purpose on your headset, as long as the audio you’re listening to supports the technology. Atmos won’t just start upscaling any given game or piece of entertainment.

Notable games that support Dolby Atmos are Overwatch, Cyberpunk 2077, and Call of Duty: Warzone. In addition to Windows 10, the Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S also support Dolby Atmos.  

THX Spatial Audio

Seeing how Dolby made waves with Atmos in gaming, competitor THX followed suit. This veteran in audio engineering — now a subsidiary of Razer — also sells their THX Spatial Audio at a small price. Razer and THX’s upscaling tool is like an “Atmos light”, partly working alongside developers, as well as providing general tweaking for spatial awareness.

THX Spatial outperforms most virtual surround upscaling when games natively support the tool, but besides those, THX might still fall flat. 

In a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds —  which doesn’t support THX Spatial natively —  the general upscaling boosts certain frequencies so aggressively, that it might throw you off your game. Any step you take on a wooden floorboard, can sound like a muffled explosion coming from below. You won’t hear that guy reloading his clip in the other room, either way. 

Notable games that support THX Spatial are Apex Legends, Destiny 2, Call of Duty: Warzone and Valorant. The THX Spatial Audio tool works exclusively on PC platforms, and comes integrated with some higher-end Razer headsets.

Windows Sonic for Headphones

Even Microsoft got into the spatial audio game, with their Windows Sonic upscaling. In contradiction to Dolby and THX, this upscaling tool is completely free, and promises to forgo any native support. Windows Sonic picks up any spatial data that games or movies send out, and converts that into Microsoft’s own virtual sound stage. Additionally, this covers actual 7.1 audio signals, that Windows then translates to a 2.0 analog signal with a bigger feeling sound stage.

If you want to get the most out of your headphones, without paying for proprietary toolkits, Microsoft’s got you covered. And again, it’s probably a more defined sound than some headset brands might have crammed into their own software. It isn’t exactly on-par with the likes of Dolby Atmos, but don’t underestimate Windows. These guys know more about audio conversion than some hardware brands.  

Windows Sonic is built-in with most Windows 10 systems, as well as Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. 

Sony 3D Audio (Tempest 3D AudioTech)

As PlayStation isn’t down with Dolby, or other surround sounds from third parties, Sony has made their own virtual upscaling tool. Through the Tempest 3D AudioTech engine, Sony’s PlayStation 5 can offer object-based virtual surround, often referred to as “Sony 3D Audio”. And while yes, Sony certainly spent some time analyzing aural behavior, to optimize the results. 

Sony’s object-based audio will work on most headphones, as well as soundbars, and surround speaker sets — virtual support for televisions was slightly postponed — but needs to be virtually “positioned” by the game developers themselves.  

Promotional image of the Sony 3D Pulse headset.

Although Sony wrote a blog post or two about the Tempest engine in the past, it’s still quite unclear what (new) games support the tech, and which ones don’t. Most games from the PlayStation 5’s launch line-up, do support it though. Multi-platform games might skip the upscaling, as the additional work with Sony would be lost on PC, Xbox, or Nintendo consoles.  

As is to be expected, Sony’s virtual surround tool will only work on PlayStation 5. The Tempest audio engine will most likely be exclusive for the PlayStation console, where competitors like Dolby aren’t welcome. In contrast to some people’s belief, you don’t need the Sony 3D Pulse headset to experience Sony’s 3D Audio, as the engine will convert its signal through most audio set-ups.

Sounds good?

Besides these technologies, there are many more upscaling tools that might do the trick for you. Their effectiveness not only relies on the commitment certain brands have to their audio promises, it’s also a matter of preference. Some headsets offer great spatial awareness out-of-the-box, others need a little push from a piece of software.

As long as you find yourself an audio set-up that immerses you in your favorite gaming experience, it’s all fun and games. These are merely our two cents on the whole “virtual surround” talking point, and the biggest players therein. If anything, be wary of hardware brands telling you their latest headset features “7.1 Surround”. Having two solid drivers, is often more important than their upscaling.

Is there anything you’re still not sure about? Or do you feel like we missed an important addition to our list of virtual surround tools? Feel free to reach out to us with questions, as well as any suggestions. We would love to keep talking virtual surround, in the comments down below.

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