The Differences Between Stereo, Virtual Surround, and 3D-Audio Headphones

At one point or another, nearly all of us have been playing a multiplayer game like CS:GO, Halo, Overwatch, or PUBG when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, an enemy pops up directly behind us. Once you realize, it’s too late. Your round might be over, the match may be lost, and you find yourself replaying it in your head thinking, “How did I not hear someone right behind me?” Situations like these often trigger searches for new audio equipment, because the what you might be using now just isn't cutting it.

However, many of us aren’t audio engineers or sound designers, so if we’re looking for the best directional, spatial, or 3D audio, where do we start?

The ability to use accurate spatial audio in FPS (first-person shooter) and other competitive games can be extremely helpful when climbing the leaderboards, while also enhancing the immersion level in non-competitive games as well. Many gamers, whether in VR or in conventional mediums, are on the search for the best audio equipment that can reproduce spatial audio to pair with their gaming rigs, but there are so many different categories and models out there, it can be difficult to narrow down the selection.

Three Common Types of Headphone Audio Playback

Stereo Headphones

Stereo headphones have long been the standard for most listeners, and the majority of headphones on the market are the simple stereo variety. Stereo refers to the two channel format—one in each ear. In stereo, the sound is played back through one driver in each ear, and each driver plays one channel of sound. These headphones can only play 2-channel stereo content, meaning that any spatial information of a multi-channel game audio mix needs to be downmixed to a stereo format.. While having a left and right channel allows for sound to be panned from one ear to the other effectively, actually only a general representation of spatial audio can be reproduced. Audio formats like binaural stereo can convey a general sense of space and sound location that is very apparent in the left and right, but often fails to deliver accurate sound location in front, behind, and above the listener — unless the binaural recording is “individualized” to the listener of the content on stereo, which is almost never the case with generic binaural. We’ll go into more detail on this later.   

Surround Sound Headphones

The vast majority of surround sound headphones are virtual surround, and most “gaming” branded headphones incorporate the technology. Virtual surround uses conventional stereo channels that use algorithms and software to replace the missing spatial cues into the signal in order to convince the brain that sound is coming from virtual speaker positions in space. This is done in a variety of ways, commonly by adjusting volume and incorporating slight audio delays to augment the way the brain processes the regular stereo sound.

Though the user will likely be able to more accurately pinpoint sound in game compared to plain stereo headphones, all surround sound headsets suffer from vertical sonic inaccuracy and weak areas directly in front and behind the listener. Because virtual surround is a stereo signal at its core, headsets that employ virtual surround are still prone to positional vagueness. True surround sound headsets exist, but are unpopular because 5.1 and 7.1 headphone setups are largely ineffective so close to the ear.

3D-Audio Headphones

Whereas stereo and surround sound formats are channel-based, 3D audio is not limited to number of channels. If stereo is two-channel, and surround is in five or seven (or more), you can think of 3D audio as having the ability to play an infinite number of channels from all directions, x,y, and z. This means that 3D-audio headsets do not have to approximate the location of sounds between channels, and can instead accurately represent the sound where it actually is at any point in space. If you hear footsteps 25 feet to your back left, that’s where they are. There’s no guesswork involved.

Accurate 3D-audio playback in headphones is enabled by a combination of the type of audio format, the playback device, and knowing the elements of the listener’s unique anatomy that define how they hear the world everyday.

To experience the full benefits of 3D audio, the audio source must be able to provide 3D playback. Companies such as Audiokinetic are creating tools to bring 3D audio into the gaming forefront—they also feel that VR is a platform that needs 3D audio in order to be truly realistic. Audiokinetic’s flagship audio engine, Wwise, has been used in games such as BioShock Infinite, Overwatch and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. 3D-audio headphones are able to playback stereo and surround sound easily by spatializing the speaker channels into the 3D space around the listener. However, with audio engines that support and output full 3D sound hitting the mainstream, playing games that output full 3D audio formats that go beyond stereo and surround channel-based playback is on the near horizon.

The OSSIC X and calibrated 3D audio

Currently, the OSSIC X is the only headset that is able to render up to full 3D audio content while incorporating personalized anatomy calibration to each listener and real-time head-tracking. Through a seamless integration of sophisticated hardware and software, this is designed to provide you with the most accurate and immersive game audio experience. You can learn more about how the OSSIC X works on our technology page, or by checking out our how-it-works video below:

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