Starving Dragon The ravings of a caffeine-depraved programmer & gamer

Audiophile Gaming, Is It Possible? (Part 1)

This quest of mine started when I decided to replace my existing headphones for my gaming PC, partly because I found my current set (Roccat Kaves) too heavy and uncomfortable, partly because I knew that there had to be somthing better available. I started off by looking around online in the usual places (Overclockers UK) and found that they had a vast selection of gaming headsets, all with seemingly different connectivity, styles, weights and prices. My head started to hurt.

There were headsets that had USB connections, a single 3.5mm connection, a full 3 x 3.5mm connections, stereo headphones, “hardware” 5.1 headphones, “virtual” 5.1 headphones, “virtual” 7.1 headphones, open-backed, closed-back, high-impedance, low-impedance… My head exploded.

After spending some time collecting the pieces of brain-matter from around my room I decided that I needed to make a better informed decision, so I decided to do some research. Here’s a summary of what I found:

Firstly, all sound produced by your games / music is digital (unless you’ve got a PCI record player!?) so at some point that digital signal needs to be processed and converted into an analogue signal. This needs to happen because speakers, and thus, the speakers (or “drivers”) in headphones are both entirely analogue devices, they don’t read 1s and 0s, they need a waveform.

Lets say that your game produces a digital “gunfire” sound; this then gets passed on to your sound card (assuming you have one, if not it’s probably passed to an on-board audio chip) to deal with, and at this point your sound card can do one of three things:

  1. Process the digital signal into an analogue waveform and output it via the 3.5mm jacks
  2. Leave the digital signal alone and output it can digitally over an optical/coax link
  3. Encode the digital signal into another format (such as Dolby Digital) and output it digitally over the optical/coax

I imagine that the vast majority of PC gamers fall into category 1. Using this option means that your sound card is working as a DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Converter) which has some drawbacks; you are totally dependant on the quality of your sound card’s conversion for the quality of sound you get out from it. If you have a good sound card (such as a Creative X-Fi or Asus Xonar) then the conversion should be pretty good, but if you’re using an on-board audio chip the quality of the conversion could be awful. Even the good sound cards aren’t considered “great” because of the limitations they have to work with; being inside a metal box, filled with things that generate electrical signals, is inherently a very noisy place (electrically speaking), with a lot of EMI flying about.

Option 2 sounds like a reasonable one, until you factor in that unless audio is encoded in a major format (ie. Dolby Digital) the optical standard only allows 2-channel sound to be sent un-encoded through it. That means that all of the digital information that was meant for the side, rear, centre and bass speakers is effectively lost. Eak! Obviously this isn’t a very good set-up for gaming as you want to be able to hear what’s going on behind you and those ear-trembling bass notes.

Option 3 requires you to have a sound-card that is capable of encoding to a major format on-the-fly. Generally, this means that the sound card will need to be a higher end model. This option allows all of the digital channels to be output over the optical/coax connection.

However, both option 2 and 3 simply “pass-the-buck” as it were; the digital signal still needs to be converted, it’s just that the sound card isn’t the one that ends up doing it. This has some advantages and disadvantages, which I’ll come to later on in this series.

Part 2