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

Audiophile Gaming, Is It Possible? (Part 2)

Ok, so hopefully now we’re all clued up about the options available to us when it comes to getting an audio signal out from our PCs (Part 1). Now I’m going to go off to the other side of the set-up; the headphones / headsets. I’m going to go over the 4 main types that I’ve encountered, then discuss the good and bad points of each.

Firstly let me explain that you will see me refer to headsets and headphones separately; for the purpose of this article headsets are headphones but with a mic attached (as standard).

  • 3.5mm Stereo Headsets - These have two drivers (read: speakers), one in each ear and connect via an analogue 3.5mm connection. Some headsets that fall into this category are: Corsair HS1A, Razer Carcharias, Plantronics GameCom 367 and the SpeedLink Medusa NX. Obviously with these headsets only having 2 drivers they have to rely on some form of surround sound emulation to achieve a “5.1” effect. These headsets take the analogue signal straight from the 3.5mm jack and output it through the drivers; as such for surround sound emulation to work, it must be enabled on whichever device is providing the source signal (be that a sound card, or a dedicated DAC / Headphone Amp).

  • USB Stereo Headsets - These (like the 3.5mm variety) have two drivers, one in each ear. They connect to your PC via a USB connection. Some headsets that fall into this category are: Corsair HS1, Razer Megalodon, Logitech G35, SpeedLink Medusa NX 5.1 USB and the Plantronics GameCom 777 USB. Again, having only two speakers these headsets rely on surround sound emulation to achieve a “5.1” effect. The similarities end there however; as the headset is USB it effectively takes over the role of the sound card, performing as a DAC internally. Also, many of the headphones mentioned also include a toggle for a surround sound effect (hence why, for example, the G35 is listed as a 7.1 headset when in fact it only has 2 drivers). The downside to these headsets is that the “sound card” built into them isn’t normally of a very high quality and as it’s built in, there’s no way to upgrade it. Also, as the DAC is internal and not upgradeable, the headset is stuck with the version of surround emulation that it shipped with.

  • “True” 5.1 Headsets - These generally have 3 drivers in each ear, angled towards the users ear from the front, back and side of the headphone, they sometimes also have a vibration unit to emulate the effect of a subwoofer. They connect to the PC via three (or more) analogue 3.5mm jacks. Some headsets that fall into this category: Roccat Kaves and the SpeedLink Medusa NX 5.1 v2. What with these headsets having multiple drivers in each ear they do not need surround sound emulation to achieve a “5.1” effect. These headsets take the analogue signal straight from the three 3.5mm jacks (Front L/R, Rear L/R, Centre/Sub channels) from the sound card. As a result of this, the PC must have a sound card which supports 5.1 or 7.1 audio.

  • 3.5mm Stereo Headphones - These are essentially identical in terms of usage to the 3.5mm headsets, except that an additional microphone will be required to utilize voice communications. There are simply too many stereo headphones available on the market to list, covering everyone’s tastes, requirements and price range.

So now that I’ve covered the basics of how each type works, I’m going to get rather opinionated now. Each and every person has their own tastes when it comes to clothes, cars, food and unfortunately, sound and music falls into this trap as well. Everything I say in this post from here on is subjective, so take it with a pinch of salt.

Firstly, lets start with the USB headsets. While I think that some of them might be very decent “gaming headsets” (G35 and Corsair HS1’s in particular) none of them fall into the “audiophile” category of sound quality (SQ) and performance. The DACs built-in to the headsets are generally OK at best (often there is background noise) and the surround sound emulation is normally as simple as on/off; you don’t get to customize it to your own personal tastes or upgrade it when new technologies come along (for a tech explanation of surround sound emulation, see below). For this reason, I believe that USB headsets have no place in an audiophile level gaming set-up. However they may be good for you if you are using a laptop or are on a limited budget and have no dedicated sound card.

Next up are the “true” 5.1 headsets. Having owned and used a set of Roccat Kaves (as one of my first headsets) I found them reasonable, IF paired with a good dedicated sound card. However, in terms of the “5.1” effect achieved by them, it wasn’t good. To set up hardware “5.1” headsets with your sound card you need to set it up as if it were outputting to a 5.1 set of speakers, think about that. The sound card creates the 5.1 analogue signals thinking it’s sending it to speakers a few feet away from the user, so now imagine strapping those speakers to the side of your head and you might get an idea of what the effect sounds like. The reason why the rear speakers in a 5.1 set-up sound like they are behind you is because… they are. If you move the “rear” speakers so they are three inches away from your ear drum, can you tell that it’s “behind you”? No. In addition to this, music is pretty much exclusively stereo, meaning that you only ever use 2 drivers in each ear (the one’s in “front” of you) making it sound really quite weird unless you enable stereo up-mixing (putting the stereo sound over all speakers). For this reason, they are out. I’d even find it hard to recommend these; the only situation being if you have a very limited budget and already have a sound card that doesn’t have CMSS-3D or Dolby Headphone.

Now it’s time for the stereo headsets, but before I start on them I think it’s worth going over some tech-wizardry. You’re probably thinking that because these headsets/headphones don’t have three drivers next to each ear they can’t do surround sound very well. Well, you’d be wrong! I’m sure all of you will have heard of Dolby at some point or other (if not why are you reading this!?), but most of you probably haven’t heard of Dolby Headphone (if you read it in Part 1 and Google’d it, that doesn’t count!). Dolby Headphone is a form of surround sound emulation, this means that it takes a source (preferably a real 5.1 / 7.1 source, eg. A game / movie) and converts it to stereo in such a way that the sound dynamics allow the user to be able to tell where the sound is coming from. Ok, so is it any good? Well, it’s not a simple answer. It depends on the implementation; for example the USB headsets which I discussed earlier offer no customization of the Dolby Headphone settings, which probably make it suitable for some people, but not others. However, if you get a sound card with Dolby Headphone support it will allow you to configure it just the way you want, ensuring that you get a great experience.

Right, back to the 3.5mm stereo headsets and headphones. I have owned a few of these in my time, but it wasn’t until I got a sound card with Dolby Headphone that I really saw “the light” as it were. Without Dolby Headphone stereo headsets aren’t great for gaming; you’re unable to hear what’s around you, as you’re only getting the left/right channels of sound. It’s not bad, but it’s not exactly “immersive”. However, when I tried Dolby Headphone with my Razer Carcharias in Battlefield Bad Company 2 the first time, it blew my mind. It really does make that much of a difference.

Some of you are probably thinking that no matter how good the emulation, you still wont be able to tell accurate positioning from a stereo headset. As proof, put a set of stereo headphones on, make sure your output is set to two-channel and listen to this. Now, the demo is labelled as Dolby Headphone although I don’t actually believe it really is (I think it’s a binaural recording), but in short, it doesn’t matter; you’re still listening to it via stereo headphones so it’s still showing what is possible.

EDIT: I’ve managed to find some pre-encoded Dolby Headphone demo’s over at BitTech here, while I don’t personally think they are as good as a game running in 7.1 with DH, they showcase the general idea of it all.

As a final note, when it come’s to stereo headsets vs. headphones, there are good and bad versions of both. But the best headset on the market is only on a par with the “reasonable” headphones in terms of sound quality (also generally comparatively-overpriced!). For this reason, when trying to create an “audiophile” level gaming set-up I’m going to rule out stereo headsets as well.

Having said that, I would happily recommend a headset to a fellow gamer, even one with a reasonable budget. The best headset I have tried so far is the Razer Carcharias, I’ve also heard nothing but good things about the Corsair HS1A so that’s probably worth a look too.

Part 3