We often focus only on graphics in games, forgetting completely about audio. Which headphones or speakers are best for gaming? What to pay attention to when shopping?
A great deal has already been written about the image generated by games. But what about the second most important stimulus shaping our gaming experience – sound? In this article, we will try to talk about this often underestimated technical aspect of computer games and other media.
At the very outset, we need to explain to ourselves why sound issues are not treated on a par with visual experiences – and not only in video games but in everyday life in general. The first and foremost reason is probably a purely evolutionary issue – sight is the most important human sense. The life of an individual completely or partially deprived of vision is enormously problematic even in highly developed countries, while not so long ago, it was a sentence condemning vegetation or even death. Of course, lack of hearing is also a serious problem, but to realize the hierarchy of our existential needs, just ask yourself one simple question: if you had to choose, would you rather go blind or deaf?
A separate issue is the very high nuance of sound themes. While in the case of video, we usually settle for high resolution, faithfully rendered colors, and fluidity expressed in the number of frames per second displayed, when talking about sound, the number of factors affecting its quality is much greater. And it’s not just about the parameters of the sound itself and the playback equipment, but also the medium in which it will propagate. The number of difficult physical terms that affect the quality of sound and the selection of appropriate equipment makes one’s head spin: frequency, sampling, dynamics, efficiency, resistance, sound pressure, bit depth, digital signal, analog signal, AD/DA converters, amplifiers, etc. In this flurry of technical terms and simultaneous lack of relevant literature, it’s easy to give up and leave the matter alone. Somehow the sound comes out and it’s ok. Unfortunately, audio equipment manufacturers know this too, feeding consumers a whole bunch of half-truths and understatements that they get away with precisely due to our ignorance of this complex subject or lack of opportunity to compare with equipment that plays exemplarily.
The subject of physics is related to another serious advantage in the simplicity of reproduction: a good monitor or TV in room conditions will always play at its highest level (individual user settings are a separate topic). In the case of speaker systems, a great deal depends on the room in which we will be listening. And so even a very expensive and well-chosen stereo in poor acoustic conditions can play very poorly, in a distorted way, giving no advantage over a much simpler and cheaper solution. Especially since apartments sparingly decorated in the currently popular Scandinavian style often make it difficult to get the right sound without the use of proper acoustic systems. Our parents and grandparents often didn’t even realize that they were improving the acoustics of their apartments through dense furnishings.
However, we live in the era of headphones, which should eliminate many problems associated with sound reproduction: the experience becomes mobile, the comfort and privacy of the listener and those around him improve; problems with acoustics disappear, etc. And most importantly – in the case of headphones, it costs considerably less to achieve high-quality sound than with an equivalent speaker system. But this doesn’t mean that headphones always do their job correctly – knowledge of a few basic values and their influence on how we listen can clearly improve our experience while watching a movie, listening to music, and, above all, improve immersion in the game we are currently playing.
What to look for when buying headphones or speakers?
A handful of basic concepts
Before we get to the issue of proper sound reproduction, we need to familiarize ourselves with some basic concepts. This will make it easier for us later to navigate the issues related to the field of audio and, by the way, make us immune to marketing slogans. Therefore, all the concepts have been rearranged in an easy-to-assimilate way so as not to scare away the complexity of the audio topic.
Sound is nothing more than a wave caused by the trembling of particles in a medium that has elasticity, such as air or water. This knowledge alone is enough for us to know that space battles in Star Wars should take place in absolute silence – in a vacuum the vibrations have nothing to transmit. None, not even the slightest pew-pew. The frequency of these vibrations is defined in Hertz (Hz).
Our ears register sounds with frequencies usually between 16 and 20,000 Hz. Note, however, that the upper range depends on several anatomical factors: age, past illnesses, or genes (some people are able to hear sounds as high as 22,000 Hz). The range of frequencies audible to humans is divided into three basic ranges called tones:
- bass – the lowest tones from 16 to about 300 Hz (e.g., drum foot – gives rhythm in musical pieces, in games, it can be at least the reverberation of an explosion);
- middle tones (the so-called “midrange”) – the value from 300 to 3,000 Hz (these sounds we hear best – this is the typical range for conversations);
- Treble – the highest tones, which reach even above 20,000 Hz (e.g., the clinking of champagne glasses).
Here we will explain what is meant by the most common digital audio frequencies: 44,100 (music files) and 48,000 Hz (TV, movies, and consoles). Contrary to what some Internet experts preach, there is no upper-frequency range in any given audio material. Instead, it is the so-called sampling frequency (timing) – it tells us how many samples one second of a given audio material consists of (that’s right – 44,100 or 48,000 samples per second, respectively!). This is the result of Sony’s and Philips’ work on the first digital music format – CD Audio in 1979 – and the Japanese wanted this format to fully reflect the range of sounds audible to humans. It follows from Harry Nyquist’s law that in order to reproduce a sound correctly, it must be recorded at a frequency at least twice its own frequency, i.e., for a clocking of 44,100 Hz, the bandwidth would be 22,050 Hz – as in the best hearing humans. Riddle solved.
Why did Sony engineers decide on such a demanding frequency? At least it wasn’t about Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as popular legend has it. Instead, the real reason was far more mundane – the number 44,100 is otherwise a sequence of 2x2x3x3x5x5x7x7x7, which was the easiest to calculate for the limited electronics of the 1970s.
There remained the issue of samples – they determine what tone the smallest part of the song will have (e.g. 1/44 100). Most often, they contain 16 bits of information, resulting in as many as 65,535 different combinations of 0 – 1. The 16-bit samples also represent a dynamic range (the difference between the quietest and loudest tone of a given song) of 92 dB.
Decibels are not linear units of measurement. Instead, it is a logarithmic scale, in which each additional three units is experienced by the listener as a doubling of the volume! So when you see that any graphics card in benchmark tests is louder than another by 3 dB, it is certainly not a “minor difference.”
THD – the level of harmonic distortion
There is another parameter that is crucial in determining sound quality. This is the level of harmonic distortion (THD – Total Harmonic Distortion), which is expressed as a percentage. It determines how much of a given sound material has been reproduced incorrectly, out of harmony with the right sounds.
This is important because, having a comparison with the reference material, even a musically uneducated user is able to clearly observe distortion of less than 1%. This is because this type of distortion practically does not occur in nature at all – it is a major anomaly to human ears. It is worth noting that some of the most popular models of gaming headphones have a THD factor at a very high level of nearly 3%. This is far worse than the old Hi-Fi (High Fidelity) standard, which allowed less than 1% distortion in the reproduced sound. But a lack of knowledge and the ability to compare with reference sound allowed the manufacturer to describe its product as “amazing”…
The THD parameter is measured individually for each device individually, which is often the source of many errors in sound evaluation. Consumers often complain, for example, that a particular headphone plays poorly, even though it cost a lot and had a good reputation from reviewers. This usually happens because they connected good headphones with a THD of 0.001% to a player that itself generates distortion of, for example, more than 1%.
Good headphones or speakers will not fix a broken sound; they can even highlight the shortcomings and distortions of the signal they received! Therefore, building an audio system holistically is very important because it will practically always play like its weakest component.
Stereo and surround (5.1 and 7.1) – you can hear the shots.
And how do we reproduce sound these days? Multichannel systems, otherwise known as stereo (5.1 or 7.1 are also among such systems). They take advantage of the differentiation of material coming out of at least two simultaneously playing speakers (so-called channels, right and left in the most popular 2.0 configuration) to produce so-called phantom sources, i.e. to place sounds in the space around us as planned by the sound engineer in the studio or as calculated by the game engine for the virtual battlefield. And so shots come at us from specific directions, and the irrepressible Chris Cornell at the end of the song Black hole sun speaks to us alternately from the right and left.
Finally, a few words about the electronics that reproduce sound. In fact, the most essential component of any digital sound system is the digital-analog converter (DAC for short). This is a type of processor that converts the information stored in music, movie, and game files (digital signal) into an electric current of the appropriate voltage (analog signal). Such a signal goes to amplifiers, and then – headphones or speakers.
The term D/A converter is used not only for the conversion chips themselves but also for whole stand-alone devices, such as music cards. Every device that produces sound from a digital source has some sort of DAC: smartphones, laptops, consoles, wireless speakers, etc. The sound quality of the entire system depends on the quality of the DAC.
Have you ever thought that the louder you listen, the more and better you hear? You thought nothing – most devices, due to miniaturization and cost, use digital volume control, which lowers the volume by “flattening” the dynamics of the song in decibels. This is done by lowering the bit depth of a given song: of the original 16 bits (65,535 0-1 combinations), only 14 can remain, resulting in as much as a fourfold decrease in sound quality (16,384 combinations)! Only the maximum volume ensures that the full information is sent to our ears, which is obviously not recommended for health reasons. On Windows systems, a partial solution to this problem is to select a bit depth of 24 or 32 (some music cards specifically for this purpose only support higher bit ranges). Admittedly, there are digital potentiometers that circumvent this problem, but they are expensive, while precision analog solutions take up a lot of space. Note – not every potentiometer knob necessarily means that the latter is analog!
Practical tips for sound reproduction
Let’s now turn to a collection of the most relevant laws and information related to optimal sound reproduction.
Even the best-integrated music cards usually lose in a clash with dedicated designs (both internal and external). Even USB music cards for 25 bucks can do a lot, and one of the absolute most important truths of audio (and not just computer audio) is – your system will only play as well as its weakest component. You can buy great headphones and get almost nothing out of them because you’ll connect them to a flimsy headphone output coming straight out of the motherboard (see: THD distortion). Good headphones can do a lot, but they won’t play the information they don’t get from the sound source. Customers often don’t know this, but manufacturers do. That’s why more and more expensive models of gaming headphones have DACs integrated into the cable, ear cups, or as an additional USB card. This is done primarily to avoid compromising a given headset in the eyes of a disappointed customer, who unknowingly gave a negative opinion not really of the headset but of their entire equipment.
It is advisable (including in games, if they only allow it) to choose a playback mode adapted to our audio system. For example, if we have stereo 2.0 speakers, we choose Stereo/Speakers/2.0, etc. If we think, for example, that the 5.1 mode sounds better on our headphones than the dedicated headphone/stereo mode, it’s usually the fault of poor audio implementation. The multichannel mode may improve the clarity of the sound, but it will disturb the stereo and, therefore, the positioning of the sounds.
Popular software upsampling (e.g., from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz) in marketing materials brings virtually no improvement in sound; it can, at most, gently “smooth” it. The system only “thickens” the signal here, adding sequences of zeros to the original material. However, such an operation does not result in more information. In addition, DACs work by far best at their native “resolution,” and this is usually only 44.1/48. This is true even for many advanced high-end chips. Also, setting a higher frequency in the Windows “Sound” panel is of little use.
To get better quality sound, we need higher resolution files. So-called high-res files “count” from 88.2 to even 192 kHz with sometimes raised bit depth (24 or even 32). Most often, they are stored in lossless and compressed FLAC-type files, but then they are large in size (even hundreds of megabytes for longer songs). DSD/DXD type files, where the frequency is already specified in megahertz, are a separate topic.
Headphones or speakers?
We mention three basic types of headphones as far as chamber design is concerned: open, semi-open, and closed. Different chamber designs result in fundamental differences in both sound and comfort. Open headphones generate sound with more space and stage, but they pay for this with the penetration of environmental noises into the user’s ears. Also, those around us will be aware of what we are currently listening to. Better comfort and privacy will provide closed headphones, but they do so at the expense of listening quality. As a result, intermediate semi-open designs are currently rare.
There are three types of headphone drivers:
- Dynamic – the most popular, usually driven without the help of a dedicated headphone amplifier, but limited due to their convex shape;
- Orthodynamic – rarer and more difficult to drive (amplifier highly recommended), but better sounding due to the flat transducer design;
- Electrostatic – elite and very expensive headphone systems with a unique voltage-driven method.
However, there is one serious note about listening to stereo sound on headphones – although the better ones as much as possible can evoke stereophony on a perceptibly wide stage, the sound is usually somewhat distorted in terms of placement. This is because almost all music recordings and game soundtracks are recorded with speaker systems in mind, which are intended to play in front of our person. When playing such a signal on headphones, we unnaturally twist the azimuths of both channels to the center of our head, losing some of the properties of the original sound. But even for professional (e-sports) purposes, they provide sufficient precision.
A separate way of realizing sound has been developed for headphones – it is called binaural sound. It involves recording material using a specially crafted artificial head with microphones placed on the sides. Although the effect of such recordings can be spectacular (something like VR goggles, only for the ears), this method is extremely rare. There is only one popular game that makes high use of the benefits of this solution – this is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice from 2017. Wearing the headphones “in reverse” will not result in a loss of stereophony, only that we will witness events as if we were standing with our backs turned to them. Or rather, that’s not what we want.
There is no such thing as 5.1 or 7.1 multichannel headphones (AKG K240/250 were quadraphonic headphones) – even if there were 10 drivers in each of the two chambers of the headphones, they would still meet the parameters of a stereo 2.0 system! Manufacturers nowadays often use music cards attached to a gaming headset, which can, at the level of digital processing (DSP), boost selected components of the sound or artificially produced a sound similar to multichannel. However, this is almost always at the expense of creating significant distortion and disruption of stereophony. The slogan about multichannel headphones themselves, on the other hand, is an example of typical marketing gibberish or lack of understanding of the basics of sound reproduction engineering.
Swapping channels/speakers in place will result in an almost complete loss of stereophony and a 180-degree reversal of the stage from the intended layout. Passive speakers are connected to the amplifier via a cable with two connectors labeled + and -. Their accidental interchange will cause the speakers to play in what is called counter-phase, that is, legitimately, but to the inside of the speaker. It is better not to try it, although there is no danger of failure of the column.
Only those at the center of the stereophony can fully feel it. That’s why in cinema halls surround sound can be played even by more than 50 speakers, in order to provide the right experience to the largest possible part of the audience. Although choosing seats in the center of the auditorium is highly recommended anyway. At the same time, the claim that the best sound is heard in the last row is not true.
Speakers should be positioned symmetrically and form an isosceles triangle with the listener in the overhead projection. It is also worth experimenting with the angle of the speakers – some play better perpendicular to the user, while others should be “tightened” towards him.
The designations 2.0; 2.1; 5.1 or 7.1 do not indicate the actuality of a given system (you can find such opinions on the web), but its configuration. The first digit indicates the number of stereo speakers (+ one center speaker in surround systems), while the second indicates the minimum number of subwoofers needed, responsible for bass reproduction. Unlike stereo speakers, a subwoofer can stand anywhere in the listening room, even on the ceiling. Bass waves are directionless, so the source of their origin is irrelevant.
Sound in games
Systems with neutral, linear sound work best in games. This means that the sound of such a set should not favor any of the components: bass, midrange, or treble. Although this type of sound may seem rather dull and flat (usually used by sound engineers in recording studios), on the other hand, it is characterized by the best stage, space, and placement of apparent sources. Especially in games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Rainbow Six Siege, this can bring tangible benefits.
Many esports players actually use their own on-ear or in-ear headphones during the match and then put on their heads unplugged headphones of the company sponsoring the team. In this way, the terms of the sponsorship contract are fulfilled, and the player can use any of the headphones of his choice (provided, of course, that they are small enough).
When deciding on a particular headset, we should be guided first and foremost by the comfort that the product is able to provide us with. Even the best sound will not compensate us for the feeling of heaviness, pressure, or heat during prolonged sessions. However, in the flood of products dedicated to gamers, there is no problem finding decent-sounding headphones that provide a high level of comfort in any price range.
The choice of different models of headphones on the market is downright frightening. It is easy to get lost in manufacturers’ offers, but on the other hand – every gamer should find something for themselves.
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