There seems to be a lot of misinformation going around about headphone surround sound and how the Xbox One is going to utilize any of these technologies. We’re going to attempt to clarify this information, but keep in mind that we may make some generalizations. This is to be used as a guide to help you understand the terminology, not as the be-all-end-all on the subject. There’s never a true consensus on anything audio related.
First off, there’s two kinds of popular headphones themselves. Standard “Stereo Headphones” and “True Surround Headphones”. Some of the more popular stereo headsets in the gaming world are the Steelseries Siveria V2 ($99), Astro A40 ($249), Turtle Beach Earforce XP500 ($199), and Polk Audio Melee ($160). True surround headphones, which have multiple drivers inside each earpiece, include the Tritton AX Pro and Razer Tiamat ($159).
Stereo Headphones usually utilize two drivers (one for each side) for sound reproduction, are the most common, and have been made for years. These headphones are capable of “Virtual Surround Sound” due to Digital Signal Processing (DSP), which could be from Dolby Labs (Dolby Headphone), SRS/DTS CS Headphone, orYamaha Silent Cinema to name a few.
True Surround Headphones take the 5.1 sound from a Dolby Digital (or DTS) track and send it to the applicable speakers in each ear. It still needs a DSP unit to convert the sound for use with the headphones. It just processes it differently.
There are many misconceptions out there, and some of them are due to how the headphone makers must market their products. For instance, the Turtle Beach XP500 is listed as a “Dolby Digital 7.1” headphone. Yet, it’s only a Stereo Headphone design. People mistakenly think that since it’s a DD 7.1 set, it has multiple drivers. It doesn’t. The reason they can market this headset as such is because the DSP processor that drives it takes the Dolby Digital output from your Xbox/PS3/Blu-ray and converts it into “Virtual Surround Sound”. This goes for other similar headsets. If the headphones come with a DSP unit that can convert the Dolby Digital sound from an optical or HDMI source for use in their headphones, they can be labeled as a Dobly Digital 5.1/7.1 set regardless of whether the headphones are “Stereo” or “True Surround” types.
So, what does this mean? Well, you can’t judge a set of headphones just by whether it’s listed as a Dolby Digital set or not. Why? Because any headphone can be used with a DSP unit for surround sound (and Dolby Digital if applicable). And moreover, if you are buying a set of headphones that do not come with a DSP unit, they will never be listed as Dolby Digital (or the like). You never see Dolby Digital listed on home speakers for the same reason: It’s a type of sound processing, which has nothing to do with the speakers. If you’re still not convinced that stereo headphones can provide an authentic “virtual surround sound” grab a pair and listen to this YouTube video.
What Kind of Headset is Better?
That depends on you. The general consensus is that, surprisingly, a good set of standard stereo headphones that use a good DSP unit will sound superior to a true surround headset. There’s a few reasons for this:
- Stereo Headsets usually have larger drivers in them that create more impact.
- There’s been research into Virtual Surround Sound for many years now, and it’s gotten very, very good.
For me personally, I can attest to the accuracy of good surround virtualization even going back to gaming sessions many years ago. When I was a PC gamer, with my Beyerdynamic DT-770s’ (and an expensive headphone amp), I was accused of cheating countless times for having a wall hack in Counter-Strike, because I could pinpoint where people were to an uncanny degree. The better the headphone is at conveying an accurate soundstage, the more accurately you will be able to pinpoint where sounds are coming from. Now, with audio, it always comes down to personal taste. If you have listened to both types of headphones, and prefer the true surround sound type headset, then go for it and never look back. There is no right or wrong answer here.
How Does This All Tie in With the Xbox One
Right now, we know that any headset that meets the CTIA criteria for a 4-pole 3.5mm plug will work with the Xbox One Stereo Headset Adapter. In other words: any headset that you can plug into a phone and answer calls with will work on the new Xbox One adapter. Just plug it in and go. If you have a PC Gaming headset that has separate mic and audio jacks, you can purchase a cheap converter to allow them to be used as well.
But, Will They Have Surround Sound?
Apparently not at launch. Albert Penello from Microsoft has stated on Reddit that it will only be stereo output for now, but could be updated in the future. But I have heard from multiple sources that Microsoft will be adding an audio update that will allow for virtual surround via headphones at some point. If this is true, then any stereo headset would have virtual surround sound when plugged into the adapter puck. There has also been a considerable amount of discussion on the Polk Audio forums about their upcoming 4 Shot headset for the Xbox One. Below is an excerpt from the above thread:
NOTE: The below has been clarified by Polk to possibly be available in the future, but not active now.
Polk Engineer: “The audio signal received by the Xbox One controller is two channel only. ANY headset that plugs into the controller will have access to only L and R audio signals. The Xbox One simulates surround (surround to stereo processing) internally before being sending audio to the controller wirelessly. This will change once a multichannel wireless signal is available directly from the console, but Microsoft has not announced when or exactly how that will happen.”
Notice what I put in BOLD above. This is the same thing your EARFORCE DSS and Astro Mixamp do before sending the signal to your headphones. Thus, it does not matter whether Dolby Digital is employed; as long as they have a DSP algorithm that works well (and since they were working with Polk, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) then we should get great Virtual Surround via the controller plug-in as long as it gets updated to incorporate it. Considering some of the engineers at Polk Audio seemed to think this was going to be available at launch, I would bet we’ll see an update sooner rather than later.
Optical Out and existing DSP processors
The Xbox One update that was just released enabled Dolby Digital output for the unit. This means that any headset solution that utilizes this method for sound input (Astro A40, Earfoce DSS, etc…) will soon have virtual surround sound capabilities. But note that a cable will still have to be connected to the controller for voice-chat capability with any solution at this time.
Completely Wireless Solutions
Since Microsoft decided to forgo Bluetooth for WiFi-Direct, there are currently no “complete wireless” solutions available. And when I say complete wireless, I mean no wire to the controller for chat, either. But, if you read the excerpt from the Polk Audio boards above it appears that we may get an option sometime in the future. If I was guessing, it will be a ways off, though. It will take a while for Microsoft to release the protocols to vendors, who will then need to engineer new solutions for said method.
That’s a Wrap
I hope this guide has been helpful for you to understand some of the language used when considering headphone options for gaming, and how they can be used for surround sound. There are many options out there, with many good choices available for you, if you wish to have great audio without waking up your neighbors! My last bit of advice would be to make your purchase at a reputable retailer, so that you can always return if you don’t like the sound of it. Audio products are always subject to personal tastes!
— Thanks to Ken Sheppa for submitting this guest post! –editor