As a big audio enthusiast, you are probably aware of surround and 3d sound formats such as 5.1 and Dolby atmos respectively.
These formats were developed to create an immersive cinema experience but slowly found themselves in consumer products such as home theater systems and even headphones.
Numbers such as 5.1 or 7.1 are used to represent the number of audio channels. 5.1 surround comprises of 5 dedicated channels and 1 LFE channel for the bass effects and so on. Learn more about these surround sound channels by visiting this article.
Surround sound headphones are a more compact and cheaper alternative to the costly surround sound speakers that are also be complicated to set up and calibrate. These headphones can be used for watching movies, gaming, and listening to music.
To achieve this immersive experience, headphones mainly use virtualization technologies such as Atmos for headphones or Apple’s spatial audio while others use multiple drivers for the respective channels.
But to better understand surround sound headphones, we should take a deeper dive into the related concepts.
Virtual surround sound headphones
You can get surround sound on any pair of stereo headphones (have 2 drivers) provided you can use one of the several virtual surround sound technologies available today.
Virtual surround sound headphones can mimic a surround sound setup by using concepts of psychoacoustics (how people perceive sound) and Head-Related Transfer Function or HRTF techniques to create a spatial sound experience.
HRTF techniques take advantage of how sound waves hit our ears and how these sound waves interact with the environment and parts of our body from the shoulders to the curves in our ears to give a sense of direction and space.
On a basic level, these techniques use level, time, and other subtle sound differences to give you an idea of where the sound comes from.
From this, sound processing algorithms are created by adding delay, volume adjustments (Levels), and other aural cues to mimic a proper surround sound system.
The reason virtual surround sound works so well on headphones is that they operate in a more controlled environment with little interference such as crosstalk. You are also not limited by your room’s layout or sitting position.
Some headphones also feature gyroscopes, accelerometers, and magnetometers to track head movement for fully immersive 3d sound. Known as head-tracking headphones, these headphones are able to adapt the sound depending on your head’s orientation.
Some popular examples of head-tracking headphones you can buy today include;
- Apple’s Airpods Max
- Pulse 3d headphones by Sony
- Yamaha YH-L700A
- HyperX Cloud Orbit S
- Audeze Mobius headset
Headphone virtual surround sound examples
1. Dolby Atmos surround for headphones
Dolby Atmos is a 3D object-based sound format that can be used with any pair of stereo headphones positioning objects in a 360° space.
More content is now available in Dolby atmos whether you are a gamer, a movie buff, or a music lover. Thus, this is the best way to experience virtual 3d-audio as long as your source supports Dolby Atmos whether it’s a tv, a Dolby Atmos receiver, an Xbox, or your windows PC by using the Dolby access app.
2. Apple’s spatial Audio
Spatial Audio is Apple’s answer to Dolby Atmos for headphones for delivering surround sound and 3d audio including Dolby Atmos on AirPods (Pro & Max).
Combined with the head-tracking technologies in the new Airpods pro and Airpods Max, you will enjoy a fully immersive experience from the comfort of where you are.
However, spatial audio is only supported on paired Apple devices for movies and music.
3. DTS Headphone:X
DTS Headphone:X is another object-based format and a Dolby Atmos for headphones alternative.
This codec can be used with stereo headphones but only with DTS-X content to simulate a 3d audio environment.
To get DTS-X for headphones, you will need to purchase the software which costs $20, or buy a DTS headset that will come bundled with the software.
If interested in learning the differences between DTS-X and Dolby Atmos, visit the linked article.
4. Auro 3D for headphones
Auro 3D is equivalent to Dolby Atmos and DTS-X and also comes with a virtual solution for headphones.
It also works best with Auro 3D content to create the illusion of sound coming all around you even from above but will also work with content that has not been encoded in Auro 3D for a 5.1 or 7.1 surround effect without the extra height element.
5. Windows Sonic for headphones
This is a free solution for use on Windows computers for gaming and watching movies.
Windows sonic will be supported by some games and for content encoded in surround sound formats.
To use Windows Sonic for headphones, right-click on the sound icon on your Windows Taskbar. Select the Spatial Sound option to see the Windows Sonic for Headphones option. Click on that option to turn on Windows Sonic and repeat the same process to turn it off.
6. Super X-FI Headphone Holography
This is a virtual surround sound option brought to you by Creative Labs.
Super X-Fi uses your face and ear profiles to personalize your surround sound experience when you are using your headphones. The photos are taken using an app on your smartphone or tablet.
It can be used as a software solution for stereo headsets but can also come with Creative Lab’s virtual headphones with an onboard DSP (digital signal processor) that processes your audio for an immersive surround sound experience.
7. 360° Reality Audio
This standard is similar to Super X-FI in that it personalizes your experience using your head and ear profiles but only works with Sony headphones.
It is mainly aimed at music listeners but you will need a top-tier subscription on the supported streaming platforms such as Deezer which might be expensive for some.
8. THX Spatial Audio
THX is another software option that creates a virtual surround sound effect on stereo headphones. It also comes with several presets to enhance your experience further depending on what you are watching or the game you are playing.
These are just some of the popular virtual surround sound options but others include;
- Razer 7.1 Surround Sound
- Boom 3D by Global Delight
- Ultrasone S-Logic Headphone surrounds by Ultrasone.
- Dirac VR
- Yamaha Silent Cinema
True 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound headphones
True surround sound headphones use multiple small drivers that are strategically placed and angled to create a surround sound effect.
5.1 surround headphones have a total of 8 drivers, 4 drivers in each headphone cup. These drivers include a center channel driver, a from channel driver, a side surround driver, and a bass driver for each ear.
7.1 surround headphones boast a total of 10 drivers, 5 drivers for each ear. The drivers include all drivers found in a 5.1 headphone cup but with an extra rear surround channel for each ear.
There have to be two center-channel drivers since you cannot have a single center channel driver. The two center-channel drivers are combined to create a full center channel experience that is essential for dialogue and most speech in a movie or a game.
Most True surround headphones also come with a plug-and-play adapter where the decoding and equalization are done for a better and more immersive experience overall.
The downside to these headphones is that they tend to be bulky and expensive.
The Low-Frequency Effect or LFE channel (the .1 channel)
This is something that most people tend to gloss over when talking about surround sound headphones.
The LFE channel is a channel responsible for the bass effects but does not represent the number of bass drivers in a surround headphone.
So, how do surround headphones reproduce the low frequencies yet they do not have subwoofers required to move a lot of air which is crucial for adding depth to audio?
The answer lies in how close the headphones are to our ears, the headphone’s design, and our bone structure.
Since headphones are usually so close to our eardrums and ear bone structure, they do not need to move much air or rumble as much to reproduce bass for depth.
These effects also hit our head bone and ear bone structures to vibrate them. The vibrations are then received by our brains which process the information to produce the same effect that a subwoofer would have on us.
How the surround headphones are designed also affects how we perceive the low-frequency effects. Most surround sound headphones have a sealed design with minimal leakage which when coupled with the proximity of the headphones to the ears create great bass and an immersive surround sound experience.
Surround sound headphones will not sound great if they do not have a great bass response. Depth is essential both in a surround sound system and a stereo system.
What to look for in surround sound headphones
- The most important thing to look for when buying surround headphones is audio quality. Sound quality is very subjective and if you can get a chance to listen to the headphones before buying, that would be ideal.
- Comfort is also essential, especially if you are a gamer or if you plan on binge-watching certain shows and movies using the headphones. This may vary depending on personal preference but you want a set that is light and has great cushions ideal for long use cases.
- Active Noise-canceling (ANC) or noise isolating headphones will come in handy in noisy listening environments.
- Long battery life is important on wireless surround headphones since most of the models need to be charged for use. At least 10 hours of battery life should be great since you may not be using your headset for longer than that due to fatigue.
- Headphones will collapsible ear cups are great since they are easier to store and tend to be more comfortable.
- A Built-in microphone and control module will be great, especially if you love playing interactive PC and console games.
- Durability is also important but depends on how much you are willing to spend. Headphones will metallic and carbon fiber build will last longer but tend to be costlier.
Are surround sound headphones worth it?
Surround sound in headphones can help improve your listening experience if you cannot afford to build a dedicated speaker surround system, if you do not have enough space, or if using your system would be a nuisance to others.
But many would argue that virtual surround headphones are better and will outperform true surround sound headphones which are also costlier. This is a sentiment I agree with since codecs such as Dolby atmos have improved over recent years.
Being immersed in a game or a movie will improve your experience and will also determine if you perceive something as great.