Virtual and True Surround Gaming Headsets – Which is better?

When assembling a proper gaming area, no setup is complete without a quality surround sound system. The problem is that quality components are often expensive and can take up a lot of space. Surround sound headsets can be a solid alternative, as they are comparably less taxing to both the wallet and your floorspace.

But in the realm of surround sound headphones for either media viewing or gaming, there is a fundamental divide between two prevailing concepts: ‘true’ surround sound and virtual surround sound.

Because the sound generated from stereo headphones originates near the ears and not from the television set, the audio can have an unusual, detached quality. To many listeners, there is a slight separation between the actions on screen and the sound entering the ear canal. This is one of the fundamental problems that surround sound headphones attempt to remedy. True surround sound headphones feature multiple speakers broadcasting at different angles, while virtual surround sound relies on two speakers that use complex sound processing to simulate the effect of multiple directional channel.
True surround sound headphones follow the same basic philosophy as surround sound speakers; they use several discrete speakers placed in each headphone cup that handle different channels of sound. Early models offered quadrophonic sound (4 channels), but virtually all modern models offer the now familiar 5.1 or 7.1 surround audio. These headphones effectively counter the problem of unnatural, detached sound. With sound entering the ear canal from multiple angles, the audio no longer appears to be originating directly in the head as it does with standard headphones.

Virtual surround sound strives for the same effect through artificial means. With virtual surround, headphones have only two distinct speakers – one for each ear – as most standard headphones do. Instead, these models rely on either internal or external pre-amps or mix-amps to translate normal stereo or surround sound signals into surround sound. These amps rely on algorithms to divide signals into separate, smaller segments. Though the sound enters the ear from one of two speakers, it is altered in such a way that, theoretically at least, it appears to be emanating from many more sources.
Many companies have their own methods and algorithms for achieving virtual surround sound. On a basic level, what these headphones accomplish is to redirect sound emanating from the headphone speaker so that, instead of moving directly into the ear canal, it hits the outer edges of the ear and rolls in over a period of time. Like true surround sound, these sound waves appear to be coming from multiple angles, avoiding the sensation that the sound is being generated directly within the viewer’s head.

Advantages and Disadvantages
Naturally, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of surround sound headsets. In theory, true surround sound headsets will offer a more accurate surround experience given the dedicated drivers for each channel. Gaming headsets like the Tritton AX Pro are a prime example of this, having seperate dedicated speakers in each cup, allowing the sound to come in at different angles and offering precise directional sound. This is especially useful for gamers, particularly in multiplayer games like Halo or Call of Duty where proper sound placement can mean the difference between killing or being killed.

However, true surround sound headphones have their disadvantages too. Because true surround sound headphones utilize multiple drivers and surround sound processing while simultaneously trying to maintain a reasonable cost point for consumers, the build quality can be inferior to virtual surround sound headphones. Furthermore, since the speakers in virtual surround sound headphones are larger, they’re often capable of producing more powerful and dynamic sound.

Virtual surround sound headphones can sometimes have the benefit of cost. As mentioned, it’s usually the mix-amp or preamp that does the heavy lifting, the emphasis on higher-end driver components for higher-fidelity audio is lessened. Similarly, users who already own a decent pair of headphones may be able to save money by purchasing the amp separately and bypassing the cost of new headphones. Products like the Turtle Beach DSS Unit are able to take digital sound signals and convert them using Dolby Headphone technology to simulate 7.1 surround. The quality of a virtual surround setup is also directly dictated to the quality of the of the stereo headset. Whilst this may sound obvious, it is necessary for the headset to have large, high quality sound drivers in order to produce the surround sound effect. Headsets like the SteelSeries Siberia V2 and the Sennheiser PC 360 are prime examples of these types of headsets, with the difference in surround quality increasing exponentially with the quality of the headset.

Ultimately, both forms of surround sound headphone technologies have a hard time living up to the ideal audible fidelity provided by a physical surround sound setup. While multiple drivers in the earcup or advanced processors can replicate the experience of surround sound, they cannot fully recreate the sense of physical distance nor the wide range of tones created by larger speakers. This is gradually being overcome with the introduction of newer and more sophisticated technology, and the most advanced gaming headsets on the market do provide a very realistic reproduction of sound.

But, of course, realistic concessions must be made for the sake of privacy, cost-efficiency, or saving space. Full 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound systems simply are not viable solutions for many situations or certain listeners, and to that end surround sound headphones can prove to be a worthy alternative. And as technology continues to grow and expand, the audible gaps between multi-channel surround sound systems and headphones will continue to shrink.