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Multi-channel surround sound on headphones [headphone basics]


Multi-channel surround sound on headphones

In this article, we’ll talk about a topic that generates a lot of controversy in the middle of gaming headphones or gamer headphones, whether on PC or consoles, the infamous surround sound, also known as multichannel audio in headphones.

Welcome my dear readers! In this article, we will talk about a topic that generates much controversy among headphones geared for gaming or headphones gamers, whether on PC or consoles, the infamous surround sound, also known as multi-channel audio on headphones.

Before we start talking specifically about multichannel audio in headphones, it’s important to know the types of sounds, how they surround audio works, and how it’s processed.

Basically, we have 3 types of sound: monaural, stereo, and surround.

Monaural Sound

Monaural sound is produced through a single channel and reproduced through a single speaker. Also known as monophonic sound (monophonic sound), monaural sound from the 1950s onwards was replaced by stereo sound.

Stereo Sound (Stereo Sound)

Stereo or stereophonic sound (stereophonic sound) is produced through two audio channels and reproduced through a pair of speakers. This type of sound is able to reproduce a sense of directionality in that different sounds can be heard from two directions. Currently, this type of sound is the most used in the market for its great reproduction capacity with quality.

Surround Sound or Multichannel Audio

Multi-channel surround sound on headphones [headphone basics] - Klipsch multichannel box system with Dolby Atmos
Multi-channel surround sound on headphones [headphone basics] – Klipsch multichannel box system with Dolby Atmos

Surround sound, also known as multichannel audio, is a type of sound that was created with the goal of making the sound appear to “enclose the listener” in 360 degrees. The intention of this type of technology is that the person has the impression that the generated sounds are coming from all possible directions.

Multichannel audio was created in an attempt to reproduce an experience that is more realistic and immersive for the listener. Aside from the technical aspects, this type of audio works through several audio channels that are reproduced through speakers positioned in strategic places in the room. This is created from the source (audio file) which are then decoded by different technologies such as Dolby.

Surround sound can be created if there are at least four channels of audio, for example up to seven channels. It is usually described by two digits separated by a decimal point (4.1,5.1,6.1,7.1, etc) to know how many speakers make up the system. The first digit tells the number of primary channels, called satellite units, while the second digit (decimal place) signals the presence of the LFE (Low-Frequency Effect), which is reproduced by a subwoofer.

The subwoofer is called the point-one channel and is responsible for reproducing bass frequencies below 100Hz and has the function to generate sounds, for example, from special effects in movies and bass in music.

5.1 channel sound systems

Multi-channel surround sound on headphones - channel sound systems
Multi-channel surround sound on headphones – channel sound systems

5.1 channel box system

This channel system is a very common format in the industry for movies and music and is often used in home theater systems.

The system consists of five channels and a subwoofer, with a center speaker placed between the stereo speakers and two speakers located behind the listener. It is a type of sound that can be found in games, movies, music video shows, and some CDs.

The most common decoding formats in this type of system are Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround.

7.1 channel sound systems

Multi-channel surround sound on headphones - channel sound systems
Multi-channel surround sound on headphones – channel sound systems

7.1 channel box system

The 7.1 channel system has a further refinement compared to the 5.1 channel system by adding 2 more speakers located on the side of the listener. It was created to achieve better spatiality, placement, and accuracy of sounds, thus providing a more realistic immersion experience.

What you need to have surround sound or multichannel audio

To be able to reproduce surround sound, you need a receiver that supports a system of at least four channels, a processor for video (graphics processor), and audio ( DAC ) with a multichannel amplifier (AV preamp/processor) and high -speakers.

However, the number and type of speakers, as well as their placement and distance, are only part of the equation. In order to get this kind of sound, you will also need to have audio content compatible with what the receiver supports to be able to process and playback.

Surround sound decoding

One of the ways to hear surround sound is through the encoding/decoding process. For this method to be possible, it is necessary for the sound to be mixed, encoded, and placed in a Disc or stream audio file by the content producer (movie or game studio or music show producer).

The disc player or streamer sends the encoded signal via an optical/coaxial or HDMI connection to a receiver which in turn processes and distributes the analog electrical signal to the speakers.

Examples of multichannel audio formats: Dolby Digital, EX, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, DTS Digital Surround, DTS 92/24, DTS-ES, DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS: X, and 3D Auro audio.

Multi-channel surround sound on headphones - Dolby Digital surround audio format
Multi-channel surround sound on headphones – Dolby Digital surround audio format

Surround Sound Processing

Another way to access surround sound is through its processing. This method does not require any decoding process, instead, the receiver reads the audio signal and then the audio processor tries to fit the sound into the channels it “feels” most suitable for reproducing the audio portion.

Examples of multi-channel audio processing formats common in many receivers: Dolby Pro-Logic (4 channels), Pro-Logic II (5 channels), IIx (can transform 2-channel audio 7-channel or convert 5.1 audio to 7.1) and Dolby Surround Upmixer (can convert 2, 5, or 7 channels to Dolby Atmos).

In DTS, we have DTS Neo: 6 (can convert two or 5 channels to 6 channels), DTS Neo: X (can convert 2, 5, or 7 channels to 11.1 channels), and DTS Neural: X (works in a way similar to the converter for Dolby Atmos).

Even THX offers surround sound processing methods that are designed to enhance the home theater listening experience for movies, games, and music.

Virtual surround or virtual multichannel

In order to be able to decode and process the surround audio, mentioned above, by soundbars or pair of speakers or headphones, something different needs to be developed.

Virtual multichannel audio is unfortunately not really surround sound, but the use of various technologies that employ phase shift, sound delay, sound reflection (reverb) among other techniques, to fool the ears and make the person think they really are. hearing such a sound.

Virtual surround can be reproduced in two ways: receiving a stereo signal and providing processing similar to multichannel audio, or receiving a multichannel audio signal (5.1 or 7.1, for example) and “mixing” it into two channels (stereo sound ) trying to simulate surround sound with just a pair of speakers.

Surround sound or true multi-channel audio in headphones

It’s been a few years since computer parts manufacturing companies decided to develop or pay third-party companies to create headphones for PC or console gaming. To convince gamers that these “dedicated to gaming” headphones were worth it, the manufacturers needed something to convince them and through research came to the conclusion that what this audience most wanted was a greater immersion in the game and the at the same time a headphone that achieves a better ability to position/direct the sounds.

Taking advantage of the fact that multichannel audio played through home theaters was increasingly common in people’s homes and that it promised exactly what the “gamer audience” wanted, the industry created one of the greatest marketing ploys ever created in history (along with Beats headphones), the multi-channel “gamer headphones” headphones.

The idea of ​​trying to recreate the multi-channel audio played by speakers in a headset sounds great for a layperson. This is exactly the point of view of manufacturers who now charged a very high value because their headphones have such technology, but what really happened is that unfortunately, the promised benefit was not what was actually delivered.

If you, the reader, have carefully read everything that was said and shown above in this article, you will find that the real reproduction of surround audio in a headphone is physically impossible due to space, angulation, and positioning between the speakers. . And consequently, because of that, the result that you get with the technology implemented by the manufacturers in the development of the “gamer headphones” is an expensive headphone with an inferior sound performance.

Compared to stereo headphones, “gamer headphones” end up having, most of the time, when they have “multichannel audio”, a lower performance compared to the same price range. The headphones with two channels are able to provide superior audio quality and at the same time supply what the gamer public so much craves in games, which is spatiality, sound positioning, and better definition.

If the headphones have Bluetooth or Active Noise Cancelling (ANC), the story changes, and more variables are added that deteriorate the sound quality. It is recommended for these cases to use a separate microphone to obtain higher quality in games such as, for example, Antlion Modmic (there is a wired and wireless version).

Example of stereo headphones superior to “gamer headphones”:

  • Audio Technica ATH-AD700X
  • Audio Technica ATH-AD900X
  • Audio Technica ATH-M50X
  • Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro
  • Sennheiser HD559
  • Sennheiser HD569
  • Sennheiser HD58X
  • Sennheiser HD599
  • Sennheiser PC37X (headset)

Surround sound or virtual multichannel audio in headphones

If real multichannel audio in headphones is bad enough, virtual surround sound can be even worse, as it uses several technologies that employ phase shift, sound delay, sound reflection (reverb) among other techniques, to deceive the ears and make the person think they are actually hearing such a sound. In other words, companies deceive you twice, first making you think that multichannel audio is possible in headphones and second that it is possible to simulate, through effects, a surround sound of sufficient quality to achieve a good result for the proposed objective.

How do USB PC headphones work?

Just as cables with USB-C or lightning connectors have a DAC/amp internally, headphones with USB also have it in their cables or in the internal structure of the headphones.

However, in the case of the PC, you can have the benefit of achieving a cleaner sound, without noise, due to better electrical isolation than the onboard sound card of the machine used.

The problem with using headphones that have a USB cable is that they disable your desktop or notebook sound card. If your computer’s sound card is superior in terms of quality to the headphone’s built-in DAC/amp, the user will lose out on sound quality.

In addition, there is the question of software that is intended for use together by the USB headphone manufacturer. This is usually done because of the inability of the drivers and headphone structure to achieve good sound quality. In order to achieve a good result, automatic pre-equalizations are then used by the program developed for the headphone, thus providing an “illusion” that the headphone has an excellent sound (sometimes without tonal balance, with excessive bass for example).


Surround sound or multichannel audio in headphones doesn’t exist, it’s a myth the industry has created to sell headphones at a high price and deliver less than “simple stereo headphones” of the same value. In the end, the headset that was made “with the gamer audience in mind” ends up not being able to efficiently deliver what they promise compared to the “regular headphones”.

Comment below and tell us your experiences with multichannel gamer headphones and/or stereo headphones!

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