Surround Sound Headphones Buyers Guide
What Are Surround Sound Headphones?
There are many ways to get a surround-sound-like headphone listening experience but it is important to know that there are essentially two prevailing concepts which we deem true and virtual.
With surround sound in a home speaker you pair multiple speakers to each channel of an amplifier or home theater receiver whose processing is run by the device they are connected to (sometimes the amp itself) for a television you will set up your speakers to each channel via the Dolby or DTS settings available to you but the device needs to be capable in order to make use of virtual or digital sound processing technologies.
There are headphones which have their own external decoders to process the multi-channel information and interpret it themselves and there are some headphones which rely on the device to do the work for them as mentioned.
Computers can do this as can some consoles, game-play is far more realistic with surround sound creating a 3-dimensional soundscape.
For many years you simply had to have the speakers in the correct placement to achieve the desired effect and enhance your game. Quite often gaming can be a personal experience and typically the rest of the household don’t want to listen to unrelenting machine-gun fire or the expletives your team-mates may use.
This has brought about a niche in the market for surround sound gaming headphones as well as headphones for private TV viewing that still give the surround sound experience like your speakers manage.
How Do Surround Sound Headphones Actually Work?
This is a tough one to understand without explaining a little more about how sound is heard in the first place.
When listening to your speakers, sound elements arrive at your ears according to their distance, they are also affected by the natural setting, bouncing off other objects, walls, and people including you.
The human ear can detect the direction a sound is coming from though both ears will hear the sound the ear closest will receive the sound-wave first and generally with a louder decibel level which we can hear very clearly. For example, a car goes past us and you hear the sound change pitch as it changes its distance and direction from you, known as the Doppler effect.
All stereo headphones provide a right and left and the center channel is essentially sent to both drivers. Headphones do however struggle with distance because using headphones makes the sound appear to originate within your head because of the close driver proximity. All sounds pretty much arrive at your ears at the same time.
A surround sound headphone, therefore, has to compensate, often the drivers are tuned with very specific sonic signatures.
A stereo set of headphones will typically place the vocals as center channel sounds giving them better definition and highlighting them from other similar frequency instruments. Surround sound sets have to expand the sound field. This can be done virtually giving a good rendition by programming channel cues accurately recreate the “space” beyond you.
One way to access headphone surround sound is through a home theater receiver, AV preamp processor, or mobile device that provides surround sound processing using one of the following formats:
Some headphones have Dolby Headphone processing built-in others also have DTS Headphone:X which tries to provide a horizontal surround environment.
There are a number of other technologies such as Yamaha Cinema and S.Logic but all of these technologies employ algorithms to help create a virtual surround environment.
Driver placement can also help some headphones position them slightly off-center or angled to send the sound to the ears first rather than directly into the drum making the audio reach them more naturally and allowing for a little more distance to be heard.
Some headphones will actually incorporate multiple drivers as demonstrated in the Razer Tiamat 7.1 V2 model with the drivers placed in a surround sound set-up like you would with traditional home speakers, albeit a little more clustered.
This gives a far more notable awareness of direction but only if it is processed really well. If not it can sound a little loud and chaotic like the audio is ever so slightly out of sync and muddy which worsens the clarity and actually impedes listening.
What to Look for in Surround Sound Headphones?
Like with any other over-ear headphone set comfort should be the main focus along with sound quality and of course durability.
The comfort boils down to a well-thought-out design with ergonomics at the heart, over-ear options can create a lot of cranial pressure especially if they are worn over lengthy periods of time.
The headband is therefore very important, it should be robust enough not to break, sufficiently flexible so as not to be hard on your head, and be naturally or mechanically adjusting to cater to different head circumferences.
The cups need to have some sort of thick padding to raise the drivers away for your ears a little and create some space for the sound waves to fill and so as not to pin your ears flat to your head. They should be suitably covered in fabrics which are skin-friendly which allow for better circulation and help prevent sweating which can be unhygienic and damaging to the electronics.
In order to create a surround sound experience, they will need to be able to respond to a broader range of frequencies and be more accurately tuned. Audio quality is dictated by the engineering of the drivers, the quality of the materials used within the components and how well they process the digital signals into sound waves.
The durability can sometimes be subject to the price you are paying obviously many low-budget items are going to need replacing a little quicker than a premium pair but if you have read any of our other headphone buyers guides you should be a real pro by now when it comes to what to look for in terms of durability and construction quality.
The surround sound capabilities of headphones have evolved far past being a gimmick and whilst they are nowhere near a traditional home theater set-up and never will be because of the on-ear nature they serve up some pretty impressive audio with a better spatial awareness to it.
For personal gaming needs, they really come close, making them a great aid in game-play for knowing which direction to head in or steer clear of. They enhance game-play and are of course wonderful for private movies as well.
There are a number of cheaper options creeping on to the market in recent years as the technology trickles down from one product to the next and so investing in a reasonable set might not cost as much as you might think.
If you are looking for really great surround sound processing you can’t go far wrong with S-Logic supported sets from Ultrasone but they will set you back a fair amount of cash.
Did you Know
Ultrasones Slogic special edition sets are truly aesthetically beautiful as well as superior in sound but some of them sell for around the $2000 mark.