Soundscapes – Guide to speakers and headphones

What kind of a sound setup do you have when playing games? No matter what you have there are some easy tweaks which could make everything sound significantly better. If you’re so inclined there are then some more elaborate things you could try in order to really get the most out of your speakers. If you’re looking to buy new speakers or headphones you might not have a clue where to start. The purpose of this guide is to help you decide which speakers to get and what to do in order to then get the most out of your purchase. Every room and every situation is different so you might not be able to do much in some cases to improve the audio, but even the most basic tweaks can do a lot.

Which speakers or headphones should I get?

 

This is a question I see asked often and the answer will depend on what your needs are and how much you’re ready to spend. To make things easier I will make it clear just what your options are and the pros and cons of each.

Speakers

 

Computer speakers are generally smaller 2.1 systems which consist of two really small speakers and a subwoofer for bass. You often get a good amount of boom out of the sub, but I wouldn’t recommend a system like this if you primarily listen to music and only do a bit of gaming. If you do a lot of music listening I’d instead look at so called monitor speakers which are intended for music production. These are often 2.0 systems which means it’s two speakers and no sub. You don’t get the boom of a 2.1 system, but instead you get much higher quality midrange and treble which often more than makes up for the loss of bass quantity.

Example of 2.1 speakers from Creative Labs and monitor speakers from M-Audio

Consoles are usually placed in living rooms and are commonly used with surround speakers although there is nothing stopping you from using any kind of surround sound with your PC as well. Surround speakers are often sold as cheap “home theater in a box” types of deals where you get everything you need in a neat little package often even including a dvd or blu ray player as they are intended for movie use. If you can’t place the speakers in the living room according to the guide below I would highly recommend spending the money on a stereo system instead. If you spend the same amount of money on stereo you will always get higher fidelity sound in return as you’re not paying for 3 or 4 extra speakers and the licensing costs to decode Dolby Digital and DTS that the surround receiver has to support. I wouldn’t recommend monitor speakers for living rooms as they are designed for “near field” listening which means they don’t sound as intended if you’re too far away. Instead I’d recommend getting a simple stereo system with amplifier and two speakers and making sure you can place them properly, preferably on stands.

If you do have the space to place all the speakers in a 5.1 system where they should then go ahead and give them a look. The more you spend the better sound you will get, and you can easily spend anywhere from 100$ all the way to 50.000$ if you want. I’d recommend listening before buying because only you can truly make the call if what you’re buying sounds good enough or if you’d like to spend more.

Headphones

 

There are many different types of headphones and you should pick the type based on where you will use them. First off there are open and closed designs. Closed headphones block sound coming in and out of the headphones but generally don’t sound as good as open ones and aren’t as comfortable. The difference in sound is similar to if you cup a hand over your mouth. You will notice that your voice sounds different and also that the air from your mouth is trapped inside your hand and becomes moist after a while. This is roughly the kind of environment closed headphones have to work in and it’s why all the highest end headphones are all open designs. Comfort and sound quality is much easier to get right if the headphones are open. Because they let sound in however you can only use open headphones in relatively quiet environments at home for example. If used in noisy environments you have to raise the volume to compensate and run the risk of damaging your hearing and annoying people around you. In ear headphones strike a good balance between isolation and comfort, but their tiny drivers can’t compete with bigger open headphones when it comes to creating a big, immersive sound environment.

Sennheiser 280 Pro and HD 598, examples of closed and open headphones

If you do most of the headphone listening at home then I’d recommend open headphones, but if you want to use the headphones when traveling or commuting I’d recommend closed ones. You could buy both kinds but whether you’ll do that depends on how much you value the headphone listening experience. There is no perfect headphone that works for all situations and what you get should depend on where you use them the most. I’m going to list the different types of headphones available so you can make an easier decision on what is best for you.

For open headphones there are around the ear and on the ear types. Around the ear headphones like the Sennheiser HD 598 pictured above can thanks to their size use larger diaphragms which are placed further from the ear. By placing the diaphragm a bit away from the ear the sound hits the outer ear at a more natural fashion than if the headphone is pushing directly at the ear or if it’s placed inside it. A larger diaphragm also makes it possible for the headphone to more easily play deeper bass and higher frequencies in a more natural fashion as it isn’t pushed as hard as a smaller diaphragm. With both speakers and headphones bigger is usually better, but it’s possible to get around size limitations with clever designs so there are many exceptions to this rule. Clever designs cost money though so in terms of getting the most sound for the buck the bigger headphones generally deliver more than smaller ones.

On the ear headphones are lighter and smaller which makes them much more portable than around the ear designs. Almost all open on ear headphones I’ve heard are good so it’s a design I like. If you want a headphone that works reasonably well at home and on the go then on the ear open headphones should work. It depends on how noisy your commute is and what you listen to. Around the ear open headphones seldom work on the go as they often come with long cables and are awkward to store in bags due to their size. However if you’re only going to be using the headphones as home and want the best possible sound and wearing comfort I’d recommend the around the ear type.

The Sennheiser PX 100-ii and the Koss Porta Pro, two successful on the ear open headphones

Closed headphones come in around ear, on the ear and in-ear designs. Since closed headphones have the diaphragms playing in a closed resonant space they all tend to have more and deeper bass than open headphones. This is especially true for around the ear and in-ear headphones as they create an isolated space around your ear for a convincing subwoofer like effect thanks to the resonances. Around the ear closed headphones have good isolation and fairly good comfort. They are easier to take on and off your head than in-ear headphones so they are a popular type for headset designs. Inevitably though your ear will become hot and moist after an hour or so and especially in warmer climates I wouldn’t recommend this type.

On the ear closed headphones is one of the worst types of headphones around. In order to isolate sound from the outside and to create the intended resonant space for deep bass they have to be placed very carefully on the ears to create the intended seal. One advantage is that the closed on ear type is highly portable and can often be folded into a compact size. But because they are small and light the amount of isolation is often poor and the sound quality and wearing comfort is worse than similarly priced open on ear designs. If you want portable closed headphones I would highly recommend in-ear headphones instead.

Monster Beats Solo and Sennheiser PX 200-ii, both sound worse than the ones above

With in-ear headphones you get isolation which is better than any other type of closed designs and wearing comfort is generally better as the ear isn’t heated up. If you get a proper seal the bass is deep and the sound tends to be reasonably well balanced. Compared to around the ear headphones the bass isn’t as big and won’t have the same impact, but I think the pros outweigh the cons. Because of the tiny drivers it’s harder to make good in-ear headphones than it is to make bigger ones so you don’t get the same quality of sound for the money, but for most users it will sound “good enough” and the tremendous isolation makes the sound audible no matter where you use them.

In conclusion I’d recommend in-ear headphones over around the ear or on ear closed headphones for most users thanks to their portability and better wearing comfort. If you want better sound quality I’d recommend on the ear open headphones as a good all round solution and for the ultimate in wearing comfort and sound quality you can’t beat open around the ear headphones. The other types still have their uses, but this is what I’d recommend for most people.

Setting up your speakers

Stereo

 

The most important thing for stereo sound is making sure the speakers are far enough apart from each other. A good place to start is trying to get them placed at a 30 degree angle from the listening position. To do this you place the speakers at the same distance from each others as their distance from you. So if you sit 1 meter away from the speakers, they should be 1 meter apart. Measurements are usually done from the tweeters to your ears. If you can’t get a 30 degree angle then place them further apart rather than closer to each other if you can. However you place them there should be a clearly defined phantom center speaker between the left and right speakers if you play a mono recording. If the speakers are too far apart this center image will become vague and diffuse and if the speakers are too close to each other everything will sound like mono and the strengths of stereo are defeated. When stereo works optimally it creates the illusion of sound called a “soundstage” which most speakers should be capable of producing. Everything you see the monitor and their sounds should be connected in such a way that you forget about the speakers and the sound appears to be coming from the image itself. The phantom speaker illusion will make dialogue sound just like it’s coming from the faces on screen and with the speakers placed wide enough music will sound bigger than the speakers themselves. How well all these sound illusions work will depend on the quality of the speakers, but even the best speakers will sound bad if not placed properly. Achieving the optimal stereo illusion is highly dependent on where you sit you can only really achieve it for one person.

After the speakers are at a wide enough position the next important aspect is height. Sound from speakers is directional and the highest frequencies are more directional than midrange and bass. This means you need to make sure the tweeters are at the same height as your ears. Your ears are at roughly the same height as your eyes which helps in getting a quick estimate of whether the speakers are placed at the right height or not. Eyes can be deceiving though so if you want to be absolutely sure just measure from the floor when you’re sitting how far up your ears are and then do the same at your speakers. If you can’t get the speakers at the correct height you need to angle them up or down towards you. In order to angle speakers up or down you can start by using folded paper which you then shove under the speakers to force them to tilt up or down. This might not be an ideal permanent solution for some, but it’s a good way to test what angle you need and what the difference will be. You can tilt speakers quite a bit without making them unstable in most situations.

The last tweak is angling the speakers toward you. What works best will depend on how your speakers propagate sound, but a steep angle helps if the speakers are really far apart as it can help maintain the phantom center speaker effect. If the speakers are closer to each other than optimal then having them simply play straight out into the room can help make music sound bigger and enhance the stereo effect.

Surround

5.1

 

Given how cheap surround sound systems can be these days I’ve found that almost everyone has surround at their TV for movie watching and console gaming. Whether you are using surround with a PC or console there are well established standards that have been carried over from movies on where speakers should be placed for the best surround experience. The front speakers should be placed as in the stereo guide.

The center speaker should always be where the picture is. In theaters the speaker is behind the screen, but given that most people don’t use projectors when playing games you will probably have to place the center speaker above or below the screen. Don’t place it to the sides of the TV! The center speaker will always play sounds coming from the center of the image which would be dialogue, guns, footsteps etc. If you place the center speaker off to the side you completely ruin the intended effect and might as well disable the center speaker and have the front stereo speakers handle the center channel work instead. If you can’t place the speaker anywhere near the intended placement then don’t bother with 5.1 as it will most likely end up sounding worse than stereo.

The rear speakers should be placed to the sides of the listener at a 90-110 degree angle. I would highly recommend placing them closer to 110 degrees than 90 as it has always worked best for me in games. This means they are to the sides of the listening position and a bit behind. You should never place them too far to the rear as that makes the way surround sound is mixed not work. With a placement of around 110 degrees you will get a seamless transition between the speakers, so if you stand still near a fire in a game and turn around the sound will pan from your sides, to behind and to the front very naturally. The only real “gap” in the sound will be between the surround and front speakers with 5.1 in a test like that. If you instead place the speakers to far behind you the sound will come from behind, but the illusion of the sound coming from beside you will be lost.

Placing a subwoofer can be tricky since you usually want it to be out of sight. If you place it in the corner of a room the volume will be amplified by the walls, but you run the risk of it sounding overly boomy. If you place it along the front wall but perhaps half a meter or so away from the corner you will most likely get a good balance between bass quality and quantity. Many tend to have too much bass coming from their subs. Unless the scene demands it the bass should be balanced and natural otherwise it becomes tiresome to listen to. Turning down the volume on the subwoofer can make everything sound better as it won’t have to work as hard and it won’t overwhelm the rest of the sound.

Tweaking the volume of all the channels is critical for surround. If the surround speakers are too loud it might be hard to hear the front channels. If the center speaker is too soft dialogue can be hard to hear etc. Most surround systems have a mode to play test noise out of all the speakers. Use this to balance the volume of all the speakers. If you can’t do this then use static sound sources in games such as fires or running water to make the sound equally loud out of all the speakers when you turn around.

7.1

 

At this moment there isn’t much use for 7.1 in games. When games use it the effect is obvious and can create a substantially more immersive experience. The amount of games that do support it is very small as Valve for example don’t support it in any of their titles despite it being selectable in many of them. The extra speakers remain silent if you select 7.1 in Left 4 Dead or Half-Life 2 for example.

If you decide to invest in a 7.1 system anyway the extra two speakers compared to a 5.1 setup are placed behind the listener at roughly the same ratio as the front speakers. So do the same process as when placing the front speakers in an equilateral triangle, except this time you do it behind you. Also in a 7.1 system the side channels should be closer to 90 degrees to your sides instead of the 110 degrees recommended for 5.1 as they help bridge the gap between the front and side channels you experience in a 5.1 system when sound travels from front to back.

Headphones

 

Unlike speakers there isn’t a whole lot you can do with headphones to influence the sound. This is good as you get a consistent sound experience no matter the room you’re in whether it’s a closet or a hangar. Regular speakers are influenced heavily by the room they play in and where they are placed in relation to walls while headphones don’t have the same problem. There are some things you can do though which start mattering especially if you do a lot of headphone listening and get a bit more serious about it.

First off having a dedicated headphone amplifier with a DAC (digital to analogue converter) can help improve the sound of just about any headphone. These come in many forms and can often be used as external sound cards for your laptop or computer via USB. Some also have optical and coaxial inputs so they can be used with consoles.

The Asus Essence One and Nuforce Icon, examples of headphone amp/DAC combo products

For stationary PCs there are a couple of internal sound cards from Asus and Creative Labs that come with headphone amplifiers mounted on the card and these work in a similar way to the external ones except they often have some additional effects that can be used for virtual surround. To give you an idea of what these technologies can sound like the clip below is recorded with Dolby Headphone enabled which is what Asus sound cards use. Obviously you have to be wearing headphones while listening to the clip to experience the effect.

Effects like those can be used in all games and are a big deal for some as you can get a surround experience even if you don’t have the room for it. Headphones that are marketed as “surround” headphones or headsets often use either Dolby Headphone or a similar solution to simulate surround. These headphones are often made by companies that don’t have any history in making high fidelity products so I would recommend getting normal stereo headphones instead of surround ones as the surround headsets don’t usually sound good with music. Audition them first if possible if you really want to get a headset like anyway.

Conclusion

 

No matter where or how you play games I think it’s worth spending a bit of effort optimizing the sound experience in any way you can. Not only will you experience more accurate placement of sounds that help you determine where enemies are coming from, but the more subtle effects of ambient sound and music will also work more effectively to draw you into the game. Your efforts will not only pay off in games but all your music and movies will sound better as well. This should surely be worth the meager time investment required making sure you have everything set up properly.

2 Comments

  1. Dylan

    As someone who sometimes feels like he’s the last person with an dedicated sound card, I enormously appreciate this article :)

    The great thing with sound in games is that it’s a lot cheaper than great graphics. You can spend insane amounts of money on each, of course, but spending, say, $100 on a really nice sound card and $130 on a pair of headphones will net most people sound far better than anything they’ve ever heard, and the slow pace of technological progress in those areas (relative to graphics, anyway) means that you can have both components around for a while. A high-end graphics card costs more than those alone, and it will be obsolete in a few years.

    • Peter Hasselström

      Yes, especially an external DAC could be used with your next 2-5 computers and possibly survive decades and never grow old while every other component in the machine will get outdated and need replacement to keep up with the latest games. Headphones are the cheapest way to get really high fidelity sound and something like the Sennheiser HD 598 would probably blow most peoples minds as they would never have heard anything like them.