Audio Dictionary: Headphone Virtual Surround Sound Software, Ranked!

Headphone virtual surround sound can be a love-it-or-hate-it affair. The basic idea is this: a dedicated piece of hardware or software analyzes a surround audio signal in real-time then tweaks it for headphone playback to add information that helps your brain process positional locations.

Many of these systems slightly tweak the frequency response of the audio. Many of them add some weird echo or reverb to try and simulate the feel of a room. If you’re looking to listen to the purest, most accurate reproduction of the original source audio…virtual surround might not be for you.

Some folks swear by the positional qualities of headphones…but they’re not that natural, compared to speakers. Your brain relies on lots of different tricks to tell where sounds are coming from in the world through your two ears. Speakers take advantage of those natural systems, since they’re located in the world around you. Headphones don’t have that luxury. Headphone sound can only come from two distinct points, located just next to your ears. This leads to an unnatural feeling sometimes, where sound that was mixed for speakers in front of you now sounds artificially super-wide, and takes on positional characteristics it was never meant to have. Virtual surround can often mitigate this…but sometimes it also makes it worse.

Dolby Headphone was the first commercial virtual surround system to gain a lot of traction. I don’t really like it. It has an echo-y, unnatural characteristic, no matter which of its fake room modes you’re using. I enjoyed some Sega CD games presented with QSound virtual surround for headphones back in the nineties. But that system doesn’t really exist any more.

Here now are my favorite modern headphone virtual surround sound systems!

1)DTS Headphone: X

DTS Headphone: X is great! It’s designed to simulate a whole room full of high-quality speakers. It’s not 100 percent convincing at all times, but it’s very good most of the time, and has a more natural “room feeling” than any other virtual surround system I’ve ever used.

The most immediately impressive thing about DTS Headphone: X is something that might also turn off purists the most, and that’s its handling of bass. The virtual subwoofers in this algorithm are amazing! It often feels like a real subwoofer is in the room with you, and you’ll feel it thumping. It’s kind of nuts. Positional audio is also very good, and the echoing/reverb artifacts are less prominent than with other older systems. If you’re looking for something that effectively simulates speakers, DTS Headphone: X is your best bet.

You can get a wide variety of gaming headsets that support DTS Headphone: X. Most of them require a Windows PC to work, though there are a few that support console connections thanks to some dedicated hardware. One or two cell phones have built-in DTS Headphone processing, which is kind of cool and crazy!

2)Razer Surround(FREE!)

The basic, yet still fully-featured version of Razer Surround is totally free for Windows PCs, and it’s very good. If you have Windows machine and want to see what headphone surround is all about, this is the place to start. It doesn’t simulate speakers in the same way that DTS does, but it does a great job of placing sounds in a plane all around your head while still maintaining a reproduction quality close to the source audio.

The $20 pro version adds some other features for calibration, EQ settings, and the like. This is the best value deal in headphone surround, and it works very well. It’s 90 percent as good as DTS, and there’s a free version. What have you got to lose?

Many of Razer’s headsets come with a hardware dongle that will do the Razer Surround processing for you, freeing up the 1 or 2 percent CPU usage of the software version. Those hardware dongles use the paid Pro version of the software. Many of their headsets also come with a code allowing you to get the Pro version for free.

Even if there weren’t a free version and this was always $20, it would still be worth checking out.

3)Creative Labs Surround

This used to be called CMSS (creative multi-speaker surround). I don’t really know what they call it now. But it’s included in a wide variety of Creative Labs sound cards and external DAC/amp combos. It works similarly to Razer Surround. It doesn’t really simulate speakers, but it does a good job of creating a sound field all around your head without actually damaging the audio quality much.

4)Dolby Atmos Surround

Dolby Atmos headphone surround is a big step up from the old Dolby Headphone. It works nearly as well as DTS Headphone: X in some circumstances. The problem? Availability.

Support for Dolby Atmos is extremely limited right now. Several high-end receivers support the decoding of Dolby Atmos tracks on Blu-Ray for output to speakers…but not all of them have the headphone version included.

Fire tablets from Amazon all include Dolby Atmos Headphone playback for video content from Amazon. This is the chief way I’ve experienced the format. They achieve this by delivering a different, specially-encoded audio stream just for Fire tablet users. The only problem? The compression. The audio quality suffers on these tracks. Every single one I’ve listened to has poorer audio quality/artifacts when compared to the standard stereo track. It’s a bummer, because the virtual surround is excellent.

Conclusion

I wish that Dolby Atmos was available on more devices. Heck, I wish all of these were more available. It’d be great to see more virtual surround built into phones, computers, and headphones. It’d be great to see more systems that worked with the major game consoles. Sony does some good 3D surround stuff on the PS4…but they limit output to their headsets exclusively. I get that they want to have a reason for you to buy their headsets, but still…it’s kind of a bummer.

Headphone Virtual Surround has never quite exploded in the way that some probably expected it to. It remains a somewhat-niche technology that requires special hardware in order to use. The processing requirements aren’t that extreme these days, so it seems like something that could be built right into DACs. Every time a new audio advancement happens, people speculate that surround sound might now be built-in for headphones…and then it doesn’t happen. This speculation occurred back when digital sound output options became the standard for PCs and consoles, and then more recently when Apple cut the headphone jack from the iPhone.

I understand that virtual surround isn’t going to be for everyone, but it is a fun way to listen to movies and games when you just don’t have the room or budget for speakers. If you own a PC, I urge you to check out Razer Surround, just for kicks!

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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