Diablo III is Perfect for Testing Audio Gear
Blizzard’s chaotic soundscape will push your speakers or headphones to their limit
I’ve reviewed dozens of headphones and gaming headsets over the last five years, and the key to a balanced approach is to use audio material I know inside and out. In addition to a handful of music tracks I’ve heard too many times and some work I’m hyper-intimate with because I created it in my production career, I also test several video games.
Video games are more challenging to mix than music and movies because they’re a superset of both disciplines. They contain both the linear sound mixes of those mediums for things like cutscenes and the soundtrack, and dynamic elements that have to play in real-time and move around based on player or camera position. Game mixes are often extreme stress tests of audio gear as a result, and can quickly highlight the flaws or delights in your current setup.
About a year ago, I published a list of five games that sound better with headphones. Their soundscapes are clean and thoughtful, and immediately enhanced by the intense detail-retrieval and closer listening environment of headphones. Most folks will enjoy the way those games sound regardless of the quality of their playback experience.
Diablo III is not one of those games. It’s an aggressive monster that needs nuance to be tamed. I listen to it with every single audio product I review. Its sound design is a huge pile of controlled chaos. As the game ramps up in complexity, it fills the screen with monsters, spell effects, and exploding physics objects, and every single one has its own layered sound. Every part of the frequency spectrum is used at almost every moment in the game, with an onslaught of bass, midrange, and treble that can either sound textured or messy.
Sound in Diablo III is also highly directional whether you’re using stereo, virtual surround, or a full surround sound speaker setup. Everything from character footsteps to weapon effects is panned aggressively around the entire sound field, and ambience and music fill the rear channels to create the sense that the world extends beyond the edges of your screen.
On decent gear, the game sings, and the rolling chaos onscreen becomes manageable and exciting. You can pick out every monster, every loot drop, and every dangerous attack you have to avoid, just by listening to it. The feedback sounds are perfectly layered to give you immediate information about the state of your character. It’s an easier game the more of its auditory information you can parse, and hearing all of this detail is a must on the highest difficulties.
With something more basic like built-in TV speakers, the game’s audio becomes a cacophonous nightmare. The bass looses its texture. The screams, spells, and sword clangs roll over each other and turn into a mess. The spatial detail goes away. All the useful feedback gets lost in a jumbled mushy stack that amplifies the chaos of the on-screen action instead of providing a better play experience.
The hub for the third and forth act of the game, Bastion’s Keep, has some of the coolest spatial audio I’ve heard in any game. It’s an old fortress under siege by demons. In the distance you can hear a huge battle, and up close is a mix of haunting music, scattered refugees, and this wooden creaking sound of the timbers of the fortress groaning in the wind. It sounds like an old rotting pirate ship or something. On excellent gear, these loud cracking noises frighten me to the point of jumping almost every time. They’re realistic and placed in the field in such a way that it sounds like a tree is about to crash into my house.
I’ve played hundreds of hours of Diablo III over the years, and at a bare minimum I’ve become that snob who must play it with decent headphones. The Nintendo Switch port turned out great, but playing it through the tinny speakers on a Switch or Switch Lite is a dramatically inferior experience.
When I get a new headphone or headset, in addition to my usual music tests, I always run through at least an hour or two of Diablo III. Within that time, I can tell if any areas of the spectrum are over or under-emphasized, and I can get a great sense of how well the imaging and separation work. I also turn on virtual surround if it’s a gaming headset to see how well the game’s directional cues work. If the headset makes Diablo III sound great, I keep playing. If not, I move on to other tests.
So, if you’re reading one of my reviews and it says that the product is great for gaming, that means it makes sense of the potential nightmare that is Diablo III’s sound design. It’s one of the few things I’ve ever tested that leans hard towards sounding great or awful so obviously. If you’ve played the game before and you thought it sounded muddled and confusing, give it a try on headphones.