Microsoft’s Spatial Audio Finally Works How I Want It To

It only took five years of pointless tweaking

Alex Rowe


Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

During its beta period back in 2017, I loved the Microsoft Spatial Audio system (formerly known as Windows Spatial Audio). This a virtual surround sound system built into Xbox One and Series consoles and the Windows platform. It takes game audio sources ranging from 5.1 and 7.1 tracks all the way up to modern 3D mixes, and places them in a realistic virtual sphere around you when played back over headphones.

Microsoft’s system has three different output tech choices for users. The default is Windows Sonic, and it’s free. Dolby and DTS released Dolby Atmos and DTS Headphone X on top of this framework, and both cost about fifteen dollars after a free trial. All three do the same underlying thing: provide convincing modern 3D audio over headphones. These aren’t the iffy virtual surround algorithms of ten years ago. They’re based on the latest measurements and science about human hearing, and they’re very convincing.

At launch, this system worked flawlessly with every game, delivering powerful surround sound for classic and modern Xbox titles and most games on PC that had surround output tracks. I wrote glowing reviews of the system, and moved on with my life. Unfortunately, behind the scenes, Microsoft kept playing around with it. Once the system launched out of beta, I noticed a downgrade in the presence of the virtual “room,” and that several titles now no longer worked quite right.

For years now, Xbox games have sometimes been confused when you have the Spatial Audio system turned on. Not every Xbox game has a full 3D object-based sound mix. Many games instead still use classic 5.1 or 7.1 surround mixes, like those made for movie theatres and home theatre speaker systems. Microsoft Spatial is supposed to work with this older type of mix just fine — but in my personal experience it often wouldn’t.

Instead, my Xbox would just spit out standard stereo audio in all Xbox 360 games and most Xbox One games. When the new consoles came out in 2020, I noticed that all games with a Series X|S build worked correctly in spatial surround, which lead me to speculate that the issue was perhaps about processing power or compatibility. Maybe older Xbox One games were…