Oh, I also still totally stand behind the whole “Atmos only works in Atmos games and does Stereo in everything else” part of this article, but I’m hopeful it will be fixed someday. If you want to test this for yourself, boot up Middle-Earth: Shadow of War if you’ve got it, and use the Speaker Test in the options. It’ll select number of channels based on your Optical/HDMI configuration, not your headset settings. Also, if you switch Optical or HDMI to a surround mode instead of stereo, Atmos itself will still output that surround data in Stereo instead of virtual surround.
I only just bought that game on clearance and it’s nice to finally see some concrete proof that I’m not insane. At least, when it comes to surround sound stuff. :)
Original, unedited text follows.
Since the start of last year, I’ve had an Xbox One X, a PS4 Slim, a Nintendo Switch, and two gaming PC’s in my house.
I’ve tried in vain to keep up with everything as my backlog grows ever larger.
Something had to change. And I decided that change was ditching the Xbox. Here’s why.
1. Lack of Exclusives
Microsoft essentially got rid of their first-party exclusives in the last 18 months, with the push to release everything on PC and Game Pass on day one. It’s a gamble based on preserving the long-term viability of “Xbox” not as a gaming console but as a larger software platform.
But since I already own a PC that’s a little bit faster than the Xbox One X…it meant my console immediately lost a lot of its luster. Game pass is constantly on sale and also works on PC. And their PC conversions have been really good so far.
Then Crackdown 3 came out and it is…it is a thing. The game that was supposed to launch alongside the X and show us the “Power of the Cloud” is…what some would call a disappointment and what others would charitably call a throwback.
2. Spatial Sound Issues
But it’s also caused me a lot of weird issues, and had a lot of bugs over the last two years. Skipping audio, inexplicable lack of spatial audio when spatial audio is turned on, and game incompatibilities sometimes feel like the rules rather than exceptions.
On PC, those issues have mostly been ironed out in the last few patches, and they recently added a little visual pop-up near the volume control showing if the spatial sound software is engaged. Which I love.
You have so many options for good spatial audio on PC. You could go with Razer’s THX system, you could go with WavesNX, you could choose an external processor, etc. Microsoft needs to be competitive with these other systems, and on PC they’re getting closer. But on Xbox, it’s been a bit of a struggle.
Here’s the root of my frustration.
It seems that Microsoft maintains a virtual audio “whitelist” behind the scenes, so that only game software gets virtualized across different channels. They’re betting(rightly) that most people don’t want to upmix their stereo Spotify tunes into virtual surround.
But until recently, there were multiple places for a PC game to check out how many audio channels you had, and it lead to all sorts of issues where games simply wouldn’t output their surround audio to Atmos/Windows Sonic.
That’s largely been cleaned up in Windows now, and most games correctly output their surround data to my headphones. Thank goodness.
On Xbox…it’s been a different story. At least for me, personally.
The handful of games that have full object-based 3D audio work flawlessly. Boot up Assassin’s Creed Origins, and it’s a sonic delight. Ironically, the PC version of Origins had its Atmos support patched out right after launch and it never came back.
That’s a tale for another time.
Even though the Atmos marketing pages promise to “enhance all your gaming audio,” basically every other game I’ve tried on the Xbox outputs basic stereo with a slight EQ applied.
This wasn’t the case when I first reviewed Atmos. Every single game had a dramatic virtual surround sound field whether it had native Atmos sound or just standard 7.1.
I’ve found only a handful of other folks online having this issue, and it takes exhaustive digging through the bowels of reddit. They’re out there, if you search. And there aren’t many of us even thinking about this. Which might be part of the problem.
Microsoft’s audio team has some very smart people on it, but it often feels like their hands are tied on this issue, and on how fast they can issue updates. They’ve been talking about a more robust sound options menu coming to the platform for a while now, but so far it hasn’t happened.
I don’t know why most games I’ve used Atmos with on Xbox output plain stereo. I’ve thought I was going crazy. I’ve thought it might just be my machine/account…even though I’ve tried multiple Xboxes. I’ve reported my issues to Microsoft directly, but I didn’t get very far with that. I’ve tried different betas. I’ve been in and out of the insider program. I’ve rebooted and reformatted my system a million times. And it’s always like this. If you’ve had more success, please tell me how you did this!
I’ve heard a lot of virtual surround implementations in my life, and I am confident in telling you that as of this writing, in my experience, Atmos/Sonic only fully work on Xbox in the 15-or-so games that are officially listed as having 3D audio support. And also in video apps/blu-rays. Oh, and also in the dashboard where the little clicking and beeping sounds pan around based on screen position.
Everything else just outputs a lightly-enhanced stereo signal.
The differences between non-Atmos and Atmos games are far more dramatic this way, which I guess is a good selling-point for the platform…but there’s no real reason that this should be happening. Atmos is perfectly capable of mimicking other virtual surround systems when given 7.1 data.
Microsoft should open up the whitelist for users to access, and implement a direct toggle that tells games “GIVE ME THE 7.1” instead of handling it behind the scenes in secret. That’s essentially the way that Sony’s audio system works on their Gold and Platinum headsets, and it’s a much less fiddly experience. You just push a switch on your headset and go forth.
Right now, the Dolby Access app can’t even automatically turn on Atmos for Headphones. They still make you open the settings menu and do it yourself. That’s not very console-y.
Also, sometimes Atmos updates screw up sound support on an entire line of hardware products. Because the whitelist extends to your hardware apparently.
Again, I’m not personally mad at the people making this stuff. They’re great, and I fully love what they’re trying to do. But this stuff launched two years ago, and it’s still lacking an options menu and has a lot of jank to it in my personal experience. I have no doubt they’ll get it all fixed since the PC version is a bit ahead, and I have no doubt that they’ll launch the long-teased DTS support soon.
But I’ve never been quite as wowed by the Xbox spatial audio functionality as I was during the initial few months of launch. It seemed like they were really on to something, and now it seems more like they’re pushing developers to adopt 3D audio tools that support their platform exclusively. Which is their prerogative, but maybe not good for the long-term health of the non-Microsoft sides of the industry.
3. Backwards Compatibility is Awesome…But I have newer games too.
I realized, looking at my play history, that most of my Xbox One X playtime that wasn’t Dynasty Warriors 9 was centered around Xbox 360 games.
That’s totally awesome from a technical perspective. The emulator they’ve cooked up is brilliant, and it’s a better solution in terms of visual quality than the streaming system Sony uses.
But as much as I love my 360 library…do I really want to keep playing those games forever? I like having the option, but in a world where I already have a packed backlog, I should probably try out some new games too.
This isn’t a Microsoft problem but more of a personal issue, haha.
4. Dynasty Warriors 9 is better on PS4
When I first bought an Xbox One X, it was so I could play Dynasty Warriors 9, the first game in the franchise with support for the new enhanced consoles.
It was…an okay experience at launch. But then I discovered that even the base PS4 version ran better. And then, over and over again, the PS4 version got patches much faster than the Xbox version did.
Koei was obviously optimizing the game for PS4 and PC first, then eventually getting around to the Xbox. Even now, running the game on a PS4 Pro is a more pleasant experience than on my Xbox One X, with a more-consistent frame rate and less pop-in on trees.
Like the BC “issue,” this is mostly a personal thing for me since I weirdly love this phenomenally stupid video game. But I do wish Microsoft had the fast patching process of Sony and Steam.
5. PS Now is Pretty Good
Yes, I know that Playstation Now is twice the price of Game Pass. And yes, I know that it doesn’t get all the first party games on launch day.
But it’s got over 600 games…and the PS4 games are now downloadable. And the one advantage to streaming is that I can quickly hop in and sample a PS3 game, then quit it without having to download or delete anything. That’s nice. And I’m rediscovering how Arkham Origins was actually pretty good.
I don’t hate the Xbox one bit. I think the X is a phenomenally powerful and quiet machine, with a controller that actually has good battery life, and a sound system that might be the greatest available some day, once all the kinks are fully ironed out and users can control it with their own settings.
But I have limited gaming time. And right now I only need one Dynasty Warriors 9 box, one Tetris 99 machine, and two gaming PC’s I never use for anything other than work.