The Last Hurrah of Hardware Virtual Surround Sound

Does the Astro Mixamp still have a place in 2018?

recently took my Astro Mixamp Pro TR out of the closet and hooked it back up, and I’ve been enjoying it so much that I need to get some thoughts out of my brain.

Look, I think the Windows Sonic platform is great.

The Windows audio stack hasn’t been amazing for over a decade now, but it seems like Microsoft finally started paying attention and improving it last year.

Windows Sonic allows for OS-integrated virtual surround processing for headphones. It supports third party software implementations too, like Dolby Atmos and DTS: Headphone X. It’s also what allowed virtual surround to come to Xbox One’s across the world at no additional charge.

As a fan of virtual surround, it’s great.

But it’s also slowly killing something off that I really enjoy: dedicated virtual surround hardware.

A number of gaming headsets used to come with their own mini dongles, offering DAC/amp functionality, virtual surround, and mic processing. The advent of this new free sound software for Windows means that gaming companies can cut costs and stop offering the dongles, instead just slapping “Designed for Windows Sonic” on the box. Or just include Dolby Atmos codes and pretend they are including something more.

I’ve seen numerous models from Plantronics, Turtle Beach, Logitech, and others all do this. And I can’t really blame them. Windows Sonic is a great platform…when it works. The only hook, its only achilles heel, is that game software has to look at the Windows software sound environment and not your hardware setup.

While this isn’t always an issue, many games (including all of Bethesda’s titles, to name one prominent developer) don’t look at this information, and incorrectly spit stereo data out to your headphones when using Windows Sonic.

Hardware dongles don’t usually have this issue, showing up as a full surround sound system in Windows, bypassing any handshake problems. And they’re fun to mess around with.

Only a handful of companies are still carrying the torch of dedicated virtual surround hardware. Razer used their recently-acquired audio engineers at THX to develop the THX Spatial Audio platform, now integrated into their newest Nari and Kraken headsets. The Kraken version comes with a dongle!

Steelseries developed the Arctis GameDAC, and Turtle Beach has their “blink and you won’t notice it” Tactical Audio Controller, both more or less copies of a certain other product…

Astro’s legendary Mixamp.

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THE MIXAMP

The Astro A40 is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition for some gamers. Well, I’m firmly in the “love it” camp. I wrote a positive review of the all-in-one kit, and I still think it’s a slightly better overall buy for most folks willing to spend that much money than any other similar bundle on the market.

Unlike the Arctis Pro, it doesn’t rely on hi-res audio to lure you in.

It also has incredible-sounding virtual surround sound that doesn’t suck out the mids or screw up the details, thanks to time-tested processing technologies from Dolby.

The Mixamp is at the center of it. Mine’s been relegated to the closet for the last several months, a side effect of my self-imposed review schedule requiring me to use other hardware.

But this past week I dusted it off and remembered instantly why good hardware should still have a place in surround processing. I was a bit taken aback at how much more I preferred the whole experience.

I know that Windows Sonic is not that CPU intensive, and that the current console designs mean that most games are harder on the GPU than the CPU. If you’re a latency-focused gamer, however, the dedicated hardware processing in the Mixamp will save you a tiny smidge of CPU power, and it provides quick pop-free audio at all times.

Thanks to dedicated implementations of Dolby ProLogic IIx and Dolby Headphone, the Mixamp provides surround that’s much more room-like and explosive than the relatively sterile Windows Sonic and Atmos implementations in the OS.

It’s like comparing a mixing/reference environment to a well-tuned home basement setup.

The result? It brought the fun back to gaming audio for me. And made me pine for the not-those-old days of a couple of years ago.

Now, if Microsoft were to ever create a proper settings application for their virtual surround system…things might be different. I’d love to be able to select from different profiles and adjust the positions of the virtual channels to my liking. Astro doesn’t offer that second option, but they do have a robust equalizer that’ll help you tweak the sound.

You’re probably going “Wow you don’t say, hardware did a thing better than a full software implementation in the audio space, who would have thought?” I know it sounds a little silly. But I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this thing…and looking at the current landscape, it seems like the market is quickly moving away from this type of hardware solution, never to look back again.

Virtual Surround USB dongles used to come with even some of the cheapest headsets. I’m not saying they were all good…but I had fun with many of them.

Except the HyperX Cloud II’s. Shudder.

I love that Microsoft’s software solution means that all PC and Xbox gamers can experience a decent implementation of virtual surround. Many game studios have fancy mixing rooms, and sound engineers who take the time to craft good audio for surround speaker users.

As gaming setups get smaller thanks to powerful laptops and cheaper consoles, not everyone is going to have a massive home theater to play in, so it’s cool that everyone can still access this sound data.

But, having spent a week with the Astro Mixamp, I can’t help but wonder if the push to a software setup means we’ve lost something in the interim.

Listening to the Mixamp again reminded me of my first time experiencing Dolby Digital audio in a movie theater as a kid at my local cinema. My 9-year-old brain was so blown away by how cool it sounded that I instantly associated Dolby’s name with the best sound, a bias I carry with me to this day whether or not it’s actually true.

I would actually get excited when a movie was playing in Dolby Digital over some other competing format…even though I know now that other formats often had higher bitrate audio or more channels.

But my child self didn’t care. The performance of Dolby’s audio systems were better than any marketing ever could be. And the mixamp still has that same advantage over software solutions. It’s just a little extra magic.

I know that Windows Sonic will probably some day have a full setup application and I can create whatever virtual room profile I want, but until it does…there’s no denying that the Astro Mixamp still provides an incredible, fun gaming sound experience.

It also has real-time mic sidetone, another audio feature that’s been missing from Windows for years.

I shouldn’t have left it in the closet for so long.

All this reminiscing is making me miss the days when many audio companies produced full 5.1 speaker systems complete with receivers for home computer and gaming use…but that’s a tale for another time!

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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