Two years ago, Microsoft launched the Windows Sonic spatial audio platform for Xbox One and Windows 10.
Alongside that launch they rolled out a $15 Dolby Atmos for Headphones app that took the internet by storm, offering full Dolby-approved spatial audio that supported both game and movie playback. This year, Microsoft also launched DTS Headphone: X on their gaming platforms, and that’ll also set you back $15.
Alongside those big-name branded sound packages, Microsoft built their own headphone virtualization on the same technological backbone: Windows Sonic for Headphones.
And it’s completely free.
If you own an Xbox One or a Windows 10 PC, you already have easy access to Windows Sonic. It’ll work with any pair of headphones. It’ll upmix 5.1/7.1 game audio content to spatial audio for headphone playback, and also supports full object-based spatial audio in the small list of games that feature that type of sound.
So much of the focus on Microsoft’s spatial audio system was stolen by Dolby Atmos that I sometimes forget about their excellent free counterpart.
It’s had a lot of updates over the last two years, and I think it sounds great and now works seamlessly. All you have to do is turn it on and then never think about it again. Games should automatically detect that you have a virtual surround system and spit out the correct type of audio. On PC, this works almost all the time. On Xbox, it can be a little bit hit or miss, and it seems to change with OS software revisions. I’ve charted these console troubles in the past within this article.
But again, hey it’s free!
I’ve been playing Need for Speed Heat this week on PC with Windows Sonic turned on, and it’s been such a great experience. The overall sound signature is very close to listening in raw stereo, with no obvious sculpting or aggressive EQ muddying up the sound with artificial bass.
Spatial presence is very nice, with no apparent seams between channels. Cars sound like they’re racing around my head. The powerful music feels like it’s pumping in from the corners of my gaming room. And the throaty roar of my car’s engine sits right inside my chest.
Don’t tell anyone, but I might actually prefer its sense of width and depth to Dolby Atmos. Dolby’s system does its best job when fed with their specific proprietary audio data, but I feel like Sonic is a better choice for all-around listening.
It’s a little more “obvious” in its virtual spacing, and I like that. I don’t always want my game or movie audio to sound “studio accurate.” Sometimes it’s fun to easily notice that the spatialization is working, and to hear a more exaggerated and apparent effect. Windows Sonic delivers that, whereas Dolby Atmos tries to stick closer to a professional surround mixing environment.
And if you’re worried about it screwing up your music listening, don’t fret, as it shouldn’t activate unless it detects surround audio.
So what is spatial audio anyway?
Older virtual headphone surround systems created before the last few years relied on simulating discrete speaker channels to mimic standard surround audio.
Spatial/3D object-based audio is more granular.
It can place sounds in a specific location relative to your head, and supports a full unlimited 3D sphere of audio locations rather than being limited to one horizontal plane of sound and discrete channels. It’s also easier for sound designers to mix in this format and offers more creative potential, since they don’t have to target specific speakers with their mix and can focus on where they’d like the sound to come from. The rendering system then automatically adjusts the mix to your specific setup, whether that’s speakers or headphones.
Other companies have jumped on the spatial bandwagon for home gaming in the last two years. Razer and THX developed THX Spatial Audio, and I think it sounds pretty good.
Waves has their WavesNX system, which when paired with head tracking offers some extra flexibility and realism to the sound.
However, both of those systems cost money to access. Windows Sonic is essentially a free extra, and fully-featured.
Windows Sonic is undoubtedly also the audio system that’ll show up inside next year’s Xbox Scarlett. At least, I’m really hoping that’s the plan.
Sony has talked about wanting to use GPU resources to accelerate 3D audio in the PS5, possibly with raytracing. But Microsoft is already a generation ahead with their platform, and developers are already using it in games.
Also, Sony has a history of charging extra for their 3D audio systems and tying them down to proprietary headsets. I’m skeptical of whether they can deliver on something that every user will have access to from day one.
I commend Microsoft for developing Windows Sonic in the first place, and for their continued commitment to 3D audio.
If 3D is ever going to fully replace standard, now relatively-ancient channel-based surround systems, then someone had to bite the bullet and make a system widely available.
That’s the challenge of launching a new format, and Microsoft took it on.
Windows Sonic is free and works with any pair of headphones. If you hate it, you can toggle back to regular stereo, but I’ll wager that for most titles it will dramatically enhance your gaming experience.
Audio is just as important to me in video games as visuals and control responsiveness. Microsoft leapt ahead of the competition in this field two years ago, and they currently remain ahead while others have raced to catch up.
Full 3D audio will hopefully be the new standard for game soundtracks sometime next year, and we have Microsoft to thank for that. You’ll be hearing better, more immersive, more accurately positioned sound whether you’re using speakers or headphones.
And headphone surround might finally discard the derisive “cheap gimmick” label that tech journalism so often unfairly slaps upon it.