Good Audio Can Be Better than Body Armor

Above, below, in front, behind – how EPOS audio excellence gives gamers the edge in either stereo or binaural surround sound

Along with many pro gamers, the EPOS team plays daily with the products we design and manufacture, and we dive deep to understand how competitive gamers gain an edge. Gamers using headsets will choose to play either in stereo or with binaural surround sound in games which offer multichannel audio. This article explains how our engineers maximize performance in either of these scenarios.

Gaining a sense of direction in stereo

Let’s consider first an FPS being played in stereo – initially thinking just about a flat playing area. If a sound is to the right of the direction you are facing within the game, then the audio will be louder in your right ear than your left ear. Unfortunately, with plain stereo game audio, you cannot tell from this whether the sound is in front and to the right, or behind and to the right. Pro gamers work this out by changing the direction they are facing or looking within the game. If they hear a sound that is roughly even in volume in both ears, and then turn their facing in game to the right, if the sound gets slightly louder in the right ear and quieter in the left ear, then it is behind them. If it gets quieter in the right ear and louder in the left when they turn to the right, then the sound is in front of them. Expert players quickly get used to this technique, which is intuitive because that’s what happens in real life too.

Unfortunately, there is no equivalent technique for determining whether sounds are above or below. In this case, pro gamers rely more on “contextual awareness”. If you play a particular multiplayer map enough times, you will learn the distinctive sound signature of enemy footsteps on different floor surfaces and where those surfaces are in relation to your own location. Skilled level designers may deliberately make the gantry above you metal, while the cellar below has a canvas floor covering and your current level features concrete underfoot. The game audio team records different footstep sounds for each surface. As a player, you can then use a combination of facing changes and the type of enemy footstep sounds to locate them – both horizontally and vertically.

Our engineers know these techniques well. For example, our H3 wired headset’s speaker systems are tuned to deliver an accurate, clear midrange, with a controlled bass response that won’t bleed or mask these critical frequencies, where sounds like footsteps and door noises sit. In addition, our brain distinguishes the difference in volume between left and right ears best in this frequency range. So, the higher the audio quality we deliver in the midrange, the easier it is for gamers to use these techniques to locate their enemies and gain the upper hand.

Binaural surround sound – the natural alternative

Many games support binaural surround sound over headsets, and we’ve a detailed post about this which you can read here. For our brain to perceive sound is coming from a specific direction, the audio delivered into a headset must sound as if it has interacted with our anatomy – our ears, head and shoulders especially – just as in real life. We interpret these subtle differences in timing and frequency to build a mental picture of where the sound is located around us. Binaurally encoded audio is created by taking the multichannel audio from a game that supports surround sound, and running it through algorithmic filters to mimic the way sound interacts with our ears and upper torso. In this way, our brains decode the audio delivered from the headset to each ear just as in real life, giving a natural and immersive sense of location. You don’t need to train yourself to recognize directional cues in the same way you would using plain stereo.

If a game supports multichannel audio, then high quality sound cards such as the EPOS GSX series can deliver this as binaurally encoded audio to an analogue stereo headset. Many modern consoles also support binaural audio. But as ever, the quality depends on several factors.

Firstly, we have spent years perfecting our own EPOS Surround to deliver a binaural experience that is as good as it can be, especially in recognizing sounds that are behind you. Secondly, a high-quality headset is even more vital for binaural surround sound to work effectively. We test our headsets to ensure the right and left speakers are matched – any imbalance between the two will throw off our perception when the relative volume in each ear is so important. And as well as the crucial midrange which needs to be accurate for our brain to decode directional audio effectively, the high frequencies are where much of the binaural information is found that our brains interpret to locate sounds that are behind, above or below. Poor quality headsets with unbalanced highs can make binaural sounds confusing and inconsistent.

Whatever your preferred audio delivery – pure, unadulterated stereo or crisp, clear binaural audio – EPOS engineers have got your back.

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