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Stereo vs Surround Sound Gaming: Which One Is Better?

Gaming has become more and more popular in recent years. PC gaming in particular gives the gamer a chance to really dive into the world thanks to immensely powerful graphics and sound cards. With the right setup, it can feel like you are right in the heart of the action.

When it comes to the right sound setup, there is the conversation of stereo versus surround for gaming. The belief is that stereo is the superior option and with good reason. It is important to hear where sounds are coming from, especially in games like first-person shooters. Surround can create artificially placed noises, making it sound like something is coming from a specific area when it is really in another. In competitive gaming especially, that can make a world of difference.

Headphones vs Speakers

There are two methods for enjoying sound in a PC gaming setup: headphones and speakers. Due to the ability to communicate via the attached microphone, headphones are generally the preferred option. Not only that, but headphones also allow for sound reduction from outside sources while providing more direct sound.

That said, having speakers works just fine as well. Not everyone has a gaming setup where they are communicating with others. There are some who simply don’t like the feeling of headphones over their ears all the time.

Whatever the choice is, it has to present clear sound. When you are in the middle of an adventure, you need to know where the enemies (or other players) are coming from. If there is any distortion, a lack of clarity, or misrepresentation of sounds, it can throw off your overall performance.

Headphones

Most gaming headphones are regular stereo headphones. They generally have pretty good quality but usually aren’t capable of creating the kind of immersive sound that makes you feel like you are right there in the game.

There are virtual surround headphones which add special effects while also creating something of a stereo effect. True surround sound, however, creates that fully immersive experience, especially when it comes to first-person shooters.

Speakers

Though they are not quite as popular as headphones, it is more than possible to achieve a quality sound setup with speakers. Like headphones, the choice comes down to stereo vs surround and the answer may be different here.

If you do opt for speakers, it should only be done if you aren’t a serious gamer. There can be some changes in sound quality and it may sound like there are enemies in different spots than they really are, especially in those first-person shooters. Still, there is nothing quite like having a complete surround sound setup if you want to feel enveloped in the world you’re playing in.

What is Stereo Sound?

Understanding which one is better for your gaming setup is fine, but let’s take a look at the differences between the two and how they work. For stereo, there are two speakers or channels (for headphones) that produce sound.

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This is basically a left/right scenario to create the sense that sound is coming from both sides. Just about any headphone you find uses stereo sound, which is partially why it is so popular. But it also creates discernable sound that is easy to identify.

What is Surround?

Surround sound is a lot more comprehensive and involves usually five or more speakers in order to produce sound. The entire goal of surround is to create the feeling that you are immersed within that world.

In the case of 5.1 surround, there are both left and right but a center speaker at the front. There are also two surround speakers at the right and left sides of the listening area. With 7.1, there are two more back surrounds added onto the ones mentioned before.

Simply put surround gives you the full 360-degree experience as you would get in a cinema. If you want to feel like you are really in that gaming environment, surround can achieve what stereo cannot.

The Role of Sound in Gaming

When it comes to gaming, there are generally two reasons behind having a better quality of sound. The first has to do with feeling immersed in the game. Depending on what type of game you are playing, being able to hear everything in that environment can make you feel like you are right there.

On the other hand, sound plays a role in first-person shooters and other multiplayer games. Part of succeeding in those worlds is not only seeing with clarity, but hearing in clarity as well. Being able to hear enemies approaching can mean the difference between garnering a kill and being on the receiving end of a bullet.

For competitive gamers especially, that can make all the difference in the world. In that arena, finding a competitive advantage is razor thin. Anything that can help to elevate one’s play is more than welcome.

Headset Drivers

When it comes to headphones, one of the most important factors are the drivers.. The drivers are what convert all of the electrical signals from your device, converting them into the sound waves that our ears pick up.

Headphones can have one driver or many drivers. Basically, the drivers can all control different frequencies. One driver may control the bass, for example, while another controls treble response and so on.

It is important to note that having a headset with more drivers doesn’t mean improving the overall sound experience. There may be some improvements in clarity, but it shouldn’t improve the sound drastically, especially when it comes to surround. So, even if a headphone is marketed to have more drivers, it probably isn’t going to have a big impact on the listening experience.

Why Surround is (kind of) a Gimmick

When you see an ad for surround sound, the idea is that you are far more immersed in the games than you would be with stereo. But when it comes to gaming, are you really benefitting from surround sound versus stereo?

While surround sound is not necessarily a gimmick, the way that it is implemented and marketed is. The gaming companies act as if surround is some competitive advantage, but it definitely isn’t for a variety of reasons.

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If anything, using surround sound could put you at a competitive disadvantage depending on the game. If you listen to the marketing, there is nothing better than surround sound. But if you want to complete for money and prizes through gaming, it can put you in a hole and force you to go to stereo headphones instead.

Which one is Better?

So, the million dollar question: which one is better? If you are not a competitive gamer, it can be hard to notice much of a difference in your gaming but you will notice a discernable difference in your experience.

For competitive gamers, stereo is definitely recommended. It is as close to “true” sound as it gets. When it comes down to being able to hear enemies approach, you can experience some distortion or “false” sounds with surround that may lead you in the wrong direction.

If you are more about the gaming experience and being involved in that world, the surround is the better bet. For big action games in particular, there is nothing quite like hearing everything that the game has to offer. It can make it feel like you are in the game to some degree.

What Do the Professionals Use?

Let’s say that you’re a competitive gamer and are looking to fine tune your setup. What do the professionals use? The vast majority in the competitive shooter category, for instance, use stereo audio.

There are two reasons for this. The first is because they are comfortable and when it comes to competitive gaming, comfortable conditions are non-negotiable. Not to mention the familiarity factor considering that most pro gamers probably had stereo headphones before they were ever successful.

The second, and more important factor, is the information that they are able to discern because of the sounds they hear. That information, if it is correct, could mean winning or losing a round. Having stereo headphones means greater accuracy in the sound. There are some differences in low- to high-end stereo headphones, but they are generally the choice of pro gamers.

The Final Word on Sound in Gaming

It is important to remember that the vast majority of us are not professional gamers. We try hard to be the best gamer that we can be, but so very few of us are out there competing for and winning cash or prizes.

That said, it all comes down to personal preference. If you like straightforward sound where you can pick up enemy movement and other details from the game, then stereo is the better of the two. But if you want to feel completely immersed in the environment in which you are playing, there is nothing quite like going with a surround experience.

It is important to know what you want out of your gaming experience before making a choice. And while you may not want to break the bank on your audio, don’t go cheap, either.

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