5.1 sound in games – what that means

5.1 multi-channel gaming audio is increasingly becoming the new gaming norm. Many productions have great sound design, so it’s no wonder that players want to enjoy it in the best possible way. Does surround sound allow this?

5.1 sound – what does that mean?

Actually, what is 5.1 sound? This name refers to the sound source system consisting of five speakers and one subwoofer. Usually this scheme is used for home theater assembly, but it is also great for gaming. Multichannel audio surrounds the player on all sides, giving the impression of being right in the middle of the game. The location from which the audio will be played can be determined by the production’s sound director. However, much more often you can find game engines that calculate the ideal sound source in real time.
This means that surround sound can take the realism of the game to an even higher level. For example: while controlling a tank, in one of the Battlefield series games, we will hear the sounds of the machine working from all sides. This solution allows you to fully experience the production being played. Games with phenomenal sound design like Skyrim take advantage of the possibilities that surround sound offers in a perfect way.

What is multi-channel audio good for?

5.1 sound will be perfect for productions that strongly focus on the quality of sound design. Usually, players focus on beautiful graphics or the physics engine, but nothing is more immersive than a good soundtrack. Surround sound in The Witcher 3 completely changes the face of the game. Ordinary walks around Novigrad, Beauclair or Oxenfurt, which until now players have kept to a minimum, have become an extraordinary experience. Dozens of different voices from all sides create the atmosphere of a real, living city.
Surround can have a real influence on the player’s decisions. In the latest production of Naughty Dog – Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, which supports the PS5’s 3D sound system, the player’s arsenal can be selected according to various sounds made by weapons. A better sounding gun will then take its place like a nondescript gun. It is similar in FIFA 21 – the chants that accompany our team’s struggles in Ultimate Team gain extraordinary depth. The process of selecting your favorite fans’ songs thus becomes much more detailed.

Does 5.1 sound give you an edge in games?

Some productions that focus on multiplayer gameplay can gain a lot from multi-channel audio. Surround in CS: GO allows you to more accurately locate the enemy. Surround sound, unlike regular stereo, allows you to determine where the sounds of shots or footsteps come from. With the normal 2.1, we only know that the opponent is „somewhere” behind. Thanks to the creation of phantom images, 5.1 sound will allow you to more accurately determine the location of the threatening enemy.
However, this technology can be unreliable, especially in headphones. For this reason, looking towards esports, we are unlikely to encounter surround sound at any of the major tournaments. The discussion between stereo and surround supporters usually ends in one sentence: a good stereo set provides better sound quality, while 5.1 and 7.1 systems position the sound much better. With the digital surround, we often encounter a few errors that cause sounds to be played from the wrong place. For a Sunday player, this won’t be too much of a problem, but for a professional, this type of bug may mean losing a round. or the entire meeting.

Can my computer play surround sound?

Not every computer supports 3D audio. What do I need to play 5.1 audio? The sound card is the basis for full surround. Most processors have an integrated soundboard, but the audio quality usually leaves a lot to be desired. Therefore, it is worth investing in specialized equipment, both internal and external.
In addition to checking if we have the right equipment, you also need to turn on the appropriate options in the system settings to get surround sound. By clicking the speaker icon in the lower right corner of the screen with the right mouse button, we will get the option to turn on surround sound. Depending on the system version, this option may be hidden in the sound settings in the control panel.

5.1 sound on headphones

Virtual 5.1 or even 7.1 sound has also recently appeared in headphones. Unfortunately, in most cases, their surround is only apparent. Many tests, which can be watched, for example on YouTube, have confirmed that ordinary stereo headphones are also good at creating the impression of depth. Often, rather than investing in very expensive 7.1 systems, it is better to find the right editing software to give the sounds played an apparent spaciousness. Most of them are available for free! Of course, products of top brands intended for audiophiles, such as Dolby or Creative, will cope better with this type of codec. However, their purchase may be associated with quite high costs. To put it briefly: the multichannel sound in headphones is considered by most players as a marketing „gadget”, and not a revolutionizing solution.

5.1 sound from the speakers

It is completely different with the appropriate speaker positioning. 5.1 or 7.1 sound obtained thanks to the appropriate pattern of drivers is a solution that has been used for a long time in almost every home theater system. The array of speakers and subwoofer aimed at the listener seated in the center creates a true sense of depth in multi-channel sound. The biggest disadvantage of this scheme is the space that the speakers have to occupy. Residents of small rooms may have a real problem with the proper placement of all sound sources.
Surround sound is increasingly being used in the game development process. If you want to fully use it, be sure to test even the software that allows you to play it on headphones. Realistic audio may be just what you’re missing from fully immersing yourself in the game!