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In the world of 3D visuals, 3D audio matters. And what better way to access 3D sound (apart from the real-world sound) than through surround sound systems? Surround sound audio systems bring you the closest to experiencing real-world, immersive audio. Here is the list of best surround sound headphones below.
The best part is that surround sound audio performance isn’t just reserved for top-tier multi-channel professional/studio and premium home audio systems as headphones have joined the clan too. The availability of surround sound in headphones not just makes the 3D audio experience more portable but also more monetarily accessible.
A quick search in online shopping sites and you’ll come across plenty of options for surround sound headphones. And the numbers keep increasing, making it ever so confusing for you to choose the right option.
But don’t let the plethora of choices demotivate or stress you out. Here, we’ve narrowed down the options for you. But before moving to our carefully curated selection, it pays to understand surround sound at a basic level.
What is surround sound?
At the very basic level, surround sound is sound projected from various directions to listeners using a specific set/combination of speakers in order to create a 3D soundscape. The 3D soundscape isn’t limited to just listening to music as it works impressively well for audio-video content, include watching movies and games
In fact, early surround sound systems found their primary application in movie theatres. The concept later on diversified into many domains, the most important one being personal home audio. Here’s a simple diagram that illustrates a simple surround sound set up that includes three front speakers and two rear speakers:
Image credit: Octaneseating
Are stereo and surround sound the same?
No. Although many people consider stereo and surround sound to be the same, they are not. Standard stereo channel setups are limited to just two front-firing speakers or two front-firing speakers and a front sub speaker.
Surround sound channels are extensions of stereo sound channels. Here are the different types of standardized stereo and surround sound channel setup:
Image credit: Linndocs
DTS audio and Dolby Digital headphones commonly support the 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound format.
Surround sound in headphones
Surround sound in headphones aren’t as spatial as in professional multi-channel audio systems, including multi-channel home theatre. This mainly has got to do with the physical spacing between the speakers and the listeners.
In professional and home surround sound audio systems, the speakers, sub speakers, woofers, and subwoofers are placed at certain distances and angles to uniformly distribute multi-channel audio that surrounds the listeners.
However, that’s not the case with headphones as the sound drivers are in close proximity to the outer ear. The sound drivers of surround sound headphones are therefore designed in a specific way to compensate for the lack of physical audio path distance.
Types of surround sound headphones
With the different types of marketing lingos brands use, it can become convincing to you, especially if you’re new to surround sound, that there are various types of surround sound headphones. But essentially, there are just two types of surround sound headphones, virtual surround sound headphones, and true surround sound headphones.
Virtual surround sound headphones
Virtual surround sound headphones have a standard stereo sound configuration, that is two sound drivers. They simulate a virtual surround sound set up with the help of proprietary software that differs from one company to another.
The best part about virtual surround sound is you can use any pair of stereo headphones to access the experience. Want to try virtual surround sound with the pair of headphones you currently have? Try this online virtual surround sound simulator: NX player by Waves Audio – click here to open
NX player uses your computer’s webcam to track your head motion and deliver a virtual surround sound experience.
Other software/apps for virtual surround sound in stereo headphones
There are plenty of third-party as well as built-in software/apps that are designed to deliver virtual surround sound in any stereo headphones. Here are some of the most popular, standardized, and well-performing ones:
1. Dolby Atmos for Headphones
Dolby Atmos is one of the most popular surround sound technologies from Dolby Laboratories. The company first designed and released Dolby Atmos for the cinema/theatre industry and later on expanded to consumer technologies, including home theatre.
Dolby Atmos for Headphones is a version of the proprietary Dolby Atmos technology that is specifically designed to deliver surround sound/spatial audio in stereo headphones. Dolby Atmos for Headphones is compatible with Windows and Xbox. To use it, download the Dolby Access app here
2. DTS Headphone: X
DTS audio adapters have now become ubiquitous and they are one of the biggest competitors of Dolby audio adapters. DTS:X is one of the most advanced virtual surround sound technologies for home theatre from the company that comes on par with Dolby Atmos.
DTS Headphone: X is a version of DTS:X which is designed for enabling surround sound experience in stereo headphones for PC and Xbox. To use DTS Headphone: X, you need to download the DTS Sound Unbound app. Download it here.
3. Windows Sonic for Headphones
Windows Sonic for Headphones is a proprietary audio adapter from Microsoft that enables surround sound in studio headphones. The best part is it comes pre-installed in Windows 10.
To enable Windows Sonic for Headphones, go to the task tray and right-click on the volume icon. Click the Spatial Sound option, and enable Windows Sonic for Headphones.
True surround sound headphones
True surround sound headphones use a shrunken down version of standardized surround sound setups to deliver surround sound experience in a compact form factor. In most cases, true surround sound headphones use the 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound channel formats.
Why specifically 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound you ask? This is because these two surround sound channel formats are commonly used in consumer audio technology devices, including home theatre and other types of home audio systems. Also, these two surround sound channel formats don’t use too many speakers and sub speakers which, otherwise, poses engineering challenges for true surround sound headphone design.
Here’s a typical 5.1 surround sound setup for home theatre audio:
Image credit: Dolby
Here’s a typical 7.1 surround sound setup for home theatre audio:
Image credit: Dolby
One simple way to differentiate virtual surround sound headphones from true surround sound headphones is by knowing/checking the number of sound drivers used. A typical true surround sound headphone uses two or more sound drivers; some models even use as many as six dedicated sound drivers in each ear cup. Here’s an example:
Image credit: Unbox Therapy YouTube
4 best surround sound headphones (virtual)
If you want to experience surround sound audio performance but don’t have the budget for premium headphones, there are tons of options for you in the virtual surround sound headphones category. Here are 4 best virtual surround sound headphones that use stereo sound driver configuration to deliver 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound audio performance:
1. Sony WHL600 – check it out here
Sony has had a long association with Dolby across several of their consumer audio product lineups, including home theatre/surround sound headphones. Sony WHL600 is one of the most premium virtual surround sound headphones from the brand.
This headphone uses Dolby Audio to deliver theatre-style sound in both stereo and surround sound mode. The combination of 40 mm sound drivers, multiple audio inputs, and integration of Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) and Virtual Phones Technology (VPT) helps this headphone deliver virtual surround sound that comes very close to true surround sound.
- Sony’s top-tier audio technologies used
- Dedicated control buttons on the headphone
- Considerably compact headphone design
- Battery life limited to 17 hours
2. Apple AirPods Pro – check it out here
Getting your hands on a pair of virtual surround sound headphones doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to limit your options to over-ear or on-ear models, you can also go for in-ear earbuds and there is no better choice in this category than Apple AirPods Pro.
Apple AirPods Pro uses Apple‘s proprietary spatial audio that comes the closest to true surround sound by using head motion tracking technology. This is made possible with the internal gyroscopes and accelerometers integrated into the wireless headsets. The best part is, Apple AirPods Pro works with video and audio content encoded in Dolby Atmos, 5.1, and 7.1 surround sound.
- One of the best surround sound performances
- Force touch control included
- Apple Spatial Audio compatible with all iOS devices
- Earbuds battery life limited to 4.5 hours
3. Sennheiser RS 175 U – check it out here
If you want to get your hands on a pair of virtual surround sound headphones specifically for home entertainment, you cannot go wrong with Sennheiser RS 175 U. This setup includes a headphone and a multifunction transmitter.
Sennheiser RS 175 U includes a dedicated surround sound mode which you can enable on the transmitter as well as the headphone. The transmitter unit accepts digital as well as analog audio inputs that can differ from one home entertainment device to another.
- The transmitter unit also functions as a charging dock
- A wide range of audio adapters included
- The headphone can seem a bit bulky to some
4. Corsair Void RGB Elite – check it out here
Virtual surround sound headphones aren’t just reserved for home entertainment and music listening requirements as they are available in the gaming territory as well. Corsair Void RGB Elite comes as an unmistakable choice if you are looking for a budget-friendly model.
Corsair Void RGB Elite is indeed one of the best 7.1 surround sound headphones in the gaming category not just with its price tag but also with its broad frequency spectrum coverage for stereo as well as surround sound. The 50 mm high-density sound drivers of this headphone do not fail in capturing the essence of every game you play.
- Pre-tuned audio profiles included
- Highly customizable audio equalizer included
- Customizable RGB lighting
- Audio inputs limited on the transmitter unit
- 7.1 surround sound compatibility limited to PC
5 best true surround sound headphones
While virtual surround sound headphones are all about surround sound emulation, true surround sound headphones actually incorporate sound drivers set up similar to that of 5.1 and/or 7.1 multichannel surround sound audio systems. Here are 5 true surround sound headphones that use multiple sound drivers to deliver a home theatre-like surround sound experience in a compact form factor:
1. Bluedio U Plus – check it out here
Bluedio U Plus is one of the few commercial headphones to pack not just 2 or 4 but six sound drivers in each ear cup. The 12 sound driver configuration of this model makes it one of the best 7.1 surround sound headphones. The sound driver configuration of this headphone also supports 5.1 surround sound encoded content.
Bluedio U Plus also delivers one of the best bass performances in stereo mode. Its wireless connectivity and foldable design make it a more valuable option in its price point.
- A total of 12 sound drivers used
- Support for 5.1 as well as 7.1 surround sound encoded content
- Audio adapters included
- Earcups have a bulky design
2. Razer Tiamat 7.1 v2 – check it out here
Razer Tiamat 7.1 v2 puts you at the center of all your gaming action with its true 7.1 surround sound audio performance. This headphone uses 5 discrete sound drivers in each ear cup to make 7.1 surround sound encoded games the most immersive as possible.
Razer Tiamat 7.1 v2 does not limit its functionality to standard 7.1 surround sound as it also offers an option for audio customization with its dedicated control unit/desktop controller. The controller unit accepts different types of audio inputs for maximizing true 7.1 surround sound compatibility.
- A total of 10 discrete audio drivers used
- RGB lighting included
- Premium look and feel
- Included audio cables may not be long enough for some
3. ASUS ROG Centurion – check it out here
ASUS ROG Centurion is similar to Razer Tiamat 7.1 v2 as it uses 10 discrete sound drivers to deliver true 7.1 surround sound. It is another best 7.1 surround sound headset in its price point as its 10 sound drivers work together to maintain precise listener positioning in the 360° audio dispersion.
ASUS ROG Centurion also makes a great choice in terms of audio customization as its dedicated Asus Sonic Studio app allows full control for audio personalization. Also, the headphone comes included with a desktop controller that not only includes multiple audio inputs but also offers a wide range of in-game audio control options.
- A total of 10 individual sound drivers used
- Asus sonic studio app opens up audio customization options
- The desktop controller also functions as a headphone amplifier
- The headphone has a bit of extra weight to it
4. Exeo Psyko 5.1/7.1 – check it out here
Exeo Psyko 5.1/7.1 is in a league of its own. As compared to some of the best surround sound headphones in both the gaming and non-gaming realm, this headphone has a unique sound driver configuration. Apart from having a dual driver set up in each ear cup, this headphone also includes 5 discrete audio drivers in the headband that face towards the head.
Although the sound driver configuration of this headphone is fine-tuned for true 5.1 surround sound, it can also work with 7.1 surround sound encoded content.
- 5 discrete audio drivers integrated into the headband
- One of the best true 5.1 surround sound performances
- Compatible with 7.1 surround sound
- The overall design is extra bulky
- Not the most modern look
5. Roccat Kave XTD 5.1 – check it out here
Roccat Kave XTD 5.1 comes as one of the best 5.1 headphones for you if you want to enjoy true surround sound in your games without shelling out a high budget. It beats several virtual surround sound gaming headphones in its price point as it includes 3 separate sound drivers on each earcup. The sound drivers work together to fully immerse you in your game with a highly detailed 5.1 surround sound.
Roccat Kave XTD 5.1 makes the most out of 5.1 surround sound encoded content with its built-in multichannel sound card. Also, it comes with a desktop remote that packs several features, including 5.1 surround sound speaker ports, a wide range of audio controls, and LED lighting.
- True 5.1 surround sound audio performance
- 3 driver configuration in each ear cup
- Multifunction desktop remote included
- No support for 7.1 surround sound
There is a common misconception that in order to experience the best 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound, it’s important to use a premium true surround sound headphone. Although true surround sound headphones are at an advantage on the hardware side of things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they always set the highest benchmark for the best surround sound experience.
Virtual surround sound headphones can be just as good. And when used with the right 5.1/7.1 surround sound simulator software/app, virtual surround sound headphones can, indeed, compensate for their lack of multi-driver setup and deliver highly accurate surround sound reproduction.
To justify this, here’s a test conducted on the YouTube channel Linus Tech Tips. The test analyzes the aiming accuracy of four gamers with different headphones by blindfolding them.
The results are quite surprising as Dolby Atmos and the Logitech G933 headphone (that uses the DTS Headphone: X software) helped the gamers to shoot the most accurately. Watch the entire test here.