When it comes to PC gaming, we use three of our senses: touch, sight, and hearing. In terms of this article, I am going to come at things from the perspectives of a fairly serious FPS player or any player of a game where sight and sound are very key to success. PC Gamers spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars to maximize their ‘frames per second’ performance and more money on high refresh displays to take advantage of those extra frames. From video cards to high refresh monitors, nobody can dispute how key it is to maintain stable fps in a shooter. Throw 20-45 fps at your eyes, and you’ll have hard time keeping up with movement and quick action in the moment. This is not a new concept and is one of the main reasons why CRT displays were so popular for a long time. On the other side of the hardware game, we spend money on good quality mechanical keyboards and mice to improve our feel and touch. So why do people often skimp on audio? I’ll tell you why. In terms of what I’ve seen on countless gaming forums, not a lot of people realize how important audio quality and positional audio is when playing; and the importance of a solid audio card/headphone setup. In a normal conversation most people will say on board audio and a gaming headset is plenty and you don’t need anything else. They’re wrong.
Before you dismiss my article and say that high clarity and extremely accurate positional audio is out of your budget, I’m here to tell you should rethink it. Typically gaming headsets can range from $50 to even $300+ dollars. Gaming headsets that advertise true surround sound audio such as 7.1 are in a way lying to you. Other than a headset, such as a Tiamat 7.1 (that include individual speaker drivers for each channel) , all of those gaming headsets are stereo, 2 speaker headsets, that utilize some sort of Dolby logic to provide a simulated sense of surround sound and typically the quality is poor and rarely spot on. To give a little bit of background on my actual experience with headsets, I have purchased many headsets in the past 15 years, some usb and some analog. While a lot of them were great headsets in different ways, sound wise none of them really stood out past one another. Now I can’t blame them for marketing towards gamers, but at the end of the day they aren’t audio companies.
It wasn’t until I took the advice of someone to give a dedicated Sound Card and audiophile grade headphone a try that I realized my ignorance in what I thought I knew a lot about. Dont ditch your gaming headset just yet however. My past experiences with a dedicated sound card weren’t great; driver problems, glitches, and overall no huge difference that I could tell ended up with me giving up the idea of a dedicated sound card and returning it. When researching new sound cards I narrowed it down to the Asus Xonar cards and the brand new line of Sound Blaster Z cards. After reading a lot of audio forum posts about experiences people were having great luck with the new line of Sound Blaster Cards. Before I get into that Im going to break down some technical audio terms into simple english that every gamer should know.
Impedence: Measured in Ohms. Most headphones with low impedance (less than 25 ohms, approximately) require little power to deliver high audio levels. For example, low impedance headphones will work well with equipment with weak amplification like portable music players, phones, and other portable devices. It shouldnt be surprising that most generic gaming headsets use a low impedence because most on board sound cards and personal music players cant power high impedence headphones.
DAC: simply put its easier to put it into an example:
Your iPod or other music player performs 3 basic functions.
1. Read music from storage (Transport)
2. Convert that digital bitstream to an analog wave. (DAC)
3. Sends that analog signal out to your headphones. (Amp)
Open and closed headphones: Closed headphones have a closed, or sealed, cup. Open headphones are open behind the driver. Closed headphones keep you from hearing outside sounds and also keep people around you from hearing your headphones. It might sound like closed is best, but you have to remember that a driver produces sound from both sides, not just the one pointing at your ear. A sealed cup will have reflections, resonances and other shortcomings. Some closed headphones deal with those issues very well, but you’re always going to have to compromise somewhere if you’re going to be closed. On the other hand, open headphones don’t have these problems. Back waves just go out to the side – they don’t reflect or cause problems. Because of that, you can get much better fidelity from an open headphone.
Put that knowledge together!
For the sake of this discussion, quasi review, I’m going to explain why the new Sound Blaster Zx has been eye opening in the past two months of what I had been missing out on.
Features you want to care about:
Support for Headphones up to 600ohms impedence
EAX and proper openAL support makes a huge difference in older games.
Greatly improved driver support compared to older Recon Cards
Gold Nichicon Capacitors
Positional audio processed by the card itself is LIGHTYEARS beyond what you get with boxed 7.1 (usb soundcard) headsets and on board audio. The response times of where the sounds are coming from are a lot faster.
There are three versions of this card, the Z, the ZX, and ZXr. The only difference between the Z and the ZX is a controller on your desktop to control audio levels and a microphone instead of having the seperate mic. The ZX-R however is a full on audiophile card with a DBPro daughter board. I chose to get the Z just because Im primarily using this in gaming senses, not studio work.
Overall, I cant believe what Ive been missing out on. But, I can tell you there will be quite a few naysayers and people that can’t tell the difference between Razer headsets and a set of high end Audio Technica headphones. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but if you want to experience crystal clear highs, great mids, and non muddy bloated bass, then investing in an audio card and decent pair of headphones is the way to go. Now, what if you love your gaming headphones you already own? Will you notice an improvement with a solid quality sound card? Yes, as long as it isnt a USB headset (there’s no way around it). My current setup when Im playing something with Voip I use a Razer Tiamat 2.2 with my sound card and still enjoy accurate surround sound and much improved recording quality since it is handled outside of the onboard audio. At the end of the day, the fact is, the best quality sound will come from a good pair of studio headphopnes; gaming headsets and gaming surround sound headsets, just arent anywhere near the same league. However, it all comes down to personal preference. Everyone is different, and no two people will have simliar hearing preferences!
Some key points to take away
– Sound cards and on board audio are like the difference between 60fps and 120fps on high refresh displays.
– True audio grade headphones will be much better at true audio reproduction compared to gaming headsets.
-Some brands of headphones I’d recommend: Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, V-Moda, Shure, AKG, Denon.
– Gaming headsets can also benefit from cleaner audio signals and some amplification, so if you invest in an Asus or SB card you will notice a big difference in quality and nuances in gaming audio.