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What are Surround Sound Headphones?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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Surround sound headphones attempt to create an acoustic multi-channel experience using only headphone cups. Each ear cup includes discreetly placed, multiple speakers for creating the impression of sound coming from different directions. Surround sound headphones must be used with devices that provide multi-channel tracks in order to get the surround sound effect. This might be a PC sound card with 5.1 capability for gaming, music and movies, or a home entertainment center featuring surround sound.

The 5.1 speaker configuration in an external setting consists of two front speakers placed to the left and right, a center speaker placed directly in front of the listener, two rear speakers placed to the left and right, and a subwoofer for frequencies too low to be faithfully reproduced by standard speakers. Placement of the subwoofer is less important because the ear can’t easily determine direction of low frequency sounds. Instead, these frequencies seems to come from "everywhere."

Surround sound headphones attempt to reproduce this sound envelope in different ways, depending on the manufacturer and model. For example, one design places two front speakers in one ear cup and two rear speakers in the other, with both cups having their own center and subwoofer speakers. Each speaker is configured to handle one or more signals of a multi-channel track. Digital processing incorporates spatial cues, gain adjustments, and minuscule delays to make sound seem to come from different directions and distances.

Experts point out that standard stereo headphones can create listening fatigue after prolonged use because the brain interprets an “airless” stereo signal as emanating from inside the head. The brain knows this isn’t possible, creating a kind of background tension that can build into headaches. The spatial cues in surround sound place the sound envelope outside the head surrounding the listener, creating a more natural listening environment that enriches the audio experience while reducing fatigue.

Gaming surround sound headphones might come with a detachable microphone for in-game communication, with some models plugging into the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port rather than the PC's sound card. A USB model might not be as flexible for use with other types of equipment, if that's desired. Another factor for gamers to watch for are necessary drivers that might come with a product. In some cases, these drivers might override sound card drivers, creating a need to switch back and forth when the headphones are in use.

Certain brands or models of surround sound headphones will support specific digital processing technologies or standards. These technologies will be clearly advertised as part of the draw of the product. The connecting device, (game station, home entertainment center, etc.) must also support these processing technologies to benefit from them. Otherwise, the headphones will still interpret and deliver any multi-channel signal into surround sound, but the added effects will be missing.

Surround sound headphones should not be confused with Dolby® Headphone, a technology built into some home entertainment and stereo receivers designed to interpret multi-channel input and re-create it through the output of the headphone jack. With Dolby Headphone built into a receiver, any normal pair of headphones are fed surround sound signals, opening up the acoustic envelope to standard stereo headphones.

Surround sound headphones are widely available in corded and cordless models. As with any product, some models are more highly lauded than others and in some cases consumers have reported “dead spots” in the acoustic envelope. To find models with high praise and a full, accurate envelope, consider reading professional reviews and consumer comments available from many online retail sites.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By manykitties2 — On May 03, 2011

Do you think that the wireless models of surround sound headphones have the same sound quality as corded ones? I would love to get a wireless model but worry about keeping the sound at its best.

By animegal — On May 02, 2011

A good pair of surround sound headphones can do wonders for your music. I got my first pair and was amazed at the difference in sound quality. I could really feel more detail in my music.

If you're paying for a good pair, I really recommend trying them on in store. Have them taken out of the package and see how the rest on your head. I tried on a lot and found some to be too heavy. Also, make sure the ear cups fit nicely. Sometimes they fit oddly, or pinch your ears.

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