A Word About Game Audio


My background is in game development having owned the first (and largest at the time) game testing company for 13 years. On the personal side I’ve been a gamer in squads and clans going back to their birth.

On the audio side I’ve been involved from the very first days of PC audio. I currently work for a very high-end earphone company (Etymotic Research) and am responsible for their new gaming division called EDGE Acoustics. ER makes $300 earphones for people like U2, Coldplay, Dire Straits and many other music professionals. We’re aiming to do the same for pro gamers (and non-pros who want to be the best they can be).

Many PC games have quality audio while others don’t. A current example of a game that excels in this is Ubisoft‘s “GRAW 2“. It has exceptional 3D sound. The spatial cues are better than in many other games with very small subtleties presented to hear the opponent.

When you think about audio in relation to gaming know a few things:

1) Most headphones/earphones were NOT designed for FPS gaming. They were designed for music. Music audio is not the same thing as game audio. Music headphone companies design their products to “enhance” the experience. That means what you’re getting is an artificial sound. In games that means that the spatial cues that were presented by the developer are also artificially processed, and thus, changed.

2) This “enhancement” usually means HEAVY bass boost. Bass boost is a MAJOR enemy of FPS gamers. If you’re a good player with bass-boosted headphones, you’d be significantly better without bass-boosted headphones. Bass boost muddies spatial cues heavily. Subtle sounds that could help you identify an approaching enemy get lost in the effect. Each company colors the product to fit the needs of the perceived market. Some color the highs, boost the bass X or Y amount, etc. All of this is bad for gaming but might be just fine for music. It’s why some people prefer Sony over Sennheiser or any other comparisons. The different coloring goes a long way towards why these products are so different.

3) Isolation is a key factor. The more isolation you can get the more clearly you can hear. If you cup your hands over your ears you get a muffled sound as every outside resonance bounces around the cup. If you stick your fingers in your ears that goes away. You hear your heartbeat. That’s isolation. GOOD earphones give you maximum isolation. For example, the BEST headphones on the planet give you 22dB of isolation. ER earphones provide 37-42dB of isolation and that’s log scale so that’s not double but 10x the isolation of headphones. Most headphones give you only 2-10dB of isolation. This is all about focus. The more you can focus, the better. Anyone that tells you that you can block out all sounds is lying. You have a bone structure so your body will convey outside sound. The key is to reduce it as much as possible.

4) Accuracy/Detail is king. Most products made for music are not accurate. This can be easily measured and most products on the market have accuracy scores well below 50%. The products I’ve used measure in the 80’s and 90’s.These are designed for a medium that isn’t concerned about accuracy. They’re sold to gamers because that’s the predominant available technology. It’s like using a butter knife as a screwdriver. It can work but it’s not optimal.

Just so you know, ER is a research company. They don’t do marketing in any traditional sense. They don’t do commercials. I’ve been with them nearly 3 years and have yet to sell anything (the gaming earphones launch next month). I spent most of this time on a research study testing top gamers response times with all sorts of audio equipment.

The results were pretty obvious. The BETTER (fidelity) the equipment, the better your results. Speakers did the worst. Surround speakers did SLIGHTLY better (they sound great and fun but they’re totally inaccurate). Earphones (ER, Shure, Ultimate Ears and soon, EDGE Acoustics) can give you a 30-50% performance improvement over headphones. It’s mainly due to isolation but also, in the case of ER & EDGE, accurate response. We’re not bass boosting so you hear what you’re supposed to hear without it being “enhanced.”

I encountered Etymotic as a customer years ago at a LAN event. I’ve been using one of their earphones for years without being associated with them professionally. It was clear to me that their products improved gaming but I wasn’t sure why. The reason is that Etymotic’s background is in the audiology, medical audio and hearing aid industries. In that world it’s all about detail and accuracy. The music industry is entirely different. The emphasis there is on selling you what each company thinks you want to hear and not what’s actually there to be heard.

I’m telling you all this not to sell you earphones. I’m telling you this so that you’ll think about the facts the next time you replace your heaphones. Our products aren’t even available yet.

Let me touch on perspective for a moment. I wrote the Official Sound Blaster Book series. I helped get AdLib and Creative Labs started in the sound industry. I have literally dozens of headphones in my collection all sent free to me by the manufacturers. I used to use $1,200 studio-level Sennheisers when I gamed. When they wore out I tried earphones and never looked back. In other words, having tried the various different products out there personally I found earphones provided the highest benefit for gaming.

Be wary of marketing hype. I posted this specific note because I see recommendations of headphones that are almost entirely hype. For example, any product listed as using active noise-canceling is suspect for a gamer. These processes remove elements of sound in an attempt to reduce outside noise. What are they removing? In a game you can’t afford to lose localization data! Also, the result of this, as I said, gets you to about 20dB of isolation at best. You can do much better without all the “technology”. Another one is surround sound headphones. This one is pure marketing. If you feel you hear surround with it, great. What you’re hearing is an effect very much like turning on any processed effect in your stereo like “Hall” or “Arena”. Your ears are STEREO. Surround sound works only because of distance. To place multiple drivers in your headphone and think your stereo ears are going to pick up on this is just not realistic. The same result can be had from any good, clean, accurate stereo headphone.

You also get what you pay for. I wonder with people who spend $400 on a video card, $100+ on a sound card, $90 on a mouse, $80 on a keyboard, etc., and then spend $30-$50 on a headset. EDGE earphones aren’t cheap but neither are any of the headphones out there that are truly accurate. What you see debated most of the time are people arguing about the differences between low-end solutions. I also encounter the term, “best I’ve ever used” which, on the face of it, means nothing. How many have they used? I will get into debates with kids who have owned two or three pairs of crappy headphones telling me that their $30 surround-sound headphones are the best on the planet. Uh-huh. I cannot begin to tell you how many poor audio reviews I encounter. Most of them are clearly written by people who have only a cursory exposure to equipment. The best they can do is share a use-case review. They liked or disliked them “because” but to recommend them over other equipment types or levels they’ve never experienced is where I start to get annoyed.

Be informed. Go look up what went on with the DVD debate of DTS audio versus Dolby Digital. Fans of each camp fought heavily over each one being better but in the end, the majority of consumers who did blind testing preferred the sound of DTS. Recent studies have analyzed this and found that the ONLY difference between DTS and DD is that DTS provides the same audio slightly louder than DD and most consumers equate “louder” as “better”. The same thing happens with video all the time. TV’s in stores have their color settings set way over the top as people look at one set over the next and if the colors “pop” they perceive this as “quality”. It rarely means that but that’s how people think. People in audio equate booming bass and volume as quality and that’s what companies then cater to.

If you have questions, don’t hesitate to drop me a note asking about it.

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