Sound and PC audio in general, is an often neglected part of a build, something done as an afterthought. Sure we might choose the motherboard with the sophisticated integrated sound codec with user replaceable OPAMPS and amplifier components suitable for even hard to drive headphones. But then we neglect the one piece of equipment responsible for conveying the subtleties of the auricular cues being put in games.
PC audio is like the secret sauce of gaming, yet we often neglect it
The problem with audio (and monitors too) reviews is that there tends to be an obsession with how closely they match a certain reference point that’s close to “neutral”. That’s all well and good for professionals. In fact it’s precisely what an audio engineer is looking for so that the piece in front of them sounds as intended. But we consumers tend not to really actually listen to anything at that neutral reference. In fact, for a lot of people it just sounds terrible. We all have different preferences due to the inherent differences in all of us. We apply EQ to our audio so it sounds right to our own ears. Neutral does have the benefit of being more EQ friendly, but it doesn’t mean it’ll sound good to anyone. In fact, it’s fairly common for anyone except the most vehement of audiophiles to actually like the sound coming out of a neutral sounding headphone.
In fact, for a lot of people it just sounds terrible. We all have different preferences due to the inherent differences in all of us. We apply EQ to our audio so it sounds right to our own ears. Neutral does have the benefit of being more EQ friendly, but it doesn’t mean it’ll sound good to anyone. In fact, it’s fairly common for anyone except the most vehement of audiophiles to actually like the sound coming out of a neutral sounding headphone. So don’t buy into that hype. And also don’t buy into the hype of “gaming audio” either. Because good audio starts with good components and a dedication to produce good sound quality. “Gaming” audio is a marketing term and does nothing to truly enhance the experience if the basic components are of horrible quality. That also doesn’t mean that the likes of SteelSeries, Razer or others make crap audio equipment, just that a little research and even listening for yourself (if a store has a good return policy, don’t hesitate to make use of it) is always a good idea.
Good sound comes from headphones from companies who specialize or that very much care about audio From those companies who are passionate about it from all price points. Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, Audio-Technica, Shure, Sony and a few others all have fantastic products that produce very good sound across all sorts of different price points, even with actual headsets that do more for gaming audio than any gaming-focused company could. Audio-Technica, for example, takes some of their very best headphones and attaches a mic (made in-house with their own tech) to them, making for a pairing that sounds as delicious as the actual cost.
That’s not to say that gaming-focused companies do not make good headphones. Not at all, just that you must be wary of the products they sell and find something that sounds good to you. Typically these companies use an OEM that builds them something with their logo, so they can be good. You just have to be a bit more discerning. For example, the Razer Kraken defies my expectations, and they sound quite good.
Good PC audio components can add a tremendous amount of value to your gaming experience, and immersion. That magic secret sauce that lets you forget about the world around you. Thankfully motherboard makers are getting keen on putting higher-quality components, better audio codecs and even separating those components in the PCB itself. That and the inclusion of a basic audio amplifier can help you towards your goal of real immersion into the experience.
Those auditory cues are vastly important to making us feel like we’re there. Without them, or if they’re poorly rendered by bad equipment, then the experience can be lost, or diminished. Sennheiser showed off their VR audio tech at CES this year to help make moving around in those virtual environments seem more natural. We need those cues and sounds to play from what seems like the right direction at the right time, and doing so is a far more difficult challenge than ever, because if it’s slightly off, our brain will know, and it breaks that magical immersion. Audio is very important for immersion in a game, whether from a great soundtrack, realistic or expected sound effects and much more. But it has to actually sound good too, a product of having good audio equipment.
That doesn’t mean good PC Audio has to be expensive, either. Just good and from a company that specializes in such things with far less compromises, or that the device you’re looking at is made with love and audio goodness in mind. And don’t forget that because of the way that our ears and brains work, we’ll like different sounds and thus different equipment. Headphones don’t necessarily suck because you don’t like them. We all have different preferences.
How to avoid the pitfalls of neglecting PC audio without spending too much money:
Have an amplifier of some kind. Even a mobile amplifier such as the FiiO E12 is a great way to boost your audio quality, helping to put some character back into your probably lifeless audio. It’s not all about the bass, either, but about giving the entire frequency range of human hearing some energy, some power so it sounds good.
Get headphones that check more than just the boxes. Sometimes those boxes sounds better than they are, and audio is about more than just the specs. Those are only half the story, and likely don’t tell you anything about how they actually sound.
Oh, and lights. Lights on headphones are useless. Because who’s going to see them aside from you. And you won’t be able to. They add nothing to the actual quality.
Lastly, shop around. What might seem at first like a gimmick, might actually sound incredibly good to you. Don’t be confused by the hype of either end of the spectrum. Price doesn’t always equal the actual quality. But just remember that audio is an incredibly important part of gaming. So don’t skimp out!