Why HiFi Sound for Gaming

Posted: September 5, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology


Yer doin’ it wrong.


When I started working as an A/V installer over a year ago, my home theater setup was probably much like most of yours.  I had one of those TVs you wait in line for on black friday, that’s really cheap for how big it is.  When I realized the sound was completely unacceptable, I bought one of those inexpensive under-tv sound boxes with 2 speakers and a sub-woofer built in.  I could now hear the noises and see the things, I felt that anything more was completely superfluous and not worth the effort.

Now my living room is a little different.  I still have the TV, but it’s next on the list.  The sound however is completely upgraded.  I’m not going to brag about my system, it’s mostly stuff I got free from work that isn’t the newest or had to be repaired first.  The point is that it’s a fully tuned 7.1 system with the best connections and running in the newest processing modes.  The difference it makes when gaming is huge.  It’s more than just surround sound being more immersive, a decent receiver has numerous benefits to a gamer which you may not even be aware existed.


True Surround Sound

One thing a lot of people don’t fully grasp, is what is actually surround sound and what is fake surround sound.  If it comes out of less than 4 speakers or is sent through 2 or less conductors, it is not surround sound.  So if your TV or sound bar has a “surround mode”, that is nothing like true surround.  By the same token, if your connection is through a headphone plug or the two red and white RCA cables, it is not true surround.  So most PC headsets that say surround are not surround.  The only way to get real surround sound (where the individual noises are sent to different speakers) is with a digital connection like an optical TOSlink, HDMI cable or the big orange RCA digital coaxial.

Even many people who have 5 or more speakers and have all their devices connected through HDMI, often are not using surround sound because they are not in the right mode.  To fully utilize the surround sound capability of your game system or PC, you need to be in a digital sound mode like DTS.  There are so many different digital sound modes at this point that it is almost impossible for me to tell you which is the best for your setup and game device.  On the front of your receiver or amplifier, it should say digital somewhere and the sound mode should be DTS, Dolby Digital or something similar.  Modes like Atmos and DTS:X are for more than 7 speakers and if supported, will only work with the right speakers.  If your receiver has an “auto” setting, this will usually select the best setting for your current speakers and input signal.

Once you are playing in true surround, the benefits to gaming will be easy to hear.  I’m a big fan of the Dark Souls series and this leads to a perfect example.  When playing in stereo and being invaded, you generally spend a moment spinning your camera around looking for the invader.  When playing in digital surround, the noise made when a player spawns is clearly audible from a distance in the direction it came from.  This shaves a couple of seconds off your battle preparation and gives an immediate gameplay advantage.  Insert situation from your favorite game here.  This is only the first and most obvious benefit of HiFi gaming.


Make Bad Look and Sound Good

Another huge benefit to running your games through a receiver is the many sound and picture processing features built into a modern stereo.  Besides just surround sound modes, a home theater receiver will have features to clean up and expand different stereo signals.  Some stereo devices, like the Wii or other older game systems, are capable of Dolby Pro Logic.  Pro Logic is a kind of stereo signal that is designed to be friendly to simulated surround sound.  Your receiver can process this into something that is somewhere in the middle between stereo and surround sound.  You can also use multi-channel stereo, which just takes any old 2 channel sound and wraps it around all the speakers.  While it won’t do anything to send sounds in different direction to simulate depth, it does immerse you more in an old game than just playing out the front left and right speakers would.

This also applies to processing picture.  If you are an old-school gamer, I would highly recommend a receiver with analog to digital upconversion over HDMI.  In layman’s terms, this means you plug in your Super NES to the receiver with its old crappy RCA cables and the receiver outputs it through HDMI to your TV.  This is pretty much essential if you want to play those systems on a newer TV.  Many newer TVs don’t even include analog inputs or are not even capable of resolutions below 480p like you would get out of a 16 or 32-bit console.  Many higher end receivers can even upconvert lower resolution signals to 1080p or 4k, which will not make the original image look better, but will eliminate a lot of the fuzziness caused by using the TV’s built in upconversion.  Even newer games that run at higher resolutions will benefit if you are using a TV or monitor that is still higher res.  A receiver will almost always have better and faster upconversion than a TV, so a PS4 or XB1 running through a receiver will look cleaner on a 4k TV.


Better Speakers Aren’t Just Louder

When I recommend upgrading sound, a lot of people comment about how they don’t really want something really loud.  This is a misconception brought on by using crappy sound.  In the days of old TV, when you couldn’t hear something, you just had to turn it up.  Most of us still think of sound in these terms.  When our new TV has crappy sound, we buy a sound bar that is the same thing, just louder.  Now the sound can go louder than the pathetic tiny speakers in the thin TV, so we can hear the dialogue again.  The problem with bad speakers isn’t their volume though.  You can’t hear everything clearly because all of the sounds are being forced out of two tiny speakers with limited sound range.  A speaker can only be designed to make a certain range of high and low frequency sounds, further limited by the size of the speaker.  To keep this simple, a big tower speaker can be heard much clearer at low volume than a small TV speaker, because it has several speakers inside playing the high and low sounds separately.  So although both are just playing the left and right sound channels, the larger speaker is separating it out more so you can pick out the voices from the car engines.

Furthermore, adding more speakers is not just adding more noise.  If you have trouble hearing dialogue clearly, you will be amazed at the difference a center channel speaker will make.  The center speaker plays mostly dialogue and sounds made by the things the screen is focused on.  The same is true for each level of extra speakers you add to your system.  Surround speakers go without much further description.  A subwoofer has much more utility than just making big booms.  Almost all receivers will allow you to select the individual crossover frequencies for each speaker.  In laymen’s terms, this means you can tell the smaller speakers to send most of their bass to the subwoofer so that noises in the background have convincing depth.  Although the subwoofer doesn’t move, the low frequency sound travels better and tricks your ear into hearing it with the sound from the source speaker.  You can go all out and add front height speakers, far rear speakers or ceiling mounted ambient noise speakers for the aforementioned Dolby Atmos.  The more you separate the sounds, the more realistic and immersive it becomes.


More Input, More Control

Personally, I have more than one gaming device.  I actually have more than 10 gaming devices.  If having a retro collection was not currently chic in gaming culture, I would probably be on Hoarders.  If you are even 1/10th as bad as I am, you have probably long ago run out of inputs on your TV.  You may be using splitters, one of those remote controlled switch boxes or even getting up and switching cables.  Although newer receivers are starting to have fewer and fewer old analog inputs (my 2014 Denon has 2 RCA, 2 component and the rest are HDMI), with a few adapters you should be able to connect at least 3 classic systems in addition to several new systems, a cable box and a BluRay player.  If your entertainment center can hold more than that, you may need splitters, but that should do it for most people.

Since the receiver has only one output to the TV, you don’t need to change any inputs or volume on the TV.  If you can configure your remote to turn the TV on, you should be able to reduce your setup to a couple button presses on the stereo remote and turning on your classic system, before you see your classic game on the screen in the best possible picture and sound quality.  This applies to new systems too, as the receiver will usually keep the settings for each input separately.  So you just push the Xbox input button and turn on the Xbox and the sound and picture will automatically be right, even if you were last watching an old VHS tape in analog stereo.  Even if you somehow mess up the inputs or settings, most receivers are smart about detecting what is plugged in and turned on.  As long as you leave most of the settings on auto, it should right itself unless that cable just isn’t supposed to go there.

Finally you can control most receivers that are wifi capable with an app on your phone or tablet.  You are also generally able to stream music from your phone or tablet to your stereo.  This allows you to control the volume, settings or just turn on your tunes at any time without hunting for the remote.  Since this is over WiFi, not using bluetooth or infared, you can do this anywhere in the range of your home WiFi.  Much better than pointing the remote or having to stay within 25-30 feet.  This is especially useful if you have a multi-zone stereo with speakers outside or throughout the house.  You can change what is playing in different areas, or adjust the volume for other rooms, without going back to where the stereo is.


That pretty much wraps this one up.  Hopefully this explanation helps you when deciding how much to put into sound for your gaming setup.


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