How Does Surround Sound Work In Headphones

You may have already encountered the word ‘surround sound’, if NOT you probably have experienced it. Yes, surround sound has already been here for ages. It is a set-up of multiple sound systems that surrounds a certain space and is most commonly used in cinemas.

Through the emerging modern technology, this kind of sound system can already be found at home. Surround sound is developed for us to experience an illusion of live entertainment. Using the transmission of multiple channels creates an imitation of the realistic sound field.

Surround sound creates a fascinating hearing experience for listeners. Our ears are way more complex the way it seems, naturally, a listener can locate where a certain sound emanates because it is connected to how our brain works.

Let us say you are watching on a sports channel, with the help of surround sound set up, you can feel like you are in the live audience with the sound of a ball dribbling to the sound of the crowd cheering as well when you watch movies. Surround sound lets the listener identify where the sound originates, whether it is from above, below, left, right, front or rear.

Not everyone has the space for a surround sound system. Aside from being costly, it can take up a lot of space. We usually listen to music or watch movies through stereo speakers or even headphones. Luckily, we can experience 3d audio now with these kinds of listening mediums but how does surround sound exactly work in headphones?

Surround Sound in Headphones

Surround sound headphones are the best alternative for recreating the traditional surround sound at cinemas. You may be wondering how do headphones that only have a pair of cups can manage to imitate a surround sound system? The trick is the combination of our ears, head, and of course modern tech. The key to playing back a surround sound mix on headphones is to emulate something called binaural recording.

Binaural recording is based on the idea that the sound that travels in our eardrums is influenced by the shape of our head and ears. It takes the advantage of how our ears work. Since we have it on either side of our heads, our ears are much more complex than stereos.

The human hearing system is advanced and can resolve 3D sounds. We can differentiate between sounds coming from different directions without even moving our heads. Head-related transfer functions (HRTF) are the biggest factor in how we can do that. It is a combined acoustic effect of a person’s head with their hearing. Before our eardrums encounter sound, HRTF will respond to the soundwaves from a point in our space. Even though we only have two ears, we can differentiate the sounds coming whether it is coming from front or behind, left or right, as well as farther distance because of HRTF. It still depends from one person to another because our outer ears are relatively as unique as our fingerprints. Our heads also differ in sizes and shapes and yes, it also does affect our hearing system.

Virtual surround sound vs. True Surround Sound

We already know the bliss of having a good sound set-up whether you are a moviegoer, a pc-gamer, or someone who likes experiencing a good sound system. The idea of experiencing surround sound through a piece of headphones is truly a game-changer in the audio world.

There are two different approaches to making surround sound work in headphones; true surround and virtual surround sound. It is a matter of hardware and software built for these devices.

What is the difference between true surround sound and virtual surround sound?

You may have already heard about the 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system whether you go to the market or just browsing through the internet. 5.1 is a common setup of multiple speakers and the layout in a home theater consists of a center channel, a front-left channel, a front-right channel, a rear-left channel, a rear-right channel, and a “subwoofer”. 7.1, on the other hand, consists of 7 speakers plus a subwoofer. This can be found in multi-driver headphones which follow the setup of surround sound speakers. It is the true surround sound in headphones.

True Surround Sound in headphones (How it works)

True surround sound in headphones is usually built large and heavy because of multiple drivers inserted to copy what a surround sound home theater has done. Compared to virtual surround sound, true surround sound in headphones is quite expensive given that it is composed of complex mechanical types of equipment or multiple drivers.

True surround sound focuses on the hardware in headphones. It uses tiny speakers to produce a realistic image of the sound. Those speakers are placed in each headphone cup that handles different sounds. Old models have only 4 channels (quadrophonic) but the latest true surround sound hardware in headphones has already adapted models that have either six to eight-channel (5.1 or 7.1). Just like the set-up of surround sound home theater, these speakers in headphones are physically positioned around your ear to help imitate sounds coming from various directions.

There is notably a distinct difference between 5.1 and 7.1 headphones. As the name implies, 5.1 has five channels and a subwoofer for bass while 7.1. 7 individual drivers, positioned with extra left-surround and right-surround channels for sounds to imitate the positioning of an actual 7.1 sound speaker system 7.1 is obviously more expensive. If you are a gamer, 7.1 headphones are might be an audio overkill, and mind that some games can only support 5.1. Either way, 5.1 or 7.1 tends to recreate the sense of space.

An impressive surround sound effect will be created by activating the multi-drivers in this setup. Speakers correspond to sound sources in a movie or a game. For an instance, if you are a gamer or you play games like Call of Duty (COD), using multi-driver surround sound headphones will give you an advantage since the duty of these drives will create noises of the footstep or any movement of an enemy. It can really be handy in games because improved surround sound will give you the illusion of being on that game battlefield because better positional accuracy gives a more thrilling experience.  Whereas, while watching movies you will be truly engaged in the action with sound coming from a variety of directions.

We already know the uniqueness of our ears and by using true surround sound headphones, we can visualize a set of speakers through these devices that brings up an illusion of sound around us. While true surround sound focuses on hardware, virtual surround sound creates the same effects artificially.

Virtual Surround Sound in headphones (How it works)

Unlike true surround sound, virtual surround doesn’t need a special headset with complex hardware but it requires heavy signal processing to create a realistic virtual sound field. It uses different algorithms and HRTF-based binaural into tricking our ears and brains into discerning that the sounds are happening around us even if it only uses two physical speakers for both sides of our ears.

A psychoacoustic approach is needed if you don’t need multi-speaker headphones constantly playing into your ears. In virtual surround sound, when a sound recording goes through the software, it will create a fake multi-audio experience that will trick our brains that a particular sound happening around your space. It is quite tricky because software in virtual surround sound headphones relies on different amps that convert normal stereo sound signals into surround sound. When also combined with head motion tracking, even when you move your head, sounds in this virtual surround approach won’t be altered.

Advantages of virtual surround sound in headphones


Virtual surround sound is undeniably superior to true surround sound. It can actually be used in all types of headphones since it is a software-based solution, you can just download it. Yes, it is accessible through third-party apps available online. There are applications out there that are free or some pro subscriptions compromise ‘better’ quality, it all has promising virtual audio. Even in some devices, it has already built-in features for a virtual surround sound setup that can be used for your headphones.


Virtual surround sound headphones are cheaper than true surround sound headphones because it mainly doesn’t use multiple speakers, they only have two.

Different companies have distinct approaches and algorithms for achieving virtual surround sound in headphones. The most common standard for these surround sound headphones is:

Dolby Atmos

Creative Super X-Fi

Apple Spatial Audio

Sony 360 Reality Audio/3D Audio

DTS Headphone: X

Notably, the surround sound approach in headphones is revolutionary in the world of sound systems. The traditional setup of surround sound can already be achieved with just a piece of headphones. It improves the quality of movies we watch and games we play. Both true surround sound and virtual sound in headphones work by emerging modern hardware and software that stimulate our brain into giving an impressive illusion of live 3d sound.

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