Perhaps you’ll probably need some decent speakers
Immersive audio is a rising trend, with the increase of object-based surround sound technologies like DTS:X and Dolby Atmos in the world of film – but how will immersive audio convert to the world of gaming?
The PS5 is imminent on the horizon, and while we don’t know all that the next-gen console will propose, we do know that the PlayStation 5 will be storing some exciting audio tech, together with ray-tracing and backwards-compatibility.
In an interview with Wired on April 2019 interview, the console’s head architect Mark Cerny confirmed that the PS5 will back what he names “3D audio” – something he says will “make you feel more engrossed in the game as sounds come at you from top, from behind, and from the side”.
While Cerny didn’t explain on exactly how the technology works, he confirmed that it won’t need “any external hardware”, with the audio chip making part of the third-generation AMD Ryzen chipset that will run the PlayStation 5.
Why should gamers care about 3D audio?
The advantages of playing a game “as sounds come at you from above, from behind, and from the side”, are plentiful. Apart from making the gaming experience feel more immersive, it could provide you with more precise clues and cues as you play.
Imagine how the feel of playing a first-person battle royale game like Fortnite would be changed if you could actually hear the steps of your enemy sneaking up on you without purchasing a virtual surround sound gaming headset.
Or, how much more captivating puzzle games like Fez would be if you could hear synths bubbling up nearby you as you succeed in finding your next clue.
When speaking to Wired, Cerny accepted that there was a ” disappointment that audio did not change considerably between PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4″.
“With the next console, the aim is to show how spectacularly different the audio experience can be when we apply substantial amounts of hardware horsepower to it.”
So we can be fairly sure that the PlayStation 5’s 3D audio chip will mark a big upgrading from the sound quality produced by the PlayStation 4 – and with the PS5 release date expected to be somewhere in March, we might not have to wait much to find out.
The first Dolby Atmos-enabled PlayStation?
Although the PS5’s audio specs haven’t been disclosed yet, the 3D audio chip that Cerny indicated to could provide Dolby Atmos sound with it, getting it into straight competition with the Xbox One
What could that signify for gamers using the PS5? Well, to comprehend that, you first need to know a tiny bit about how Dolby Atmos functions.
Dolby Atmos is an audio format that enables you to experience the sound from your games in a 360-degree sphere. It’s engineered to give your audio the feeling of being three dimensional; for instance, imagine the difference among hearing a helicopter flying a few hundred yards away against directly over your head.
Sound designers can accomplish this by placing different sounds and effects at different points in that virtual sphere, which, in response, correspond to where speakers are situated in your living room. When you play the movie rearward using Dolby Atmos-enabled audio devices, you’ll be able to catch the effects move around you, similar to what the audio engineers planned.
In a perfect world, we’d all have speakers fitted to our ceilings to fully convey the sound of that helicopter passing above us – of course, that’s not the truth for most.
That’s where Dolby Atmos soundbars and speakers make debut; these hardworking gadgets work by bouncing rays of audio off your ceiling and then to your ears, employing upfiring tweeters.
However, there’s one problem with that – Cerny said that no external equipment would be needed for the PS5’s 3D audio chip to take effect. That excludes out Sony’s own 360 Reality Audio codec too, which needs compatible headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM3 or speakers like the Amazon Echo Studio to function.
So, minus the specialist spatial audio hardware, how could the PS5 sound truly immersive?
Mixing it up
The answer rests in Dolby Atmos upmixing, which was presented by Microsoft to the Xbox One X back in 2019. This smart tech can take a non-Dolby Atmos source and transform it into an approximation of Dolby Atmos sound.
The result isn’t as immersive as real, encoded-at-source Dolby Atmos, but as the upmixing technology came from Dolby itself, you can be quite confident that upmixed audio will load more of a sonic punch than non-upmixed sources.
Although true Dolby Atmos requires speakers or a soundbar with upfiring tweeters to push sound right up to your ceiling, virtual Atmos doesn’t need any special hardware.
Named Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization, this audio processing mimics the experience of overhead sound using speakers at a listener height (like the ones inside your TV). It works by attaching height cue filters to any above audio component – like the helicopter – before they’re mingled into listener-level speakers.
It’s an expertise based on psychoacoustics, or in layman’s languages, the study of how the human ear and brain identifies sound. According to Dolby, the filters attached to overhead audio components mimic “the natural spectral cues conveyed by the human ear to sounds coming from above”, fundamentally tricking your brain in the process.
Usually, Dolby Atmos needs to be applied at the point of mixing a soundtrack, but the upmixing technology employed by the Xbox One X can change non-Atmos formats into an immersive virtual version of the technology. With the PS5 confirmed to be backwards-compatible, deploying technology like this could prepare the way for older games to be renewed with 3D sound.
So, although we still don’t know the ins and outs of the PlayStation 5’s 3D audio chip, it looks likely that it will let Dolby Atmos upmixing support, like to what we’ve seen in the Xbox One X.
It’s significant to note that any upmixed audio source, being played via your TV’s tiny speakers won’t sound nearly as strong as Dolby Atmos played through an upfiring soundbar – and even that isn’t as good as true Atmos played through a gigantic ceiling speaker array.
For those who don’t want to depend on their underwhelming TV speakers, a new soundbar doesn’t have to be a massive investment; actually, some of the best soundbars of 2020 are indisputably affordable.
Sony’s HT-X8500 Soundbar is available with support for Dolby Atmos, and costs only $299 / £350 / AU$599 – and now that it’s a little older, that price is usually discounted by retailers hoping to shift some stock.
If you already own a speaker set up that you don’t want to get rid of, it’s thinkable to buy add-on upfiring speakers like the PSB Imagine XA to get Dolby Atmos to your existing configuration – this can be expensive, though.
Don’t want to use up all that money on new gear? Even using your TV’s speakers, virtual Dolby Atmos will possibly sound a lot more immersive than non-upmixed audio though. Cerny himself said that headphone audio would be “the gold standard” when it comes to playing games with the PS5 – and most of us have a pair of headphones bumping around at home.
Expectantly, all will be disclosed in the coming weeks – and it could be that Sony has chosen to use a technology entirely different from Dolby Atmos. Till the PS5 is officially released, we’ll have to wait and see.