I have said before in reviews that I am a musician. Primarily a metal musician, I played piano for 4 years before transitioning between various instruments including violin, trombone, trumpet and melodica before settling on guitar. Over the years I have grown an appreciation for good sound quality. Many friends growing up took pride in their sound systems also, the crowning system being my friend Al, who had a hi-fi system with two 250w speaker stacks which left you swimming in the sound.
Gaming’s growth in quality has not just been in graphical and mechanical innovation, but also in their musical sense. It is not uncommon for games to have grand soundtracks created for them by composers. Many of us remember a game where the music vastly improved the experience and games are now praised for sound tracks almost as much as the graphical quality. Yet many gaming setups seem to neglect the audio end of a game, not just on PC but also on consoles. A quick glance around the PC and console setups of my friends range mostly from headphones to TV speakers, with only four owning actual speakers at all. It seems that people are neglecting a huge part of the gaming experience.
I have been through many sound systems over the years from iPod headphones to expensive Hi-Fi setups, and have decided to make this little guide for anyone looking for help picking the audio system that is right for them. Be it console or computer, this should help you pick how you should be listening to your favourite games.
Check your situation
Before considering audio, understand two factors: Firstly, what is your budget? Secondly, can you afford to be loud?
Budget is one of the major stipulating factors in people’s audio setup and the reason I presume many people neglect them. I do not wish to be held responsible for crippling debt because a man on the internet told you that you were neglecting sound. If your budget is low headphones and simple 2.1 external speakers are a safe bet, as the quality is generally quite high across a large monetary range. If you have money to splash you can go for Hi-Fi or 5.1 surround systems as well as boutique headphones.
Secondly, and almost more importantly, can you afford to be loud? Excessive noise in the UK is a civil offence. You may live in a poorly insulated terraced house or with people who would not appreciate your gaming or taste in music being broadcast loudly late at night. During my time as a student, I spent my second year living with someone who had no regard for volume and would regularly blast his music or TV loud until the early hours of the morning, despite protest from us and the landlady and therefore I personally take great care not to play my music excessively loud. My current room is an insulated self-contained flat which gives me some breathing room to use speakers. For your situation headphones may be the only option and that is fine; but do not purchase a large, expensive and loud system that you can never utilise due to your situation or could get you in legal trouble.
Headphones are generally considered a must in gaming, especially for multiplayer gaming online. The isolation not only allows gaming late into the night without disturbing others but also allows the use of a high volume with minimal risk of feedback into a microphone.
There are plenty of companies which produce headphones of high sound quality for an exceptionally reasonable price. Invision has reviewed a multitude of headphones across the spectrum of cost so browse the site for what headphones would suit you best. I am currently using Element Gaming Neon 300 headset for PC gaming which is a comfortable fit and gives a simulation of 7.1 surround sound. Be sure to check specifications such as comfort padding for long gaming sessions and connection method, whether USB or 3.5mm jack.
It may go without saying, and yet will be said anyway, that earbud headphones should not really be considered. Most earbuds tend to push up the bass frequencies due to the prevalence of bass-oriented club music in popular culture. This also causes ear fatigue quicker than headphones, where the ear canal produces wax and shrinks to prevent frequencies causing damage to the ear, which can alter the way your ear translates the sound to your brain.
PC/ TV Speakers
The next step up from headphones is PC speakers. A large number of PC screens come with speakers, though these tend to be where cost is saved and therefore quality is generally low. For those using a TV, whether playing on a console or monitor, the speakers tend to be of better quality for gaming. Any modern LCD worth its salt should have a 3.5mm external speaker connection on the back to allow the addition of a sound system.
PC speakers also have a good range of price and even the cheaper models produce good-quality audio. A quick look on Amazon gives over 300,000 results. Logitech is known for producing high quality speakers at prices starting from just £5.
When incrementing up you will see some speakers coming with a separate subwoofer. When looking at these models consider your situation again. The low frequencies of the bass range produced by a subwoofer will travel the furthest through walls, as anyone who has ever walked passed a club at night will know. Most PC speakers do come with some EQ setting, though, and you can fine tune the bass down to a level where it will not be harassing other human beings.
If you have purchased speakers, the typical setup depends on the number of speakers in the bundle. The usual 2.1 setup is simply one speaker on each side of the monitor facing towards the user and additional speakers in 5.1 and 7.1 setups are normally placed behind the user. If using a subwoofer its position should be considered last as one of the qualities of the low frequencies is that the brain has trouble determining the specific location of the signal and therefore hears it in both ears equally. Most users, however, place them underneath the desk, but not touching the desk as this can cause the desk to vibrate at higher volumes.
Hi-Fi Sound Systems
An option that was shown to me by a friend is using a Hi-Fi system. This is done by connecting the PC or TV to an amplifier system which pushes the signal through the speakers. Recently I got donated an old hifi stack by a friend’s parent as a thanks for helping them move home and have set it up with my computer. The results are quite phenomenal and I do recommend this setup to anyone who can afford it and has the room to use it effectively.
The simplest explanation of the setup is that the sound is taken from the device (in my case using a 3.5mm jack to RCA cable) into an amplifier in older setups or an AV receiver in modern setups. This then sends the signal along to whatever number of speakers you desire, depending on how many speakers the amplifier or AV receiver can accommodate.
There are factors you have to consider here which are not necessary for other setups. The first is whether to use an AV receiver or an amplifier. If you are console gaming, or your setup is in a social room and used for regular TV viewing, home cinema or other uses use then an AV receiver is better suited. Also if you are also wishing for a system bigger than 2 speakers, then an AV receiver is generally more accommodating and usually are ported for up to 7.1 surround sound. You also must consider factors when purchasing speakers, particularly the speaker’s ohms though most starter setups come with speakers of the correct ohms to start you off or are purchasable off the company.
These setups can be cost effective if you look in the right places. I am using a Cambridge Audio A1 mk3 integrated Hi-Fi amplifier connected to my computer using a 3.5mm jack to RCA cable. The amplifiers can be picked up on eBay for around £80, and speakers can be found in most second hand shops and a good set can be picked up for £50. For reference, here is a picture of my speaker setup to show how a setup like this could look.
A typical day for my workstation
Home Cinema System
For the console gamer, this may be the easiest option for improving the audio quality of your gaming. Home cinema systems are generally 7.1 surround sound systems designed to be used with a TV. While it is possible for it to be used on a computer setup Hi-Fi setups are usually more cost effective.
The question here is simply cost. A home cinema setup will come bundled with all the speakers and cables required, so a person simply needs to place the speakers in the necessary position and you are good to go. However, they retail for a much higher price as a result. Most TV companies also make home cinema systems so see if there is a system designed for your TV model.
So these are the main options for audio setups for consoles and computers. There are plenty of options within each category, making them available for most price points. Remember to use your ears and intuition when choosing which setup is right for you as there are factors I have not spoken about such as room shape and frequency ranges and do not need to be considered by anyone below an audio engineer. Invision has covered a range of speakers and headphone systems and I recommend having a look through our reviews to see which would be correct for your setup.