Chastity's Review of Virtual Surround Solutions

Discussion in 'Soundcards, Speakers HiFI & File formats' started by Chastity, Feb 5, 2021.

  1. Chastity

    Chastity Ancient Guru

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    Hi Gang, I did my review of the various VSS software / hardware solutions that I own, and am ready to give my impressions. The solutions I will be discussing are:

    Creative SBX (Creative G6)
    Dolby Atmos For Headphones (referred to as DAH in this article) from Dolby Access add-on
    DTS:Headphone X (DTS:HX)
    Nahimic (part of Asus Sonic Studio III)
    THX Spatial Sound
    Waves NX
    Windows Sonic (because everyone has this)

    Hardware used for testing: Beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro w/ Dekoni Elite Hybrids

    Now, I've been doing 3D Audio reviews since my days of my association with 3DSoundsurge. The Gold Standard back then was CMSS-3D, and forcing 7.1 configurations (either in Windows or in game) to get your HRTF. That had an eerie accuracy about it, and I was able to hunt down prey via audio cues. (I was also using a set of HD-580 Precisions, then later my Sony MDR-SA5000, which are some seriously wide cans) Getting that level of HRTF experience has been difficult, but here in 2021 things have improved. I'll be discussing gaming quality, movie, and music listening (2.0 and 5.1 sources)

    Virtual Surround Sound options:

    Windows Sonic

    This solution comes with every Windows 10 OS installation. I remember testing this when it first came out, and it was a horror story. I am happy to say that Microsoft has given it some love, and it's gotten to the point of being usable. The Windows Sonic solutions (this plus DAH and DTS:HX) all use the Windows Sonic audio interface, and will bypass your Windows speaker selection, and let the applications think you have a surround setup. (Not sure if it's limited to 7.1) Mind you, games need to be Windows Sonic aware to benefit, which can be an issue for some older titles.

    I find the model they use is not aggressive, and it's not too hard to detect directionality, but at the same time it won't distort any music played much at all. I do not like their use of the hollow can effect they use for HRTF hinting, especially for behind. This ruins immersion for me. The upside is that this VSS is free, and free is hard to argue with.

    Creative SBX

    This is primarily a software solution, tho the Creative hardware can accelerate it. In this day and age of massive Multicore CPU's, it's irrelevant You can either use a hardware solution like the SBX G6, or any other Creative soundcard / USB device, or use the MB3 software suite. ($30) This is their upgrade from CMSS-3D ([​IMG] Long Live The King) and I don't find it as accurate. I feel it's biased to having the front channels too far left / right, and rear cues sound too similar to side channels. You CAN use it, and adjust the Surround setting for the amount of spaciousness / effect you desire, and train yourself how to pick up on the cues better. I wish there was some tweaking / training you could do for the affect engine.

    When you use SBX, you shouldn't use Direct Mode. The modelling gets squashed, especially the Center channel. So ideally, you use Audio Effects Mode, and enable Surround. You'll be surprised the amount of FUD on the forums there is about how to set this up properly, especially involving Direct Mode. SBX devices also come with EAX support, which can be useful for older titles.

    As for the modelling quality, SBX doesn't use a lot of heavy reverb (unless you max out the Surround Setting), and the Surround field is circular. Their choice allows for minimal invasiveness on the Audio Quality, and has a pleasing presentation. For gaming, it's suggested to use 67% Surround, and for music 11%. Even 0% Surround On is better than Surround off for the quality of the HRTF imaging. As mentioned before, rear cues are the biggest weakness with this solution.

    The SBX hardwares support an option that you can do a HRTF mix over both Line-Out and SPDIF-Out (max 48KHz), so you can use your Creative device as your Virtualizer, and pair it with dedicated DAC and amps.

    Dolby Atmos For Headphones

    If you want a single solution for everything, this is a good contender. The sound field is circular, and smooth. It also doesn't butcher with room acoustic modelling, so you get good game audio quality. The direction and distance cues are apparent, and you can train yourself to work with this solution. Mind you, everyone has their preference as to what works best, so I do highly suggest you try out demos and see which works best for you. Atmos will also render above/below cues if the game supports this.

    You'll get the best rendering of the audio field if your game supports outputting a Dolby-encoded stream. This way the engine gets the audio cue info in their own format. There are quite a few games that support some form of Dolby output, like Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Atmos) and Diablo 3 (ProLogic).

    The soundfiled generated is quite smooth, and not overly reverbed. While keeping audio quality, it can make some directionality not so obvious, but training yourself can solve this easily. You can select Gaming, Movie, Music, and Voice profiles, and have an option for three Custom profiles with EQ. You can also toggle on/off the Volume Leveling in the Custom profiles, which may be preferable to taste.

    This Windows Sonic plug-in is sold via the Microsoft Store for $14.99, but it does go on sale occasionally for 20% off, at $10.99.

    DTS:Headphones X

    Much of what I mentioned about DAH also applies here, but their soundfield presentation is not the same. They use a subtle more reverb to enhance directional and distance cues, making them more obvious, at a sacrifice of a little audio quality. It also uses a circular presentation. Like DAH, best quality comes from games that support DTS encoded streaming. Rear cues are easier to detect, and I can see how this may be preferable to some.

    I would like to discuss the Headphone Profiles. DTS provides some EQ enhancements based on your headphone of choice, and also include generic IEM and Over-ear profiles. In a recent update, they also finally added a None option. This is a game changer, as I do my own EQ for the headphones, and thus I get the best presentation in detail retrieval. (Also my DT-1990 does not have a provided profile) Having this option has given me a more pleasant experience than in the past, and thus improved it's ranking with myself. [​IMG]

    As for customizing, you have two options: Balanced and Spatious. I found Balanced to be too claustrophobic for the DT-1990, once I got the EQ issue settled, so I prefer Spacious.

    Also available from the Windows Store, at the same pricing as DAH, and the same 20% discount at times.


    I find Nahimic to be a good solution, tho not my favorite. The SS3 app allows me to connect it with other devices, and not just my Realtek onboard audio. This was a plus for when listening to music, as it also has a toggle to upmix Stereo to Surround. When off, 2.0 sounded normal, and when I played 5.1 music, it did the HRTF mixing in a pleasant way, without making the music sound shaped. In gaming, it's better than Windows Sonic, but HRTF cues are subtle, but clean sounding. Rear cues are more defined than SBX. My issue with it is that the SS3 app does not offer the ability to force Windows into a surround mode, which can be an issue for some games. However, if you can force it in a game, or music source, like I can with 5.1 tracks, then you get the HRTF Mix.

    Nahimic does not sell their software direct to consumer, but is packaged with gamer headphones and motherboards.

    THX Spatial Sound

    This is a mediocre solution, which is too bad because this app does have some very nice customizing options. You can move the speaker placements, and adjust the loudness of each channel. Tho, in the end, I heard some undesirable distortions from the imaging effects that I did not care for, and as such it did not last long installed.

    You can buy a license through Razer for $19.99, and if you own their gear, they can include a 50% discount code, or just outright include it.

    Waves NX

    This solution took some time to grow on me. This is not a circular sound field solution, but is doing Room Speaker Placement modelling. This gives the impression of being in a room with actual speaker placements. For music, this is evil incarnate, as I much prefer what some of the other do. Tho for gaming, this can be quite effective. However, there is a caveat: YOU MUST DO THE HEAD CALIBRATIONS.

    The default settings are for a rather small head, and these settings affect the timings for the HRTF cues. I didn't cafe for the presentation with defaults, so I decided to grab a tape measure and do the measurements. WOW. What a difference. What started as something mediocre became eerie, and cues very easy to discern both direction and distance. This reminded me of CMSS-3D quality. So yes, measure your head. Currently this is my choice for gaming surround, and TY to myself for measuring. HRTF cues are quite apparent, and not chock full of Reverb that lessens sound quality, but is applied with precision.

    I just did some game testing, and I had a NPC walk past me, and I was able to successfully gauge how far he was, and where off-center he was behind me with accuracy. So footstep monitoring is checked and noted.

    As for customizing, this is rather limited. You have Multimedia (medium), Voice (intimate), and Movie Theatre (spacious). You also have your head circumference, and ear spacing arc, which is explained in the nice included Help. You also have an option to use a camera for head movement tracking, and/or their Bluetooth Tracker. Nice that it's wireless, but $99. (At the moment, you can buy the Waves NX Advanced VST plug-in + Tracker for $59) I have been musing about trying to use the VST plugin in conjunction with the NX Virtual Sound Device from the Waves NX game app. I could load it into EQ APO and see if I can use the customizing UI that is far more detailed, and allowing for room shaping. The game device gives me the Windows Audio settings for games to do 7.1.

    Waves NX is $9.99, tho this week there is a 40% sale, so you can nab it for $6.



    Another drop-in virtualizer, using a virtual sound device as the hook. You use the app and Windows Audio settings to configure the various settings, including the number of channels you want for input, and bit depth / sample rate. The device driver supports a configuration of up to 32/96, just like Waves NX. It's a bit more polished, as it has a full Windows Audio setting interface, as opposed to Waves, which just sits there with 7.1 active all the time.

    Of the settings, there are some special interests. For starters, you can choose for 5.1 audio sources to mix to either the Side channels, or the Rears. (Default is Rear) This can be useful with 5.1 music panning, as you may want a U instead of a full circle. There are 3 presets: Gaming, Movie, and Music, which are presets on the room size. I won't go too much into the features, as MLE did a fine job in his review. I will note that you can adjust the spacing of the fronts and adjust the volume of each channel. Also, you can adjust the timing of the cues to match the size of your noggin, and your ear canal spacing. Redscape uses a slider option for both, which makes it easy to adjust, tho not as precise as doing the measurements like in Waves NX, so you will have to experiment here until you find your magic setting.

    Redscape's room acoustics model isn't as distorting as say Waves NX is, but their cues are just as accurate. Of the two, I prefer Redscape for my 5.1 music playback thus far, tho I still prefer Nahimic's. One feature that I found to be missing is the ability to have the modeler pass thru stereo sources unmodeled. (Nahimic/Sonic Studio III has this option.) This is great for listening to music playlists with mixed 2.0 and 5.1 tracks. I passed on this suggestion to the author.

    When gaming, I do enjoy the larger room settings with my headphones. It's easier to pick up on distance and position, and even when things are on top of you, they sound like they're above you. Of course, it's all adjustable for your preferences. (I currently like using Music preset for gaming) I am still working with the head/ear adjustments to perfect the experience.

    Now, which one is better? This would depend on your preferences on how much you can tolerate the distortions of the VSS effect, and whether you want just a gaming solution. As I mentioned before, once you have the measurements done, Waves NX gets eerie accurate, and is a bit more pronounced than Redscape. You may prefer this, much like preferring DTS:X over Dolby Access. However, Waves NX isn't my choice for 5.1 music listening, and is ok for movie watching, but there are better choices, which I have already discussed elsewhere.

    Redscape is a nice compromise between cues and smoothness, and has excellent imaging and distance. Another nice feature is that Ryan can be easily contacted via email, and he's happy to answer questions, which I suppose adds value to the license cost. Tho, Waves NX is very much a close 2nd place, and is cheaper, but not as polished or settings friendly. The trick with Waves NX is getting those measurements, as it was a bit underwhelming with default settings.

    Unfortunately there's no trial demo of Redscape, tho it does have a 15-day refund policy.

    UPDATE: Redscape has been nice to offer a 15% discount to buyers for the month of February, bringing the license cost down to $34. Use promo code FEB15 when purchasing.

    Movie Watching

    Most movies and TV programs use encoded audio, either Dolby or DTS, in some flavor. The 2 Windows Sonic plugins Dolby Access and DTS:X can decode those streams and do the HRTF encoding, as intended by the engineers. This can go beyond simple 7.1 as DTS:X and Atmos have speaker configs that have above and below satellites, essentially providing a full 360 degree experience. This is why it's important to set up your player to bitstream these, or you will lose these above/below cues.

    You can use the other HRTF packages, but they will limit you to listening to 7.1 channels.

    For Dolby Access, just use the Movie profile, as this profile matches the profile the engineers encoded for. DTS:X just does this automagically. Also note these plug-ins will decode earlier encoding technologies, like Dolby Digital + or ProLogic I or II, for example.

    This is why I suggest to anyone watching movies or TV on their PC to have both plug-ins, in order to match encoded stream types. Not many releases have both, since the studio would have to license both, and why do the work twice?

    For fun I tried out Waves NX with some 5.1 videos, and it does a nice job, however, I still prefer the other proprietary decoders. You just get better immersion, and the Center (Voice) channel is more prominant, as probably intended by the audio encoders.

    EDIT: I had a discussion about watching movies and surround options in PM and I wanted to share the responses here as well:

    "If you use Redscape for watching anything that is Atmos or DTS-MA encoded, you will lose the extra channels and be limited to 7.1. Plus their HRTF model is not the same as Dolby and DTS.

    Personally, why limit yourself to only one solution? I have all the ones I discussed in my review, and they weren't very expensive. Dolby and DTS were $11 each, Waves NX I got for $6. SBX is from my G6, which was the most expensive to own. Nahimic came with my motherboard software. THX I tested their trial. (And I won't be buying) Out of your Head, I also tested their trial, and did not like. (Too much room shaping and deviance from source)

    The only ones I haven't tested is GSX, Redscape, and SXFi. None of the current SXFi solutions do it out their digital port, meaning I would have to use their DAC and amp. (feh) I'd have to check on GSX units to see if they can output HRTF over SPDIF. (I have a very nice AK4497 DAC, and why should I have to compromise?)

    Another thing I look for is sampling rate support. The Windows Sonics ones cap at 24/48. Waves NX can do above that, but above 96KHz it gets iffy. (Sometimes it works, other times it gets errors) The G6 SPDIF-Out is hard capped at 48Hz. Reason I check is use higher sampling rates to bypass Windows and DAC resampling, and because I have a nice collection of 24/96 6 channel music.

    To use Redscape, you'd have to decode the movie audio internally on your player, and then output the 7.1, which will then be shaped by the acoustic model. If you use the Windows Sonics with matching plug-in, then you bitstream the undecoded audio to the plug-in, which will shape it according to their model, which is what the audio was originally encoded to. So expect the HRTF audio to be the closest match as the sound engineers intended to be heard. "
  2. Chastity

    Chastity Ancient Guru

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    This review has been copied over from Head-Fi, where it originated. To read MLE's review, please see the link below:

    I'd like to move the discussion away from MLE's thread, and also not having to deal with the moderators at Head-Fi. Apparently, posting discount codes is a no no, so I offered to limit that to PM. Apparently that's also not acceptable, and now all my posts are moderated.

    All I wanted to do is let people know how to save $6. Sheesh.
  3. Valken

    Valken Ancient Guru

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    Awesome post and review! I've been in the Sound Blaster camp for a long time.

    X-Fi MB3 currently wired to Audeze Penrose over HDMI out. No wireless function in Windows 7 (only in W10, Mac OSX, Linux or console USB port).
    Before that was using SMS Audio Sync 2.4 GHZ wireless - broken
    Before that Sound Blaster WOW Surround Headset 2.4 GHZ - broken
    Before that Sennheiser forgot which model wired - again, broken

    I will look into Waves NX as I found X-Fi MB3 to have just OK surround in gaming. Gaming setting @ 40% surround (default) to 50% vis SBS is OK.
    I use the music preset as the center channel were BETTER than the movie with CENTER enabled.

    For competitive or FPS gaming, I have it set to SCOUT MODE!

    That is way more accurate than surround at 50% and next to no "processing". The stage is way more smaller by trading for directional cues.

    I saw the Sennheiser GSX-1000 locally.

    Competitive gamers were swearing by this but that price! I hope you or someone who has one can compare it to your list of surround apps.

    Thank you again for sharing.
  4. Chastity

    Chastity Ancient Guru

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    For Redscape Owners: Seems if you want to check for updates, you may need to do it manually. Settings - About - Check For Updates I noticed it never informed me of updates, and when I checked today, it updated me from 1.36 to 1.39.

  5. Chastity

    Chastity Ancient Guru

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    Update: Interestingly, as of late, I've noticed that I can set my SMSL M300 DAC to 192kHz, and the Waves NX plug-in has been working ok. I know it supports up to 96kHz, and testing confirmed this. However, in the past, 192kHz usually causes the audio pitch to be way off, and with error. But recently it's been consistently working.

    I installed v 5.0.0 of the USB driver recently, but I cannot confirm this was the changer, or if due to a OS update.

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