Sennheiser 1/3: the auditory side of competitive gaming

Up until recently, I was part of that large group of people who thought “speakers are speakers” and “headphones are headphones”. I always made sure I bought a trusted brand, but felt safe enough that way and saw no need to explore the more expensive options out there. As far as my gaming experience went, I always leaned more towards spending my budget on a videocard with some extra oomph, or dedicated controller such as a gaming mouse.

That is until I went to CES and talked to the friendly folks over at the Sennheiser booth. Already a leading name in the industry due to their award-winning headphones (my mp3 player doesn’t leave the house without one), it was there that I found out that they had applied their technology to gaming-specific headset solutions as well. Though intrigued, I was still in my “headphones are headphones, and a headset just has a mic attached”-mode, so that’s why I started probing to see what they were claiming to offer, and why it should matter to us as competitive gamers.

My obvious (though perhaps somewhat blunt) question was about what makes a headset a gaming product. I was then explained by Sennheiser’s Product Manager Christian Ern that a key element in a gamer’s experience is to be able to hear every detail, from footsteps to gunshots in the distance. Ideally, the gamer would also be able to pin-point where that sound is coming from, and by hearing more than their opponents hear a competitive advantage can be gained. Small details like that can mean the difference between winning and losing, and Sennheiser has added specific sound designs that optimize positional hearing, even adding multi-channel technology to some of their models.

When I translate that experience to (for instance) a first person shooter game, you have a player who can only view one particular direction of the virtual environment. But if that same player can hear sound coming for everywhere then he or she has additional information about what’s going on. With that picture in mind, I was quick to realize they had a point, but thought back to my home theater setup where I have a 5.1 system that does more or less the same thing. So why a headset and not just a set of speakers?

A clear answer to that question can be found in a world I’m not too familiar with myself. Massive gaming tournaments and LAN parties feature dozens of gamers all playing simultaneously in a relatively small space, and the noise in such a place can get overwhelming. For that type of environment, a gamer would want to try and isolate as much outside noise as possible so his focus can stay with the game without worrying about his ability to hear crucial audio clues in the game. In headset-terms, that would point to a ‘closed’ model, which means a gamer’s ears are sealed off by circumaural cups that significantly reduce outside noise. This is even true in noisy environments, but a downside of this is that some gamers might experience a reduced sense of comfort that is caused in part by the acoustic sealing effect but also by a limited airflow to the ears.

To alleviate these concerns for gamers who play in quieter environments, ‘open’ headset models have also been developed. A technology I was already familiar with as a music lover, this basically means that the ear cups expose the headphone diaphragm to the air around you using a grill. The net result of this is that the audio sounds more ‘natural’, for it does not bounce around in a closed earcup like it would inside a cave. The comparison is a bit over the top, but you get my point. So when playing at home, tackling your foes over the internet, you’d be happy with the added comfort and the sound reproduction these models offer. Then again, if you’re in busier surroundings but value hearing your teammates and/or opponents, having an open model suddenly becomes an advantage there as well.

That was my “Gaming Headgear 101” experience, after which I was fascinated and wanted to ask Sennheiser’s engineers about their challenges in catering to the demanding crowd of competitive gamers. Though not present on the CES floor, I followed up with them later and got the following engineering perspective:

“Our headsets need specific audio tuning that improves the user’s ability to identify precisely where a given sound is coming from. This requires in-depth knowledge of human hearing on the part of our engineers, but also the skills to transform that knowledge into real product features like the frequency response curve. What’s more, gaming products present some additional challenges of their own.”

Some of these challenges have resulted in a volume control that’s integrated in the ear cup, and a microphone that mutes automatically when you lift up the boom arm. These are gamer-specific features that Sennheiser has developed in part by working closely with e-Sport team mTw, which helps to make sure their gamer headsets offer more than just sound and comfort.

While at CES, I was also impressed with the ability to now produce 5.1 or even 7.1 surround sound in a pair of headphones. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to ask Sennheiser’s engineers how this works. I found the answer to be fascinating and extremely informative:

“In recent years, mechanisms for identifying where sounds come from have been the subject of intense research. To analyze the source of a sound, the human ear uses information such as delay (the time between a sound arriving at the left and right ear), the difference in volume, and even slight changes in the sound between the left and right ear. In the real world, when a sound comes from the left, we don’t hear it only in our left ear. We also hear it in our right ear – just slightly delayed, at a lower volume, and with some specific changes at certain frequencies.To simulate this in a headset, you need several ingredients.

First, you need to gather all the audio information from the game, which usually comes in the 5.1 or 7.1 channel format. Then you apply algorithms to those components of the sound that emulate the effects described above (delay, attenuation, and frequency). Dolby Headphone™ is one of the best technologies currently available for “virtualization” of this kind and this is what we use in our 7.1 gaming headsets.”

After that, my head was spinning a little, and it had nothing to do with surround sound effects. Still, it made a lot of sense and I couldn’t wait to actually try out these technologies myself. So stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of this feature as I do just that, and also talk to several pro gamers about their experiences.

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