Anyone who’s looking for an upgrade to their usual sound experience whether it’s for games or movies have definitely heard about surround sound systems. For families, that usually means setting up a home theater system. Others prefer headphones that feature 3D audio effects.
Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos are two of the most famous technologies that handle spatial audio rendering these days. However, people who don’t have prior knowledge of these technical terms or even those who do have seem to not understand how each technology works and differs.
What Are the Key Differences Between Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos for Headphones?
Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos for headphones have different models for HRTF. They were both created based on research where microphones were inserted in dummy heads to measure how humans perceive sound around them. Thus, you will experience one better than the other based on how closely the shape of your head matches the generalized model used by either brand.
To provide a generalized concept, below are the fundamental differences between Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos for headphones:
Windows Sonic for Headphones
- Free to use
- Pre-installed in Windows/Xbox One / easy to install for other devices
Dolby Atmos for Headphones
- A license costs $14.99. However, it has a 7-day free trial.
- Works significantly better with supported headphones
In the next sections, the technical terms we used will be explained in order for you to have a clearer understanding of concepts revolving around 3D audio. Additionally, you will learn more about how each technology is utilized and how different they sound. But first, we have to go back to how sounds are naturally perceived.
How Humans Perceive Sound
Our brains are responsible for processing sound waves when they enter our ears and are received by the auditory nerves. However, the position of the head, trunk, and external ears alter the way sounds are filtered and perceived from a point in space. The process of how sound changes through these factors is called the head-related transfer function (HRTF).
Meanwhile, when you listen through stereo headphones, the sound you hear can sound unidimensional and merged, with no regard to space or distance from where the sound is supposed to come from. Technologies like Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos aim to replicate HRTF in order to give you the audio experience as if you are in the actual scene where the sounds happen.
Imagine a helicopter flying over your head. With a 2D sound system, you will hear the plane on both stereos, without varying depth of sound. With a spatial sound system like Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos, you will hear the sound as if a real chopper is flying above your head.
Surround Sound vs. Spatial Sound
There is a little difference between surround sound and spatial sound that most people don’t notice.
Surround sound is made of 3 or more speakers forming a system surrounding the listener, helping produce a more realistic audio experience. Surround sound is projected on a flat plane, i.e. you can only hear sounds from the front, back, left, and right.
To achieve surround sound, one or more channels of loudspeakers are added. This is to simulate a sensation of sound coming from any horizontal direction around the listener.
Spatial audio, however, adds height to the output. Headphones utilize HRTF for a 3D sound effect while home theaters usually include ceiling speakers or up-firing speakers. This helps simulate objects that emit audio from positions in the 3D space. To visualize, imagine having multiple speakers set up inside one pair of headphones.
Spatial sound provides the highest level of audio immersion and makes the general listening experience much better.
How Does Spatial Sound Affect Music, Movies, and Gaming Experience?
With spatial sound, a deeply immersive media experience, no matter the channel, has taken one huge step away from being a pipe dream.
When you listen to music using headphones specialized for 3D audio technology, you wouldn’t really be able to hear any difference except when the audio you will listen to is encoded in 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. Similarly, music encoded with surround sound features can still be played in normal headphones but it would sound flattened out.
Music creators have responded enthusiastically with this technology by creating songs making good use of this feature such as R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People album.
Watching movies with spatial sound, however, dramatically improves your viewing experience. With this technology, you’ll be able to hear even the slightest details that are not noticeable with other sound technologies. For example, a scene in the forest will enable you to hear the slightest rustle of leaves or hisses of wild animals that would feel like they’re either close by or barely hearable. Always remember, though, that this doesn’t work on movies with 2D sound.
A player’s gaming experience is one that’s most amplified by spatial sound systems. As many games are now designed to incorporate auditory skills to improve your capabilities, it gives you a significant advantage over other players.
For example, when playing first-person shooting games such as PUBG or Valorant, hearing approaching footsteps or distant gunshots will improve your situational awareness and help you determine where your enemies probably are and prepare for a counterattack.
3D sound also enhances immersion for mobile games, where developers use audio more than the visuals to drive the gameplay. It’s important to know that Virtual Reality games also make good use of this technology for a holistic and more enjoyable experience.
Windows Sonic for Headphones
Microsoft developed Windows Sonic to recreate spatial sound experience even with ordinary stereo headphones. It’s compatible with Xbox One and other Windows 10 devices. Windows Sonic was introduced to Windows 10 and Xbox One in 2017 as updates. You can use it for free on any device by just turning the option on.
Since surround sound technology is only going to get better in the future, different kinds of media, especially games, use it to their advantage. More and more developers are incorporating game soundtracks that are compatible with 3D sounds.
How Windows Sonic for Headphones Work
Windows Sonic for headphones takes the virtual approach to bring us a 3D sound effect. This means that the software handles spatial sound production; making any pair of headphones compatible with it. However, as mentioned above, spatial sound only works with games, movies, or applications with sounds that are designed to render 7.1 channel formats. Additionally, the technology does not suit all sound systems such as built-in laptop speakers.
How to Activate Windows Sonic for Headphones in Windows 10
You can activate Windows Sonic for headphones in Windows 10 just by right-clicking the volume icon on your taskbar. Afterwards, you’ll see the “spatial sound” option. Hover over that to find your available options for 3D audio rendering. Choose Windows Sonic.
- It works on all headphones
- Windows Sonic for Headphones is free to use.
- You can easily turn it on by toggling the switch in your device
- It doesn’t work great with external speakers.
Dolby Atmos for Headphones
Dolby Atmos is a 3D sound technology developed by Dolby Laboratories. It is available on different platforms such as Windows 10 and Xbox One. It can also be used on TVs, soundbars, or home theater setups. Unfortunately, Dolby Atmos for headphones does not come for free. You will pay a one-time fee of $14.99 for a license. They have provided a 7-day trial for the software for people who want to try it for free.
How Dolby Atmos for Headphones Work
The technology Dolby Atmos for headphones use is similar to Windows Sonic. It can also work with Windows 10 and Xbox One. You can also use any headphones for it, but it works best with Dolby Atmos compatible headphones or loudspeakers. Through the years, users have expressed how Dolby Atmos sounded more natural and deeper than Sonic, especially with Atmos-enabled headsets.
How to Activate Dolby Atmos for Headphones in Windows 10
Right-click your volume icon and a menu will appear. Hover over the “Spatial Sound” option and select Dolby Atmos. If you haven’t installed one on your laptop yet, you will see it in the “Try and Buy from Microsoft Store” options. Just remember that Dolby Atmos needs a license to work.
You can activate Dolby Atmos for headphones or home theater. For the home theater option, you need to make sure that your home theatre hardware supports spatial audio technology. This is compatible with newer PC built-in speakers.
- Most games sound more immersive with Dolby Atmos
- Supports a wider range of sound systems
- Has a free trial period
- Works better with Dolby Atmos specialized headphones or speakers
- Has a $14.99 license fee
Which Is the Right Option for You?
Both the Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos provide quality service with their own advantages and disadvantages. They provide significant improvement in audio experience for games, music, and movies.
Some say Atmos is more shallow, some say Sonic sounds exaggerated. Judging what’s better than the other, though, really comes down to your own taste and needs.
For the budget-conscious
For people who don’t see the need to spend $15 for a sound system license, Windows Sonic is the easy choice. Both technologies will provide you with an amazing, immersive audio experience, so if you’re not nitpicky about the difference in depth or sound execution-style, you might as well get started with the free software.
Audiophiles would generally prefer the best quality for everything they will listen to. If you are an audiophile, the best path to take is getting high-quality, Dolby Atmos-enabled headphones. Since Sonic does not require special headphones, you can still combine Sonic with your gear. This is especially if you don’t feel like buying Atmos’ license after availing of the free trial.
For pure music lovers
There may be some overlap between audiophile and music lovers, but the former may strive for a more high-fidelity approach to music. Music lovers will find themselves in the neutral zone when it comes to choosing between Atmos or Sonic. Ultimately, there are not many songs that are encoded in 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. If you’re not into the 3D music genre, you will be fine with your current stereo system. Some people don’t feel like spending thousands of dollars for 3D-optimized headphones, too.
For movie lovers
If you are solely considering switching to 3D sound systems just to experience your favorite movie in 3D, you may not be able to justify Dolby Atmos’ price for yourself. Similar to music, not all movies are made with interactive soundtracks. Others are already great without the enhanced audio. You can, however, opt for Windows Sonic since you can use it for free.
If you are an avid gamer and are very particular about how your game sounds, you can try out Dolby Atmos for headphones especially if you’re playing a game with game soundtracks specifically optimized for it.
Some users prefer Dolby Atmos because it provides a more immersive listening experience compared to Sonic. This advantage is associated with the increased height of spatial sounds that result in a more realistic output.
For Windows 10 or Xbox One users, if you have just heard about spatial sound and have started to become curious about it, Windows Sonic is your obvious choice. This way, you’ll be able to get used to Sonic and when you finally try Dolby Atmos, you would have a better edge of distinguishing how different they really sound for you.
When picking either of the technologies, if you don’t have much of an experience with spatial sound yet, remember that both offer leeway to game developers and moviemakers to open another realm of experience through sound and immersion. Before choosing between the two, remember to check where the movie, music, or game that you will play is more compatible. The sound differences, in general, are very subtle so it would not tick you off if you’re not an audiophile. Still, it’s best you test both to determine what works best for you.
The Best Dolby Atmos Headsets to Choose From in 2021
In order to experience a richer, deeper sound quality that Dolby Atmos provides, it’s better used with better quality headphones. Below are four of the best Dolby Atmos headsets that you can choose from today.
Sony MDR-HW700DS Wireless Headphone
The Sony HW700DS is a wireless headset that can reproduce 5.1 and 9.1 surround sounds as well as a 2-channel stereo sound and is usually preferred for watching movies. It has a 12-hour battery life and has different preset modes for watching movies, playing games, and playing audio.
The headset promotes depth, immersion, and presence when playing supported media.
RAZER TIAMAT 7.1 V2
The Razer Tiamat 7.1 v2 is a Dolby Atmos-enabled gaming headset. It can switch between stereo and 7.1 sound. There is also a chroma backlighting for the headsets which adds to its appeal. Despite being built especially for gaming, it also offers an excellent experience for watching movies.
Additionally, the headset’s ear cushion provides your ears with protection against discomfort for long hours of use.
Despite its price tag, you would love this headset as it is suited for long-time use because of its great battery life and comfortable design.
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Choosing between Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos for headphones is really tricky. As continuously stated, both offer high-quality spatial sound experiences. Regardless, there are still a lot of factors to consider that would affect how each would perform; such as your headphone model.
If the $14.99 license fee does not feel worth it for you, there would be nothing wrong with opting for Windows Sonic. But if you want to experience Dolby-optimized games, movies, and music, the way their creators intended you to, you might want to try their free trial version. And who knows, you might like it better.
Whichever you choose, a high-quality headphone would bring the best out of both of them.
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