Quest for Holy Grail of gaming sound!
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Audioholic

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Greetings fellow Head-Fiers!

This is a short tale of my one-year quest to find the best possible gaming sound on a gamers budget. This tale is written from a gamer's point of view in spirit of solving some of the issues and questions gamers have when trying to upgrade sound on their PC-s. Enjoy the ride...
 

CHAPTER 1: The Beginning

First, let me state my gaming and Head-Fi credentials: I play computer games my whole life, I'm well over 2000h on COD4, had about 1200h on COD2, played a lot Battlefield2, 2142, BC2, Counter Strike, CS Source I played for years, played on competitions, LAN parties tournaments and all that jazz.
I don't have many posts here but I do know this forum inside and out for I read a lot more then I write. If that isn't enough for my Head-Fi credentials please look at the pic below for picture is worth a thousand words.



It was a good day at work and I was looking forward to turning on my digital self and diving into ethereal ocean of virtual world of COD4. I was one of those players who come to random servers and for fun kicks everyone's ass around with their long trained and practised pro-like skills and are called cheaters all the time and get banned very soon from public servers. I had onboard sound 20$ pair of no-name headphones and PC-speakers. I was doing very well in FPS games and wasn't even thinking that upgrading my sound can improve my game. Silly me. That day a guy came to the server where I was and he head a wallhack. Or so I thought. He knew all the time where I am and was positioning himself so that I would always come to his line of sight. We played a lot 'till I had enough and called him a cheater. He laughed and said to me: "Sensei, I can see that you are good, but I have 500$ audio setup and can hear your every move across the map, better then wallhack!". That got me thinking. I thought I was pretty good, but as it turns out, there is a dimension of gaming that I have truly underestimated...

CHAPTER 2: The Journey

Next day I was in the computer store asking a employee to give me some headphones with which I will be able to better hear enemies. He gave me some 100$ worth Teac 5.1 headphones. The difference was incredible. I always knew from which direction enemy would come and have improved my game considerably. But the sound was harsh and thin and hurt my ears a lot. So I figured I should buy myself a new soundcard to improve the sound somewhat. So after about two months I bought highly regarded X-fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro. Improvement! The sound was much clearer and somehow stronger. I didn't need to turn the volume all the way up to hear the footsteps any more and was now determined to find out how much can good sound really help you in games. I had a lot of free time at my workplace and started to google potential new headphones. During my long hours of search, I noticed that 90% of my headphone/sound -related searches lead to this strange "Head Fi" site, where people talk only about headphones and Amps
. And on this site, there's a general opinion that 5.1 headphones suck compared to good stereo headphones.

At that time, I haven't actually heard any quality headphones and googled around for "best gaming headphones". It seemed that this "Sennheiser" company have them selves some good gaming headphones called PC-350. Reviews stated: "Superb audio quality and directional positioning, may require amping!". So I bought PC-350 and a little CMOY amping device for 60$ and hooked it up to X-fi. I remember the first time I heard those hp sing I was amazed, and thinking "Omg, they are no match for me now!". PC-350 paired with my x-fi really did the trick, even more when they got burned-in. And they sounded so much better with little CMOY then without it. Proud to have some "real" headphones, I went to Head-Fi to see what those all-knowing headphone people have to say about my new hp. I was amazed to see that they considered them low-class and ineffective. That was about six months ago. Also I saw a lot of threads by gamers asking advice on how to upgrade their gaming sound, and posts by Head-fiers offering their opinions on the matter. I felt distinct...difference in opinions and disagreements between gamers and hardcore Head-Fiers on gaming audio and decided to try every possible variant of best possible setup available to gamers, to settle this matters once and for all and to find the Holy Grail of gaming sound dt880smile:

Long story short, I was aware that I would need some kind of better amping for all this testing, and since I was on a budget, I bought myself Yamaha HTR-5830 for a really bargain price of 120$ and a month later ASUS Essence STX soundcard, and a Head Box Pro-Ject amp. I've put both STX and X-fi in my PC and started to run tests. First there was only PC-350, but soon I got hooked up on Head-Fi forums, so I bought Sennheiser HD555, HD650, Beyerdynamics DT880 pro. Over the months, I've tried a lot more headphones, like AKG 601's and 701's, Ultrasone pro 2500, ATH-AD700, Senn HD595, HD600, HD800, and many 5.1 headphones like Logitech G35(USB), Speedlink Medusa 5.1, Steelseries Siberia(usb) and RAZER Megalodon. The ones I didn't get the chance to try and I wanted to so much were Psyko Audio 5.1 headphones. I tested every hp thoroughly with both soundards and same settings tweaking.

CHAPTER 3: Lessons I've learned

Unfortunately, since I have no technical knowledge, I was only able to do tests based on how I perceive(hear) the sound, but I did my best to stay objective in this matter.

1. WHAT DO I NEED?

The games and surroundings in which you play should play the biggest part in making your decision. If you play in noisy environment, best positioning headphones ain't gonna help you if they are open. If you play at LAN parties a lot, you need to think about actually hearing the sound. That is impossible with best positioning hp, 'cause they are all open. You need to get noise-canceling, easy to setup, sturdy hp which will give you what you need in shortest time possible with as little fuss possible. For games like COD4 I would recommend Sennheiser PC-350 for that purpose. I think that they are perfect for what they're made for + the build quality and the mic are superb for active portable use. I would also recommend using something like a small battery-powered CMOY amp with them, 'cause it really makes the difference and soundcards on those gaming PCs at LAN parties aren't much. Doing the PC-350 "hole-drilling" mod is a good thing too. My second choice would be Logitech G35 5.1 headset, for they require no soundcard and sound positioning is excellent. Easy to setup too. There are games like Bad Company 2 for which no kind of headphones will help you for positional audio. From all the blasting around you, you just can't hear any footsteps or anything that would be of help to you so it's useless..

2. CRATIVE vs ASUS (EAX- will it make my game sound better?)

I have listen to all the headphones on both cards, one after the other, and this is what I have concluded: marketing is everything. Compared to X-fi, STX is so much better in every aspect of sound for gaming (not to mention every other aspect) that the CREATIVE's claim " PCI Express Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Professional Series sound card delivers the ultimate PC gaming audio experience" simply isn't true. X-RAM is pretty much worthless, no games are using it, and EAX? From what I've heard through many good headphones and my budget amps, is far better turned off,for it messes up the
"picture". And again, so few games use it properly. As a gamer I say STX is in completely different league of sound, gaming or otherwise. Dolby Headphone beats CMSS 3D hands down with every headphones I tried. It just gives better soundstage and "immersity". And it has a hp AMP which is not much but for gaming purposes it's perfect.

3. BEST HEADPHONES FOR GAMING

Ah, here we are. From all the headphones I auditioned, as a gamer, I liked these the best: 1. Beyers DT880
2. Senn HD800
4. Ultrasone 2500 pro
3. ATH- AD700
I know that some of these hp need better amping to hear them in full glory specially HD800 and DT880, so I borrowed some 700$ Harmon Kardon amp from the store, and while the overall quality of sound much improved, gaming-wise, there was little or none difference in positional audio. I have to say that I got the best positional strait out of HP out on STX+Dolby Headphone with all headphones. It just does something to those footsteps.

4. BEYERDYNAMIC DT880 pro

When I tried the 880's on for the first time on COD4, it was like Allmighty himself came down and said to me: "And I say onto Thee; Thou shall pwn noobs on every server, and shall be called Cheater for all eternity, for Thou have found the Holy Grail of gaming sound!". The clarity, the pinpoint positioning, the subtle bass, the soundstage the...everything is so good for gaming, not even the HD800 beats it. And when you switch on the SVN option on STX control panel, it just isn't fair. The whole game comes down to letting them come to my line of sight and pulling the trigger. I know where everyone is through 4 walls and I can pinpoint the enemy on the map down to 10-20cm. I hear reloading sounds across the almost entire map. Whit this kind of setup not only do you know where your enemy is, but you know exactly what they are doing and how fast they're moving, and that a BIG help to any competitive player. I was banned three times in half an hour that night.

5. GAMING ON BUDGET

To get this Holy Grail, you must cough up about 400-450$. It is really worth it people. But for those who don't have that kind of money, this is what I would suggest:

1.ATH-AD700 + any soundcard-for 100$ this gaming sound can't be beaten

2.LOGITECH G35- really fine and quality peace of tech for 80$, but gaming only(usb soundcard/hp goes a long way for gaming)

You can do some budget X-fi / hp combination, but you will spend more for no improvement in sound.

Everything else does sound better but it cost money.

6. HELPFUL TIPS AND THOUGHTS
 
 
STEREO- People! Use plain ol' stereo if you don't have high quality soundcard and headphones. Stereo is very good for positioning and it gives the clearest "picture".

THE DELAY -If you connect your soundcard digitaly (via optic cable or coaxial) to a receiver and your headphones are plugged into thing, and have enabled any kind of digital processing or effect, you'll get a second or a half delay of sound when playing games. Not much, but if you're serious gamer, a second before you hear someone is usually a matter of life and death.

SOUNDCARD- If you want to spend some cash on a good soundcard, get the ASUS. Maybe Auzentech Forte sounds better, but X-fi(+ amp) is no match for STX in any way.

EAX- Forget it. Maybe some future version will serve some purpose but this one just messes things up.

THE TRUTH - I have read almost all reviews and threads on all the headphones on this forum, and one thing I have learned, no matter how much you read about headphones you can't know if they are for you until you put them on and listen to them. Try the headphones before you buy them.

THE MONEY- 150$ is enough money to have killer gaming sound (about 80% of the "Holy Grail" sound so to speak)
 


EDITED

Helpfull tips by other Head-Fiers
 
Quote:

Originally Posted by n3rdling /img/forum/go_quote.gif
I think a good idea for some of you competitive gamers would be to take advantage of EQ. Give the bass and midbass some attenuation and give the upper mids and lower treble sliders a little boost. You will be able to hear the very important positional cues much easier without having large explosions drown them out.


Quote:

Originally Posted by kool bubba ice /img/forum/go_quote.gif
The Stax 2050 would be a improvement over the DT880 IMO... Electrostats seem to have all the sonic characteristics you need for competitive gaming.. I think a good pair of stax would be the best you can get for a reality type gaming experience or close to 3d audio without any type of DSP..


Quote:

Originally Posted by Ypoknons /img/forum/go_quote.gif
Fidelity isn't as important for games ... you're not scrutinizing everything for treble roll-off at 10K or recessed mids when bullets are whizzing past and your flag's just been taken. Basic clarity, directional audio and soundstage matter more. Plus, subjectively I don't think sound in most games is good enough to warrant a $1-2K headphone rig, plenty of good things in life to enjoy




CHAPTER 4: Budget positional audio VS battle

>> -much better
> -better
=> -almost equal

STX+PC-350 >> x-fi+amp+PC-350
STX+PC-350 >> x-fi+any 5.1 headphone
STX+AD700 => STX+PC-350(but PC350 has excellent mic and better build q)
onboard audio+AD700(stereo) >> x-fi+any 5.1 hp(except G35)
x-fi+ any good 5.1 hp > onboard audio+ PC-350
HD800+onboard audio=just kidding,that would get me banned from this forum..

CHAPTER 5: The Conclusion

There you go fellow gamers and Head-Fiers. I have tried almost everything so you don't have to. I've spent about a 2000$ on everything I bought to write this review, but it was worth it all the way. I sold my x-fi, returned borrowed headphones and amp, and what I have today with me is my DT880, HD650, HD800 and my wonderful Essence STX. During this one-year quest I feel that this forum and my little experiments have changed me from gamer to Head-Fier 'cause I find myself listening to music more than playing, which is very unusual for me. I want to thank Chinesekiwi for pushing me towards DT880! If there is anything you think I missed or need to clarify, or have any questions, feel free to ask.

I'm hangin' in, there ain't no doubt,
And I'm hanging tough,

OVER AND OUT!
 
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El_Doug

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aww, you own an HD800 and tested it with games, but refrained from giving a summary of your impressions with those cans? I think that many gamers would really appreciate your impressions of their use


excellent review overall, but since you took the time to critically listen to each of these cans while gaming, why not give detailed impressions of the other 3?


Quote:

Originally Posted by Audioholic /img/forum/go_quote.gif
THE TRUTH - I have read almost all reviews and threads on all the headphones on this forum, and one thing I have learned, no matter how much you read about headphones you can't know if they are for you until you put them on and listen to them. Try the headphones before you buy them.


wiser words were never spoken on head-fi - an excellent lesson for all to learn, especially first hand
 
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Audioholic

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Well, I kinda wrote this for "gamers on the budget", so I didn't think that it would be important to review them, 'cause clearly 1300$ isn't average gamers budget. But what I can say about them is that with a good amp they do have best overall immersion but not the better positioning than DT880 or even Ultrasone Pro 2500. Games just don't have good enough sound to fully use potential of HD800. Bad Company 2 is a step in right direction and HD800 really likes it. The "feeling of war" is truly intense.
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by Audioholic /img/forum/go_quote.gif
Well, I kinda wrote this for "gamers on the budget", so I didn't think that it would be important to review them, 'cause clearly 1300$ isn't average gamers budget. But what I can say about them is that with a good amp they do have best overall immersion but not the better positioning than DT880 or even Ultrasone Pro 2500. Games just don't have good enough sound to fully use potential of HD800. Bad Company 2 is a step in right direction and HD800 really likes it. The "feeling of war" is truly intense.


I suppose so, but if you are talking about the hardcore ones, spending $400 on a 5870 isn't out of ordinary. But the sound really takes a backstage to say, graphics and the CPU.
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by tengen /img/forum/go_quote.gif
I suppose so, but if you are talking about the hardcore ones, spending $400 on a 5870 isn't out of ordinary. But the sound really takes a backstage to say, graphics and the CPU.


Unfortunately it does. But I 'll bet that if two guys play, say COD4, and one has 400$ sound, and the other $400 GPU and they are both the same skill, the one who knows where the other is will win nine times out of ten. I would take positioning over FPS any time. And I'm sure that the sound in games will only get better so having good sound setup will be much popular once people hear the difference.
 
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Awesome work, Audioholic. Now that gaming is a topic for maybe 90% of adolescent males it's great that you took the time to write all this down.
I have a question regarding budget audio, are cheaper soundcards like the Xonar DX still worth their money? I know they're not a Xonar STX but they are capable of Dolby Headphone, which is what I'd like to use for gaming in the long run.
Do you reckon they can provide good positioning with stereo cans? Is Dolby Headphone on a soundcard the same as an external surround solution like the JVC/Victor one?
 
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Dude, I bow to you... to have those cans for gaming. YOU ROCK!
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by zephyr90 /img/forum/go_quote.gif
Awesome work, Audioholic. Now that gaming is a topic for maybe 90% of adolescent males it's great that you took the time to write all this down.
I have a question regarding budget audio, are cheaper soundcards like the Xonar DX still worth their money? I know they're not a Xonar STX but they are capable of Dolby Headphone, which is what I'd like to use for gaming in the long run.
Do you reckon they can provide good positioning with stereo cans? Is Dolby Headphone on a soundcard the same as an external surround solution like the JVC/Victor one?



Thank you Zephyr! They certainly are. Pair DX with a AD700, turn on Dolby Headphone and you'll have a sound that will give you all you need regarding positional audio and quality immersion. Next "level" of sound would cost at least 80-150$ more for 5-10% improvement. You would get somewhat better overall "feeling" of sound, but is that worth 100$ more that's up to you
.

I've tried my Yamaha's Dolby and Silent cinema, and Dolby Headphone option on STX beats Silent Cinema hands down with all headphones. I haven't heard any other receiver with headphones I had.
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by spartan123 /img/forum/go_quote.gif
BTW, try the DT48's!


Quote:

Originally Posted by spartan123 /img/forum/go_quote.gif
Dude, I bow to you... to have those cans for gaming. YOU ROCK!


Thanks m8! I will try those as soon as I get the chance!
 
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nice write up. i will argur on an x-fi vs dolby headphone. however, there is so much mis-information on properly setting up 3d sound with an x-fi that its hard to know if its ever done properly by reviewers.
when used properly- dolby hd and cmss3d sound pretty much identical. when used with a native source (ds3d, eax, openal), an x-fi trounces dolbyhd by a wide margin.
cmss 3d is not meant for stero signals and just muddies them up
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by Audioholic /img/forum/go_quote.gif
They certainly are. Pair DX with a AD700, turn on Dolby Headphone and you'll have a sound that will give you all you need regarding positional audio and quality immersion


Glad to hear that, but how well do they do for music? Do they have a built-in amp?
In other words, how much would you have to pay to get better music performance than a xonar DX?


Quote:

Originally Posted by Audioholic /img/forum/go_quote.gif
Bad Company 2 is a step in right direction and HD800 really likes it. The "feeling of war" is truly intense.


I am totally with you on the fact that it's a step in the right direction, but I think that some of the sound features are really "overdoing it", especially when you set sound quality to "war tapes". After having played with "headphones" for a while, you will notice a lot of funny things when switching to war tapes. For example, how it reverbs when you walk into a room?
Remember the little wooden hut right in front of the first Bravo objective on Port Valdez? Yeah, walk in there with audio quality turned to war tapes and it will sound like running around in a hall that is big enough to house 3-4 Airbus A380s
 
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Hell, I own the DT880/32, and they are far and above the best headphones for gaming I have ever tried/tested/owned. And I have tried A LOT.
 
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Quote:

Originally Posted by ourfpshero /img/forum/go_quote.gif
nice write up. i will argur on an x-fi vs dolby headphone. however, there is so much mis-information on properly setting up 3d sound with an x-fi that its hard to know if its ever done properly by reviewers.
when used properly- dolby hd and cmss3d sound pretty much identical. when used with a native source (ds3d, eax, openal), an x-fi trounces dolbyhd by a wide margin.
cmss 3d is not meant for stero signals and just muddies them up



Regarding that issue, I think that, that is the most subjective thing of all subjective things concerning positional audio. Except maybe headphone choice. To my ears, Dolby Headphone created more precise and immersive soundstage and atmosphere. The sounds are somehow more clean and natural. I actually thought that I'm doing something wrong with cmss so I tried every possible combination of settings and none of them comes even close to pureness of Dolby Headphone. But, someone else might think different. A matter of preference methinks.
 
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i was not impressed even remotely by the Hd 595. I ATTEMPTED to play Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 online for the pc with them...I failed and got stabbed countless times because of their inability to pinpoint anything.

Thats the real test, test your headphones out on a game like MW2 and see if the soundstage is accurate enough to pinpoint people and gunfire. I wish I still had my AD700s to test out on MW2 :[ I've never gotten a chance to game with them, as I didnt turn into a pc gamer until after I sold them off heh.
 
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