Windows Sonic vs Dolby Atmos & 7.1 virtualization in Creators Update

Discussion in 'Computer Audio' started by rpgwizard, Apr 25, 2017.
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  1. RPGWiZaRD
    I think this needs a discussion for sure, IMO it's the most noteworthy change for Windows 10 Creators Update. I'm a person with great experience in this field having experience from all these software pseudo surround configs: CMSS-3D, Dolby Headphone, Dolby Atmos, THX TruStudio Pro, SBX Surround, Razer Surround.

    Since the Creators Update, there showed up some new tab for "spatial sound" where options "Windows Sonic" and "Dolby Atmos" become available as well as a checkbox for "Virtual 7.1 surround sound".

    Here's my personal findings so far:

    * Enabling these options limits you to 48kHz samplerate and 16bit bit depth and "Stereo" speaker config. Changing any of these settings will automatically disable the spatial sound settings and Windows itself adjusts to those settings when enabling them. This is something I'd personally wish was improved in the future to allow more flexibility as the sound volume I've noticed drops considerably with 48kHz vs 44.1kHz in some games (from top of my head for example Skyrim, Far Cry 3).

    * Virtual 7.1 surround sound checkbox I think is recommended to use with both options at all times, much like with similarly named setting on a SoundBlaster G5 or E5 USB soundcard, this is probably some kind of setting that allows proper multichannel processing of a game's audio and then downmixed into your stereo headphones and this affects the way soundstage and positioning is percieved. What this does is to noticeably expand soundstaging to be much larger and improved smoothness in how the audio is percieved to be moving from one side to another as well as improving the sense of depth to the soundstaging. 

    Windows Sonic:

    Expands soundstage with noticeably clearer positioning. This isn't the same as simply using 5.1 or 7.1 speaker option in the past Windows versions in favor for stereo on a pair of stereo headphones, it clearly improves on positioning and soundstaging one step further, seems to be some HRTF tweaks of some sort (YMMV). The best thing is, it does so without affecting sound quality at any noticeable amount which is many of these "virtual surround" settings shortcomings, especially for the more sound quality concerned invidual who rather get as much positioning improvement with the least possible sound quality hit possible. If so, then this option is perfect for you.

    Dolby Atmos for headphones:

    Compared to Windows Sonic, I can instantly say, it's not as good. What it does okay job at is to allow pinpointing of directions but it's most other aspects it falls short to Windows Sonic: the soundstage expansiveness is greatly reduced, more "closed-in"-sounding (aka. closed headphones vs open headphones effect), sounds are percieved to appearing closer to you and the depth is lacking. It perhaps biggest weakness together with the less expansive soundstaging is the accuracy of percieving distance to the sounds, it's often difficult to tell how far away the sounds are coming from. In Unreal Tournament for example I sometimes thought a rocket launcher was much closer to me than it truly was. From a sound quality standpoint it's also slightly worse, adding a bit of that typical "processed" sound you can notice with many other surround sound algorithms (SBX Surround etc) but the impact is still very subtle, it still roughly SBX Surround ~ slightly better in fact but compared to Windows Sonic which doesn't have any obvious impact, it still comes out as second when it comes to being able to process the audio as natural sounding as possible.

    If my time allows during weekend or whenever (pretty busy with my hobby of promoting newcomers producers on YouTube), I may attempt to do some more in-depth comparison by recording or using some old Demorec recording from Unreal Tournament 3 or UT2k4 (a gaming session that has been recorded so when loading up the recording I'll be able to play the exact same scene over and over again with the exact same stuff happening, making it the ideal way of comparing various sound settings). I currently own SoundBlaster G5, SoundBlaster ZxR, ASUS Essence STX II and have Realtek ALC1150 onboard chips for comparison, so if I was really keen could do some kind of comparison but we'll see, certainly won't promise anything.

    I think this added spatial sound is a huge deal for 2 reasons, one is improved positional sound for VR applications and second, the built-in surround sound into Windows means even if you get a more HiFi audio quality oriented USB Dac with only stereo output, you should be able to get decent surround sound experience and this opens up a huge amount of options for gamers. Personally I always grabbed a soundcard with 5.1/7.1 support for my computer to be able to get proper multichannel mixing for gaming. But I'd gladly have someone with stereo-only USB DACs confirm that it allows you to use the spatial sound settings also with that as I currently don't own one.
    maxh22 and Jazic like this.
  2. xH4wK
    Hey man, it would be interesting to see difference between your cards and their vss and windows spatial options
    I tried Dolby Atmos and found it bad too
    Got g5 myself so looking forward on your opinion and testing
    Last edited: May 7, 2017
  3. DanPerezSax
    I haven't tried Windows Sonic yet. So far the most surprising thing for me about Atmos for headphones is how well it works. Watching 5.1 upmixes on Netflix or just using the "surround" setting on GTA gives me a very pointed awareness of where sounds are supposed to me. That was my experience using my over-ear, open-backed cans.

    With in-ears, I expected it to be even better due to the increased isolation and having the sounds right inside my ears, but that was not the case. EVERYTHING sounded like it was beside or behind me, and while I could kind of tell when sounds were "supposed" to sound like they were in front of me, they just sounded like they were in my head. Listening with your eyes closed is illuminating!

    Tested with LCD-3 and JH Angie customs via Modi MB and Jotunheim. I used my slight digital EQ with the LCD-3 and no EQ with the Angies, which is how I normally listen to each headphone.
  4. FlavioWolff
    nice, but if we cant choose 5.1 or 7.1 speakers most games will not output surround content, unless they give you the option (which most games dont).
  5. illram
    I can't get this to work over USB to my NAD D3020. There is no option to enable it except for when I use optical or HDMI to another source that has my headphones. Does this only work via HDMI, optical or line-out/headphone-out?
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2017
  6. Chris S
    Sonic works very well and it sounds like some sort of hrtf solution. I wonder why they have started making serious effort to sound positioning after ignoring for many years.

    However, with 16 bit audio selected, there is a noticeable hiss present in my headphones, absent with 24 bit. Surely this shouldn't be due to the noisefloor - perhaps some issue with the onboard DAC? Did you notice this?
  7. Chris S
    Turns out the thing doesn't detect the headphones properly if you boot up with them in. Go figure.
  8. xivlia
    hm there is atmost headphones?
  9. Chris S
    Hmm, good point.
  10. Jazic
    I have a Jotunheim and a Sound Blaster E5.

    Would you suggest having a better audiophile gaming experience to use:

    1. Windows Sonic > Jotunheim > Balanced Out > Headphones

    2. Sound Blaster E5 > Line Out > Jotunheim > Balanced Out > Headphones

    I think the cleaner path would be the Jotunheim and I personally don't hear any digital 'tin can' surround processing sound with Sonic that I usually get with the Dolby Atmos or even the SBX Surround on the E5.

    Lastly, how far do you turn up the E5's SBX surround? I've found that anything beyond 20-30% is just overkill.

    Thanks for your opinions!
  11. RPGWiZaRD
    I personally have no experience of using a DAC with stereo only output and that's the thing I'd gladly know whether Windows Sonic is actually able to process an audio signal as virtual channel surround despite the source might not necessarily have built-in support for multichannel audio. Technically it should be possible as it's something that is done in a software way anyway (audio is seen as multichannel when it's played and then downmixed to stereo for the source), but would be good to know for sure. If it works that way then alternative 1 is IMO the better one.

    You shouldn't hear any impact to sound quality at all with Windows Sonic, it shouldn't really impact the balance at all, only affect how the soundstaging is percieved.

    Personally I don't like SBX processing that much, whenever I enable it I use like 11% or so perhaps.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2017
  12. illram
    I have tested Windows Sonic on PC and Xbox and have both an X7 and an E5 that I have tested it against. In sum, unless a game supports Sonic, which I believe is a 3D audio engine as oppozed to a virtualized channel based surround systen (like SBX) Sonic is inferior to SBX for positioning.

    Whether on PC or console, Sonic only virtualizes a stereo source, which makes positional accuracy actually more confusing and sometimes just plain wrong. It basically is adding reverb and allowing a signal to traverse a 2D plane smoothly from left to right or vice versa rather than jumping from left to right channel as some sounds might if left on normal stereo mode. To have true 3D audio with Windows Sonic, the game has to support it natively. Like how Overwatch has an Atmos mode. I am unaware of anyone incorporating Sonic into their audio engine yet. To my ears turning on "7.1" in the Sonic options does nothing.

    The E5 will appear as a 5.1 or 7.1 channel system to windows and will actually virtualize discrete channels so you will get more accurate positioning. I must not be a good person to ask about audio quality besides positional accuracy, because for gaming and positional accuracy purposes I turn it up to 100% surround, and I must be used to it because it sounds fine to me. Obviously I don't listen to music with any of that crap on though.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2017
  13. Glasofruix
    Sonic and atmos do nothing for games on windows. They should act like virtual surround but they don't, mainly because modern games rely on windows' speaker settings and when they see stereo, they output stereo.
  14. RPGWiZaRD
    I would agree with this but my ears tells different making me believe Microsoft is only showing in the GUI as stereo setting but behind the scenes it would be using 7.1 processing when Sonic + virtual 7.1 is enabled and it says stereo mostly to not confuse the casuals who think 7.1 is only for 7.1 speakers or 7.1 headsets. I have no proof of this obviously but I know it surely doesn't sound as bad positioning wise as using stereo inside Windows in several games.

    There's one simple way to demo it though but I haven't gotten around to it yet, record for example an Unreal Tournament play with the built in demorec functionality and playback the recorded game session (which is replayed inside the game as normal) with the different settings and cut together some short 5 sec clips of an incoming rocket for example with the various settings and see how it sounds like that's probably the most accurate way of comparing it as it's exactly like playing the game with the exact same positioning of sounds etc for comparison.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2017
  15. Glasofruix
    There's a video presentation of the tech behind sonic studio where they explain that there's supposed to be a "handshake" between sonic studio and the game where it should present itself as a surround output and thus force games to use multichannel audio, but it doesn't happen (at least not with non UWP games as far as i know). Here

    Besides that, when you manage to force 7.1 sonic studio works fine as virtual surround. Movies work fine, some games that allow you to change audio output also work (but those are rare).
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