How do you get the best positional sound out of games?

I have a set of logitech z-5300 5.1 speakers , that I have been mostly happy with for year. The new house we moved into happens to have 5 built in Pioneer S-IW651 speakers, so I was considering trying to use those so I don’t need to have the speaker cable running across the floor to the rear speakers. So I hooked up the speakers to a receiver and the computer to the receiver via an optical jack. The speaker wire wasn’t in great shape and there isn’t any slack so I’m not sure I got great connections to all the speakers. Dialog was much more clear with the Pioneer speakers, but really seemed to lack ‘fullness’.

I’m rambling. How do you think you get the best sound for PC games? I’m not sure if I should

  1. investigate cleaning up the existing speaker wire and splicing in some more to I have some wiggle room to connect it to the receiver.
  2. Maybe get some longer cable to extend the cords for my logitech speakers so I can run the cable up the ceiling and mount them up there (although that would still be a bit of an eyesore).
  3. Games have gotten better providing positional audio through headphones, right? I typically don’t like wearing headphones because I like to still hear the outside world, but I’m be open to it if it is a better solution. I just have mid-grade HyperX headphones now. If using headphones, would they need some particular feature tp get good results for positional audio?
  4. Are there good wireless rear speakers I can use instead of my wired ones?

Thanks for any ideas.

Hi-Fi stereo headphones. Forget 5.1. I’ve been using Sennheiser HD595 for probably 15 years now. If the game is properly coded you will be able to tell where the sounds are coming from with laser accuracy. Unfortunately that is somewhat of a lost art, DICE’s recent Battlefield games (with introduction of Frostbite) are examples of some of the worst audio mixes I’ve ever heard in games, with inaudible footsteps or improperly distanced sound origins plaguing the entire experience. The whole engine is a mess really, so sound being subpar isn’t exactly surprising. As for the best? I’d have to cast my vote for Unreal Engine 2 and the game America’s Army: Online. I used to spend hundreds of hours on that thing and having a good sound card (at the time that was Audigy) was better than having a wallhack.

Most single player games these days are perfectly serviceable as well, even on mobo integrated Realtek chips (having a good DAC on a sound card used to be somewhat of a requirement). I can tell you from experience that I’ve tried hooking up ~2000€ worth of speaker + amp/receiver equipment and I’d still pick a good pair of hi-fi stereo headphones over that any day.

Hmm, interesting. I would have thought having discrete speakers would give the best results. Do you have an external DAC/ AMP? Does having one improve anything? I was reading that having one can improve the clarity and that some headphones need the extra boost to really drive them.

No, and not anymore. Maybe with a newer model of headphones (mostly depends on resistance) I’d have to consider one to drive them, but my HD595s happily chug along while being plugged directly into the 3.5mm jack on the onboard soundcard. I had them the connected through a Marantz receiver (which had a builtin amp) for a very long time when I was still using an old motherboard but to tell you the truth I cannot tell the difference after switching to a new one.

edit: In the interest of transparency and discussion, the way I judge headphones’ sound is how they sound vs my high-end audio setup that I have available back home (currently residing in another country). We’re talking about some 40-45 year old Technics setup paired to Pioneer tower speakers that still blows some of the new stuff out of the water. Hard to beat analog. Anyway, my metric is to judge how the sound levels are vs the radio setup - and I’m happy to say that stereo hi-fi headphones will (from my limited testing, about 5-6 different higher end models, ranging from Grado to Sennheiser to Beyerdynamic, etc, you get the idea) very faithfully reproduce the soundscape, with same tone/level emphasis. After that it doesn’t really matter what kind signal of you feed them, it will sounds as if you’re listening to a good speaker setup, just a little bit closer.

edit: I realize I have gotten slightly offtopic - to return back to your original question, positional audio mostly comes down to software. If it’s not implemented well no setup will provide a good experience.

You may try HDMI instead of optical to the receiver. HDMI bypasses your PC’s onboard audio or sound card, and isn’t compressed like 5.1 via optical. I can’t really tell the difference quality-wise between the two on my gaming setup, but YMMV.

My Samsung soundbar has pretty good wireless rear speakers. One thing to note is that ‘wireless’ speakers still need a power source, so at the very least you’ll need to run a power cord to an outlet.

Can’t comment on headphones, I don’t use them for gaming.

Yeah, you may not even be getting 5.1 audio over optical since PCs rarely offer real-time Dolby Digital or DTS encoding. Usually you only get a stereo signal over optical. HDMI is what you want if at all possible. If the receiver allows 6 channel analog inputs, that would also be an option.

I abandoned using the receiver and wall speakers and have been experimenting with my computer 5.1 speakers and headphones. I installed DTS Unbound and it made a decent improvement in my headphone sound. I think AC my problem was using AC Odyssey as a test for positional sound - it doesn’t seem very good at that. I tried with the latest Tomb Raider and it sounded much better.

I’m pretty sure in 2042 they have some screwups with the audio channels. I’ll hear footsteps from the left when it should be on the right and vice versa. Or loud footsteps on top of me when there’s no one around. No surprise the audio is a mess like the rest of the game!