Face Off: Speakers vs. Headphones

Face Off: Speakers vs. Headphones

 November 30, 1998 – Dennis “Thresh” Fong and Kenn Hwang

Anyone who stayed awake long enough to read through the second page of the SBLive vs. MX300 ShootOut knows (perhaps too much) about the importance sound plays in PC games. Ever since the days of Doom, stereo panning has been instrumental in helping gamers pinpoint their enemies’ position, and alerting them to critical events such as weapon and item respawns. Whereas sounds are important, so are the devices needed to play them. Every gamer, hardcore or casual, has access to either a pair of speakers or earphones/headphones, many have both. It’s pretty much accepted that at LAN parties or live competitions, headphones are the call of the day, and for broadcasting to large audiences, speakers are the only solution. However, volume concerns aside, which is actually better for gaming?

I’ve used both headphones and loudspeakers extensively, and I have to say that a good pair of speakers simply blow away headphones in terms of all-out experience. You dismiss volume, but it’s certainly an important factor in selecting loudspeakers – blasting away at your favorite soundtrack on headphones, no matter how loud, lacks the depth and richness you get from a pair of solid speakers. There’s a reason home theatre doesn’t mean 42″ screen, digital receiver, DSS, and a pair of headphones.

While I agree that speakers can be awesome, I think you’re dismissing some of the nifty aspects that make headphones preferable to gamers. One teeny little novelty is called stereo-separation. Yes, you heard me you audiophile freak monkey. Just about ANY pair of decent headphones will blow away an expensive pair of speakers when it comes to determining the given position of a sound. Having the drivers closer to your ears magnifies the appearance of sounds coming from one direction or another. To get the same effect from a pair of speakers, you’d have to position them right next to each ear. Headphone placement also helps them to cut out the ambient sounds around the listener, making quiet sounds more audible, such as distant footsteps and respawns. The ability to recognize sounds most people miss is one of the things that make good players great. (Not that you’d know�)

True, there are many situations in which headphones are definitely advantageous to speakers, but when I say “better,” it doesn’t just mean for the serious, out-to-win-it-all competitive type (or no-life, monitor-paled mouse jockey, depending on how honest you are). Headphones have a few annoying traits that make them less-than-suitable for long-term listening. For one, there’s comfort. No matter how comfortable your headphones are, after an hour or two you’re going to have nasty, sweaty ears, and they’re going to be sore from the constant pressure from the headrest.

There’s also an issue of listening fatigue. Headphones make sounds appear to come from inside of your head. This isn’t natural, and your brain knows it. A few deathmatches too much, and you’ll be feeling nauseated and dizzy before you know it. All that stale delivery pizza can’t help, either!

Well, maybe it’s time to look towards the future. Listening fatigue is definitely something that’s got to be fixed. Take a look at the head related transfer function technology used in today’s 3D sound cards. Their “binaural” technologies are made to make sounds appear to be coming from around you (instead of from within you), and done right, they completely eliminate listening fatigue.

Speakin’ of the future, it’s apparent to me that 3D positional sound is gonna be the “next big thing”. I’ve read your MX300 vs. SBLive review, and while it’s clear that you think 3D audio hasn’t yet reached its prime, I did notice one important fact. The main choice people are going to have to make is between 2 and 4 speakers, or rather, 4 speakers vs. headphones. There are numerous studies (NASA and otherwise) which point towards headphones as the best way to convey 3D sound. Not only that, but who has the money or space for a proper four-speaker setup? Furthermore, consider the fact that there’s no way any kind of speaker setup is going to be feasible at a loud LAN party or competition. Also, virtualized Dolby Digital for DVD is the perfect solution for those without budget or space – in this regard, headphones can help.

Well, that’s one issue where I’m going to have to agree with you. Stereo speakers aren’t the best way to render 3D sound through HRTFs, and while I found surround-speaker setups optimal, it’s unrealistic to assume most people going to have access to them, especially around their computer or at a live event. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of HRTF technology (yet), but it does work well (and only works well) with headphones. If 3D audio becomes a big thing, then headphones are definitely the most convenient choice. However, I’m definitely not going to give up my quad-speakers any time soon, and I figure as long as you have your lobes sealed in those massive headphones, it really doesn’t matter how loud I turn them up.

Sure, I can deal with that you self-righteous bunghole. And hey, next time you do, make sure someone hasn’t accidentally crossed your speaker cables. ;) Well, it’s pretty clear to me that headphones are not only going to be around for the long run, but as games become more complicated, they’re going to become more and more prevalent in the gaming scene altogether. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the pounding bass from a pair of awesome boxes, but there’s more to PC audio than just stereo, and when it comes to practicality, you KNOW where it’s at.

Yeah, I KNOW it’s definitely NOT between those headphones of yours. When you say there’s more to PC audio than just stereo, you’re forgetting that there’s also more than just games. If you’re in an office environment, I’d agree that you’re more or less stuck with headphones, but some of us enjoy more than just the snapping of bones or the wet thud of buckshot in flesh. Take for example that novelty called “music.” In a high-quality recording on good speakers, it’s possible to sit back and make out apparent physical locations of instrumentals and vocals in a three-dimensional soundstage – sounds appear as definitive 3D objects in space, rather than emanating from two small boxes in front of you desk. A good pair of speakers should disappear behind the soundstage, allowing you to concentrate on the music rather than the speaker. You simply can’t get the same experience from a pair of headphones. End of story..

End of story? Since when did you become the definitive judge of audio quality? Personally, I’ve had no problems relaxing after a hard day to music from a good pair of headphones, and not having to involve everyone. Some purists will disagree, but the multiple advantages of headphones make them almost ideal in not only the gaming scene, but the PC world in general. The next time I have to spend hours at a time in a soundproof room with only my PC and MP3 collection, I’ll consider switching to a pair of speakers. But for those of us firmly anchored in the real world, the practical benefits of headphones can put them head and shoulders above the competition. Besides, I’m beggin’ you to buy a decent pair of headphones — I’m sick and tired of hearing your private collection of sex .avis through our thin office wall.

Well at least it’s a heterosexual act, unlike the petite little outfits you like shopping for…

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