PC Gaming Surround Sound Round-up

Introduction

Below is a list containing PC games, the programming API used for their audio processing, the final result of the audio output, and some [possibly opinionated] comments. You may notice that an API doesn't necessarily create a limitation but the exception to this is OpenAL, which completely lacks the ability to provide any type of discrete LFE output in games; all other APIs are fully capable of this but some developers fail to implement that functionality and also fail to implement support for anything over 5-channel output.

Pre Glossary

  • LFE (low-frequency effect) - The LFE channel is designated as a channel that carries lower-frequency audio. While, according to Dolby, this channel isn't strictly for subwoofers, the LFE channel in a PC audio context is typically directed to the subwoofer. This is sometimes overlooked in development which results in games not delivering bass to the subwoofer. The LFE channel is represented by the ".1" when discussing "5.1" or "7.1". If I've listed a game as "5.0" that means that no LFE channel is present.
  • ALchemy - ALchemy is an application that works with Creative sound cards to restore DirectSound functionality in games designed to work with Windows XP's audio functionality but that no longer properly function in Windows Vista and Windows 7 as a result of changes made to the Windows operating system after Windows Vista. Most modern games don't require ALchemy while Valve's Source-based games still require ALchemy for their games to properly support 7-channel audio. For Realtek devices, look for an application called "3D SoundBack". I assume that it's included with the Realtek driver software. It is essentially Realtek's version of ALchemy.

Testing Method

I'm using a Creative Labs X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty PCI-E card connected to an Onkyo TX-SR605 receiver via analog connection; 8-channel direct input into the receiver. Windows 8 64bit is the operating system.

To ensure no interference with the results, these steps were taken:

  • The audio receiver is using no surround matrixing. This feature is actually not available on the TX-SR605 7.1 while taking input from the analog inputs and no bass redirection occurs via the receiver. Audio is output exactly as it is received from the sound card.
  • Sound card enhancements are disabled: CMSS-3D; Crystalizer; anything that changes the audio outside of the game's control.
  • Bass redirection is disabled via the Creative Console Launcher.
  • Speakers are set to 7.1 via the Creative Console Launcher.
  • Creative Console Launcher is set to Game Mode.
  • Speakers are set to 7.1 via Windows Sound setting (Control Panel).
  • Front and surround speakers are set to full-range via Windows Sound setting.

The Games Tested

The games I've tested are simply the games I've had access to. Much older games may be omitted since multi-channel audio wasn't common before 2000 and testing is typically limited to action games that I believe should support surround sound. If I come across a game that suprisingly supports mult-channel sound then I'll add it to the list; Toki Tori is an example of this. Toki Tori is a 2D puzzle game but has quite good audio effects and even supports 7-channel audio while bigger-name titles barely even support 6-channel audio. See the list!

Game TitleAPIOSChanComments
Alan WakeFMODWIN77.1LFE mixing is done very well
Alan Wake's American NightmareFMODWIN77.1LFE mixing is done very well
Alien SwarmMilesWIN77.0Requires ALchemy to restore 7.0 output
Alien VS PredatorXAudio2WIN87.0
Amnesia: The Dark DescentOpenALWIN77.0
Ball, TheOpenALWIN77.0
BastionXACTWIN77.0Not sure about the API
Battlefield 3RwAudioCoreWIN85.1Audio environment sounds nice; too bad no 7.1
Battlefield 4EAAudioCoreWIN85.1
Batman: Arkham AsylumFMODWIN77.1
Batman: Arkham CityWwiseWIN75.1
Batman: Arkham OriginsWwiseWIN85.1
BioShockFMODWIN77.1
BioShock 2FMODWIN77.1
BioShock InfiniteWwiseWIN85.0
BorderlandsFMODWIN87.1
Borderlands 2WwiseWIN85.0Yet another falls to Wwise
Brutal LegendFMODWIN87.1
BulletstormXAudio2WIN87.0
Castlevania: Lords of ShadowFMODWIN87.1
Castlevania: Mirror of Fate HDFMODWIN87.1
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2FMODWIN87.1
CrysisFMODWIN77.1
Crysis 2FMODWIN77.1Audio in this game was done very well.
Crysis 3FMODWIN87.1
Dark SoulsFMODWIN77.1
Dead IslandXAudio2WIN75.17.1 support is very flaky but might work for you
Dead Island RiptideXAudio2WIN87.17.1 fixed in April 27, 2013 patch
DeadlightXAudio2WIN87.0Not sure on the LFE; game is quiet
Dead Rising 2 & Off The RecordXAudio2WIN75.1Game will crash if you're set over 48kHz
Dead SpaceRwAudioCoreWIN75.0RwAudioCore is a proprietary EA audio engine
Dead Space 2RwAudioCoreWIN75.0EA intro video is 5.1 but game is 5.0
Dead Space 3RwAudioCoreWIN85.1
Dear EstherMilesWIN77.0Requires ALchemy to restore 7.0 output
Defense GridXAudio2WIN87.0Noticeable in larger maps
Deus ExDirectSoundWIN87.0Use ALchemy to restore surround sound
Deus Ex: Human RevolutionFMODWIN77.0Too bad they left out the LFE in this game
Deus Ex: The FallWwiseWIN82.0Must set your audio device to stereo for sound to work properly.
Devil May Cry 4XAudio2WIN75.0
DmC Devil May CryWwiseWIN85.1
Diablo IIIFMODWIN87.1
DishonoredWwiseWIN75.1Center channel works but only plays light audio.
DOOM 3OpenALWIN77.0DirectSound 5.1 if you remove OpenAL and use ALchemy
DOOM 3 BFG EditionXAudio2WIN87.1Notice the update to XAudio2
Fallout 3DirectSoundWIN77.0
Fallout: New VegasDirectSoundWIN77.0
FarCryDirectSoundWIN87.0Requires ALchemy to restore EAX and surround
FarCry 2DirectSoundWIN87.0Requires ALchemy to restore EAX and surround
FarCry 3 (and Blood Dragon)XAudio2WIN85.1
F.E.A.R.DirectSoundWIN87.0Requires ALchemy to restore EAX and surround functionality
F.E.A.R. 2XAudio2WIN85.1So far I like the audio in this game
F.E.A.R. 3FMODWIN77.1
Gears of WarOpenALWIN85.0Must not have init speaker config thoroughly enough
Grand Theft Auto IVDirectSoundWIN75.0
Half-Life 2 SeriesMilesWIN77.0Requires ALchemy to restore 7.0 output
Hard ResetFMODWIN77.0
HawkenXAudio2WIN87.0
Hitman AbsolutionFMODWIN87.1
Hotline MiamiOpenALWIN87.0Sound placement is odd in this game. Similar results in Linux
I Am AliveWwiseWIN85.0
Just Cause 2FMODWIN77.0
Killing FloorOpenALWIN77.0Very good EAX effects
L.A. NoireFMODWIN77.1
Left 4 DeadMilesWIN77.0Requires ALchemy to restore 7.0 output
Left 4 Dead 2MilesWIN77.0Requires ALchemy to restore 7.0 output
Mafia IIFMODWIN87.1
Max Payne 3DirectSoundWIN75.1
Metro 2033XAudio2WIN77.1
Mirror's EdgeOpenALWIN87.0Buggy. Edit TdEngine.ini; Make DeviceName=<blank>
Mortal Kombat Komplete EditionFMODWIN87.1
OutlastWwiseWIN85.0
PortalMilesWIN77.0Requires ALchemy to restore 7.0 output
Portal 2MilesWIN77.0Requires ALchemy to restore 7.0 output
PreyOpenALWIN87.0
PsychonautsOpenALWIN87.0Remove OPENAL32.DLL in game folder otherwise it's 2.0
Quake 4OpenALWIN87.0
RAGEXAudio2WIN77.1LFE mixing is done very well
Remember MeWwiseWIN85.1LFE quiet or rarely used
Resident Evil 4 (2014)XAudio2WIN81.0Surround/positional sound is being worked on.
Resident Evil 5DirectSoundWIN75.1
Resident Evil 6XAudio2WIN85.1Unsure about API but probably XAudio2
Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon CityWwiseWIN85.1
Resident Evil RevelationsXAudio2WIN85.1
Ridge Racer DriftopiaWwiseWIN85.1
Rise of the Triad (2013)XAudio2WIN87.0
Saints Row: The ThirdWwiseWIN85.1
Serious Sam 3XAudio2WIN77.1XAudio2 is the default API. LFE is very loud
Shadow Warrior (2013)FMODWIN87.0
Sleeping DogsWwiseWIN75.0
Sonic & All-Stars Racing TransformedXAudio2WIN85.0
Sonic GenerationsDirectSoundWIN85.0
STALKER: Call of PripyatOpenALWIN77.0
STALKER: Clear SkyOpenALWIN77.0
STALKER: Shadow of ChernobylOpenALWIN77.0
Street Fighter 4DirectSoundWIN75.1LFE rarely used
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EPFMODWIN87.1Sound seemed important to developers.
SUPER Street Fighter 4 AEXAudio2WIN75.1LFE rarely used
Street Fighter X TekkenXAudio2WIN75.0
System Shock 2DirectSoundWIN87.0Use ALchemy to restore EAX and surround.
The SwapperFMODWIN87.1
Thief GoldDirectSoundWIN87.0Use ALchemy to restore EAX and surround.
Thief (2014)WwiseWIN87.1Sub seems very quiet but comes out in chapter 6.
Team Fortress 2MilesWIN77.0Requires ALchemy to restore 7.0 output
Team Fortress 2MilesLinux2.0Work-in-progress here, I guess
TES4: OblivionDirectSoundWIN77.0
TES5: SkyrimXAudio2WIN75.1LFE only used when a dragon lands
Toki ToriXAudio2WIN77.0
Toki Tori 2+XAudio2WIN87.0
Tomb Raider (2013)FMODWIN87.1
Unreal IIOpenALWIN87.0
Unreal Tournament 3OpenALWIN77.0
Witcher 2, TheFMODWIN77.1
Wolfenstein (2009)XAudio2WIN85.1Sound options has 7.1 but side surround doesn't work.

Miscellaneous Conclusions

  • OpenAL doesn't appear to support in-game LFE mixing. OpenAL can send audio to the LFE if the audio file (WAV, OGG) specifies the channel but I've never played an OpenAL game that output audio to the LFE.
  • Miles Sound System is used by Source (Valve) games and basically routes itself through other APIs. In Windows, or at least for Source games, it's routing through DirectSound so adding Source games to ALchemy gets your 7.0 functionality in Vista/7 where as you would only get 5.0 sound without ALchemy. In Linux, Miles routes through OpenAL.
  • Implementation of the LFE channel seems to be often overlooked which could be a result of how their test equipment is setup. While direct analog connections don't redirect bass unless the source says to do so (actually varies by receiver), HDMI connections may redirect the bass at the destination/receiver.
  • After discussing the issue with different people, I've found that lack of support for certain speaker configurations may be a result of programmers not thoroughly implementing the features and development studios only having 5.1 setups to test on.
  • Wwise initially only supported up to a 5.1 speaker configuration. As of 7 October 2013, Wwise supports 7.1 audio. Any game developed with Wwise version 2013.2 that does not support 7.1 audio will be assumed to have been developed by INCOMPETENT SLACKERS.

Extended Comments

  • "LFE mixing is done very well" If I made a positive comment about the LFE, it means I thought that it was well-balanced and used appropriately. I understand that volume adjustments on my end can make this judgement unreliable but I feel confident that my subwoofer volume is reasonably set.
  • Crysis 2 has very impressive audio implementation. I'm not talking about the music composition or types of sound effects used, I'm talking about how well the sound effects and environmental effects were placed into the game world and how well the audio seems to have been mastered. Sound effects properly fade out when you move away from their origin (no sudden silence), the LFE channel is properly used and is just the right volume, and none of the audio is distorted or too loud (TOO COMPRESSED). You can crank the volume on this game and your speakers won't sound like they're dying due to the audio being overly compressed, it'll be loud but smooth. Whoever was responsible for the audio in this game deserves a medal.
  • Dead Island likes to throw a fit when I have 7.1 enabled in Windows. It mostly has buggy sound but it occasionally works; I used to just close and restart the game until it worked but that rarely works. If I set Windows to 5.1 sound then I get no trouble from Dead Island.
  • Dead Rising 2 games have a bug that prevent them from starting if your audio device is set to operate at greater than 48kHz. Set your playback device to 48kHz or lower to get the game to run.
  • Dead Space games appear to use a proprietary audio engine developed by EA (or Phenomic?), RwAudioCore. This particular audio engine appears to have various features such as 7.1 (and LFE) but they weren't used. I'd say it's worth it to use bass re-direction for DS 1 and 2 because there are many sound effects that mix in good to the sub and add to the intensity of the audio. Looks like as of Battlefield 4 they're calling it "EAAudioCore".
  • Dishonored is technically 5.1, it outputs audio to all speakers in a 5.1 configuration, but it only outputs some low volume effects to the center channel. Character voices, gunfire, and footsteps that would be played in the center channel are played in the two front speakers, it's essentially a 4.1 game that plays auxiliary effects in the center speaker. This issue also appears present in the Xbox 360 version.
  • DOOM 3 was originally a DirectSound game but a later patch added OpenAL support. DOOM 3 defaults to OpenAL unless you don't have OpenAL installed on your system, then it falls back to using DirectSound.
  • Gears of War might be the only OpenAL game I've seen that initialized to 5 instead of 7 channel surround. Afterthought: This game may be using its own OpenAL DLL located in the game directory. Removing it and forcing the game to use my system's OpenAL DLL may have allowed it to use 7 channels. I don't care to reinstall the game to test this.
  • Hotline Miami was originally a DirectSound game with 2.0 output but was later migrated to OpenAL. The move to OpenAL was probably because they ported the game to other platforms (OSX, Linux, PS3, Vita) and OpenAL was the better choice for portability. While it does playback audio in 7-channel surround, there doesn't seem to be any particular method for sound placement. The music is in the front two speakers, certain sound effects play strictly in the side speakers and others play strictly in the rear speakers.
  • Mirror's Edge seems to be slightly buggy as far as hardware detection goes. In the game's audio options, select Hardware for the audio device. Exit the game and then navigate to the TdEngine.ini file located in Documents\EA Games\Mirror's Edge\TdGame\Config. You'll find "DeviceName=" under the ALAudio.ALAudioDevice section. Delete any text after "DeviceName=" and it should then properly output in 7-channel surround. This actually seems to be common with some Unreal Engine games that use OpenAL.
  • Resident Evil 4, the 2014 PC re-release, initializes up to 8 speakers but only outputs sound effects in a monaural format. There is absolutely no positional audio, not even in stereo. Music and environment ambience (crickets) are stereo but all sound effects are played back in mono from either the center channel or the two front speakers equally. RE4 Ultimate is lacking some of the most basic audio features that would give you any hint as to the location of an enemy. As of the 1.0.5 beta (4 April 2014), positional audio appears to be in the early stages of being corrected and I'm able to hear just the ganados' voice in all 7 speakers.
  • Serious Sam 3 can be configured to use several different audio APIs in its configuration file; I'd recommend sticking with XAudio2. Also, the LFE volume in this game is disgustingly loud compared to anything else I've played.

Using Bass Re-direction

If you really want the added effect of a subwoofer in games that don't automatically mix to the subwoofer, you're going to need to use bass re-direction. When enabling bass re-direction you're also likely going to need to adjust your subwoofer volume level so take into consideration that toggling bass re-direction may affect your subwoofer's output and you may need to adjust the subwoofer's volume level to balance its volume with the speakers. Games will vary when re-directing bass; some will sound fine with the sub at higher volumes and others will sound messy. For me, Dead Space 1 and 2 and Amnesia sounded fine with my initial setting but Borderlands 2 sounded messy until I lowered the volume more. While I would prefer to not have to use bass re-direction, I'd hate to miss out on the lower frequencies so I would recommend using bass re-direction for games that leave out the LFE channel.