UPDATE AND HELP REQUEST (Dec 2016): HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function) effects have recently been added to CS:GO and though i no longer play the game, this article seems to be rather popular and i’d like to keep it updated. In that vein, if someone can test the new HRTF variables and provide detailed feedback, that would be great (you will be credited). Until then, it appears from a bit of research that the default values for HRTF are probably pretty optimal. You can get my initial feedback regarding the HRTF variables in my comment here.
Some say that sound is half of the game in a tactical, first-person shooter like Counter-Strike where it is essential in determining what your enemies are up to. For the competitive player there is no doubt that sound quality and positional awareness is absolutely critical, but even for us non-pros, good sound can result in a more immersive and enjoyable experience, as well as a few additional frags.
The primary purpose of this guide is to help Counter-Strike (CS) players of all calibers to optimize their audio experience, particularly with regard to positional audio cues when using headphones. Although this guide is centered around Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), the latest iteration of one of the most popular tactical first-person shooters in the history of computer gaming, much of it can be applied to earlier versions of Counter-Strike as well as computer gaming in general.
There is a huge amount of incorrect and misleading information on the web regarding hardware selection, sound-card configuration and optimal game settings for the sound in Source engine games (Half-Life 2, Counter-Strike: Source, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, etc.). Hopefully we can demystify this subject by compiling what has been learned over the years, much of it from others far more knowledgeable than myself.
Headphone (a.k.a ‘phones’, ‘cans’): head wearable speakers, no microphone
Headset (a.k.a ‘phones’, ‘cans’): head wearable speakers with an integrated microphone
Drivers: the speakers in the headphone/headset
Soundscape/soundstage: for the purpose of this guide, the soundscape is the virtual 360 degree horizontal plane around your head in which sounds are played. For FPS gaming a wider (larger) soundscape is preferred for better positional accuracy.
Open/closed: this refers to the design of the headphone/headset where “open” indicates there is an opening in the speaker enclosure which allows exterior sound to enter and interior sound to escape, or “leak”, while “closed” indicates a more sealed environment. Open phones usually produce a wider soundscape and more accurate sound reproduction while stressing the ear drum less. This venting also allows the ears to remain cooler. Since it is possible for others to hear the sound coming from the drivers in an open design, as well as for the wearer to hear external sounds, they are not conducive to LAN tournaments or certain other environments.
Circumaural/supra-aural: circumaural phones surround and enclose the ear within an ear cup while supra-aural phones rest on the ear. While supra-aural phones are generally smaller and lighter, and therefore more portable, they may not be as comfortable as the circumaural variety since pressure is applied directly to the ear. Sound reproduction quality seems to be about the same with either design.
Surround sound: surround sound audio systems generally consist of four, five or seven satellite speakers along with a sub-woofer for bass management. When the speakers are positioned optimally around the listener, the listener feels immersed in the audio environment that is produced.
Head-related transfer function (HRTF): essentially an answer as to how the ear is able to determine the position of a sound in 3D space through timing, volume, etc..
Stereo – 2 speakers; left and right
2.1 – 3 speakers; left, right, sub-woofer
4 channel – 4 speakers: left front, right front, right rear, left rear
4.1: channel – 5 speakers; left front, right front, right rear, left rear, sub-woofer
5.1 surround-sound – 6 speakers; left front, center, right front, right rear, left rear, sub-woofer
7.1 surround sound – 8 speakers; left front, center, right front, right, right rear, left rear, left, sub-woofer
Virtual surround sound; a sound system that uses fewer than the optimal number of speakers to simulate a surround sound environment. Many so-called ‘surround sound’ headphones use only two drivers along with hardware/software processing in an often futile attempt to simulate true 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound.
Digital to Analog Converter (DAC): For the purpose of this guide, a Digital to Analog Converter is a discrete (external) hardware device that is often used as a higher quality replacement for an internal computer sound card. DACs will generally offer better quality sound with less electrical noise and may also contain an amplifier for driving external speakers or headphones.
HRTF AND YOU – HOW OUR EARS WORK
This article on Wikipedia, titled Head-related transfer function, describes how we are able to determine the location of a sound in 3D space with only two ears.
Humans have just two ears, but can locate sounds in three dimensions – in range (distance), in direction above and below, in front and to the rear, as well as to either side. This is possible because the brain, inner ear and the external ears (pinna) work together to make inferences about location. This ability to localize sound sources may have developed in humans and ancestors as an evolutionary necessity, since the eyes can only see a fraction of the world around a viewer, and vision is hampered in darkness, while the ability to localize a sound source works in all directions, to varying accuracy, regardless of the surrounding light.
Humans estimate the location of a source by taking cues derived from one ear (monaural cues), and by comparing cues received at both ears (difference cues or binaural cues). Among the difference cues are time differences of arrival and intensity differences. The monaural cues come from the interaction between the sound source and the human anatomy, in which the original source sound is modified before it enters the ear canal for processing by the auditory system. These modifications encode the source location, and may be captured via an impulse response which relates the source location and the ear location. This impulse response is termed the head-related impulse response (HRIR). Convolution of an arbitrary source sound with the HRIR converts the sound to that which would have been heard by the listener if it had been played at the source location, with the listener’s ear at the receiver location. HRIRs have been used to produce virtual surround sound.
While HRTF may seem like an advantageous technology for headphone users in Counter-Strike, real-world testing indicates otherwise as we shall learn later on.
POSITIONAL AUDIO IN COUNTER-STRIKE – THEN AND NOW
Whether you use speakers or headphones, positional audio in Counter-Strike — being able to accurately determine the direction of a sound in a 360 degree soundscape around your head — is not an issue as far as differentiating between sounds coming from the left, right or center. Any decent headphones or speakers, when configured properly, will easily provide this information, however because CS:GO uses only simple crossfading instead of actual surround sound to produce positional audio cues, the ability to accurately differentiate between sounds coming from the front verses the rear is only feasible when using four or more speakers which are optimally positioned around the listener. My own testing, as well as the comments and advice of many others more knowledgeable than myself, have confirmed that so-called “surround sound” headphones will not provide any advantage over stereo phones in locating sounds that are in front or behind the listener for most people, regardless of the marketing claims.
Differentiating between sounds coming from above and below is not possible in any iteration of Counter-Strike regardless of the audio setup. To get around this, good map editors who design multi-level maps will sometimes use different textures which produce different sounds for upper and lower levels in order to provide the player with the ability to distinguish between sounds coming from the floor they are on, verses the floor above or below.
With the old Counter-Strike (versions 1.5 and 1.6 or so) and, preferably, an Aureal sound card, we had the option of choosing between Aureal A3D sound support and Creative EAX, the former of which completely devastated the inferior EAX technology with regard to accurate positional audio cues on the horizontal plane. Unfortunately the superior A3D technology was acquired by Creative after a law suit they filed against Aureal forced the company into oblivion in 1999 because of legal expenses, even though Aureal won the suit. After eliminating their competition and acquiring the A3D technology, which was originally derived from the open-source OpenAL technology, Creative quietly shelved it instead of developing it, leaving us Counter-Strike players wanting and waiting on better sound cards and drivers that the company would never deliver. For this reason alone i absolutely detest Creative as a company.
Another reason why one may want to avoid some of these mega-corporations is because of their unethical marketing tactics. For example, i remember back when there were two, virtually identical Creative Sound Blaster cards that were marketed under different model names, the primary difference being the firmware. Creative intentionally disabled some of the functionality of the cheaper card, then later re-marketed essentially the same card as a superior and significantly more expensive model with the functions re-enabled. Those of us that were aware of this scam bought the cheaper card and used a special flashing utility to force-load the newer firmware onto the older card since Creatives flashing utility would not allow it. Creative is far from being the only company who practices this nonsense.
Getting back to the A3D technology, it offered so much of an advantage over anything else that using it was apparently disallowed by some gaming leagues. From Wikipedia:
The Vortex 2 chipset won numerous industry awards, and was used among other places in the Diamond Monster Sound MX300, which achieved near-cult status with audiophiles and gamers for the high quality of its positional audio.
A3D is still revered by many of us older Counter-Strike players today who have had the pleasure of experiencing it:
just wondering if there was a way i could get an A3D 2.0 enabled card to work on windows 7 (64bit??)
i remember when i used to play cs on my Sound Blaster Live! card (A3D 1.0 support??), the game sounded far better for positioning enemies than a X-Meridian or Titanium HD card…
i really would like to experience positioning sound like this again
As it turns out, A3D is not entirely dead after all, at least not in the mind of one ambitious Russian hacker who has resurrected it for games that still support it in a project he calls A3D-Live.
After the collapse of Aureal and A3D in 1999, the positional audio situation in Counter-Strike deteriorated and it is worse in Global Offensive than what it was in the original Counter-Strike. Determining where an enemy was located in a 360 degree soundscape was easily accomplished in Counter-Strike 1.5/1.6 and, to a lesser degree, in Counter-Strike: Source. With Counter-Strike: Global Offensive however, the sound engine has again been reworked, resulting in what many feel is the worst iteration yet. It is the focus of this guide to restore, as much as possible, the superior positional audio cues of the original Counter-Strike, particularly while using headphones.
In contrast to the poor state of affairs regarding sound processing in Source engine games, those using the Rapture3D/OpenAL technology, such as Unreal Tournament III, provide superior positional audio cues. Listen to this demonstration of the Rapture3D technology to hear what HRTF positional audio is capable of:
SOUND PROCESSING HARDWARE SELECTION
The first step in choosing sound processing hardware is to consider what you’re going to use it for and what kind of processing you want to do. Will it be used primarily for gaming, or will you listen to music and movies also? Are you going to run stereo or surround sound speakers, or stereo, virtual or real surround sound headphones? Do you want an internal sound card, or an external DAC which may provide better audio quality than an integrated chipset? Do you want to use surround sound processing by one of the several Dolby technologies or Creatives EAX, CMSS 3D or something else entirely?
The next step is to realize that, for us non-audiophiles, the entire computer audio scene is a convoluted, marketing gimmick riddled quagmire which can be quite difficult to navigate, even for some hard-core audiophiles who can be found vehemently disagreeing with each other over basic principals. Because of all the options, terminology and technologies, and because my knowledge in this area is very limited, i cannot offer a lot of ‘sound’ advice regarding hardware selection and therefore i suggest you be prepared to do some research on your own. That being said, here are some general tips that may be helpful:
- Dollar for dollar, an external USB DAC (Digital to Audio Converter) may provide cleaner, higher quality audio than an integrated (on-board) solution such as a Realtek chipset, as well as some of the cheaper internal PCI/PCIe cards, especially those that are poorly shielded against electromagnetic interference (EMI).
- Many DACs do not have a mic-in port and some of the cheaper ones that have a mic port may produce a lot of white-noise on the microphone audio according to a couple of reviews i have read.
- External DACs can have a wide variety of connector types including TOSLINK digital optical, S/PDIF digital, 3.5mm analog, 1/4in analog, RCA analog, etc., so be sure your choice has the input and output connector types you require if you go this route.
- If you choose and internal sound card, be aware that the card will be in close proximity to other electrically noisy components, so be sure it has adequate EMI shielding to protect against this. This is not a concern for most higher-end cards.
- Whatever sound processing hardware you choose, look for reviews and forum posts from users which reference your particular model of choice along with the game(s) you play. While there will always be negative reviews, you want to look for trends which indicate compatibility or other problems on a wider scale.
While many audiophiles recommend using an external DAC as a higher quality replacement for an integrated or internal PCI/PCIe sound card, ‘Pinhedd’ disagrees in a topic titled Headphones For Positional Audio in CS:GO on the Tom’s Hardware forum:
The biggest advantage of using a discrete sound card is in the much cleaner digital to analogue conversion. The signal to noise ratio on a decent discrete card is 20-30 decibels higher than it is on most integrated cards. This is nice for games such as Battlefield 4 that use extensive sound processing, but CS:GO has absolutely terrible sound quality to begin with so it’s unlikely to help much at all.
While i do not disagree entirely with what ‘Pinhedd’ tells us, if you need to buy sound processing hardware anyway, or plan to listen to music and movies, you may want to consider an external DAC along with internal options since the prices are roughly the same and some DACs offer handy features, such as the ability to switch between headphones and speakers without unplugging the phones. While the prices for the higher-end units can be in the thousands, it appears that those selling in the $50-150 dollar range can offer a decent listening experience that surpasses most integrated, on-board solutions. You can view a range from entry-level to high-end DACs in a forum post by ‘jero’ on Absurd Minds. In addition to the models he recommends, i might also add the Asus Xoner U3, U3 Plus, U5 and U7 models. Both the U3, which does Dolby surround sound decoding, and the U5, which does not, seem to please those who use them for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive according to the reviews i have read as well as my own experience with the U5.
As a result of my research, and considering that i’m running a notebook with a sub-par Realtek chipset that produces a huge amount of noise on the microphone audio, i chose the Asus Xonar U5 USB DAC. The Xonar U5 sounds much better for every kind of listening, whether it be movies, music or gaming, and the microphone is now free of white noise unless the gain is cranked way up or Automatic Gain Control (AGC) is enabled in the Xonar driver, both of which are unnecessary with the rather decent microphone on the QH-85 headset.
The Xonar U5 performs very well with CS:GO in combination with the QPAD QH-85 headset, providing a warmer, yet well defined sound environment where the necessary details are not lost. The hurtfully loud crack of the AK-47 isn’t as harsh as it was with the cheaper phones i tested and footsteps are still relatively easy to detect considering the volume drop for footstep sounds in CS:GO verses in earlier iterations of the CS series. It’s hard to describe, but the combination of the U5 and the QH-85 provides a very different experience than my on-board Realtek and other headphones i have tested and, i have to say, it is a very welcome difference.
Another plus with the Xonar U5 and U7 DACs is the ability to quickly cycle between their outputs by simply pressing the volume control knob. In my case i’m only using my integrated notebook speakers when not using my QPAD headset, so i have nothing plugged into the Xonar except for the QPAD phones and its mic. After a fresh driver install, clicking the Xonars’ volume button would only switch the output to another unoccupied output on the unit rather than defaulting to my notebook speakers, however disabling the Xonar outputs that i wasn’t using produced exactly the result i was hoping for in that the Xonar will now switch between the headphones and my notebook speakers. I would guess the behavior is probably the same with the U7. In the image below, i have right clicked on each of the devices i was not using and disabled them:
My experience with the Asus Xonar U5 DAC was not entirely positive however. For one, the volume dial has no effect on the output volume. Because of feedback i have seen from a few other Xonar owners (and there literally only about three others i found who reported this problem), i am under the impression this is a result of a driver shortcoming regarding its USB implementation and not a hardware issue. At this time i am attempting to get this resolved with Asus, whose support infrastructure is exactly what i expected from a massive, international corporation: garbage.
The other little niggle i have with the Xonar U5, and it is sort of comical actually, is that the microphone gain rocker on the front of the unit works in reverse in that you have to depress the left side of the rocker to increase volume and the right side to decrease it. I made Asus aware of this also.
For an internal sound card solution, again, the Asus Xonar series seems to be a high ranking favorite among many audiophiles with the Essence STX being one of the better cards for driving higher-end headphones. The Creative Titanium, Z, Zx and ZXR series also seem to be favored. Both brands range largely in the $50 to $170 dollar range.
For a high-end internal card solution in the $200 dollar bracket, the HT Omega Claro Halo seems to be getting overwhelmingly positive reviews from many users (currently an average of 5 stars from 99 users at Newegg), though some have complained about the complexity of the configuration software. The Claro Halo includes a headphone amplifier and is designed specifically to drive headphones. The company also markets several other high-end sound cards and, though i have not used any of their products, they do seem to be of a higher caliber and quality than Creative.
SOUND CARD/DAC CONFIGURATION
Although not necessary when using an external DAC, in the case where one is using an internal sound card, i have read where knowledgeable people suggest to configure the driver in the Windows Control Panel according to the listening device you will be using for gaming (i.e. stereo when using headphones) even though this setting can be configured in the CS:GO options. Why this may be necessary when the option to allow other devices to take full control of the sound card is enabled, i do not know at this point. Nevertheless, you can set this by right-clicking the speaker icon in your system tray > Playback devices > select your speakers > then click the ‘Configure’ button. The following images happen to be for my on-board Realtek chipset, but should be close enough for other internal sound cards.
Enhancements (general): It is suggested to disable all enhancements in your sound card/DAC driver settings with the possible exception of loudness equalization and the EQ, which we’ll get to in a bit. You can do this by right-clicking the speaker icon in your system tray > Playback devices > select your speakers > then click the ‘Properties’ button.
Enhancements – Loudness equalization/automatic gain control (AGC): Many internal sound card and external DAC drivers offer the ability to do extra hardware and/or software processing including normalizing the output volume to make quiet sounds louder and loud sounds quieter. Whether you want to activate this option depends on a few factors, including your CS game play style, but you should be aware that while you can probably hear distant enemies which went undetected before, activating AGC may compromise your ability to judge how far away those enemies are. Also the average volume of all game sounds will change throughout the gaming session. For example, footsteps will become louder, making them easier to hear, but only until a loud sound is played close by, such as a shot from the AK-47, after which all other sounds will become become quieter for a period of time. If you’re acting as a scout for the rest of your team it may be worth considering enabling volume normalization, however i would think this would be a disadvantage in most other scenarios. That being said, one important point to consider regarding volume normalization is that it can prevent possible hearing damage caused by the louder noises such as gunfire, something which is especially relevant when using headphones.
Another possible caveat with enabling loudness equalization/AGC is a lot of added noise/static when using the microphone. I noticed this with my on-board Realtek chipset on a Clevo/Sager laptop when using a microphone connected through the analog 3.5mm jack — just something to be aware of if others complain of lots of noise from your mic.
Regarding the equalizer (EQ) for your sound card, i would suggest reading the Ultimate Guide to Audio Equalizer post on the Steam community forums if you want to get the best sound from CS:GO. Basically the poster, ‘RetriButioN’, recommends the following levels based on what appears to be a detailed analysis of some of the more important sounds in the game:
There are only two basic types of phones that i am aware of; stereo and surround sound. Surround sound phones fall into the ‘true’ and ‘virtual’ categories and are usually of the 5.1 or 7.1 type. Stereo phones have only two drivers, one for the left channel and one for the right channel, while surround sound phones may have more than two, but not always. So-called ‘surround sound’ phones with only two drivers are actually stereo phones which attempt to emulate a surround sound effect through hardware and/or software processing, such as Dolby decoding or Creatives CMSS 3D.
Any decent headphone will provide positional accuracy for sounds coming from the left or right regions, but being able to accurately differentiate between sounds coming from the front and rear regions with headphones of any type is a controversial matter. While it is possible to simulate surround sound using HRTF, it must also be understood that the ability to accurately determine the direction of a sound in front or to the rear of the listener may depend on each individual listener. ‘mzil’ elaborates why this is in a post at Hydrogenaudio:
What these companies don’t explain well is that the sound processing they have applied, largely different EQs used to invoke HRTF directionality, is all over the map from one person to the next due to differences in the size, length, and shape of our individual ear canals, pinnae, and heads.
I can’t find the exact graphic I wanted but this one will help me to illustrate my point. It shows how when you measure 400 or so test subjects they all fall within a very broad window of over 10 dB variability, the shaded area:
They test dozens of people to generate these gray areas [pun intended] and then draw a line through the middle of it all as an average, keep their fingers crossed it will cover the largest number of listeners, and then send the product to market. Thing is it only works for some people for some sounds.
Source engine games use only rudimentary crossfading to provide positional audio cues rather than actual surround sound mixing and are therefore largely incapable of providing the ability to differentiate between sound coming from the front verses the rear when using headphones or two speakers. While some CS players with surround sound headphones may disagree, it is the opinion of this author, as well as many others more knowledgeable than myself, that the ability to differentiate between front verses rear in any iteration of Counter-Strike powered by the Source engine is merely a perceived one based upon a tonal/pitch and volume difference in the sound rather than an actual difference in the position of the sound within the virtual soundscape. This is clearly corroborated by the majority of the information i have digested from those who seem to be very knowledgeable regarding the Source engine, various surround sound technologies and headphones.
Referring again to the Headphones For Positional Audio in CS:GO topic on the Tom’s Hardware, ‘Pinhedd’ offers the following comments regarding positional audio in CS:GO:
The Source Engine’s audio stack is archaic. It is neither truly 3D nor truly positional. So the answer is yes, a stereo headset is usually just as good as a surround headset.
Again referring to headphone use, he follows up in a later post with the following:
I hate to burst your bubble but you won’t get positional sound on CS:GO, or any source engine game for that matter.
The Human brain uses three different variables to place the source of a sound in an environment.
The difference in each of these across each ear is used to place the source of a sound. A true positional audio system takes a point source in 3D space and transforms all three variables for each speaker. This process is called a head-related-transfer-function, or HRTF.
A stripped-down HRTF that changes only the amplitude is called a cross-fade. This is what the source engine uses. In the source engine, each sound source casts the same audio to each speaker, just at a different volume. Ergo, it’s impossible to get true 3D positioning in the source engine, but it is possible to get half-baked positional audio.
With heavy digital signal processing it is possible to obtain near to reality positional audio using only high quality stereo headphones. I generally don’t like them because I find them uncomfortable, but they do work.
In the same thread, ‘cats_Paw’ reinforces what ‘Pinhedd’ has told us:
Stereo headphones and 5.1 or 7.1 headphones are the same. What I am trying to say is that the way our brain interprets positional cues means that 5.1 and stereo headphones are the same as far as our brain is concerned.
The way we do [determine position] is by delay of sound reaching ear 1 and ear 2, as well as volume that [reaches] ear 1 and ear 2. It has nothing to do with the angle at [which] the sound enters your ear.
Several confirmations that stereo headphones are a better choice than so-called surround sound headphones for Source powered games comes from those who appear to be knowledgeable regarding audio and CS:GO. The following is a comment from ‘Amaroq’, a forum member on Absurd Minds who wrote an extensive guide for the game:
Remember, CS:GO has its own positional audio, which is optimized for headphone configuration. You should not be using your own surround sound, either physical or virtual, while playing Counter-Strike. For this reason, make sure that you have the in-game audio settings to “Headphone”.
And this one from ‘stupidchavs‘ on reddit:
CSGO’s locational sound algorithms for headphones are pretty good in my experience, much better than any 5.1 emulation softwares I’ve tried from Razer and such. Stick to stereo headphones on your setup unless you really have another preference. If you’re talking about simply setting CSGO to 5.1 in its own settings, don’t do this.
As for USB verses analog headphone connectivity, apparently the reason why analog is preferred is because of the way USB works. While USB may be great for connecting some devices, such as external storage drives and flash memory, it appears to be a less optimal technology for others, such as headphones and, believe it or not, keyboards and mice. This is because of the processing overhead, added electrical noise and latency. It may be hard to believe, but it appears that the old PS/2 ports were superior to USB for mice and keyboards, the caveat being that they were not hot-swappable. That said, it appears that the electronic noise, or ‘hiss’ problem, that is present on the USB port is eliminated, or at least minimized by a decent quality DAC.
My understanding as to the difference between USB and serial is that USB devices have a software “server” on a chip within them which has to connect and communicate with a “client” on the computer. For USB 2.0 and earlier, which includes most mice and keyboards at present, the client has to poll (ask) the server to see if anything is going on, thus we get the USB polling rate and subsequent latency that gamers often talk about whereas with the old PS/2 connection, when you pressed a mouse button or keyboard key the signal was sent directly to the motherboard virtually without delay. From embedded.com we find the following in an article titled USB 3.0 vs USB 2.0: A quick reference summary for the busy engineer:
USB 2.0 employs a communication architecture where the data transaction must be initiated by the host. The host will frequently poll the device and ask for data, and the device may only transmit data once it has been requested by the host. The high polling frequency not only increases power consumption, it increases transmission latency because the data can only be transmitted when the device is polled by the host. USB 3.0 improves upon this communication model and reduces transmission latency by minimizing polling and also allowing devices to transmit data as soon as it is ready.
So, if the audiophiles, the hardware geeks and some of the folks who seem to have a deep understanding of the Source game engine are correct, then the following seems to be the best advice for choosing a headset/headphones:
- Any phones directed toward gamers are most often overpriced and of very poor build quality with horrible sound reproduction
- Surround sound phones are largely marketing hype for selling inferior products to consumers that don’t know any better
- Surround sound phones with multiple drivers use very small drivers because of the space limitation, resulting in very poor sound reproduction
- Analog stereo phones that connect directly to an internal sound card or external DAC seem to offer the best possible sound quality
- Buying a decent headphone and then adding your own microphone, such as the Zalman ZM-MIC1, may offer the very best bang for your buck.
- Open-back headphones, verses closed, will offer a superior soundscape which is better for determining from which direction a sound originates, at least for left, center and right
That being said, there are apparently some decent quality gaming headsets available according to some audiophiles. Reviews for several models can be found in the 2014/2015 Head-Fi Buying Guide (Gaming Headphones) article. In particular, the Sennheiser G4ME ONE headset, which is of the open-back that offers a better soundscape, seems to be a favorite among the more knowledgeable folks. At around $180 clams, they are fairly expensive however, at least from the average gamers’ point of view.
Another model which i would readily add to the list is the open-back QPAD QH-85 headset which includes a detachable microphone. This headset has also been getting very positive reviews from what seem to be knowledgeable people, and they are significantly less expensive then the Sennheiser G4ME ONE. I have a pair of these myself and am very pleased with them, both in terms of gaming and general use. The QH-85 headset is well-built and houses 53mm drivers which are apparently some of the largest found among headphones/headsets. They also offer the microphone on/off volume control as a dongle attached to a completely separate extension cable which i think is superior to the usual fixed, in-line unit for a few reasons; 1) they break or the pots wear out and cause static in the sound and 2), i find them to be a nuisance since they tend to get in the way and 3), we already have volume controls in Windows and, often, our keyboards.
Here’s the highlights for the QPAD QH-85 headset:
- Hi-Fi capable 53mm drivers for supreme audio quality
- 15-25.000 Hz frequency response
- Detachable microphone (quick and easy to plug/unplug for music-only purposes)
- Solid aluminum construction for durability and stability
- Super-soft padded leather headband and velour padding on cups for maximum comfort
- Open cup design on QH-85 for natural Hi-Fi audio with a minimum of sound leakage
The full specifications can be found on the QPAD website.
If you don’t mind spending ~$300 for what are alleged to be very high quality, all-around stereo headphones, and you want the closed-back type, take a look at the Feenix Aria. The Aria has 50mm drivers with wood enclosures made from Japanese Pine which is supposed to provide a warmer sound. I have never bought from Feenix before, but poking around their website gives me the strong impression that they design and market extremely high quality gear specifically aimed at gamers.
More recommendations for headphones can be found on the on the Absurd Minds forum in a post by ‘jero’. With advice similar as that offered by others, he states the following regarding surround sound headsets:
“Surround Sound” or USB headsets can be actually detrimental to both positioning and quality. USB Devices cost a lot to include so things like durability and sound quality are sacrificed. It is preferential to buy high quality stereo headphones, and a separate microphone. This allows you to have much better sound quality for both gaming, and music.
Since i presently have a multi-driver 5.1/7.1 headset, a two driver 7.1 virtual surround sound headset, a set of wireless stereo headphones, and the QPAD QH-85 stereo headset, i was able to test all of them with CS:GO. The primary goal of my tests was to determine what combination of headphones and game settings worked the best for being able to distinguish what direction a sound is coming from, particularly with regard to front and rear.
The map used for testing was the 4 Apr., 2015 edition of Aim Botz with no bots and the sound test enabled. The long range option was disabled. In this configuration, the map displays only a single target that randomly changes position between four quadrants, each point being the same distance from the player when the player is positioned in the center of the map. Each time the target appears a sound is played and it is this sound i used for the test. I positioned my model in the center of the map and fixed my sights on one of the far walls where the sound target would appear, then remained in that position while the sound target rotated around me. With my eyes open and closed, i tried to determine where the sound originated.
- Sennheiser RS 170 wireless stereo headphone, circumaural, closed back
- Razer Megalodon 7.1 virtual surround sound gaming headset, 2 physical drivers, circumaural, open back
- Turtle Beach Ear Force AK-R8 (discontinued), 7.1 surround sound gaming headset, 8 physical drivers, circumaural, open back
- QPAD QH-85 stereo gaming headset, circumaural, open back
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (build ID 698210)
- Type: Clevo W870CU/Sager NP8760 notebook PC
- Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1
- CPU: Intel Core i7 740QM @ 1.73GHz Clarksfield 45nm Technology
- RAM: 8.00GB Dual-Channel DDR3 @ 660MHz (9-9-9-24)
- Motherboard: CLEVO CO. W870CU
- Graphics: HSD173PUW1 (1920×1080@60Hz) 1536MB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460M (driver version 220.127.116.1139)
- Audio: On-board Realtek High Definition Audio (driver version 18.104.22.16871)
|HEADPHONE MODEL/TYPE||SOFTWARE DRIVER||PHONE CONNECT||DEVICE CONFIG||WINDOWS CONFIG||GAME CONFIG||RESULTS||NOTES|
|Sennheiser RS 170||default Realtek v22.214.171.12471||analog 3.5mm stereo jack to on-board sound card||all enhancements disabled||stereo, all enhancements disabled||headphones; all default config settings||L/R separation was very good; F/R separation was non-existent||most comfortable out of all headphones tested; sound was the warmest of all headphones tested|
|Razer Megalodon||default Realtek v126.96.36.19971||USB||7.1||7.1, all enhancements disabled||5.1; all default config settings||when in 7.1 mode the L/R separation was noticeably less pronounced than any other headset tested, but still discernible; F/R had a different tone, however i could not discern the actual position of the sound with my eyes closed||somewhat comfortable; muddy, horrible sound quality; gunfire too harsh|
|Razer Megalodon||default Realtek v188.8.131.5271||USB||2.0||7.1, all enhancements disabled||headphones; all default config settings||L/R separation was good; F/R separation was non-existent||(see above)|
|Turtle Beach Ear Force AK-R8||Audio Advantage SRM, AK-R8 DRIVER x64 & 32-bit for Windows 7, 20 Nov, 2012||USB||5.1, all enhancements disabled||7.1, all enhancements disabled||5.1; all default config settings||L/R separation was good; F/R sounded distinctly different, more so than the Razor Megalodon, but again, i could not discern the actual position of the sound with my eyes closed||uncomfortable because the grills for the drivers rest directly on the rear portion of the ear; poor sound quality but not as bad as the Razor Megalodon; gunfire was too harsh; 7.1 mode was not tested; drivers require system restart but offer a lot of (mostly useless) settings|
|QPAD QH-85||default Realtek v184.108.40.20671||analog 3.5mm stereo jack to on-board sound card||n/a||stereo, all enhancements disabled||headphones; all default config settings||L/R separation was very good, probably the best of all tested; F/R separation was non-existent||phones a bit heavy but reasonably comfortable; produced the most accurate sound of all tested; gunfire not as harsh as with the smaller drivers in the Turtle Beach Ear Force AK-R8 or Razer Megalodon|
In summary, i am inclined to agree with what i have learned through my research in that the ability to differentiate between sounds coming from the front and rear with either stereo, real, or virtual surround sound headphones is non-existent in CS:GO, even when the sound card driver, the game and the headphone settings (if any) are configured properly. Many of the audiophiles and those with better than average knowledge of how the Source engine processes sound have stated that surround sound headphones are indeed useless for gaming, particularly with modern Source engine games. Though there are both real surround sound headphones with multiple drivers as well as the virtual type with only two drivers, and though at times it is unclear to which they are referring to, it doesn’t seem to make any difference in the end, at least not with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
Prior to the completion of my research, and because of the updated sound engine in the later versions of CS:GO, i had expected to at least hear some positional difference between sounds originating from the front verses the rear with surround sound headphones, however my own testing has indicated that this was not the case. While the Turtle Beach AK-R8 headset in 5.1 mode out performed the Razor Megalodon as far as left/right positional accuracy, it seemed very difficult at best to determine whether sounds coming from the front or rear just sounded different in tone or were actually positioned differently within the soundscape. Given what i have learned from my research, i now know that the answer is almost certainly that the difference is a perceived one and not a real one.
One thing is very clear regarding the Razor and Turtle Beach surround sound gaming headsets that were tested; the sound quality is garbage! While the professionally marketed and immaculately packaged (read: utterly wasteful) Razor Megalodon might look like it has large drivers, in fact they are only 40mm in diameter and there are only two of them, which of course means they are actually stereo with the so-called “surround sound” being simulated entirely through hardware and software mixing. On the other hand, while the Turtle Beach Ear Force AK-R8 actually has eight physical drivers, its six satellite drivers are so tiny that they cannot possibly produce decent quality sound. Gunfire in both was overwhelmingly sharp to the point of being hurtful when the volume was cranked enough to hear footsteps clearly.
While the separation of left verses right was not a serious problem with any of the phones, the stereo test of the Sennheiser RS 170 and the Razer Megalodon when set to 2.0 mode produced noticeably poorer results than the QPAD QH-85 which, overall, was by far my favorite in terms of overall usability, positional accuracy and quality. The only gripe i have with the QH-85 is the lack of a braided fiber covered cord.
Regarding Sennheiser in general it is my opinion that, while the sound quality is quite good overall across their product line, their build quality has taken a nose dive, at least for their less expensive gear. Regarding Logitech headsets, or anything else with the possible exception of their sound cards, i would suggest avoiding this company completely. Logitech sells poor quality, gimmick-ridden, software bloated garbage that, while it may perform decent, will probably only last a very short time before something explodes.
There are many other headphones to choose from and possibly a few other headsets as well. With the exception of the QPAD QH-85 headset, i do not recommend any of the models i have tested for gaming and would suggest checking with the audiophile people for more information. The forums at Hydrogenaudio, Head-Fi.org and Tom’s Hardware are probably good places to start, as well as the reddit CS:GO forum.
For the game variable tweaks it is essential that you store these settings in a user configuration file, such
autoexec.cfg. Here’s how to create the file:
- First of all, make sure you disable the option to hide file extensions for known file types! You can find this setting in the Control Panel > Folder Options.
- In Explorer, navigate to the following path:
[drive letter]:\Steam\steamapps\common\Counter-Strike Global Offensive\csgo\cfg
- Right click anywhere in the
\cfgfolder and create a new text document, naming it to autoexec.cfg. Make sure the extension is ‘
.cfg‘ and not ‘.
This file will be automatically executed every time you run the game.
While on the subject of configuration files, do not make your
config.cfg file read-only with CS:GO as some still suggest. While this was once a common method to prevent slowhacking, whereby a malicious game server administrator could alter the settings in the
config.cfg file, it is no longer necessary after some point in the development cycle of Counter-Strike: Source.
You can edit your new
autoexec.cfg file with Notepad, but i would suggest using a better editor such as Notepad++. I recommend starting out by adding the following line at the top of the file. This line will be displayed in the console when the file is read, making it easy to troubleshoot any syntax of other errors which will follow the ‘echo’ line.:
echo ":::: EXECUTING AUTOEXEC.CFG :::::"
The syntax for adding the variables described below to your
autoexec.cfg file is very simple:
// this is a comment - it is ignored by the game engine when it reads the file echo ":::: EXECUTING AUTOEXEC.CFG :::::" // "echo" will write text to the console, letting us know that the file was executed
snd_mixahead"0.10" // regulates the amount of time given to the audio system to process sound (def=0.10)
Before we start messing with the game variables, you must be aware that the sound system in CS:GO is already optimized quite well for most users. You should also have a clear understanding of what these variables do before you make any permanent changes. To discover most of the variables which affect the CS:GO sound system, type
find snd_ and
find dsp_ in the console.
A Counter-Strike.net blog post written on August of 2012 provides us with an insight as to how the different sound preset options affect how we hear sound for headphones, stereo speakers and 5.1 surround sound:
In the upcoming CS:GO update, we’re unlocking options for players to configure their own preferred speaker placement and cross-fading algorithms. We’re also providing presets optimized for headphones, speakers, and surround-sound setups. This should provide a better default experience for new players, while allowing advanced players to customize the system to match their own playing style.
Following are the variables we will be looking at. Note that some of the default values given here are true only when the ‘Headphones’ option is enabled in CS:GO.
||0.10||0.01-0.1||NO||0.05-0.1||regulates the amount of time given to the audio system to process sound |
||1||1-100, step = 1||NO||1-2||affects whether front and rear sounds are of equal volume |
||1||1-100, step = 1||NO||1-2||affects the point and duration at which sounds crossfade between the left and right channels |
||90/90||0-180||NO||60-90/90 or 90/90||adjusts the virtual speaker position forward or rearward when using headphones |
||0||0 or 1||NO||0||the game engine will use DirectSound3D when this is set to 1 and multi-channel software cross-fade when set to 0 |
||0||0 or 1||NO||0 or 1 based on personal preference||enhances the stereo effect, making sound richer and more atmospheric for a slight performance hit |
snd_mixahead: Affects the amount of time given to the sound system to process sound. While it is commonly suggested to change it to 0.05 to minimize the delay for playing sounds, it appears that the difference is negligible at best and, if set too low, could introduce sound stuttering problems. ‘JovialFeline’, one of the moderators for the CS:GO sub-reddit, has this to say:
this is the buffer time audio gets to process before the next frame is displayed. It’s commonly lowered because a higher value could hypothetically introduce a few milliseconds of audio lag but anybody saying it’s a fixed delay is mistaken. 0.05 is usually harmless but if you find your audio glitching out, it should be raised. The default is 0.10.
The Quake Wiki reaffirms what ‘JovialFeline’ tells us and adds a bit more detail:
Sets how far into the future to mix the sound. Every frame, the sound is mixed up to a certain point, under the assumption that the next frame will arrive before the entire mixed buffer of sound is played. So with the default value of 0.1 seconds, if your framerate dips below 10 fps, it will run off the end of the sound buffer and you’ll get stuttering sound. To fix this, increase the value (e.g. a value of 0.2 will handle as low as 5 fps before stuttering). However, increasing the mixahead time means the CPU has to do that much more work mixing more sound (thus possibly lowering your framerate, defeating the purpose), so be reasonable.
snd_headphone_pan_exponent: Affects whether front and rear sounds are of equal volume. While many emphatically state that changing this variable will yield better positional audio, it appears they often do not really understand what it does. 
snd_headphone_pan_radial_weight: Affects the point and duration at which sounds crossfade between the left and right channels. This is one of the most important variable which affects the ability to accurately determine the direction of sound in Counter-Strike, however changing it from the default of ‘1’ may yield undesirable results.
While this value can be raised to enable the player to easily pinpoint the direction of a sound to within a few degrees when facing almost directly toward or away from the source, the ability to determine direction when the sound is off to the side will be compromised. For example, if you raise this value to 99 and face the sound source exactly, the sound will play evenly across both left and right channels as you would expect, however if you then rotated just a couple of degrees to the right, the sound would crossfade to the left channel almost immediately and completely and remain at the same volume for the next nearly 180 degrees until you were facing directly away from it, thus making it impossible to determine whether the sound originated from the left front, left or left rear. The default value of 1 provides a natural transition from side to front, thus making it easier to determine direction when a sound is positioned at a 45 degree angle.
If you want to better determine the direction of sound that is in front or behind you, and are willing to compromise the ability to determine the direction when it is off to the side, you can raise this value, though i would not recommend going beyond 2 or so. While raising it may benefit very skilled players who play on competitive level, i would posit that it would be more likely to hurt anyone else.
‘JovialFeline’ offers the following regarding
The short version is that you can make sounds to your front or rear more obvious at the cost of flattening the crossfade volume curve; footsteps or gunfire will sound closer than their sources actually are and it can be trickier to gauge distance.
snd_headphone_pan_exponent is 1.0 by default as is snd_headphone_pan_radial_weight. If you start an offline game with bots, enable cheats with sv_cheats 1, and enter snd_debug_panlaw 1, you’ll get a neat visual representation of present sound sources, your virtual speaker positions, and your current crossfade algorithm.
You’ll notice as you fiddle with the radial weight or exponent that footsteps and other sounds will fade away more quickly or slowly with distance. Weight applies this effect to your front and rear speakers, while exponent only skews it toward one direction; positive values will make sounds to your front seem louder than ones from behind, while negative values have the opposite effect. A value of 0 will not apply any front/rear bias at all.
This does not boost sound distance, so don’t expect to track people all the way from their spawn or something. It simply makes crossfading come into play at different distances.
Also worth noting that changes to these panning/crossfade settings won’t get archived like most variables. If you want to stick to a certain setup, you’ll want to use an autoexec.
snd_rear_headphone_position: Adjusts the virtual speaker position forward or rearward in degrees when using headphones. In addition to
snd_headphone_pan_radial_weight, these two variables are important in determining the position of sounds in Counter-Strike. Here is a visualization of what the virtual speaker positions look like when both
snd_rear_headphone_positionare set to their default values of 90 degrees:
In this configuration, you will experience a smooth transition in the position of the sound as a it moves from your left, where it will be played only in the left stereo channel, to your front or rear, where it will be played at equal volume in both stereo channels.
Many players recommend setting
snd_rear_headphone_position to 45 and 135 respectively. Decreasing the value for
snd_front_headphone_position to 45 will essentially split the two speakers into four and move one of the left and one of the right speakers forward. Increasing the value of
snd_rear_headphone_position to 135 will move the remaining two rearward. While this may seem like an easy way to produce a surround sound effect, this is absolutely not what happens. This image demonstrates the new position of the virtual speakers when using the 45/135 values:
The values shown in the image above will greatly enhance ones ability to pinpoint the position of sounds only when a sound is located between the two front or two rear virtual speakers. Positional accuracy is enhanced near the center because the range in degrees that a sound is allowed to crossfade between the left or right headphone channels has been reduced by half from 180 to 90 degrees. The caveat with this configuration is when the sound is positioned anywhere between the two left or two right virtual speakers, in which case it will play at the same volume in only the left or right headphone channel. This is because the ability to crossfade between the left and right headphone channels has been eliminated in these areas. In other words, you will be unable to distinguish between left rear, left, and left front if the sound is located between the two virtual speakers on the left in the image above (the same is true for the right side, only in reverse). How large these static areas become is determined by the values of these variables.
To test the effect of these variables, load up ‘de_inferno’ and position yourself near the music source at the Terrorist spawn. Kick the bots if you have to (
bot_kick), then set
sv_cheats to 1 and
snd_debug_panlaw to 1. This will display two graphs, one on the left which shows crossfade curves and one on the right which is similar to the images i used earlier in that it will indicate the position of the four virtual speakers that you will be adjusting with the aforementioned variables. Also shown in the same graph will be the exact position of each sound that is currently playing, such as the radio, wind and bird sounds.
Start by remaining in one position and slowly rotating 360 degrees, paying close attention to how the music crossfades from one headphone channel to the other. Next, rotate slowly until the marker for the music sound is positioned exactly at the top of the graph on the right, at which point you will be directly facing the source of the sound. Now set
snd_front_headphone_position to 10 and slowly rotate very slightly to the left and right of center. You will immediately notice how quickly the sound crossfades from one speaker to the other, therefore making it very easy to determine its precise location. Now continue to slowly rotate in either direction until the sound is positioned all the way off to your left or right and you will notice that the smooth crossfading between the left and right channels when the value was set to 90 is now completely absent when the sound is located between 10 and 90 degrees. All you know is that the sound is off to your left or right, whichever direction you rotated towards, but nothing more than that.
Now set values for both
snd_rear_headphone_position to 45 and again rotate slowly. You will notice a dead zone where the sound cannot be heard at all during some point in your rotation, so be sure to carefully test your changes before you finalize them.
In the end, any alteration of the
snd_rear_headphone_position values will create static zones where there is no crossfading between the left and right channel and therefore no positional feedback other than pure left or pure right. I would encourage you to conduct your own tests to determine whether altering these values will benefit you, your particular playing style and your particular ears.
Personally i find 45 and 135 to be a bit radical because of the large, 90 degree static zones that result where there is no crossfading between the left and right audio channels when a sound is off to the side. Instead i prefer a value of 60 for
snd_front_headphone_position and the default 90 for
snd_rear_headphone_position. The 60/90 values will enhance your ability to determine the position of a sound only when it is in front of you within a 120 degree field of view while the positional accuracy for sounds that are behind you will remain the same. Not only do these values reduce the static zones off to your side over the 45/135 values, but there is another possible benefit as well in that you can potentially differentiate between front and rear by judging how fast a sound crossfades between the left and right channels. I only mention this latter benefit for completeness really since i haven’t yet been able to use it to my advantage.
snd_legacy_surround: The game engine will use DirectSound3D when this is set to 1 and multi-channel software cross-fade when set to 0. You must have a Creative Labs or Asus Xonar sound card which supports EAX if you enable this option and for Windows Vista and above you must apply the Creative Alchemy patch for DirectSound3D since Microsoft removed the Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) for DirectSound and DirectSound3D. The HAL provided the ability for the driver software to communicate directly with the sound card hardware. 
dsp_enhance_stereo: Enhances the stereo effect, making sound richer and more atmospheric for a slight performance hit. Personally i like the difference in sound when this is enabled, however you may not.
There are many more variables which affect sound. To discover most of them, type
find snd_ in the console. Unfortunately, the variables which can enhance the ability to detect footsteps, such as
snd_setmixer GlobalFootsteps vol, are considered cheats and can therefore only be changed on a server where
sv_cheats is set to 1.
Although my goal was to reproduce in CS:GO the superior A3D positional audio that was present in earlier iterations of the game, and then lost when Creative aquired the technology, the result has not been as successful as i had hoped. In the end, it would appear that the Source engine is probably fairly well optimized for most people by default as long as the sound card/DAC driver and sound source option in the game are configured properly. The most notable possible exception is the
snd_rear_headphone_position variables which can indeed have a significant impact on positional audio cues when using headphones, though not without sacrificing some level of ones ability to determine the position of a sound when it is off to the side.
What was learned during the course of my research and experimentation regarding the Source engine, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and audio hardware was quite valuable and i hope others may find it useful. Counter-Strike is certainly a remarkable game and enhancing your audio experience can only improve it.
RESOURCES AND REFERENCES
- A3D (Wikipedia)
- A3D-Live! (project dedicated to resurrecting the Aureal/A3D HRTF technology)
- AbsurdMinds’ complete beginner’s guide to CS:GO
- Adjusting your sound cards Graphic EQ to make footsteps louder and guns shots quieter (reddit – see all posts by ‘stupidchavs’)
- An Overview of Mouse Technology (Team Liquid)
- Aureal Semiconductor (Wikipedia)
- Best headphone settings for in-game? (reddit)
- Can Valve do anything about CS:GO’s positional sound issues? (reddit)
- Configure Your PC for Competitive CSGO (reddit)
- Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – Ultimate Guide to Audio Equalizer (Steam Community)
- Counter-Strike: Global Offensive on reddit
- Directional/positional Sound console commands (reddit)
- Electromagnetic interference (Wikipedia)
- Environmental Audio Extensions (Wikipedia)
- Gaming Headsets Suck – Make Your Own For $50 or Less (YouTube)
- Head-related transfer function (HRTF) (Wikipedia)
- Headphone Reviews, Comparisons & Recommendations (GoodCans.com)
- Headphones For Positional Audio in CS:GO (Tom’s Hardware)
- Mad Lust Envy’s Headphone Gaming Guide (Head-Fi)
- Optimizing competitive sound settings for headphones? (reddit)
- OpenAL (Wikipedia)
- PS/2 port (Wikipedia)
- PS/2 vs USB keyboards: performance and energy consumption (Super User)
- Rapture3D (Blue Ripple Sound)
- Rapture3D HRTF Demo (YouTube)
- Response times on the USB bus (listserv.linguistlist.org Mailing Lists, 2006)
- Sound Guide: A request for /u/JovialFeline & /u/gravyenema (reddit – see all posts by ‘JovialFeline’)
- Sound Spatialization (Counter-Strike.net blog)
- Source Engine Audio: Head-Related Transfer Functions (Steam community)
- Virtual Barber (YouTube – a very cool Dolby HRTF demo)
- What’s one small trick in CS:GO that you know, that you think others might not know? (reddit)