What is 3D audio and how it works

You may have heard of headphones with 3D audio: such accessories promise a greater immersion in listening to music or enjoying a movie, but usually, they are much more expensive than ordinary headphones and headsets.

There is, however, a much more affordable solution. The Microsoft introduced in Windows 10, a solution that emulates the 3D audio by software. So you can enjoy your music library in a new way with your day-to-day headphones.

In this article, we explain what is 3D audio, how it works in Windows 10 and what you should do to activate the tool.

What is 3D audio?

Briefly, 3D audio is an emulation of surround sound, which we know mostly of surround sound technology. In it, we use six to eight channels with speakers and a subwoofer (5.1 and 7.1 respectively) to create a setting where the sound of movies, series, music and games occupy the entire space we are in, creating greater immersion.

There are 5.1 or 7.1 compatible surround headphones that deliver similar hardware results, but they are very expensive. 3D audio fills this gap by creating, through algorithms, the same spatial sound sensation on any handset, which does not have to be first-rate.

How does 3D audio from Windows 10 work?

3D audio technology, present in Windows 10 through Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos solutions (more on them, below) uses algorithms based on a technique called an anatomical transfer function, also known as a head transfer function (in the acronym, HRTF).

It works like this: when a sound wave reaches the ears, everything in the way causes interference. Including the size and shape of the head, ears, auditory channels, nasal and oral channels, and skull density. All of this changes how sound is perceived by the brain, and varies from person to person.

What these software do is to “imitate” how a natural sound would behave, emulating the sense of space and variations and applying the modifications, via algorithm in the reproduced sound. In a nutshell, 3D audio codecs emulate your head (not really, it’s an algorithm-based estimate ), which is reflected in the sound changes and how you perceive it, coming from various directions and at varying intensities.

HRTF technology is inspired by binaural recording techniques, a way to capture sounds through microphones installed directly in the auditory channels (usually of mannequins), to create tracks and sounds that the brain perceives as spatial, three-dimensional.

One of the latest examples of binaural audio application (which is not the same thing as 3D audio) is the game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice . The developer Ninja Theory used the technique to compose the various voices that echo in the tortured mind of the protagonist, each coming from a direction and with different intensities.

Watch the documentary below with headphones (be careful: it contains heavy SPOILERS from the game, if you have not played), and you’ll get an idea of how binaural audio works.

Again: Unlike 3D audio, which is an emulation, binaural audio uses a specific technique for sound pickup, and is usually employed in brain stimulation treatments. However, as we have seen, it served as the basis for the development of the feature that Windows 10 offers everyone.

What is the difference between Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos?

The Windows Sonic is a Microsoft’s own solution, included in Windows 10 fully form free. The technology is capable of emulating 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound by software, and even if you use a headset from the cheapest, it will have results similar to dedicated, first-rate accessories.

Dolby Atmos technology, which has been included in the latest high-end smartphones is similar, but has some extra features. By being object-based, it executes every sound of the direction from which it should come, in a space of three dimensions.

Thus, Atmos tends to deliver more engaging results than Windows Sonic, or even traditional surround.

However, there are limitations: Dolby offers the use of Atmos in Windows 10 as a courtesy for 30 days. After the deadline, to continue using it you must purchase a license for $15. In addition, softwares, music, movies and games must be compatible with the feature, unlike Windows Sonic.

Do I need a special headset to listen to 3D audio in Windows 10?

That’s the cool part of it: Windows Sonic or Dolby Atmos does not require specific hardware to play 3D audio. And what’s better, any type of handset is compatible, respecting the obvious limitations of each model.

So you can use from the expensive headphones from the Beats, the always reliable Microsoft headsets, such as the LX-3000 (the best friend of ten out of ten podcasters beginners) or even a intrauricular phone with common thread, such that is in any shop.

Of course, better quality headphones deliver better results, and the recommendation is to use quality products with good sound insulation. Thus, sound in three dimensions will be best appreciated.

How do I enable 3D audio in Windows 10?

Although Microsoft does not widely advertise the feature (perhaps because Dolby Atmos is a licensed technology), enabling 3D audio is very simple:

  1. Connect a headset to the computer running Windows 10;
  2. Right-click the sound icon in the Taskbar;
  3. Point the mouse cursor to Space Sound and click Windows Sonic for Headphones, or Dolby Atmos for Headphones .

That simple.

With this, Windows will emulate surround audio directly into your headphones, and you can enjoy your music and videos in a whole new way. And what’s better, without spending a penny on dedicated headphones and sound sets.

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