What Is 3D Audio: A Short Guide

Updated: July 29,2022

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There’s no denying that 3D audio is cool. It immerses you in an experience like no other type of audio can. But what is it, exactly, and how does it work? In this article, we’ll explore the world of 3D audio and explain what makes it so special.

We’ll look at different types of 3D audio, explain how you can make the most out of the technology, discuss its benefits, and talk about its current uses and future developments. Let’s get right into it, shall we?

What Is 3D Audio? 

3D audio is a type of sound that creates the illusion of three-dimensional space, unlike traditional stereo sound, which just gives you the impression of height and depth. In essence, the 3D effect is created by taking standard two-dimensional sounds and processing them, so they virtually show up anywhere in a three-dimensional space around the listener.

If we compare 3D audio vs. surround sound, the latter comes in numerous gimmicky variants such as 5.1 and 7.1 surround. In reality, you’re mostly getting sound from four cardinal directions, with a bit of positional trickery to make the sound appear to be all around you.

3D sound tricks your brain in a much more advanced manner, enabling you to perceive sound from every direction in a 3D space, including above and below you.

How Does 3D Audio Work?

The technology uses special audio processing to place sounds in different locations around the listener, making it seem like they are coming from different directions. This can create a more immersive and realistic listening experience, especially when combined with other forms of 3D technology such as virtual reality (VR).

There are several different ways to create 3D sounds. One common method is to use binaural recordings. They capture sound waves coming from different directions and combine them to create a three-dimensional effect.

Another popular technique uses head-related transfer functions (HRTFs), which simulate how our ears process sound waves coming from different directions. Wave field synthesis (WFS) also uses multiple speakers to create the illusion of sound coming from specific locations.

Finally, some developers create their own custom algorithms to generate 3D spatial audio. This method is inspired by how sound waves interact with our ears and tries to replicate how we naturally hear the world around us. 

3D Audio Usage and Benefits

3D audio has multiple applications, including gaming, movies, and music. It’s also used for educational purposes, such as providing auditory cues to help people with visual impairments navigate their surroundings.

It can profoundly affect how we experience media and is becoming increasingly popular as more people discover binaural audio headphones, 3D audio speakers, VR headsets, and other immersive technology.

The 3D audio effect can make a huge difference in how realistic and believable something we hear feels, creating better immersion into everything from live music concerts to fantasy worlds in gaming.

3D directional audio offers much more creative freedom to movie directors, musicians, and game audio engineers, opening up new possibilities for sound design. 

Unlike traditional stereo recordings, which often sound muffled or lack detail, 3D audio provides a much clearer audio experience. 

Whether you’re an audiophile that wants to feel immersed in a live violin concerto from the comfort of a sofa or a gamer that needs to know precisely where the enemy footsteps are coming from, the benefits of a 3D sound experience can’t be overstated.

Experiencing 3D Audio

To get started with 3D virtual sound, you’ll need a set of speakers or headphones that support the technology. A decent 3D audio soundbar will also work. 

Most good gaming speakers natively support 3D audio, as do some high-end gaming and audiophile headsets. Once you have the necessary hardware, you’ll still need to configure your audio settings.

The settings will be different depending on your device and operating system. For example, in Windows 10, you’ll need to open the Start menu and search for Sound. Click on the Sound icon to open the Sound Control Panel. 

Once you’re there, select your sound output device and click on Properties. From here, go to the Spatial Sound tab, and you’ll be able to turn on Windows Sonic for Headphones, enabling 3D sound in Windows. You can also get the Dolby Access 3D audio software from the Microsoft Store to improve the sound quality.

For video games, you’ll simply have to turn on the appropriate setting from the audio menu, providing there’s necessary hardware and the game supports 3D sound.

Setting up 3D audio is just as simple on Playstation and Xbox consoles. For example, to make it work for TV speakers on the PS5, go to Settings > Sound > Audio Output > TV, and select  Enable 3D Audio for TV Speakers. You can use the microphone on your DualSense controller to measure your room acoustics through the Measure Room Acoustics for 3D Audio setting.

If you need a better 3D audio test, put your PS5 through its paces with a quality set of 3D gaming headphones. Again, go to Settings > Sound > Audio Output, but this time, pick Headphones and click on Enable 3D Audio for Headphones to turn 3D headphone sound on. You can also click on Adjust 3D Audio Profile to choose your favorite profile and fine-tune the sound.

But how to make 3D audio work on the Xbox consoles? The process is also very straightforward, so let’s briefly explain how to do it with headphones. First, press the Xbox button to open the guide menu and select Profile & system > Settings > General > Volume & audio output.

Navigate to Headset audio and choose between the default Windows Sonic spatial sound, object-based surround sound through DTS Headphone:X, or the premium Dolby Atmos for Headphones format from the Headset format dropdown menu.

Once you’ve enabled 3D audio on your gaming platform of choice, try playing a movie or game that supports it. Many modern titles will make use of 3D binaural sounds if your hardware is configured correctly. You should notice that sounds seem to come at you from different directions, making for a much more immersive gaming experience.

The Future of 3D Audio

Although it has been around for a while, 3D audio technology is still technically in its infancy, and the potential applications for this immersive sound technology are nearly endless. In the future, 3D audio will undoubtedly see more use in music, video games, and movies, but also as part of learning and educational experiences.

We’ve already talked about how 3D audio has the potential to enhance virtual reality experiences, but the technology has barely started to show what it can do. Sony has been working hard to create a next-gen audio environment for its PS5 console and the upcoming PSVR2 headset.

But, what is 3D audio on the PS5 going to be like in the future, and what makes it so special? Sony claims its console uses object-based spatial sound technology to create some of the best 3D soundscapes around.

The technology is based on the older PSVR method, a system that could replicate up to 50 sound sources. The new tech processes hundreds of detailed sounds. 

This means we can get advanced soundscapes like the sound of individual raindrops or bullets fired during an intense video game shootout. 

It’s all made possible through the proprietary Tempest Engine inside the PS5, but for the ultimate experience, Sony recommends matching the console with its proprietary Pulse 3D wireless headset.

But, enough about gaming, what is 3D audio going to be like in fields like education? Well, imagine being able to listen to a lecture or presentation as if you were actually in the room with the speaker. 

Or what about being able to take a virtual tour of ancient ruins and hearing the authentic sounds of that period all around you? 3D audio could make these kinds of educational experiences much more engaging and effective.

There are almost endless possibilities for 3D audio, and as the technology develops further, its potential uses will only be limited by our imagination. 


Is 3D sound different from surround sound?

Yes, 3D sound is different from surround sound. It simulates a three-dimensional, lifelike soundscape with sounds that come at the listener from all directions, including above and below them. Surround sound, on the other hand, provides only two-dimensional sound positioning.

Is 3D sound good for gaming?

Yes, absolutely. Games have been using 3D audio to great effect for some time, but things are only looking to get better in the future. 

From accurately determining where your enemies are in a multiplayer shooter to getting immersed in the brooding atmosphere of a noisy cyberpunk city, 3D soundscapes have the potential to completely overhaul our gaming experiences.

What is 3D audio used for?

The applications are almost limitless, but prominent examples are movies, video games, music, and other digital media. It is especially potent as a tool for enhancing virtual reality experiences.

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With a degree in humanities and a knack for the history of tech, Jovan was always interested in how technology shapes both us as human beings and our social landscapes. When he isn't binging on news and trying to predict the latest tech fads, you may find him trapped within the covers of a generic 80s cyberpunk thriller.

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