Call to Arms

From our initial blog of ‘To Leeroy Jenkins or not to’, we’ve developed a part 2. This blog is to inform you how an audio gaming system operates and is setup so you can choose the correct path for a more enjoyable gaming experience. But first, here at iFi, all of us have played games before but around 40% of us game just that little extra (sssshhh don’t tell the boss!) so here are a few collective games that we all play:

  • World of Warcraft
  • Battlefield
  • Call of Duty
  • Forza Horizon 4
  • Fortnite
  • Dark Soul
  • Borderlands
  • Starcraft
  • Grand Theft Auto
  • Red Dead Redemption 2
  • Fifa
  • Overwatch
  • Minecraft
  • Assassin’s Creed
  • Diablo

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

Figure 1 – TV showing 4K resolution. I bet you’re wishing you were here, right?

Let’s explain how audio works and how to implement it in your system.

First, we use three senses when it comes to gaming: sight, sound and touch (console pad vibration etc). We’ll just focus on sight (visual) and sound (audio).

Products that combine visual and audio technology such as TVs, smart devices, gaming consoles, tend to do a fairly good at both of these but they do not excel at either. These days we demand high definition quality visual and use HD TVs/smart devices to get this. We should also demand ‘high definition’ audio and use the correct devices to get it. This should be the same for laptops/computers too.

Why do you go to the cinema? You get the best experience with striking HD/3D visuals and Dolby surround sound audio thumping your chest! Blade Runner 2049 anyone? (Sea Wall) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipGNuFXubL8

Figure 2 – Computer internal components.

One way of upgrading the audio is to separate off the visual aspect from the audio wherever possible. As an analogy, computers have modular parts that can be upgraded to improve performance – using a better GPU (graphic processing unit) means you’ll have higher quality graphics rendered and adding more RAM (Random Access Memory, yes, Daft Punk has an album named after this) means you’ll encounter a computer that is faster and so forth.

Choose your destiny: Separate your audio path!

There are 2 types of audio path streams: analogue & digital.

Figure 3- Analogue wave form.
Figure 4 - Digital wave form.

All the audio you hear is analogue but depending on the system/device/setup it could be pure analogue (turntable/vinyl) or digital that must run through a DAC chip (digital to analogue converter).

More information at this blog: https://ifi-audio.com/whats-a-dac-or-dac-amp-how-to-get-the-best-from-your-expensive-new-headphones/

After the DAC chip, the analogue signal needs to be amplified – enter the need for an amplifier. For simplicity, the devices we encounter daily and all use, such as TVs, gaming consoles, computers, smart devices etc are digital so have a DAC / amplifier inside, but we want to ‘remove’ this from the device to an external DAC / amplifier as this is how we improve the sound. Let’s now focus on connections.

Figure 5 – DAC chip found in all digital devices with audio.

Make the right connection!

There are 4 common ways to separate audio.

Figure 6 – Optical male connector (left), with optical female connection (right).

1) Digital: Optical / TOSLink

This connection transmits the audio data as light via bursts of pulses into the DAC chip to convert. Found mainly on gaming consoles, the rear of gaming desktop computers, streaming boxes and TVs. You can have long cables runs with this connection but it could be temperamental.

Figure 7 – Bluetooth icon.

2) Digital: Bluetooth

Again, mostly found on all current devices. This sends radio waves to a receiver inside the product then passes the signal into the DAC. There are limitations on sampling rates of up to 96kHz but it is very convenient.

3) Digital: USB

This occurs on selected smart device models (Apple/Android) and computers. USB wasn’t made for audio but with recent technology it’s now possible. This has become the most mainstream connection type for pairing with high resolution DACs. More information here: https://ifi-audio.com/usb-connectors-does-one-size-fit-all/

Figure 8 & 9 – RCA with Red/White channel and 3.5mm connector.

4) Analogue: 3.5mm or RCA

3.5mm is a small convenient socket (headphone socket) whilst RCA is a bigger separate channel version but these operate/handle audio the same way. It’s just a different physical connection type. This connection type is located on external amplifiers or after the DAC stage –  such as the headphone socket from your smart device. You’ll see this on the playback medium (speakers or headphones).

What does a gaming setup look like?

Gaming consoles tend to use digital optical/TOSlink to split the audio path into an external DAC. Take a look at the set-up below.

What does a computer setup look like?

Some gaming computers may or may not have an internal sound card that is essentially a DAC. However, using an external DAC/Amplifier rather than the one inside the computer will substantially improve your gaming audio. This is mostly due to noise/interference being picked up by the internal DAC – we only want clear, crisp audio, hence why we use external components.

Here are 2 setups (digital and analogue).

Finally! What may I experience from using an external DAC/Amplifier with games?

Hold your horses! As briefly mentioned in part 1, audio is subjective there is no right or wrong, but overall having dedicated parts/components for each stage (DAC or Amplifier or DAC/Amp or headphone/speakers) will result in a more pleasing/immersive experience.

It may be an instant ‘Oh S#@?!  moment or it could be a subtle transformation. Your ears are the best judge but, since writing this, I’m in the mood for Ramen, let’s use that analogy.

You could purchase a packet of instant ramen from the store (built in DAC/amp) and be pretty satisfied or you can buy the ingredients (external DAC/amp) yourself and make a better recipe. Add some condiments (better quality headphones/speakers) and you’re left wanting more.

So finally, with the recipe (set-up) you’re about to create, here are 4 games we’ve experienced using our products and a range of headphones. I personally feel that games that have realistic engines tend to offer the best experience.

Disclaimer: As audio is subjective, it maybe challenging to understand what we are describing so here is a link to terminology you may relate to: https://www.head-fi.org/threads/describing-sound-a-glossary.220770/

World of Warcraft

Figure 10 – Fire mage concept.

As the game itself is rich with lore, the shear number of audio effects it has is unquestionable. Ranging from magical effects, weapon usage, levelling zone with changing environments, characters and much more, you’ll find yourself feeling involved/immersed in the gameplay. For example, gamers who have a mage character (wizard spell chucker, kind of like Harry Potter) may find that their spells are warmer (no, I don’t literally mean you feel warmer, unless you’re sitting on top of the amplifier), more dynamic and have more body to them, (especially if fire based), you feel a sense of the character wielding real power not to be messed with!

Here is a noise example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsBrm8KocyQ

Battlefield

Figure 11 – Battlefield V sniping. To quote Saving Private Ryan ‘I wouldn’t venture out their fella’s, this sniper got talent!”.

Generally all shoot-em up games have the same concept/effects (weapon firing, explosives, vehicles etc) so I personally feel that gameplay along with sound is really what makes the difference. Battlefield has extremely large maps with up to 64 players per time, the whole conflict pulls you in. With destructible buildings and air-to-air combat you feel as if you’re really there, explosions in the distance giving that thumping feeling just like at the cinema. When I’m using my Sennheiser HD650 open-back headphones, from time to time I find myself glancing over my shoulder as if someone is behind me because I can hear footsteps, the 360 degree sound gives you an edge in locating enemies or vehicles (such as planes flying overhead). Sound is more spacious, natural with heft.

Fortnite

Figure 12 – Fortnite characters.

Whilst it’s not my personal choice of game, I followed the trend and played it a few times.  It can be addictive for sure. The gameplay of the large maps is what I enjoy but I did feel it lacked in immersing me in even further. At times I found the audio effects muddy and a bit forward (hitting you from the front) but whether it’s just my perception or the game engine itself I’m not sure. Still I would favour a war game more due to the game engine rendering sound more realistically. For example, shooting an assault weapon indoors, the sound becomes dampened/reverbs due to the proximity of the walls yet firing the same weapon outdoor becomes more spacious and distant.

Forza Horizon 4

Figure 13 – High speed chase in Forza Horizon 4.

Anyone seen the film ‘Drive’? You know, the one with Ryan Gosling rocking the scorpion jacket and killer soundtrack? Well, that is all what you’ll need when playing this game. The sound of a roaring engine, screeching of the tyres, the shifting of gears and the near misses with other vehicles makes you really feel like you’re riding it like you just stole it. If given the chance I personally would use this with speakers to further replicate the sound placement of a car.

No king rules forever…

So, to conclude, at the end of the day we are left with these questions and I’ve asked them to myself:

Would you still play the game even if audio was subpar? – Yes, if the gameplay is enjoyable.

Do you want to enhance your gameplay experience? – Yes, I think everyone would want to given the opportunity. The more immersion, the better the complete experience.

Would you invest in an external DAC/Amplifier for your console/desktop computer? – Now that I’ve experienced using a range of them for entertainment (films, music, games), hell yeah, I wouldn’t be without one in my setup(s).

I’ll give you an example from music.  I listen to Bruce Springsteen and find that his live songs are awesome but, as video recording quality back in the 80’s wasn’t great, they have distortion. This doesn’t stop me listening to him. Would I adjust it to make it better if given the opportunity? Hell yeah.

Signed, A rambling Owen.

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