All You Need to Know About Headphone Virtualization

All You Need to Know About Headphone Virtualization

Headphone virtualization is a technique used to process sound with the help of sound cards or embedded digital signal processing (DSP chips) to provide the user with a surround sound experience. Surround sound is amazing because it gives the listener or viewer an illusion of live hearing/viewing. Don’t believe it? Well, put on your headphones, enable the virtual sound feature while watching a thrilling movie on Optimum TV packages and you’ll see for yourself! The experience would be similar to that of a movie theater. 

How Does Headphone Virtualization Work?

Headphone virtualization is based on the principles of head-related transfer function (HRTF) technology. It is the way our head changes the sounds before they hit our eardrums. These changes/alternations are dictated by the structural design of the head; this includes everything ranging from our nose and mouth to our bone density and forehead and even shoulders. When a sound hit any of these ‘obstacles’ they would cause an acoustic alternation depending on where it is coming from (above, below, behind, in front, etc). For example, if a sound is coming from below, it is likely to encounter the shoulders first. 

The acoustic alterations caused by the HTRF technology are largely influenced by the auricle organ. This is because it is responsible to collect the sound, amplify it and direct it to the auditory canal. 

The human brain has memorized these peculiarities and is hence able to quickly identify the directions different sounds come from. This is precisely why we can make out the position of a sound source even with our eyes closed. By obtaining and reproducing sound signals in a controlled way over the headphones, you can create a realistic surround sound experience for the user.

How to Make Surround Sound Work on Headphones?

There are two ways to make surround sound work on headphones. You could either use a headphone that has multiple speaker drivers on both sides; they are located around the ear in a way that reflects the position of each channel’s speaker. Since this approach makes use of hardware, it is called a ‘true’ surround headphone.

The other approach involves adding internal or external processing to a standard headphone and applying the HRTF-based binaural algorithm to place audio channels in a virtual space around the ear. Because this approach makes use of software, it is called ‘virtual’ surround headphone.

How True Surround is Different from Virtual Surround?

True Surround is typically large (because it involves hardware). It is also mechanically complex. But it only requires basic multi-channel decoding (which is what home theater receivers have been doing for years). Virtual surround on the other hand does not need any special headset hardware. It employs heavy signal processing to deliver a virtual sound field that’s convincing and immersive. 

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The virtual surround approach is better than the true surround approach because when it is capable of tracking head motion. Hence it is possible to lock the positions of the virtual surround speakers so that the sound sources do not shift if and when the headphone wearer moves their head. This makes for an experience that is much closer to that of an in-game scene or a movie theater.

Some Popular Virtual Surround Systems for Headphones

Following are some of the most popular surround systems for headphone virtualization.

#1. Dolby Atmos 

Dolby Atmos is arguably the leading brand when it comes to object-based headphone virtualization. It has headphone implementations for mobile phones, PC, Xbox One as well as Xbox Series X/S. It uses audio signal processing to turn the Atmos object metadata into a 360-degree binaural output for the two drivers of the headphone. Through this technique, it is possible to process hundreds of sound channels to deliver a virtual surround audio experience.

#2. DTS Headphone:X

This is another well-known and reliable surround sound system. It has the ability to collect sound from multiple channels and convert them into surround sound on the headphones. By using this, you can enjoy a multichannel movie theatre experience. It can also be used to enhance gaming audio spatial cues thereby making the experience totally immersive.

#3. Creative Super X-Fi

This system uses complex algorithms and intense computational techniques to create customized audio holography for headphones. By taking three pictures of your ear and face with your phone, it creates a custom fit for each user. This is done so through an advanced ear and head mapping process. The feature is available in the company’s headphones as well as in its portable headset amplifier package. 


Headphone virtualization allows a two-channel headphone to provide Dolby 5.1 or higher sound performance. It is built on the principles of head-related transfer functions (HRTF) technology, which uses the structural design of a human head to transmit different sound cues.

Headphone virtualization is a relatively new concept and also expensive than the regular stereo setup. If you are still not sure about whether investing in virtual surround sound systems for headphones is worthwhile, you could first try out the virtual surround apps. This would add the feature to your current headphones for a small price and you’ll get a fair idea about how effective headphone virtualization is. 

All You Need to Know About Headphone Virtualization

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