Windows Sonic vs Dolby Atmos

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Headphone and music

What You Should Know About Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos

Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos are different technologies that have a unique way of handling spatial audio rendering techniques. Most users are given the option of choosing between the two technologies to enhance their audio. The Windows Sonic vs Dolby Atmos debate has confused millions of users for years. For the most part, they end up choosing one over the other- not because they know better, but because they can’t tell the difference.

However, if you’re curious and want to understand the differences between these two, then this article is for you.

Before understanding the differences between Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos, you have to first gain an understanding of how we perceive sound.

Sound has to first pass through our bodies before it enters our ears. Our brain can interpret the difference in the timing between the sounds arriving in each ear, as well as how our earlobes, torso, and head modify them. This helps us pinpoint the origins of sound. The peculiarities of how sound changes as it passes through the body are known as head-related transfer functions or HRTF.

Since headphones lie close to our ears, the sound coming from headphones is not modified the same way it is when listening to live music or a pair of speakers. The goal of Windows Sonic, Dolby Atmos, and any other virtual surround system is to imitate HRTF and trick our brain into thinking that sound is coming from several directions as opposed to just the two ear pads.

It utilizes an object-based approach to mapping, allowing speaker outputs to be configured on the fly. This isn’t the case with 5.1 and 7.1 systems where the sounds are restricted to fixed positioning and channels. While the best way to experience spatial sound is with a dedicated theater setup, people can get the same experience with solutions like Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos.

Microsoft rolled out Windows Sonic in 2017 completely free of charge to its users. It is available on Windows 10 and Xbox One. They also rolled out Dolby Atmos with a price tag of $15. By enabling Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos, applications are now capable of rendering 7.1 channel formats on their headphones.

Both technologies use a virtualized approach to deliver crisp audio to users, especially over stereo headphones. These headphones help the audience celebrate the impact of sound on their ears. With spatial surround sound, audiences can share the same acoustic space as the characters in the movie, hear and react the same way they do.

This is most strongly felt in the case of low and sub-frequency effect, and also by moving the sound around the audience.

The primary difference between Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos is the price. Sonic is completely free of charge. Dolby Atmos requires a license to use, and the disparities between both are relatively minor. The difference, in most cases, comes down to personal choice. That being said, Dolby’s systems do a better job when fed with specific proprietary audio data, but in all other cases, Sonic may just be a much better choice for listening to music. The depth of spatial awareness between both platforms is mostly observed in video games and movies.

Both technologies allow game developers to offer an extra layer of engagement to players in terms of depth and immersion.

Both Atmos and Sonic can create an immersive sphere of sound or dome effect around the listener. This enables them to hear positional sounds in a complete 3D arc ‘above’ them too This effect is more important in video games when the player is engaged in combat with multiple enemies spread out in different areas of the map. When the enemy approaches from the left, the player knows to respond to the left instead of randomly scouting the map to spot the enemy.

Sonic and Atmos make it possible for players to perceive the position of the enemy and react accordingly. You are no longer limited to one horizontal plane of sound. This allows developers to offer more creative potential because both Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos will automatically adjust to the specific setup, whether that’s headphones, speakers, or even dedicated theaters.

Do keep in mind that certain game titles and movies perform better based on how well optimized they are for each technology. Titles that are optimized for Dolby Atmos will sound better on Atmos than on Sonic, and vice versa. The differences aren’t deal-breaking and shouldn’t be a cause for concern. That being said, the differences are very subtle and ones that only audiophiles can detect with reasonable accuracy.

Different Models, Different Results

Both technologies have different models for HRTF and the effect will depend on how closely the shape of your head matches the generalized model used by either of them. Dolby Atmos and Windows Sonic were created based on research where microphones were inserted in dummy heads to measure how humans perceive sound around them.

They use different virtual speaker placements. Atmos uses the speaker placements designed for the ideal rectangular room with narrow angles. Sonic uses a perfectly square room having equidistant virtual speakers surrounding the listener. In the case of Atmos, the angles are narrow in the front soundstage at 30 degrees off-center.

Sonic does not offer any virtual overhead for non-Atmos games. Atmos applies spatial surround to process ambient sounds that are common between both channels to the virtual overhead.

Will Spatial Surround Affect Music Listening?

If you are worried that surround sound will somehow mess up your music listening, that’s not the case. Spatial surround won’t activate unless it detects surround sound. Regular stereo audio will sound the same, but music encoded in 5.1 or 7.1 will be easily discernable by your ears.

What is Windows Sonic for Headphones?

If you’ve come this far into the article, then you’re probably wondering what Windows Sonic is. Microsoft added Windows Sonic spatial sound to Windows 10 with their Creators Update. The feature, which is entirely free of charge, is disabled by default but can be easily toggled on. It is also available on Xbox One, with rumors suggesting that it may come with Xbox Scarlet as well.

Windows Sonic easily works with all pairs of headphones. If you don’t like it, you can toggle the settings back to stereo. In any case, Windows Sonic will perform much better on video games. Although Microsoft isn’t the first company to arrive at the 3D audio scene, they certainly get the credit for making 3D audio the new standard for game soundtracks.

Players will now be hearing more immersive and accurate positioned sound regardless of their device, whether it is headphones or speakers.

How to Activate Windows Sonic in Windows 10

Strangely enough, Microsoft isn’t seen promoting spatial audio, which explains why so many users have no idea how to activate it. The easiest way to activate is to go into your audio settings on the bottom right of the taskbar and hit “Spatial Sound”.

Now simply select Windows Sonic for Headphones and you’re good to go.

The alternative way to do this is to simply enter the sound menu from the control panel and then select the audio device. From there, click on properties, hit the spatial sound tab, and then select Windows Sonic for Headphones.

5 Good Headphones to Try with Windows Sonic

Let’s review 5 headphones that let you test out Windows Sonic in all its glory.

1. Microsoft Surface Headphones

The first headphone on our list may surprise you all. Who knew Microsoft wanted dibs on the headphone world? But that’s exactly what Surface Headphone is designed to do, taking on leaders like Sony and Bose. The biggest selling feature here is the robust voice canceling technology that Microsoft has managed to pack in a comfortable and slick-looking package.

These headphones are compatible with Windows 10, Xbox One, Android, and iOS devices. You can check prices here.

2. Sony Noise-Canceling Headphone WH1000XM3

Next up is the obvious choice, Sony’s WH-1000XM3 which is more comfortable and lighter than Microsoft’s offering. It features slightly improved noise-canceling and performs better as a headset. The only problem is that your ears can get a little heated up inside the ear cups if worn for too long. But for the most part, these headphones are a comfortable fit and should give Bose a run for their money.

It is among the highest-rates wireless noise-canceling headphones and has the same drivers as the much-celebrated MDR-1AM2 headphone and sounds natural with clear, strong, and punchy bass. All in all, this is a great buy that audiophiles will grow to appreciate, of note is the nice, treble, natural midrange, and deep, defined bass.

Click here to check prices on Amazon.

3. Bose QuietComfort 35 II

Bose has carved a nice niche for itself with its noise-canceling headphones. This is the company’s second offering on the market that combines noise-cancellation technology with wireless Bluetooth connection, and we all know that it is a recipe for success. The QuietComfort 35 II doesn’t add a third wheel to the formula and makes subtle adjustments such as adding support for Google Assistant.

This makes it the first headphone, aside from Google Pixel Buds to support Google’s voice assistant. No other headphone on the market can beat Bose in terms of noise cancellation, but there’s more to the headphones than meets the eye. First of all, the QC35 is hands down one of the most comfortable over the ear headphones ever worn. They exert just the right amount of pressure to create a nice seal around your ears. They’re held snugly over your ears even if you end up moving a lot.

Click here to check prices on Amazon.

4. HyperX Cloud Earbuds

HyperX headphones are hands down among the best ways to experience spatial sound. They are primarily geared towards the ‘gamer’ audiences and provide an excellent option to them for an all-in-one headset. Their HyperX Cloud Earbuds are decent headphones that come in an all-red appearance and are designed to stay gently in your ear. As long as you insert them in your ears properly, they will not fall out.

The bass sound is perfect for things like gunshots and explosions in video games and delivers a solid experience. The mid-range also has some tuning to it, with the low mids being relatively warm, although one can’t help but notice the high mild boost. This could be helpful if you’re listening to the voices of your teammates but it’s of no use when you’re listening to music.

There is a lot of detail and clarity to go around with these headphones, plus they are relatively cheaper than other options on the market. HyperX Cloud Earbuds are the perfect way to get introduced to what you can call ‘gaming’ headphones and experience spatial sound technology like Windows Sonic.

Click here to check prices on Amazon.

5. Razer Kraken V2

Like HyperX, Razer is also geared towards gamers who want a relatively simple solution for their audio needs. These headphones may not be the best option for audiophiles who pay attention to the lows, mids, and highs in their music, it does get the job done. It features an adjustable band that feels sturdy and is flexible. The headset is light enough and exerts the right amount of pressure in your ears.

Windows Sonic works seamlessly with Razer Kraken Pro V2, you should be able to fully immerse yourself in video games.

Click here to check prices on Amazon.

What is Dolby Atmos for Headphones?

Dolby Atmos is just a tiny bit more capable than Windows Sonic because it adds height to the spatial sound, which can create a more realistic, smoother surround sound experience for you. It is relatively easy to activate Dolby Atmos on PC. Instead of selecting Window Sonic, simply select Dolby Atmos.

You could argue that Dolby Atmos is an improved type of surround sound. Although some features may require Dolby Atmos-enabled hardware for them to properly work. Many Blu-Ray discs include Dolby Atmos audio, and Microsoft also added support for it on Xbox One.

Your PC with Windows 10 should support Dolby Atmos as long as it has the Creators Update. If you have a decent enough surround sound speaker system, then the choice is clear: go with Dolby Atmos.

‘True’ Dolby Atmos requires a special setup with a hardware receiver that uses specifically-calibrated speakers to position sounds. In some cases, the Dolby speaker may feature ceiling-mounted speakers above you.

To enable Dolby Atmos on Windows 10, you can download the Dolby Access app from the Windows Store and launch it. Follow the on-screen instructions to set it up. Of course, you will have to pay to acquire a license for the software, which is $15.

You have two options to choose from, home theater or headphones. If you select the home theater option, you would be asked to confirm if the hardware on your PC supports spatial audio technology. Most PCs support this feature. Older systems may run into problems.

Testing Dolby Atmos

The Dolby Access app lets you test Dolby Atmos by playing videos that support the audio. These videos give you a good idea of what you’re missing out on. Of course, whether you like this feature or not is entirely up for discussion. Some people claim they don’t notice much of a difference, while others notice enough to cough up the $15.

Your use of Dolby Atmos depends on the kind of audio you use. If you listen to casual audio, you may not appreciate what the fuss is about. But if you’re into video games and need to detect the exact position of enemies, this technology could play a real difference in performance. While trying Dolby Atmos, make sure to enable 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound in your game or app to see a difference.

The app will then produce sound, and Dolby Atmos will ‘process’ it for your headset. Dolby comes with a 30-day trial, after which you’ll have to pay $15 on the Windows Store.

Vizio’s Dolby Atmos 5.1 Soundbar

This is one of the least expensive Dolby Atmos soundbars you should try. It offers an excellent price for its performance and comes in a compact design that includes dedicated rear speakers. This soundbar offers excellent object-based surround effects that Atmos is capable of. Not to mention, the soundbar looks slick in any environment and should spruce up the interior décor.

Click here to check prices on Amazon.


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Hi, I'm Red, the Chief Editor of Red Diamond Audio.