Is PC surround sound worth it?

As a self-professed “audio geek” with a fair amount of professional experience in the speaker industry I cannot say enough about the importance of quality audio in gaming. When I finally completed my surround system for my home theater several years ago it completely changed my gaming experience.

For more and more people,  their PC isn’t just their primary gaming platform, but also their primary screen for watching TV and movies as well. But how does setting up a multi-channel system work when you are working with, at least potentially, a much smaller physical space?

The Basics (Abridged)

First a quick primer on surround sound in case this is your first time considering it.  The most common surround sound setup, and the one I would recommend to most people, is 5.1, which means it has five full range speakers and a subwoofer.  Three speakers are your front stage, left, center and right, and the other two are your surround speakers, one on either side of you, generally placed in line with your ears or just behind your head.  A 6.1 system, which is rarely used anymore, adds a single rear speaker more or less directly behind your head.  7.1 gives you two rear speakers instead of one.

While many serious PC gamers have their computers wired to their TVs, just like a game console, or have spent the time and money to give the computer its own space, the majority of us still have the computer on the desk in the office. This sets up a number of potential problems for decent a surround sound system.

Got To Keep ‘Em Separated

Speaker separation is key to the experience of a surround sound system. If you don’t have adequate space between your center and left or right channel speaker toy won’t be able to tell when a sound is coming from one vs. the others. Another major issue is the placement of the listener. Optimally, you want to to be sitting more or less in the middle of the speakers.

Both of these arrangement goals can be an issue in a traditional desktop setup. The player is likely sitting right in front of the monitor, and thus right in front of the front stage speakers, with the center channel just above or below the monitor and the left and right speakers sitting on the edges of the desk, likely no more than an arm's length away.  Often this will sound less like three speakers and more like one big one.

Don’t Trip

wires (1)

Surround, and potentially rear, speakers offer their own headaches. Most desktop surround systems offer their satellites as a basic table top design, what an old colleague of mine jokingly called the “gravity mount” option, which is to say they sit on a shelf. Do you have two (or more) bookcases or shelves sitting behind you, both equal distance from you sitting on either side of you? More than likely, the answer is no.

If wall mounting is an option it will likely require additional hardware.  Is your PC in the middle of the room with both side walls equal distances from you on either side? Probably not.  And what do you do with the wire? Is there enough wire available to keep from having to run it across the middle of the floor and still place the speakers where you want?

When proper speaker placement becomes a problem this leads many to simply place the speakers wherever they can, and we end up with left speakers further from the listening position than the right, surround speakers placed in front of the player with all the other speakers, and other horrors. I’ve seen so many Home Theater in a Box systems set up this way I’ve lost count, which is why most of those customers end up replacing those systems with simple stereo sound bars. They weren’t getting the benefit of a multi-channel system, so why bother?

At what point is a multi-channel system not worth it? If you want quality surround sound for your PC how do you make sure you’re getting your money's worth?

Careful Consideration

The key to making a smart surround sound decision is figuring out where all the speakers are going to go ahead of time. Do you have appropriate places to put them all? Don’t forget that you can move vertically. While ear level is the best place for all your speakers, moving them up and firing down (or even down and firing up) is an option. The important thing here is that whatever you do with one speaker you need to do with its opposite. If your left rear speaker is going to be mounted to the ceiling, you need to do the same with your right rear speaker.

Next, figure out how much wire you’ll need to run your surround speakers to their location.  Measure along the floorboards, behind furniture, around door frames, whatever route will keep the wire out of the way so nobody trips over it.  It’s possible you’ll need more wire than a pre-packaged system comes with.  In this case, if you don’t want to mess with splicing in additional wire, the wire length may be the determining factor in how you set up your speakers.

And what if none of this works for you?  Moving furniture around isn’t an option and the only place to put speakers are less than optimal locations? Every home theater is subject to the space it’s in, and so some accommodations always need to be made. As long as you can adhere to these guidelines fairly closely you’ll still get an enjoyable experience from your sound system. If the only place to put five speakers in on the desk in front of you then you should probably just spend some money on a better sounding pair of stereo speakers.

With a subwoofer, of course. Don’t forget the subwoofer.