Ironically, this probably wouldn’t have happened without Microsoft Last generation, Sony had a much earlier, more rudimentary version of this technology available for PS4 users — but it was locked down to Sony’s own first party headsets. If you bought their Silver, Gold, or Platinum headset you could turn on their proprietary surround sound system, powered in part by hardware located in their USB dongles.
With nothing more than a set of headphones, every PS5 owner can enjoy stunning hardware-accelerated simulated spatial 3D audio in their games. You may hear spatialized audio on everything from older stereo and surround tracks in PS4 games to full dynamic 3D audio objects in the most recent PS5 games by simply turning on the appropriate setting in the PS5’s menu.
Microsoft was the first company to launch a free virtual headphone audio system on game consoles with 2017’s Windows Spatial Audio platform on Xbox One. That same system appears on the current Series consoles, and although I’ve written fondly about it in the past — it’s not without serious implementation issues.
Tempest 3D is a full generational leap over that old technology, and it’s unlocked for all PS5 gamers regardless of what headphones or headset you use. Just plug in your favorite pair and go. Tempest is powered by an extra AMD GPU compute unit located within the PS5 hardware. It accelerates sound decompression, and places audio all around you in a sphere of a thousand different virtual locations. It’s one of the best implementations of this idea I’ve ever heard, and it seems that Sony achieved this by studying a large sphere of reference speakers, much like the Hyperion Sphere JBL built for their QuantumSurround system.
However, that early beta version had some glitches where it would sometimes start to pop and crack, necessitating the user to soft-reset the system by toggling it on and off. My theory is that the software nature of the Windows Sonic platform was a little too much for the older CPU-limited Xbox One consoles to handle — so Microsoft scaled it down when it launched out of beta.
Windows Spatial Audio sounded amazing during its initial beta period, and it worked on both special 3D-encoded games and with the standard surround audio tracks in all Xbox games. I had never been happier to play the Xbox port of Diablo III, which came to life in a whole new way in spite of its “mere” 7.1 source audio track.
Windows Sonic is more or less supported in all modern Xbox Series compatible titles on Series X and S, but your mileage will vary with anything older. Many old Xbox 360 games running in backwards compatibility spit stereo audio out to the system in spite of featuring full 5.1 surround data. I’ve written bug reports to Microsoft, using the surround audio testers in newer Xbox One games like Shadow of Mordor and older games like Star Ocean to prove my point about this problem, but to little avail.
Microsoft isn’t clear about when their spatial audio system is working with full surround data and when it isn’t, at least on console. On PC, they have indicator text that appears in the system tray to help you know when the system is working correctly, but on Xbox you get nothing. Older PC games have a similar issue where they “see” Microsoft’s system as only supporting two channels, and so they won’t feed it proper surround sound audio data, and you’re sitting there gaming in bog standard stereo. It’s frustrating, and it’s all the more irritating since Microsoft offers two premium paid upgrade processing options (Dolby Atmos and DTS X) that suffer from the same inconsistencies.
Sony’s Tempest 3D has no such problems. Toggle it on, and it works perfectly on all games. It’ll use the surround tracks in PS4 games to provide a 7.1 experience, and any available 3D audio data in PS5 games to put sound above and below you. Every game that runs on PS5 sounds wonderful with Tempest turned on, with properly-located surround effects. This is the way it should be. In modern PS5 games, Tempest 3D audio truly comes to life with full verticality and depth. Spider-Man Miles Morales has a city that feels real, and several standout moments that show precisely what the system can do. There’s a particular boss fight in the latter part of the game where the enemy becomes temporarily invisible, but with Tempest 3D turned on you’ll be able to hear exactly where he is and anticipate his movements. It’s awesome, and better than anything I’ve heard with Microsoft’s system so far.
I’m a huge fan of virtual headphone surround systems, and Sony’s Tempest 3D is both the most user-friendly and most impressive implementation on the market right now. It’s so cool that developers can count on every PS5 gamer having easy access to this effect. Full convincing surround sound mixes are no longer limited to those with huge home theater setups. Microsoft likes to tout the built-in EQ modes and options to get gamers to buy upgrades to Atmos or DTS, but Sony includes some simple tweaks for free. They have five preset modes that account for different ear shapes, and a recent update also enables the system to work with standard TV speakers if you don’t want to use headphones. If you’ve got a Sony Pulse headset, it also unlocks a full graphical EQ in the OS, no extra paid software needed.
Tempest 3D is exactly what I want out of modern gaming audio. It’s not a gimmick or a “hi-res” marketing lie designed to trick users into buying more stuff. Instead, it’s a powerful, robust platform that runs on independent hardware and doesn’t slow down games or suffer from processing glitches. It’s easy for users to toggle on and off, and it works on all games, intelligently using the right data without any issue. If you’re lucky enough to have a PS5, you should absolutely plug some headphones into your controller and try out the 3D audio. It’s so much more immersive than stereo for single player games, and its precise locational positioning should help you in competitive modes as well. It’s now on Microsoft to step it up and improve their software-based spatial solution, though with how it has gone so far, I don’t have high hopes. Their system is buried several menu layers deep on both Xbox and Windows, and the presence of two paid upgrade options might just scare off more users than it entices. Windows Sonic doesn’t work with every game, and on PC you might have to manually tweak ini files to get the right number of audio output channels.
Microsoft made a good first attempt at this idea, and it works well when properly implemented. But Sony’s Tempest 3D is now the clear front-runner for 3D headphone audio in games. I don’t ever want to go back. Please click here to support me on Medium if you liked this article. I don’t ever use affiliate links or take sponsorships. The paywall here is the main way I monetize my writing. If you sign up through the link above I’ll get about $2 of your $5 membership fee, and you’ll get full access to thousands of stories here from myself and others. Thanks for reading, and happy gaming. Sony went from charging people for 3D headphone sound access to quietly giving away the best version of it to every owner of their console. I love it.