How Does 3D Audio Work, and Is It Different from Surround Sound?

How does 3D audio differ from surround sound?

Learn how 3D audio tricks your hearing for an immersive experience.

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If you’ve had your ear to the ground then you’ve probably heard of 3D audio. Some experts are now claiming that 3D audio is the future of sound.

But, is 3D audio different from surround sound? These two terms sound very similar and are often used interchangeably, but 3D audio and surround sound are two distinct audio systems with considerable differences in how they work and the sound they produce.

Thanks to new gaming systems showing support for this technology, including the PS5 and some virtual reality systems (like Sony’s Project Morpheus), 3D sound is seeing a new surge in popularity.

3D Sound Is Different From Surround Sound

Surround sound can be defined as a sound system in which the audio can be heard from four directions – to your left, right, front, and back. Surround sound was first used in movie theatres and was undoubtedly revolutionary when it hit the market.

Surround sound usually utilizes at least six speakers in a specific arrangement. For instance, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recommends six speakers (known as 5.1 surround sound). One speaker in front of the listener, two at 60° to the left and right, two at 100-120°, slightly behind the listener, and a subwoofer. Another common arrangement is 7.1 surround sound (with eight total speakers).

How Does 3D Sound Work?

To put it simply, 3D sound takes normal sound effects produced by speakers and processes them in such a way that the sounds are virtually placed anywhere in the three-dimensional space around the listener.

In reality, the perceived difference with 3D sound comes from tricking the listener’s brain into thinking sounds are coming from different directions in 3D space around them.

With surround sound, it’s only possible to have sounds coming from four or so directions. In comparison, 3D sound enables the listener to perceive sound from every direction – including above and below them.

The Disadvantage of 3D Audio

3D sound systems are likely to be the future of sound. The drastic improvement they can offer in sound and immersive quality will be beneficial to every sound-related industry from music to cinema to gaming.

However, the major problem is that much of our household tech doesn’t yet support 3D audio. You might be able to go out and buy fantastic new 3D audio headphones, but they won’t make any difference if the game console or TV aren’t encoded to support 3D sound.

So unless you’re willing to go out and upgrade your other devices, you could be out of luck. And further, at least for now, this tech barrier may prove to be prohibitively expensive for some consumers.