Loud Bass ≠ Good Audio

Over the last couple of weeks, CGM has been going through something of a mad dash in reviewing headsets, something obvious to anyone that checks out our hardware review section. As might be expected by having to spend so much time evaluating sound, it means that a lot of thought has also been devoted to what exactly good sound is. It’s one of those things that separates audiophiles from normal music fans or enthusiasts, in the same way that there’s a clear separation between a hardcore gamer and a casual one. In the world of audio, people care not just about what they’re listening to, but how it sounds, much like an FPS aficionado knows that there’s more to the genre than just killstreaks in competitive multiplayer. And in the same way that casual players often mistake Call of Duty’s multiplayer as the sole reason an FPS is any good, many people that listen to movies and games judge their audio experience by only one thing; how strong the bass is.

In part this is probably the fault of both Hollywood, and big publishers with big budgets such as Activision and Electronic Arts. There’s an understanding that subwoofers, in all their bass-y glory, exist for a reason, and often that reason is to impress owners (or theater attendees) with something so powerful they can literally feel walls and furniture shake. But while it’s nice to know that at least one component of a sound system is earning its keep, it’s a mistake to think that excessive bass means the audio portion of a game or movie must therefore be good.

The SteelSeries H, a headset recently reviewed at the website is a good example of this. It takes a relatively balanced approach to sound, and therefore doesn’t emphasize the bass as much as other headsets. That doesn’t mean it’s bad for gaming (although it can be for music) especially when you consider the other things it offers. It is, bar none, probably the best wireless headset on the market for one genre in particular; horror games. Audio is an absolutely crucial element of a good horror game, there’s not a single horror game on the market that doesn’t have great music, great sound effects or, more often than not, a combination of both. Despite the fact that audio is so important to one of the most memorable experiences in gaming (that is, being terrified) horror games rarely focus on loud explosions that shake the house or your skull with throbbing, nonstop bass. If a horror game were constantly exploding, it would no longer be scary, just irritating.

What makes horror games so effective—and incidentally what makes them the best candidate for playing with good headphones—is the subtle, directional use of sound. When playing a game like Dead Space or Outlast, the shrieking strings and brass instruments will certainly reinforce a good jump scare when it happens. However, the tension that constantly puts the player ill at ease comes from hearing all the other discomfiting sounds constantly playing in the background. Alien: Isolation, which was playable at this year’s E3 is a good example of this. Creative Assembly provided headphones to ensure a decent audio experience and it contributed to the experience immensely. Walking through the halls and hearing the alien scuttling through the ventilation somewhere above was the definition of nerve wracking. Hearing its footsteps in the distance was terrifying even though the sounds weren’t loud at all. And hearing the breathing of Amanda Ripley quicken as the alien stood inches away, separate only by a locker door, ratcheted the stress by orders of magnitude.

In each case, Alien: Isolation didn’t rely on being loud. Instead, it exploited the prey-like role of the player; in the game, you know you are being hunted, and you can even hear your hunter, even if you’re not exactly sure where it is. That is a far more effective use of sound than just making sure a subwoofer is shaking down the house. And it’s an experience that will stay with a gamer long after the novelty of endless explosions has worn off and become white noise that isn’t even noticed anymore.

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