How “Windows Sonic” Spatial Sound Works

Microsoft added “Windows Sonic” spatial sound to Windows 10 back in the Creators Update. Windows Sonic for Headphones is disabled by default, but you can enable it for virtual surround sound. This option is available on the Xbox One, too.

How to Enable Windows Sonic

You can easily toggle this feature on or off from the sound icon in your notification area. Right-click the speaker icon, point to Spatial Sound, and select “Windows Sonic for Headphones” to enable it. Select “Off” here to disable Windows Sonic.

If you don’t see an option to enable spatial sound here or in the Control Panel, your sound device doesn’t support it. For example, this option won’t be available when using built-in laptop speakers.

You can also access this feature from the Sound Control Panel applet. To launch it, head to Control Panel > Hardware and Sound > Sound.

Double-click the playback device you want to enable Windows Sonic for, click the “Spatial Sound” tab, and choose “Windows Sonic for Headphones” in the box. You can also enable Dolby Atmos for Headphones on the same dropdown menu. This is a similar spatial sound technology for headphones. However, it uses Dolby’s technology, and requires a $15 in-app purchase to unlock.

You can also toggle the “Turn on 7.1 virtual surround sound” option on or off on the Spatial Sound tab.

On an Xbox One, you’ll find this option at System > Settings > Display & Sound > Audio Output. Choose Windows Sonic for Headphones under Headset audio.

What is Spatial Sound?

As Microsoft’s developer documentation puts it, Windows Sonic is a “platform-level solution for spatial sound support on Xbox on Windows.” Application developers can use spatial sound APIs to “create audio objects that emit audio from positions in 3D space.” All applications can take advantage of this—new UWP apps, traditional Windows desktop applications, standard PC games, and Xbox One games.

This is exactly the data that Dolby Atmos-enabled receivers need to mix their spatial sound, so Windows Sonic enables full Dolby Atmos support in the latest versions of Windows 10. When paired with a Dolby Atmos-enabled receiver and speaker system, sounds you hear can be positioned in 3D space—vertically as well as horizontally—for an improved surround sound experience.

So, for example, if a sound is coming from above you and to your right in a movie, TV show, or video game, the upwards-firing or ceiling mounted speakers on the right side of your room will place the sound in that location—assuming you have Dolby Atmos.

The Dolby Access app in the Store will help you set up Dolby Atmos home theater audio with a Windows 10 PC.

RELATED: What is Dolby Atmos?

How Does Spatial Sound Work in Headphones?

This spatial data would normally only be useful if you have a Dolby Atmos system that can actually use it. Even if you have a traditional 7.1 stereo surround sound system, you’re just getting normal surround sound with eight channels of audio—seven speakers plus your subwoofer.

However, this positional data can provide spatial sound in any pair of headphones. You just need to enable either “Windows Sonic for Headphones” or “Dolby Atmos for Headphones.” Both work similarly, but Dolby’s version uses Dolby’s technology and has a price tag, while Windows Sonic uses only Microsoft’s technology and is included for free with Windows 10 and the Xbox One.

When you enable one of these features, your Windows PC (or Xbox One) will mix the audio using the positional data, providing a virtual spatial sound experience. So, if you’re playing a game and a sound is coming from above your character and to the right, the sound will be mixed before it’s sent to your headphones so you hear that sound as coming from above you and to the right.

These spatial sound features only work with applications that provide the spatial data to Windows.

RELATED: How to Use Dolby Atmos Surround Sound on Windows 10

What About 7.1 Virtual Surround Sound?

When you enable Windows Sonic for Headphones, the “Turn on 7.1 virtual surround sound” feature in the Sound Control Panel is also enabled by default. On the Xbox One, this feature is named “Use virtual surround sound.”

With 7.1 virtual surround sound enabled, Windows will take 7.1 surround sound audio—in video games or movies, for example—and mix it to stereo sound, taking into account the position of the objects, before sending it to your headphones. 5.1 surround sound will also work.

To use this feature properly, you’ll need to set your game or video player to output 7.1 surround sound, even though you’re using headphones. Your headphones will function as a virtual 7.1 surround sound device.

Unlike with true surround sound, you’re still using a standard pair of stereo headphones with only two speakers—one for each ear. However, the virtual surround sound provides more better positional audio cues, which are particularly useful when playing PC or Xbox games.

These headphone features function similarly to surround sound technologies for gaming headphones like Dolby Headphone, Creative Media Surround Sound 3D (CMSS-3D Headphone), and DTX Headphone X. But they’re integrated into Windows and work with any pair of headphones.

The virtual surround sound feature works with all applications that provide 7.1 surround sound audio. Many games and movies that don’t provide spatial sound do have 7.1 surround sound support, so this is compatible with many more applications.

How Many Applications Provide Positional Data?

With the “Turn on 7.1 virtual surround sound” feature enabled, you’ll get some mixed positional audio in your headphones with any 7.1 surround sound signal. However, for the best positional audio, you’ll need applications that actually provide that positional audio data to Windows (or your Xbox One.)

It’s unclear just how many applications now support this. However, Microsoft’s documentation says that “many app and game developers use third party audio rendering engine solutions” and that “Microsoft has partnered with several of these solution providers to implement Windows Sonic in their existing authoring environments.”

One thing is clear: Any game or application that advertises support for Dolby Atmos will also provide spatial data to Windows Sonic for Headphones.

Either way, with Windows Sonic for Headphones enabled, you’ll still get positional sound as long as you have the 7.1 virtual surround sound feature enabled and you’re using applications with 7.1 surround sound. Some applications will just have better positional sound if they provide the data to Windows Sonic.

Image Credit: ktasimar/Shutterstock.com.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Twitter.