How to properly configure 3D surround sound virtualization for headphones in Windows Vista/7/8/10.
[ Guide ]

This guide is made for people who like playing games and watching movies on headphones while using various software surround sound virtualization algorithms present on most sound cards - like for example Creative's SBX Pro Studio Surround or older CMSS-3D or Asus' Dolby Headphone.

You will learn how to configure your Windows settings and your sound card's control panel settings for the most optimal experience with those virtualization technologies.

Prologue: What is 3D surround sound virtualization?

More information about what actually 3D sound virtualization technologies are, I've aggregated in a bigger, separate article:
What is 3D surround sound virtualization? [ Info Guide ]

Here let's just simply focus on the configuration of these technologies for your convenience.

Chapter I: Sound Blaster Z, Zx, ZxR
[SBX Pro Studio Surround]

Sound Blaster Z-series Control Panel settings [SBX Pro Studio tab]:

guide: properly configure 3D surround sound virtualization for headphones in Windows Vista/7/8/10 screenshot

Only SBX Pro Studio Surround is checked and on. Rest of the options it's best to keep turned off [check the ending tips for more details]. The default value for Surround is 67%. Always use it as a starting point for your testing.

Sound Blaster Z-series Control Panel settings [Speakers/Headphones tab]:

guide: properly configure 3D surround sound virtualization for headphones in Windows Vista/7/8/10 screenshot

Use Headphones for the best experience. When changing to Headphones in SBZ Control Panel the sound in Windows will automatically be set to 5.1. Don't change this default driver behaviour if you want to use SBX Pro Studio Surround. Otherwise you will get incomplete experience.
Also please note: Sound Blaster Z-series don't support anything above 5.1.

Windows advanced sound settings:

guide: properly configure 3D surround sound virtualization for headphones in Windows Vista/7/8/10 screenshot

How to go there: Right click on Volume Control icon -> Playback Devices -> Double click on Sound Blaster -> Advanced Tab.

Use 44,1 kHz/24 bit in Windows most of the time. This is the default audio sampling for most of the audio [music, game sounds etc.]. Change it to 48 kHz/24 bit only when the source is 48 kHz. For example: when you are watching DVD/Blu-Ray movies, Youtube videos in VP9+Opus codecs or if you are recording with NVidia GeForce Experience.

Do not use anything higher than 48kHz. It will only stress your CPU more - may lower overall system performance - without any benefit [and also can cause general audio or launching problems in some software, games, sound cards and drivers].

Now when we have the drivers/Control Panel and Windows settings properly configured, we can configure our game settings.

Example in-game audio settings while using SBX Pro Studio Surround + Headphones in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive [CSGO]:

guide: properly configure 3D surround sound virtualization for headphones in Windows Vista/7/8/10 screenshot

Speaker configuration: 5.1 (SBX Pro Studio Surround needs this to work in it's full potential - as designed).
Overall sound volume (master volume): 0,2 (20%) (for proper Dynamic Range).

General hints and tips - Sound Blaster Z, Zx, ZxR

  • Always use 5.1 sound in games when SBX Pro Studio Surround is active.
  • Don't use in-game "headphones" setting or "2.0" when SBX Pro Studio Surround is active. The game needs to run in 5.1 to fully utilize it's potential while having it on.
  • When changing to "Headphones" in SBZ Control Panel the sound in Windows will automatically be set to "5.1". Don't change this if you want to use SBX Pro Studio Surround, or you will get an incomplete audio experience.
  • When changing speaker settings in-game to "5.1" the in-game master volume must be lowered to approx. 20% (depends on the game - you must test this for yourself) to maintain proper Dynamic Range.
  • In-game master sound volume is not the same as main Windows volume or main Control Panel volume.
  • Use headphones for best experience.
  • Use good quality headphones for even better experience (always check your local sound forums' recommended models lists before buying)
  • Use 44,1 kHz/24 bit in Windows most of the time. Change to 48 kHz/24 bit only when the source is 48 kHz.
  • Set SBX Pro Studio Surround slider to your liking. Default is 67%. Use it as a starting point.
  • Don't use equalizer, crystalizer, bass, smart volume, dialog plus, scout mode and other effects. They will only distort the original signal even more than SBX algorithms. They basically mostly only work as an equalizer preset that boosts some specific sound tones. (Smart Volume is an exception - it only dynamically changes the overall volume - which is totally not suitable for competitive gaming).
  • If you somehow think that you have to use any of the above effects, because for you they sound better - this feeling is a first sign to change your headphones for a better sounding model as soon as possible (check your local sound forums' recommended models list first).
  • Some games have really good built-in 3D sound engines that sometimes can be superior to your sound card's virtualization algorithms. Feel free to experiment which of these algorithms sound best for you - the game's audio engine or the sound card's software.
  • And the last one to always remember: the greatest upgrade to better sound quality overall is to get good-sounding headphones in the first place.This will give you the biggest leap of quality than any software effect can provide. Try to listen to different recommended models on your head to get the most suited model for you.

Chapter II: X-Fi sound card series
(CMSS-3D)

[ Coming in the future ]

Chapter III: Asus Xonar sound card series
(Dolby Headphone)

[ Coming in the future ]

Links and useful resources

Useful links and resources used in conjunction with sound experience to create this guide:

Thank you for reading

Feel free to share a link to this information page to help more people in having the best sound experience possible.

Written by rezno[R].
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I'm open for any suggestions of improvements in this article: contact information.