The last two console generations from Microsoft and Sony — spanning from the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 all the way to the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X — have been transformative in terms of audio quality. Consumers have been able to move away from high-fidelity tuners and sprawling surround-sound speaker systems to relatively inexpensive and high-quality headphones. That means many consumers, myself included, have laid out some serious coin for new cans. But will your audio investment pay off with the next generation of consoles? We talked to four major manufacturers to get some answers.
Turns out, things are still a little bit up in the air.
“We’re dependent upon [Microsoft and Sony] to kind of tell us that [our] products are forward-compatible,” said John Moore, head of marketing and sales for growth peripherals at Razer, in an interview with Polygon last week. That’s because his company, like every other manufacturer we’ve spoken with, still hasn’t gotten final console hardware yet. SteelSeries’ Brian Fallon, senior product manager for audio, told a similar story.
“Obviously we’ve been waiting with bated breath to figure out all the final details of everything,” Fallon told Polygon. He said that Microsoft has so far been the most forthcoming.
“We found out a couple months back that everything that we had [on the market] was just going to work [with the new Xbox],” Fallon continued. “That was amazing news to us, and to our customers. […] And it’s all just plug and play. No firmware updates needed, none of that. It’s all just gonna function.”
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Sony and its PlayStation 5.
PlayStation has its own wireless headphone technology, or course. There’s a new Sony-branded set of headphones on the way with the PS5. In addition, older peripherals like the Platinum and Gold wireless headsets will also be compatible. Sony has also announced that “third-party headsets that connect via USB port or audio jack” will be compatible with the PS5. Beyond that, all the third-party manufacturers we talked to said things are still up in the air.
“On the PlayStation side,” Fallon said, “it’s a little bit of a mixed bag.”
The new PS5 won’t feature an optical audio connection, commonly referred to as S/PDIF or TosLink. Manufacturers like Astro, SteelSeries, and others use that optical connection to split in-game audio off from voice chat. That allows you to have digital surround sound and low-latency, high-fidelity voice chat coming through the same speakers. It’s also what allows you to balance the levels between those two different streams.
“If we don’t have optical, obviously we don’t have a way to do that,” said Fallon. “We only have a single audio source, which will be from USB. So the SteelSeries Pro Wireless [Polygon’s top headphone choice for the PlayStation 4 in last year’s round-up] will still work on the PS5. By just plugging in the USB and you’ll be able to get get your full audio from that. The the one thing you won’t be able to do is adjust your your mix between game and chat.”
Presumably a menu within the PS5 dashboard would let you do that, but no one can be sure until reviewers get their chance to boot up the device for the first time. It’s also a lot less convenient than just turning a physical dial on your headset.
Astro has made a name for itself with these kinds of high-quality physical interfaces that allow users to fiddle with their levels on the fly. Their wireless A50 headset — Polygon’s top performer for the Xbox One in last year’s roundup — will only require a firmware update to be compatible with the next-generation Xbox consoles. It’s likewise a different story for the PS5. Astro says it’s coming out with a dongle called the Astro HDMI Adapter that will solve the problem. It will be available for $39.99 through the Astro website, as well as select retailers.
“It enables game sound + voice chat mixing and features lagless 4K HDMI video passthrough while adding a TosLink optical jack,” the company said in a news release dated Sept. 1. “Registered owners of Astro products will be able to submit their serial number and receive a $15 discount online.”
The good news is that both of the next-generation console controllers still feature a 3.5 mm audio connector in them, which will enable you to connect the vast majority of products from companies like Astro, Kingston’s HyperX brand, Razer, and SteelSeries. In fact, both consoles have been designed with that kind of stereo interface in mind.
“Back in the Xbox 360 days, consoles actually didn’t decode [digital] audio for you,” Thadeus Cooper, head of brand at Astro Gaming, told Polygon in an interview. “The reason that MixAmp and the A50 was so popular with people is because [the consoles] would output that signal over optical or over HDMI, but you had to have a device that does Dolby decoding.”
In the current generation, only Microsoft’s console was capable of decoding that digital audio and outputting surround sound via stereo output on its own, in the form of either Windows Sonic or Dolby Atmos. Now, with the PlayStation 5, Sony is bringing its own new technology to bear. Its Tempest 3D AudioTech solution should be able to do similar things with positional audio. Manufacturers tell us that means de facto audio parity between the two console brands.
It also means that the next generation of third-party headsets will need to differentiate themselves in a whole different way. No longer will they be able to depend on bells and whistles like adjustable in-game audio levels and custom sound profiles to set themselves apart. Instead, expect them to try to compete on things like sound quality, comfort, cross-platform compatibility, and price.