Audio is now big news right across the gaming ecosystem. The ever-increasing popularity of competitive gaming and esports mean players are looking for any advantage that they can get. And those same competitive gamers and streamers demand excellent voice quality from their headset mics. Audio is also one of the new battlegrounds for next-gen consoles, with both PlayStation and Xbox touting 3D audio capabilities that go well beyond what surround sound has offered.
Amidst all that a big-name in the audio space is rebranding itself. With EPOS taking forward almost two decades of experience learnt as part of the joint venture that brought us Sennheiser headphones. Under president Jeppe Dalberg-Larsen, EPOS is striking out under its own brand, we catch up with the team, to listen to all that’s new in the gaming audio’s soundtrack.
THE BIG BANG
Gaming headsets haven’t always had the best reputation in terms of audiophile appeal, says Andreas Jessen – senior director of product management and marketing for gaming at EPOS. But that’s now changing.
“Historically, gaming headsets came from a very mediocre place in terms of offerings and quality. You could assume that as gaming has become more popular with consumers and prioritized as a hobby, so have the expectations of headsets, and peripherals in general.
“More specifically, we have seen gamers expect better quality, more pleasing designs, and more features – but they are also showing a willingness to increase their spending in order to achieve premium audio.
That willingness means that gaming headsets can now compete with the audiophile over-ear headsets that we’ve seen become popular in recent years.
“We are constantly challenging what a gaming headset can deliver – and we will continue to push the limits of what to expect from a gaming headset. Today, when you go out in the market for general headphones, the most expensive ones are typically travel or high-end audiophile headsets. We see no reason why gamers should expect less than travellers or audiophiles when it comes to product offerings, and that is what is driving our development efforts.”
And those development efforts are there to meet a growing demand says Steven Schmidt, senior director of global sales for Gaming: “Gaming audio has seen massive growth year on year for some time now – it’s great to see that people are willing to invest more in this vital side of their tech setup to ensure they have the best experience possible. We feel like EPOS is in a really good place to bring our premium audio technology to a wider global market.”
Speaking of wider markets, it seems as though the divide between PC and console headsets has narrowed, with consumers expecting to be able to play anywhere, much as they do with games, Jessen explains.
“We are starting to see that games are becoming the ultimate platform, and the actual platforms themselves moving more into the background. Fortnite is a great example, where you can literally play it on almost every single device, and even cross-play between platforms.
“We believe gamers still demand high quality audio regardless of their platform, but there are some technical limitations that allow us to do more on a Windows-based PC than for example on a PS4. We work with these limitations and provide the best possible audio for that platform, but our offerings do differ somewhat between platforms.” He also adds: “When we look at the needs from different user groups, we do see a small tendency that PC gamers have a higher demand when it comes to equipment and peripherals.”
SOUND ALL AROUND
Whether that PC-console spending gap continues into the next generation as new consoles narrow other gaps between them remains to be seen. Especially with those devices bringing intriguing new capabilities in 3D audio.
Sony has been very vocal about its 3D audio capabilities, discussing them at length, while the Xbox Series X is also rumoured to have a dedicated chip with similar capabilities. The technology uses head-related transfer function (HRTF) to simulate how each of your ears hear sounds differently based on where they come from – largely because your head itself occludes sounds coming from one side or the other.
This allows for very accurate placement of sounds in 3D space with headphones. But it’s computationally expensive, somewhat like ray-traced graphics, when done in real-time. In order to get an idea of the technology there’s plenty of demos on YouTube you can find and try with a regular pair of headphones.
“We are strong believers in what HRTF and virtual surround sound can bring to the gaming market,” comments Jessen. “That is one of the main reasons why we have developed our own virtual surround sound technology and steadily continue to improve it.”
And he notes that isn’t wholly new technology: “Windows Sonic has been in the market for some time, and it is not clear yet how consumers have reacted to this. We assume that Sony’s 3D audio will be some sort of alternative to Windows Sonic, but only time will tell.” What’s certain is that Sony’s marketing push for the technology, and the focus of its first-party studios will bring a lot more attention.
But making the best headsets for such technologies requires precision, Jessen tells us: “Balance is one of our key focus areas when developing headsets for surround sound applications, which is a big focus for us.
“When implementing HRTF you are essentially putting filters between the L and R speakers and utilizing the psychoacoustics in your brain and how it detects positional cues in audio. For example, we manipulate your L/R balance by a few dB to trick your brain into thinking a sound is coming from a certain angle – if then the raw speakers also have a built-in balance defect, then it’s a bad starting point. We ensure that our speakers are delicately crafted in a way to minimise this as it’s vital for perfect surround sound.
“Similarly, balance in the frequency response curve is extremely important. A flat frequency response, especially in the mid-range, is very important when we start adding HRTF related algorithms on top.”
And EPOS believes that developers too should stick to a single studio reference, rather than mixing audio for various use cases.
“We would always prefer that audio is mixed on a good studio speaker setup, because the second publishers start to ‘colour’ the audio for headphones or similar, they are doing it with a certain brand of headphones in mind.
“Today, there can be a huge difference in how manufacturers believe good audio should be represented. We’ve spent many research hours on this topic, and truly believe that our audio curve is the optimal one for gaming.”
THE HEAD(SET) HONCHO
Audio may be a key segment in gaming, but it’s also a competitive one, with numerous headset brands on the market. EPOS might come with Sennheiser’s huge heritage but it’s still a crowded market.
“For a long time, gaming headsets have been dominated by brands coming from a gaming background with audio as an add-on,” Jessen tells us. “We are on the other hand quite the opposite – we are coming from a very long and established audio background moving forward into gaming.
“To be honest, our research and development background means we have more meaningful product ideas than we have bandwidth to carry out, but some of our big priorities now are immersiveness (such as HRTF), comfort, microphone pick-up and maybe most crucial for the gaming segment; design and durability.”
And from a comms perspective Maja Sand-Grimnitz, head of global marketing, explains the strategy.
“We plan to stay true to our heritage and roots, our expertise within audio engineering, and to focus on what we can truly contribute with – our technology and the quality of the audio we produce. For the gamers that play for pure enjoyment – be it from winning a round of CS:GO or conquering a new galaxy or just to relax and unwind – we want to be the premium brand of choice.
“We focus on the good old saying ‘don’t tell me, show me.’ What is important to us is not to lecture about good audio, but rather to demonstrate what truly premium audio can do for the gaming experience,” she adds.
The most conspicuous positioning of headsets in today’s gaming ecosystem has to be on the heads of its current superstars: influencers, so we wonder if that’s a cornerstone of EPOS’s strategy?
“Influencers are like any other media channel – a strong tool if they fit your strategy and objectives.” Sand-Grimnitz notes cautiously. “We are always looking for the right partners to tell the story about EPOS gaming audio – people who have a real interest in gaming audio and like us, seek to upgrade their experience – and tell others about how EPOS helped them do it!”
A major brand launch is always tricky, even if you already have a lot of experience in the space. But the pandemic has thrown a lot of plans out the window, but Sand-Grimnitz says it hasn’t had too large an impact on EPOS.
“Our marketing strategy is very much based on creating engaging and exciting content and campaigns for online consumption and thankfully, the pandemic hasn’t meant we have had to change much in our original 2020 plans. We have been well prepared for the shift from live esports events to online, due to the digital nature of our marketing plans, and the same goes for the increased shift from retail to etail.”
And Sand-Grimnitz believes EPOS has struck a balance between the core gamer and the esports segments: “We believe that we have developed a campaign platform for our new brand that is both appealing for the gamers that we are looking to reach, as well as to our partners within the esports community.
“In 2020 we focused on revisiting our sponsorship strategy and ensuring that we partnered with properties that give us opportunities to develop long term relationships that fit the EPOS brand values and mission. Our esports teams and tournaments partnerships this year reflect areas where we can tell the EPOS story about audio within gaming. In general, we look for partners that are as passionate about gaming audio as we are, so we can work together to really enhance the gaming experience for everyone involved.”
A quick look around my own home turned up three different Sennhesier-branded headsets, so the company was certainly doing something right working with that brand, and we expect to see a lot more of the EPOS name in future.
Jessen sums it up: “In short – we love all things audio, and it is our ambition to be relevant at every touchpoint where a gamer meets audio in relation to gaming.”