PAX East and the State of Gaming Audio

I recently attended PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) East, which is to my knowledge, the largest gaming show on the East Coast, as well as being one of the more manageably-sized gaming shows. That is not to say it’s attendance is small however, and even with the pullout of Sony, Facebook’s Oculus department, and several other massive names, the convention show floor was crowded to a snail’s pace at peak hours on Friday and Saturday.

There were a number of fascinating trends this PAX, and Nintendo’s massive Animal Crossing station and Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII demo were among the more popular. Larrian Studios was also showing a demo of the new Baldur’s Gate game behind closed doors, the lines for which wrapped several times around the mysterious and enormous castle they had constructed in their booth space. All very cool stuff, but of particular interest for me were the headphone setups here.

Audeze had a booth at PAX showing their LCD-GX, LCD-1 and Mobius headphones, and I even spotted a pair of Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2 headphones at one booth. Chatting with attendees, many of them were complimentary about the sound but outright shocked when I mentioned the $900 USD price tag. I was surprised, however, by the number of folks whose replies were along the lines of ‘but they’re kind of worth it,’ or ‘yeah, that’s not so bad.’

One of the afterparties of the event, generously hosted by Elgato, featured a number of Twitch and Mixer streamers, and I got the chance to sit down with a few of them and pick their brains about this new focus on the importance of audio. (Lest we forget the hand wringing of traditional audiophiles regarding the concern over attracting a generation born after the ’60s to the hobby – many of whom look to the personal-audio space as the gateway to more expensive two-channel drugs – Ed. Rafe Arnott).

Many of them are having to familiarize themselves with audio and audio broadcast setups, and they function both as streaming entertainment personalities, and also as the influencers and press of the big-money gaming world (a $150 billion market capitalization in 2019 – Ed.). Featuring headphones or interfaces on their streams and channels is quickly becoming an important marketing tool for many companies, who make everything from audio and video peripherals to custom laptops. This demographic seemed uniquely interested in high-quality video and audio as well, though I suspect playing games for many hours a day, almost anyone would start to be bugged by uncomfortable or harsh sounding headphones, as much as by unreliable frame rates and screen tearing.

Indeed, this was a common complaint from streamers who otherwise self-identified as audio-agnostic. ‘I can’t have my ears hurting after an eight-hour stream, it’s just too taxing. I can tell my hearing is going,’ one of them told me after recounting her saga of going through 12 or 13 pairs of headphones before finally dishing out for a well-regarded pair of ‘audiophile’ headphones. This is definitely a group that will be more interested in the wares offered from professional and audiophile headphone companies which have made the jump into the gaming market.

Another big issue I heard brought up in conversations, other than sound quality, was comfort. This ties in with the rise of VR, which has become a staple at gaming shows in the past few years. The audio mixing done within the VR environment is excellent, and really precludes the need for virtual surround implementations, which often sound poor and have buggy functionality. However, VR also requires headphones which are reasonably comfortable and stay securely put on your head. A task at which many audiophile headphones fail. For companies looking to get into the gaming space, creating a solid two-channel headphone at a price under $300 USD that is not bright, has great comfort over long sessions, and will stay securely put on the head is, from my perspective, the challenge of making a truly great gaming headphone.

For those companies up to this task, there’s a huge community of potential enthusiasts to tap into. I for one look forward to seeing what more hi-fi companies do in this space.