Tempest 3D Audio: the PlayStation 5’s most overlooked feature

Nobody is talking about 3D audio. That's a huge oversight.

Consoles, and especially Sony consoles, have a decades-long habit of introducing new gimmicks and experiments alongside the usual promises of better graphics and overall performance. These experiments are often intriguing — and while some do catch on, many are quickly abandoned post-launch. Sony’s Sixaxis controller was swiftly rejected due to its lack of rumble, prompting Sony to replace it with a new DualShock controller after just two years. The PS4’s DualShock 4 controller featured a touchpad which was never used by games as more than a giant button to summon up in-game maps. It was a button I was certainly happy to have but nonetheless one that fell short of its potential. And who could forget Xbox Kinect? The console gimmick so poorly received that it kneecapped an entire console brand for a generation.

With this new generation, Microsoft has backed off on gimmicks and played it safe, focusing solely on pure gaming power. Sony has brought two new gimmicks to the table, however. The one you’ve likely read the most about is the DualSense controller, with its haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. I don’t really have anything to add about the DualSense that you haven’t already heard. It’s as amazing as has been reported and I hope Microsoft clones it as quickly as possible so that Xbox (and maybe even PC) players can experience something similar.

The other gimmick, the one that has the most potential to define this generation, is the PS5’s dedicated audio system: a custom processor called the Tempest Engine paired with a suite of algorithms collectively known as Tempest 3D Audio Tech. It’s an incredibly ambitious technology that Sony themselves admits will take years to realize fully. In brief: while limited at launch, if Sony achieves their goals with 3D audio, the PS5 could be the first console to truly transform your entire living room gaming experience. This is because the endgame with Tempest is to turn any sound system, from headphones, terrible built-in TV speakers, and soundbars, into a wholly immersive surround sound experience. If you want to know exactly how Tempest works, and the various challenges that Sony is facing to develop it, you can watch system architect Mark Cerny’s highly technical breakdown of the feature from his “Road to PS5” presentation in March.

At launch, 3D audio only works with headphones. Sony does sell their own pair of headphones “optimized” for 3D audio called the Pulse 3D, but you can connect any pair of wireless headphones to the PS5 or use wired headphones connected to the DualSense to experience 3D audio for yourself. Even as just an upgrade to headphone audio, Tempest is incredibly impressive at launch.

In Spider-Man: Miles Morales, there are two scenes in the game’s first few hours that really sold me on Tempest, the first being the Christmas dinner scene in the Morales apartment. There’s a record player in the apartment that you can play one of three songs on. Once it starts, you can pan the camera around slowly and can hear the music and the various voices in the apartment around you at every conceivable angle, even right behind and in-front of you. There's also a street fair scene at Rio Morales’ rally towards the end of the game’s first act that will wow you. As you and Ganke make your way through the fair, you can hear all the distinct voices in the crowd around you, the street artist spray painting in the distance, and various music sources all mixed in a more-than-convincing effect.

For their part, Xbox is touting their own solution to immersive game audio. They’ve supported Dolby Atmos gaming since the Xbox One, with a handful of notable titles (including CyberPunk 2077) supporting the feature. The issue with Atmos, as Cerny points out in “Road to PS5," is that it’s only available to people who can afford the additional hardware to obtain the feature. Sony’s goal is to bring this to any entertainment system — not just the most expensive ones. While this does not excuse the PS5’s complete lack of support for Dolby Vision and Atmos for media playback, it does make sense when applied to gaming. Sony is choosing a more difficult path to walk, hoping for a greater reward in the end.

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Given the many-years rollout it will take to bring Tempest to home theater systems, the question that remains is: how long does Sony really have to figure this out before developers start abandoning the technology? Tempest serving as a dedicated audio processor for all sound is no-doubt appreciated by sound designers, but if only headphone users will experience the full power of Tempest, will audio teams do the extra work needed to create 3D sound for every game?

This is an especially important ask of third party developers. Sure, Sony can require that its many in-house studios implement Tempest tech, but without significant incentive to do so, it’s unclear why big publishers like EA or Activision would do the same. Why spend valuable time on an already tight development timeline designing special sound profiles for PlayStation users just so gamers who prefer headphones can have a better experience?

Prior to the PS5’s launch, some of these same questions could have been asked about the DualSense controller. Even as an optimist, I was expecting the controller’s haptics and triggers to really only be something Sony games would show off. However, the DualSense, and the many ways developers can choose to implement it, are all in your face — whether that’s in a showcase like the delightful Astro’s Playroom, shooters like Black-Ops: Cold War and Fortnite, or more subtle uses in Demon’s Souls, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, and Spider-Man. You have to use this controller if you want to play a PS5 game, making it impossible to ignore. Developers have done a good enough job with the DualSense at launch and the reception has been high enough that it looks to have already cleared the bar to become a staple of this console generation.

“Put on Headphones for the Best Experience.

Tempest 3D Audio, on the other hand, is not in your face. Nowhere to be found when you launch a game are the words “Put on headphones for the best experience”, a phrase common to mobile gamers. If the default of the console’s 5 3D audio profiles isn’t right for you, then it won’t be as impressive (unless you go into system settings to pick a profile that suits you better). I experienced this first hand. At default, 3D audio sounded fine to me when I first tried it but, after going into settings and adjusting to a different profile, I got that full “wow” effect that was promised.

Sony has other plans for getting 3D audio to work for more people, from expanding the number of profiles over time to account for greater swaths of the population’s hearing to possibly shipping some kind of app that could help users develop a custom profile. If they can make it happen soon enough, hopefully before this new generation starts to supplant the last one, then they’ll have a feature on their hands that simply no other console or PC can match. But if 3D audio doesn’t expand to more devices fast enough, it will be yet another promising feature that was abandoned before it could shine.