Flying Low – The Quest for Great Sound in the Flight Simulator Cockpit

Originally Published in 2014
 -Updated 5th December 2016

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, one of the most important things to a teenager – or twentyager, for that matter –  was the hi-fi. (Not the Wi-Fi: the hi-fi!)

In those days, it was my dream to own a discreet Quad amplifier, and Wharfedale or KEF speakers – which stood a metre high – and cost nearly as much as most people’s annual salary! Clear, un-distorted sound was the goal. We deeply valued deep, powerful bass. Bass extending well below the 20Hz audio threshold – down to the feeling threshold. And it had to have a total harmonic distortion of next to nothing.

Can you remember those magnificent specimens of electronic wizardry?

What ever happened to them?

Modern hi-fis – or “surround sound home theatre systems” – may well sport many more speakers. But my 60-plus-year-old ears can hear a lot of distortion from these modern monstrosities. The fact is that the bass sounds – and especially ultra-low subwoofer frequencies – are noticeably sub-standard.

So what? What has all this got to do with flight simulation cockpits?

Well, my latest cockpit is just about done. I decided to fit it out with an old, discreet, purist* Pioneer amplifier. I also added two high-power “bookshelf” Mordaunt-Short speakers. (*Purist = no bass, treble or equalizer controls).

Pic of hi-fi bookshelf speakers
Two Mordaunt-Short hi-fi bookshelf speakers dwarfed by computer cases

I connected the “aux” input of the amplifier up to the speaker-out jack on the motherboard of the master PC. I fired up X-Plane with the latest Soulmade DH-2 Beaver Bush plane … and was absolutely blown away by the result. The sound in the confined space of the cockpit was indescribable.

It was brilliant.

Awesome.

Body-numbing.

The smile on my face was so broad, I must have looked like a Cheshire cat. I could hear everything crystal clearly. But not only that, I could really feel those sounds without the aid of a “buttkicker” as well.

Pic of Buttkicker vibrator
The buttkicker seat vibrator and control console

As a test – just to check that I wasn’t fooling myself – I disconnected the old hi-fi. I connected up a 5.1 computer speaker system with fancy 12″ subwoofer. The resulting sound was – although loud – rather indistinct, and slightly distorted.

I could hear the engine, but not the pistons. I would feel a rumble, but it didn’t feel like an airframe.

So I put the old hi-fi back.

No contest!

So, here’s my advice. Don’t waste time buying fancy, multi-speaker computer speakers. Even the high-powered gaming speaker sets sold at your local PC shop won’t do. Instead, take a trip to the attic … or visit the local flea market. You can even pop in to your specialist hi-fi dealer – if they still exist. Get a real hi-fi for your cockpit.

(That’s assuming you can find a salesman who has actually heard what real hi-fi quality should sound like.)

At last, you’ll be able to hear all the carefully crafted sounds the aircraft designer and scenery maker painstakingly crafted into his product.

In future, every cockpit I make will be fitted with a proper hi-fi – assuming I can get into enough attics!

Just don’t try to persuade me that we have progressed far when it comes to sound quality.