Psyko 5.1 Gaming Headset Review

Author: Carl Poirier
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Tuesday, July 13th, 2010
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/psyko_headset/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

Today's article features Psyko's unique 5.1 gaming headset. Now why is it unique, and what differentiates it from all the other 5.1 surround headsets? It's the PsykoWave technology. This headset tech basically consists of placing the speakers on top of the head of the player, and letting the sound travel to the ears through two tubes; one on the front and one on the back. Since the speakers are farther away from the ears, the headset needs an amplifier, which will be shown in details later.

Beginning with a patent filed in 2003, Psyko Audio Labs Inc. was born in 2007, after its CEO, James Hildebrandt, had developed technology to accurately render surround sound through an innovative 5.1 headphone, ultimately becoming the company's current product. It all began approximately 8 years ago when Hildebrandt's friend was arguing that he could not play first-person shooters at 2 o'clock in the morning while being able to use the surround sound capabilities of his system arranged like those found in home theaters. Using such a setup so late would wake his family, so Hildebrandt's friend wished for headphones that would be able to accurately deliver surround sound.

Hildebrandt took this as a personal project, using his knowledge of acoustics coming from his background; a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering with a specialization in acoustics. After eight years and many prototypes, Hildebrandt's company Psyko was born with PsykoWave to its name.

The technology works by leveraging what is known about how the human brain normally picks up and interpret sound.  When a sound is emitted from any speaker, it will travel in the appropriate tube in both directions, and both ears will hear it, but with a different timing and volume. This is part of the information that the human brain needs to locate a sound.

Sounds caught by the ear are reflected by the pinna, which is the oddly-shaped external part of the ear, and picked up by the auditory canal. When reflected by the pinna, their frequency is modified depending on the direction it comes from, and this is the third and last information needed by the brain to be able to locate a sound. This is called the pinna effect. Each ear has a unique shape and thus alters frequencies differently, and the brain is accustomed to these unique signatures.

Simulated surround in standard stereo speakers attempts to reproduce this pinna effect, however the signals end up sounding the same for everyone and thus do not really match the natural tones. PsykoWave technology attempts to rectify this by letting the sound reflect freely on the pinna, so frequency modifications are reproduced more naturally.

Specifications

 
Psyko Headset
Impedance
32Ω front, rear, center channels
90-120Ω Subwoofer (per ear cup)
Output SPL
103dB at 1kHz, 2 channels active, below distortion limit
Weight
1.2lb
 
Psyko Amplifier
Input Impedance
1kΩ nominal, 950Ω minimum
Output Impedance
< 1Ω
Power Level
125 mW per channel minimum, all channels active, 1 Khz
425 mW minimum any single active channel, 1 Khz
below distortion limit into 32 Ohm impedance levels
Input Signal Limit
± 3V (6V p-p)
Input Protection
Protected against damage from higher signals but distortion will increase
Max input level between any signal and its ground input is 10 Volts
Max input level between any two input ground connections is 3 Volts

It is now time to open that box!

The parts are packaged in recyclable cardboard, a nice touch for the environmentally-conscious.

In the package are the headset, an amplifier and its power supply, the microphone and the owner's manual.

As explained earlier, PsykoWave technology carries sound between the headset's built-in speaker channels through two tubes. On the second picture, observe the front speaker in the center. The remaining left/right speakers are naturally to the sides of the headset, and include both the front and rear channels. In each ear cup is the subwoofer.

 

One can see the nice cushions that attempt to make the headset comfortable in both pictures.

 

Both ear cups can be adjusted to the desired height. Each of them can also be opened to reduce noise cancellation.

Under the right ear cup is a small hole in which the microphone plugs. There is a rubber ring at the base of its audio jack so it fits tightly in there, while still allowing it to pivot.

The amplifier is a little box of measuring 4 x 9 x 12 cm. It has two knobs; one for the power and volume, and another for adjusting the bass. On the left are six LEDs. The group of five light up according to sounds, whereas the other one in the middle simply indicates the power state.

At the back, there is a wire coming off and terminating by four audio jacks, which must be connected to the computer. The four audio plugs at the back of the amplifier are for connecting the headset. The last one at the right is for connecting the external power source.

The unit requires 1.2A at 5V, so that is around 6W. The power connector does not feature a ground pin. It is oriented on the side however so it does not block nearby outlets.

Here is what it looks like on someone's head. When the unit is powered up, the five LEDs light up according to the specific channel's sound intensity. 

 

It is now time to see what the Psyko headset can do!

Naturally the Psyko headset is put through its paces with some games. Even though music and movies are not its specialty, it wouldn't be a complete headset test without seeing what the Psyko handles audio outside of gaming.

Comparison Setups

 

Gaming

Battlefield: Bad Company 2

Psyko's headset was designed with first person shooters in mind, so Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was our first test. In this type of game, a surround sound system that accurately positions environment noises can provide an extra edge in locating enemies. Hearing explosions, gunshots and footsteps from the direction they come from could make a world of difference, and in fact Psyko's headset works just as well as the comparison 5.1 surround speaker system. The main difference between both products is that the headset is less likely to distract any other people who might be sharing accomodations with you, which was the whole point of the Psyko: realistic surround sound reproduction in a small package.

For locating sounds, it is best to set the bass to a low setting. If not, it has a tendency to mask the direction of sounds, since human hearing is typically not well adapted to work with such frequencies. This is the main reason why most surround speaker systems have only one sub-woofer, which can be placed in any direction. My preference was to leave bass at around one fourth of its maximum setting; just enough to keep the explosion blasts sounding well.

Colin McRae: DiRT 2

DiRT 2 comes with a special edition of Rapture3D, an OpenAL audio engine meant to provide the user with the utmost realistic surround sound. Rapture3D technology calculates precisely how to play a given sound at a specific environment in 5.1 audio for optimal positioning.  Hearing how it does a nice job, it is logical to try the Psyko 5.1 headset with my favorite game series since the 2005 entry.

After playing many races with both the Logitech surround speakers and Psyko's latest, I felt both products reproduced the surround sound equally well. When driving, it's a bit harder to analyse because the sound most often comes from the same direction. For example, driving with the bumper view will always make the sound come from behind for the whole duration of the race. Where they really shine is when watching replays, when many views are used one after the other. With both products, one can discern the actual view just by listening to the sound. 


Conversation

How does the microphone fare? Firing Skype and talking to a friend as well as using the Windows voice recorder revealed that the Psyko was a little too sensitve in picking up ambient sounds, whereas the Logitech ClearChat Comfort USB scored better. The recorded voice also isn't as clear and sharp, although it was still fairly decent. Nevertheless, it's somewhat disappointing the Psyko couldn't do better here, because communicating through mic is an integral part of many first-person shooters nowadays.

 

Music

After having listened to many tracks from various genres with both the Seinheiser HD280 Pro and the Psyko headset, my impressions are that the latter sounds as if the sound was played in a can. However when the ear cup sides are opened, the difference is barely noticeable. It is widely accepted that open headphones simply sound better than closed ones, and Psyko's headset further underlines that. The other main difference is that with stereo headphones, in my opinion, it feels like if the listener is right in the middle of the band; the sounds from a specific side come only from the associated ear cup, which gives the impression that it is completely at the right. In reality, both ears would hear the sound, and Psyko's headset actually does that. It feels like if the band is right in front of the listener, like at a concert. The sounds coming from atop the head go down to both ears, but with different timing and volume, as in reality. One disadvantage compared to a surround speaker system is that music cannot really be shared, but that can't be helped in a headset.

In the case of music, my preference was to set the bass setting to around five fifths of its full power. Sound systems with great sub-woofers are my favorite, and Psyko's headset got me covered. The Seinheiser HD280 Pro is well known for having a good low frequency response; the greatest sound amplitude delivered is in the 40Hz range. Although Psyko does not disclose any information about frequency response, my feelings are that once the bass is cranked up on the amplifier, the difference in response between low and high frequencies is much larger with the 5.1 headset.

 

Movies

For the occasion, a well-known classic was chosen: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. As with both the surround headset and speaker systems, one could hear and thus locate the screeches of the Nazgûls before the camera view aimed at them. One could locate Sméagol calling for his master when he had taken a good lead on the road to Mordor, and many more. So once again, Psyko's headset was able to deliver a lifelike surround sound, but without disturbing the rest of the family sleeping upstairs.

 

Comfort

Both the ear cups are well padded so they are very comfortable. My only complaint is that at 1.2 pounds, the headset isn't very light. Gaming for long sessions was tough on the neck the first few times, but it won't take long for one to get used to it. Also, when tilting the head frontwards or backwards, the top of the headset could get unstable. On the bright side, the ear cup's adjustable height has a great range of variation that is going to fit the smallest to the largest heads.

The Psyko headset does a great job at playing surround sound. For both gaming and watching movies, one could tell from where the sound was coming as easily as if the comparison 5.1 surround speakers were used. This can be attributed to the PsykoWave technology providing the user with sounds that have the required timing and volume difference as well as with a natural pinna effect, which are the three pieces of information needed for the human brain to be able to discern sound sources. Since the pinna effect happens naturally, a player does not need to "learn" the sound of the Psyko, which is not the case in other headsets with simulated surround where the sound signature of the simulated pinna effect does not match what the shape of ears yield in reality.

As a gaming headset, the Psyko isn't as well suited for standard music listening, though its decent enough in this regard. It is not as great as professional headphones, obviously, but it gets the job done. It sounded best when the ear cups were opened, however this might be a personal preference more than anything else. The ability to adjust the bass allows for an on-the-fly customization, allowing the user to set it to his liking very quickly.

Where Psyko's headset deceived me however is in the microphone recording quality. The difference between it and the comparison headset was night and day, even though it is admittedly much better than some other cheap dedicated microphones. Many serious and even casual gamers enjoy using a microphone to communicate with other players in an online game, so its a shame the Psyko couldn't step up its mic performance in this regard.

Overall, the Psyko headset is a great product, and it is safe to say that it fulfills its creator's mission: offering a lifelike surround sound experience in a convenient and quiet headset-sized package. Even though it has some flaws, the PsykoWave technology is an awesome innovation that has lots of potential. For a gamer searching such a good surround experience and ready to fork out $300, the Psyko headset is definitely a candidate.

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