Interview with “Head Psyko” James Hildebrandt

by Greg King on February 17, 2009 in Audio & Media

Think that “surround sound” in a gaming headset is laughable? Psyko Audio Labs doesn’t think it has to be, and they’re here to prove it with their upcoming 5.1 offering. We sat down with “Head Psyko” James Hildebrandt to learn a lot more about his unique product, and to find out what makes it so superior to the many attempts made before it.

Page 1 – Introduction

There are always a few surprises at CES – it never fails. As we walked around the show floor this past January, we came across the Psyko Audio booth. Sporting a CES showcase award, we caught them just as they were finishing up their environment. As they setup, we kicked up a conversation with one of their employees. We were tipped off about Psyko in the weeks leading up to CES by their PR guy, who also happens to be a friend of the site and a fellow Hoosier.

As the small talk led into the obligatory spiel about the product, we were able to get a bit of hands on with their Psyko 5.1 headset. Once the marketing portion of the conversation was out of the way, we got to talk, enthusiast to enthusiast about the state of the market, favorite games and how their headset fits into it all. We left the Psyko booth as equally impressed as we were confused.

The approach that Psyko Audio Labs has taken with the headset is as unique as it is interesting. The first glance you get up close will show that the pods lack channel drivers are nowhere to be found. Moving the drivers from the cans to the headband area, Psyko claims that this, “gives users natural, not simulated, surround sound.” The set delivers full surround sound using the “PsykoWave Technology”, delivering sound using 5 audio drivers.

Winning a showcase award helped generate a significant amount of buzz around CES and their unique design helped fuel the interest all the more. Looking to build off that momentum, Psyko granted us the opportunity to ask their Head Psyko (their term) a few questions about the technology, the headphones and their future.

Techgage: Having spent a good half hour speaking with everyone at your booth last month at CES, we are for the most part familiar with your 5.1 gaming headphones. What has the evolution of the headphones been from idea to finished product?

James Hildebrandt:

Step 1 – Someone saying “there must be a better way to make headphones”, we want to have headphones that sound like a great room system, not like headphones.

Step 2 – Staring for hours at sound sources and thinking about how is it possible that we can tell the sound from anywhere around us with only 2 ears!

Step 3 – Eureka, the seed of the idea. Guide the sound, the right timing difference to both ears to the right location in front and behind… waveguides.

Step 4 – Building a prototype out of a mass of plumbing tubing that looks like an octopus is sitting on your head. My girlfriend at the time said – “James, guys that wear that aren’t going to have girlfriends”. Well, I wore them a lot and she married me anyway!

Step 5 – Lots more prototypes, lots more testing, lots of gaming (“honey, I’m not playing, I’m researching and testing the headphones. Oh no is it 2am already?”).

Step 6 – Figure out how to transition from an octopus to something people will want to wear (the funny part is that testers never complained about the octopus, they just wanted to get the result).

Step 7 – Build a company to deliver it (each step was really a thousand steps).

Techgage: We have no doubts there! Now, what is your personal history in audio technology and what have you looked for when hiring engineers?

James Hildebrandt: I have a Masters in Science in Mechanical Engineering that specialized in numerical simulation of acoustics and many years of experience in engineering design and engineering analysis. Everyone that works here has to have at least 3 out of 5 of the following: 1) attitude, 2) education, 3) attitude, 4) experience, 5) attitude.

Techgage: How many employees with attitude work for Psyko Audio and how many of them have had a direct role in the maturation of the headphones from idea to final product?

James Hildebrandt: There has been a core team of 3 technical people with occasional, but very important, help from a few friends. The 3 core people are: an electrical engineer for all things electronic (amp, etc.), then an industrial designer and I forged thousands and thousands of decisions into making something that works great and looks great.

After seeing the product and hearing it, lots of people say “why didn’t I think of that” but the process of implementing an idea requires an indescribable amount of perseverance. You can’t think of the final product without considering all the things it takes to deliver the whole experience, such as finance, manufacturing, graphics, packaging, web, marketing, communications, distribution, sales and support.

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