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Interview with “Head Psyko” James Hildebrandt

Date: February 17, 2009
Author(s): Greg King

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.


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.

Interview Cont., Final Thoughts

Techgage: That’s true. There seems to be a significant buzz surrounding your headphones. What main factor do you think this can be attributed to?

James Hildebrandt: At CES we asked people what it was they found interesting about the headphones. First, the look of the headphones made them want to check them out, then as they understood how they work people said that it was one of the few real innovations they’d seen, then they said it all just made sense.

Techgage: Well speaking of, how does the technology work and how is it superior to the standard approach that has been taken to headphones for years now?

James Hildebrandt: This is almost no similarity between the Psyko approach and traditional approaches. There are two traditional approaches; they both have limitations that Psyko 5.1 has overcome. First traditional approach is to put speakers in strategic locations around the ear. That seems to make some sense at first, but there are problems with it. First, like traditional stereo headphones they play the left sound only in the left ear, right sounds only in the right ear. This is completely unnatural. No time in nature do you hear a sound only in one ear – unless it is an insect in one ear, and that is really irritating.

Second, they don’t really achieve the flow of sound within the ear cups. The second traditional attempt is digital signal processing (DSP) played in traditional stereo headphones. They adjust certain frequencies up or down to make them sound like they are coming from the front or rear. This is based on a bunch of science and also seems to make some sense at first.

The trouble is that everyone’s ear shape is as unique as their fingerprints, so the signal you are used to hearing to detect direction is different than everyone else. If your ears happen to match the ears that system was designed for they sound good. But most of us don’t fall in that band and those systems don’t sound natural. They are like making one size of shoes for everyone in the world. It works for some but not for most.

Psyko technology is completely different than previous attempts. There are sub-woofers at each ear, but no regular speakers. Our headphones have the speakers in the headband, or bridge, with waveguides that deliver every sound to both ears with the correct timing and volume difference for that left and right perception, and with the correct sound flow past the front and rear of YOUR ear, so it reflects off your ear and delivers the correct signal at your brain that you are used to hearing from room sounds. The result is completely natural. No DSP, so no latency.

Techgage: To follow-up to that thought, the concept of surround sound immersion is nothing new and has been attempted by many companies. We have even reviewed a few of those products with mixed results. Where do you see your technology succeeding where others have failed?

James Hildebrandt: Well, we saw what others were doing and didn’t like the results [Ed. We concur!]. Despite their best attempts there was still an unfilled need for the audio immersion experience. But with our headphones, people are saying they get both higher gamer performance and higher game immersion experience.

We’ve had top ranked gamers, who are used to using their great 6.1 room systems, test our prototypes and get beads of sweat while playing with them because of the adrenaline: they were hearing more than they’d ever heard in their game. We’ve had others tell us they will cancel their sponsorship contracts with their headphone suppliers and out of their own pocket buy our headphones just so they can get the competitive edge Psyko delivers.

Techgage: That’s some dedication! With such an aggressive name for your company, do you see Psyko Audio branching out into other markets? Ones that are not necessarily focused toward the gaming enthusiast?

James Hildebrandt: We are really focused on the gaming enthusiast. A start-up company has to have a sharp focus and that is ours.

Techgage: How are the headphones driven? A lot of audio software seems to be an afterthought. Will there be included software or will it work straight out of the box with a compatible sound card?

James Hildebrandt: There is no software. You plug the Psyko headphones into the 5.1 analog jacks, turn on 5.1 on your computer and game, and that’s it. There is nothing to install. The computer thinks it is simply driving a room 5.1 system.

Techgage: With the current state of the economy and as many people’s disposable income decreases, what kind of market does a $300 headset have? Do you think that this economic pressure will be felt by Psyko or is this a niche enough of a product that gamers will get a pair if the performance is there?

James Hildebrandt: The economy is a factor for everyone. However, so far stats show that gaming is continuing to grow even while consumer electronics has dropped in the last few months. Gaming continues to deliver great entertainment value for the dollar. We are aiming this product at the gamers that really care about game play performance which they can get if they can hear the direction of every sound. We all pay what it takes to get good video performance because we see the difference. And once you’ve played with Psyko 5.1 and hear the direction of every sound it is hard to go back to traditional headphones or a poor room set-up.

Techgage: So what’s next?

James Hildebrandt: There is no next yet. The future is now. We’re 100% focused on delivering gamers a completely immersive experience and an edge over the competition with Psyko 5.1. That’s been our goal from the moment of conception.

Final Thoughts

Well, there you have it… a little back story to Psyko and what their focus is on in the immediate future. Whether the economy has room for a $300 set of headphones has yet to be decided, but we are looking forward to getting a set in house to test ourselves.

I have to admit, the idea sounded a lot more gimmicky than the final product turned out to be. The sound was good and if nothing else, Psyko’s approach to the headset market is new and unique, and for that, they deserve to be commended (and they were, by receiving one of our best of CES awards!). We thank Mr. Hildebrandt for his time and look forward to hearing more from Psyko in the future.

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