Date: October 1, 2010
Author(s): Robert Tanner
The gaming market isn’t lacking of quality headsets, but it is lacking of any that seem to do anything unique. Psyko Audio looks to break that mold, by delivering a 5.1 gaming headset that defies convention. The speakers aren’t in the earcups, but rather the headband, and that results in quite an interesting aural experience.
For serious, competitive gamers, one thing is probably true about their computer gear: if it doesn’t work exactly as needed then it’s time to be replaced, or time to find something better. Anything to further gain an advantage over their opponent is their modus operandi. This leads us to the subject of this article, full surround-sound in a neat little headset package.
Surround sound is critical for almost any game as it allows the player to keep aware of their environment, not just what is visible on their monitor. The initial few seconds in any engagement are always the most crucial, and with surround sound the player often gets them to prepare or react as needed.
Getting that surround sound is another matter altogether. Options range from buying and setting up a full 5.1 or 7.1 speaker setup around the PC, to using a 2.1 stereo setup with fancy software that tries to imitate spatial sound effects through stereo speakers. A better and probably cheaper alternative would be to simply make use of the home entertainment system’s surround sound setup, but that is not always an option. Matrix decoding attempts to alleviate the issues of a stereo speaker setup, but it can’t prevent the loss of information (audio) from occurring, only a full range setup with sufficient speakers will prevent the loss of audio.
There is however a small market for headphones that provide more than stereo (or rather two) speakers, and the majority of these understandably target gaming where there is a need for such spatial acoustics. Psyko Audio has introduced its 5.1 PC gaming headset, and while admittedly the price is steep, we expect there is a small but eager core of serious gamers that would jump on the option of full range surround sound from a headset.
Pysko’s headset is a bit more complex than average (as if having 5.1 speakers in a headset wasn’t complex enough). Instead of placing multiple speakers inside of each earcup, the Psyko 5.1 headset places five speakers in the headband, with wave guides (channels) directing the sound from each to both earcups. These wave guides are oriented to direct the sound from either in front of or behind the ear to mimic correct sound direction. The only actual speaker in the ear piece itself is the “subwoofer” which rounds out the setup.
Not content to stop there, Psyko decided to strive for accuracy as well. Pause to think for a second. True surround sound isn’t just about the direction of the sound as it reaches our ear, in fact timing plays a significant role. The human brain uses millisecond differences in timing from signals received from each eardrum to further perceive which side of the head the source of the sound originated from. Psyko factored this into the design of the wave guides, designing the entire montage of speakers to generate the proper millisecond delays that the listener would experience as if they were sitting precisely in the middle of a real surround sound speaker setup.
If all of that wasn’t nearly technical enough for you, Psyko recently published a whitepaper on its design that can be found here (PDF). In it Psyko addresses those such things as the Pinna Effect, sound intensity, and other factors taken into consideration with its headset’s design, and generally why false surround-sound configurations don’t cut the cake.
As one might expect, 5.1 headsets do not come in dainty-sized packages… these are full-size cans (or rather headset, because these headphones do come with a microphone attached.) Of course, they still do come in a box. On the back several of the “features” are listed, some of which will play a critical role in whether or not this headset is right for you. We will enumerate more on this momentarily.
Inside we have a neat little arrangement. Yes, that is in fact what Psyko terms a “pre-amp” located inside the headset, and this does require power from the adapter seen in the box. In the other corner we have the detachable boom mic, which can optionally be plugged inside the right-side ear piece.
Let’s be upfront with this… these headphones are almost entirely plastic. Those consumers that cannot stand plastic-feeling devices will no doubt find themselves in absolute purgatory while handling these. That aside, the construction here remains sufficiently solid and I didn’t worry that these would break easily. The design has sufficient rubber and extra support integrated into the design to provide integrity and flex, to keep them fairly solid yet flexible enough to last. Even so, I certainly wouldn’t go about tossing them onto the floor after a game just in case, but across the sofa should be fine.
The earcups ratchet vertically on the gray arms to adjust for length. In the photo one of the plastic earcup covers is opened all the way. This is one of the design features of this headset we mentioned earlier that might “make or break” this headset for you. By design these headphones allow the listener to easily hear everything around them, and we’re not talking about in game or your favorite voice chat program. You will hear noise in the room clearly, even without the ear pieces in the open position. For those that consider this a feature plus or a need (such as needing to monitor their immediate environment) then these would be absolutely perfect. Users looking for sound isolation should look elsewhere, however.
Here we can glimpse the “subwoofer” speaker in the center. The red opening that slots in behind the ear is the exit point for the wave guides that provide access to both the rear and center speakers. Each side of the headset feathers two of these in a front and back arrangement with the “sub” in the middle. The black felt is fairly firm, but still provides more than sufficient cushion from our experience, and was not a problem for extended wearing.
Also visible are the gray plastic housing rings which allow each cup to pivot inwards or outwards by several degrees, as to provide a full fit and prevent any parts of the ear ring from creating uneven pressure points around the ear. As probably surmised already these are full circumaural design, that is to say these earcups encompass and fully enclose the entire ear, and do not rest on the ear itself.
While the top of most headsets is usually the least interesting part to look at, with the Psyko 5.1 gaming headset it’s the most interesting. This is where it all happens, each spot houses a speaker that pipes sound into specific wave guides and all the way down to one or both ears.
The pre-amp is an interesting addition to these headphones and according to Psyko is intended to serve several specific functions that we will cover on the next page. The headset plugs directly into the back of the pre-amp, which itself plugs directly into the sound card and must also be plugged into the wall. The pre-amp provides both bass and volume control knobs for easy adjustments during gaming.
On the next page, I’ll go over my impressions of Psyko’s interesting headset.
While we would love to keep this succinct and to the point, there are quite a few points we need to elaborate upon before a potential buyer can make a well-informed decision. The steep cost of the Psyko 5.1 gaming headset only makes this all the more important, because with a $300 street price the user must be happy with their investment, and at that price they certainly are a long-term investment. Therefore we will go through some length to expand upon our experiences with this headset.
Build quality we consider to be good. Again these are primarily constructed of plastic, so if having a plastic feel is going to annoy you we wouldn’t suggest these. Personally we have had zero build construction issues so far and are not worried about the headset being delicate to use… we just wouldn’t recommend abusing it.
Besides build cost we suspect the primary reason plastic was chosen in the design was weight. The Psyko 5.1 PC gaming headset is a large headset, and only plastic would’ve kept the weight sufficiently down. Perhaps it is because of the design itself, but to our surprise we found that the headset overall did not weigh too much. Even after a marathon session of late night gaming wearing this headset did not become uncomfortable in the slightest. Personal results will always vary of course, but the amount of padding and flex in the design seems to have been spot on with both the headband and earcups.
Sound quality is going to be a complicated subject for primarily two reasons, sound quality and sound isolation. Psyko makes a point to advertise these specifically for gaming for a reason, and that is because the audio fidelity is not the best. Audiophiles would want the best, most accurate sound quality, and as such those that are looking for a headset to enjoy their music and movies with would not be happy with this one. The sound quality is sufficient for gaming, but not suitable for anything other than radio or medium bit-rate quality music. And just forget using these for FLAC files or Blu-ray movies!
With games we could only occasionally notice the sound variances, some sounds didn’t, well, sound quite right, but they were still clearly discernible and easy to recognize. Voice quality wasn’t an issue (let’s not even get into a discussion of telephone voice quality), and frankly neither is game quality. These headphones are more than sufficient for gaming, just not tasks that require high fidelity such as enjoying music, movies, or studio quality VoIP calls.
That aside, the headset’s purpose of providing direction sound was simply impressive. Although not CD quality sound, in game effects, speech, and other sounds were clear and immediately discernible by direction. The directional hearing of the high fidelity stereo headphones I use for music was a joke by comparison, so obviously fidelity is not everything. Even against my own 5.1 speaker setup the surround sound experience with the headset was very clearly better as long as there wasn’t any backdrop noise in the room. With the headset in some games I could clearly pick up on footsteps not just sooner, but also the direction they were coming from more quickly.
Admittedly the tougher part is the sound isolation. The Psyko 5.1 surround-sound headset is by design intended to allow room noise in, so that wearers can still easily hear other gamer’s cries of defeat as they explode (think LAN party) or simply hold conversations with others in the room. So if sound isolation is what is desired then the Psyko 5.1 headset won’t be a good match for you.
Personally I strongly prefer sound-isolation but realize this is a personal preference. For example, I have a window AC unit located in the same room with my gaming PC, and with it running it was not pleasant to try and use the headset due to the noise drowning out most of the directional cues and more subtle sound effects of the game. Naturally this problem exists with my 5.1 speakers as well, but the effect was more pronounced when using the headset. With it off however the sound was great and I could enjoy the full benefit of these headphones.
This brings us to the pre-amp. The primary reason Psyko designed it to be a part of this headset is to provide bass control. Psyko discovered during the design that the higher the bass setting, the less “surround sound” effect you will be able to audibly perceive, and is due to how the human ear perceives low frequency sound. To fully enjoy this headset and get the highest quality experience Psyko recommends keeping the bass set to the lowest setting, and I am forced to agree.
More than minimal bass would cause the same sort of interference as the AC unit would, it would drown out the directional cues and the sound would become more like stereo as the bass level was raised. To fully receive the 5.1 surround sound benefits the bass setting on the pre-amp needs to be kept low, which will change how deeper frequency effects will sound like and why this is advertised purely as a gaming headset.
In addition to providing quick bass and volume control adjustment the pre-amp does effectively increase the length of the cord. The headset has a good length of six feet, not too long but long enough for most situations. The pre-amp has a bit over five feet on of its own, allowing for plenty of creative placements especially if lots of length is required.
Lastly, while simply of a cosmetic issue, were the lights. The pre-amp has a LED display that lights up to show which sound channels are producing sound, and has a power LED to indicate it is plugged in and turned on. While the power LED was bright, the sound channel LEDs would never light up or light up more than slightly unless the volume was cranked to deafening levels. Still this isn’t a real issue, given any sound card or modern integrated sound offers a sound panel to test directional audio. Correctly setting the jacks to the proper outputs and configuring the OS (and also game) settings to use 5.1 sound, then using the 3D sound test is a great way to quickly test these headphones.
Made sure to read the previous page where we delved into some of the issues in more detail? Good!
After over a month of use (who wouldn’t love to be doing work by playing games?) we began to notice the benefits of these headphones more and more. At first we were disappointed with the initial, slightly tinny sound quality, however, adjusting the sound mixer will quickly offset much of this.
Some games will require mixer tuning for the best effect, while others won’t really need it. Only users that tend to notice sound fidelity will quickly pick up on this in the first place, but we must say for audiophiles it would definitely be an issue.
The only thing better than the Psyko 5.1 PC gaming headset for directional sound would to use a good, sound level calibrated 5.1 speaker setup . After the initial adjustment to the headset the directional cues to were great and did make a difference in games. I could more clearly, and quickly, discern sounds and which direction they originated from.
The Psyko 5.1 gaming headset does not provide sound isolation, and whether this is a good or a bad thing is up to the user. If needed the ear pieces can be opened, which does drop sound volume slightly but provides full hearing to the local area. The lack of sound isolation also works the other way, it won’t take much volume before nearby people will clearly hear your music or become unwilling participants in your game. The best surround-sound experience is at low volume with low bass, so again this is not a major concern. At these settings a gamer will get the most effect from these headphones.
In my opinion the Psyko 5.1 gaming headset was comfortable to wear, was not heavy, and despite its size could be worn for extended gaming sessions without becoming uncomfortable. Microphone quality was to be expected, and the ability to unplug the mic boom if unwanted is a nice touch. The pre-amp makes it easy to adjust bass and volume levels.
That leaves price. In our opinion the single largest issue with the Psyko 5.1 headset is simply that. At $300, these aren’t cheap. If that price seems obscene to you then these headphones may not be for you. The target market for a product like this would have to be the same as those that would buy $500 graphics cards, or even more expensive dual-GPU graphic setups. Newegg recently had these exact headphones on sale for “just” $250 as a one day special, so it doesn’t hurt to look around. We can’t neglect to mention Psyko confidently offers a 15 day full refund policy from receipt on its headset, so if you are not satisfied, you are not simply stuck with it.
All-in-all these headphones are built to serve a single purpose and that purpose is to provide directional 5.1 sound to gamers for total situational awareness and cue them in instantly to all in game sounds. In this purpose they excel and work surprisingly well. The sound fidelity was not as good as a 5.1 speaker setup, but the directional cueing was actually better and clearer to discern as long as background (environmental) noise was kept to a minimum. If you already having a gaming grade mouse, mouse pad, keyboard, and graphics card and are looking to try and take your gaming skills up to another level, then the Psyko 5.1 gaming headset may just be what you were looking for.
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