Psyko 5.1 PC Gaming Headset Review

hardnrg - 2010-06-29 16:44:52 in Speakers/Headphones
Category: Speakers/Headphones
Reviewed by: hardnrg   
Reviewed on: November 1, 2010
Price: $300


Psyko! Crazy, mental ward patients with cats duct-taped to their feet as slippers... No, not that kind of psycho, this time it's psychoacoustic science, the science of sounds, and the basis of Psyko Audio Labs' name and technology. Psyko Audio is a new company based in Canada, and recently got a lot of attention at CES 2009 for their first product: a surround sound PC gaming headset system. The "Head Psyko", James Hildebrandt, has experience in acoustics, is an avid gamer, and has been developing audio technology for several years. So, a passion for games, experience of playing, and a solid understanding of acoustics. Sounds good to me.

Okay, so in this review I'll be taking a look at Psyko Audio's first and only product, the Psyko 5.1 headset. This headset has been designed specifically for PC gaming, to provide a surround sound experience equal to what you would hear when listening to a home cinema speaker setup. Isn't that what all surround sound headsets aim to do, though? Well, yes, but rather than bungle around with the same tired design, Psyko have decided to use a completely new design that has never been done before. Will it be a breakthrough technological success, or will it be a freak of nature destined to fade into the history books of audio evolution? Let's find out!

Closer Look:

The shiny, full-colour picture of the headset on the front of the box gives you an instant understanding of the shape of the product, despite the matt black cardboard packaging having no cellophane windows. How can audio be a weapon? Sonic tanks? Haha, maybe, but any serious gamer will already know that audio cues in games can give you an idea of not only what is going on "off-camera", but also where it is happening. Round at the back of the box, you pretty much have a full rundown of all the features of the headset and amp, and a picture of how it connects to your computer. For the technically inquisitive, you even get a concise explanation of the PsykoWave technology used in this headset to give a natural and accurate surround sound experience.










The top of the box shows an overhead view of the headset's headband. I think most people will initially be taken aback by its heft, but again, you get a clear feel for the size and shape of the headset before you've even opened the box.


What's on the sides of the box? Yep, you've guessed it - views of each side of the headset. The left side clarifies that this headset is analogue-only, while the right side lists the hardware contents inside the box.



There's not much on the bottom of the box, so it's time to open it up and see what's inside.


The contents of the box are held in position by a formed cardboard inner that feels sort of like a protective egg carton. Good enough for fragile eggs, good enough for audio equipment? The lid of the box is lined with a sheet of foam/sponge to further protect the headset parts during transit. Also, you get a cool smiley face, haha.



So, this is what you get: the headset itself, a 5.1 headphone amplifier with microphone pass-through, a removable boom mic, an AC/DC power adaptor, and a product manual.

Closer Look:

Let's take a look at the headset first. It's a circumaural design (the ear cups sit around the ear), which almost seems bigger than "full-size" because of the larger-than-usual headband.



This massive headband has five wide felt-covered spongey pads to distribute the weight across your head in a comfortable way. The reason the headband is so large is that it actually houses five 30mm headphone drivers. You can see, in the underside shot, how the outermost speaker chambers join through to the rear tunnel (at the top of the picture), which carries the sound down through the red sections to the rear of each ear cup. Viewed from the top, you can see that the drivers for the front left, centre, and front right channels have chambers that join through to the front tunnel section, which carries sound down to the front of each ear cup.



Psyko calls these tunnel sections "WaveGuides". They have been designed to mimic the natural phenomenon that exists for sounds reaching a person from one side, and contain materials to modulate the frequencies of the sound in the same way that your head affects the sound waves travel around it. As sound takes time to travel through the air (think of thunder and lightning), there is actually a small delay between the sound reaching the ear closest to the sound and the other ear. The amount of delay directly relates to the angle away from the central axis (straight ahead or behind). For example, the positions of the front left and right headphone drivers in this headset create a 0.35ms timing difference that relates to a 30° angle away from centre. This 30° angle is the same as one that Dolby and THX recommend for the front speakers in 5.1 speaker setups. The rear speakers have a timing difference to present a perceived angle of 30° back from straight out to the side (in other words, 120° away from straight ahead). The timing differences are constant, no matter how far away the sound is, so the ear cup can be adjusted up and down without affecting the perceived sound direction.



The sound emenates from the flanged red holes that are visible through the clear windows on the side of each ear cup. You can probably now visualise how the sound is directed in front of, and behind, the listener's ear.



Each ear cup has a 40mm driver to provide the the .1 of 5.1, the subwoofer channel. The ear cup is also a ported enclosure, which I would imagine allows a more dynamic sound compared to a sealed design.



Very uniquely, the clear windows on the ear cups are hinged and can be opened up. This allows the user to listen to other people in the room without taking the headset off. You know, sentences like "hey, you spend more time on that computer than with me, maybe you should just marry it", and "dinner's ready, you can't eat anything in that game you're playing!" Haha, jokes aside, it's a neat feature to be able to quickly hear someone speaking to you without reaching for the volume control, nor having to pull the ear cup off your ear. Flip open, flip closed, easy.


A microphone makes the difference between a set of headphones and a headset, and this one certainly is the most solid looking and feeling design I have seen. Usually, removable headset microphones have either a delicate boom, or an audio connector that is prone to breaking from repeated insertion/removal. This one has a rigid boom, with a 2.5mm audio jack connector. You can see that the connector resembles a headphone jack, and the plastic barrel section of the jack locates inside the hole for the microphone socket. This means that the metal part of the jack is not prone to stress damage during normal use, something that has been an issue with other headsets I have owned or tested.



As the microphone boom has a rigid body, it cannot be bent or angled up/down, but you can swing it nearer or further away from your mouth to achieve the optimum voice performance.



This headset does not use any digital trickery to emulate surround sound, it's straight analogue, no messing. I'm not trying to start a digital versus analogue debate, but simply pointing out that the headset provides realistic surround sound without any signal processing. So the only inputs required are the six channels (5.1) from your soundcard. Additionally, there is the microphone output from the headset down to the soundcard. This means the headset is terminated with four 3.5mm stereo jack plugs, which are colour-coded with the familiar PC System Design Guide colours to help you match each plug to the right socket.


So, wait, what? Where does the amp come in? Now. It comes in now.

Closer Look:

The front of the amp is deceptively minimal. The left side has five LED indicators for the corresponding intensity of sound for each channel apart from the subwoofer. There is another LED indicator for the power-on status. The central knob controls the amount of bass sent to each channel. As you increase the bass amplification, you start to decrease your ability to perceive the direction of sounds. So, all the way to the left, this control has no bass emphasis and the clearest direction; this is what the "dir." refers to on the dial. The knob on the right is a volume control that doubles as the power switch.



The red corners continue the "form and function" concept of the headset, reflecting the WaveGuides prominent appearance as well as serving a purpose. In this case, they prevent the amp enclosure from being scratched if it is moved across the desk, even upside-down.



Okay, so, round to the back, and you can see where the four jacks from the headset plug in. The headset is therefore driven by these amplified outputs (the microphone signal is a simple pass-through). This amplification requires power, so there is a DC power socket on the right of the picture. The audio connection cable that carries sound between the amp and the soundcard is hard-wired to the enclosure, and is terminated and colour-coded in the same way as the headset.



In case you haven't used an amplified headset before, here is a photo to illustrate how you would connect it. The audio connectors from the amp go to your soundcard, and the AC/DC adaptor goes to a wall socket or power strip. With the amp powered up and switched on, the power LED illuminates.



The five other LEDs remain dim until there is a sound signal present. Each LED operates independently and varies in brightness to show the intensity of the sound from each channel. It's sort of hard to explain how a single round LED can be a level meter, so I made a short video with my digital camera to show what they look like when supplied with some 5.1 sound. The audio you can hear in the video is the sound coming from the headset (away from the camera). If I wanted to be really snazzy I would have done a Picture-In-Picture showing the live action on-screen and the amplifier LEDs at the same time, but I didn't want to be that snazzy. Okay, I don't actually know how to do that. Just watch the damn video, haha.



Speaker dimension 30 mm (FL/FR/SL/SR/C)
40 mm (Sub)
Impedance 32 Ω



The Optimal Surround Sound Experience

Zero Latency and Instant Positional Awareness

Simple and Accurate Setup

Custom Sound Control



Testing Setup:

Comparison Headsets:



As with most audio equipment, I listened to a selection of music in lossless FLAC format, ranging from delicate and dynamic classical music to fierce and unrelenting drum and bass. I listen to music every day, mostly on headphones (Westone UM2, Sennheiser HD25-1 II, AKG K701), and am very familiar with certain tracks. So, if something sounds wildly different in a track I've listened to over 100 times, it becomes apparent very quickly. There was definitely something amiss with the sound when listening to music.

At first, I was playing tracks without any channel upmixing, which meant only the front left and front right speakers were playing. I was initially very skeptical about how well the 30mm drivers could perform in this scenario, but was surprised to find the low-end reproduced quite well. The bass control definitely helps here, and I found it best set at ~80%. What disappointed me at this stage was the fact that it seems as though a lot of the sound is either missing, muffled or accentuated. This problem remains even if applying Creative's upmix modes (CMSS Stereo, CMSS Surround), with and without bass redirection, and even when plugging each of the headset's jacks into the front channels of the soundcard, or an MP3 player. The problem is quite severe, with the headset performing worse than a pair of decent budget headphones (e.g. Koss Porta Pro, Panasonic RP-HTX7).



Okay, so on to the next stage of testing: pre-recorded surround sound from movies, in the form of Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. This is the first time I heard discrete surround sound on the Psyko 5.1 headset, and I really have mixed feelings on how it sounds. The rear sounds do sound as though they are coming from behind you, but their position is not anywhere as clear as with real speakers, and I certainly remember checking over my shoulder much more when using Dolby Headphone mode on the Asus Xonar soundcards with stereo headphones. Psyko Audio Labs claim that the surround effect in this headset works for all types of ear shapes (pinnae), but it doesn't really work at all for me. My ears are fairly normal looking, and I can point to the direction of a sound in a blind test to a decent level of accuracy, but I really was fairly lost with the Psyko 5.1. Perhaps the handy-dandy, clear, pivoting windows on the ear cups reflect the sound around the ear, resulting in the front and rear sounds getting muddled up. There is quite a lot of sound leakage from the headband area itself, so maybe this is why a lot of the surround effect is missing.

My disappointment turned into painful annoyance however, as the headset's peculiar frequency response makes every movie sound like someone pirated it by recording the sound with microphones in a cinema. The bass trails off too early, there is also no punch to the high bass sounds of slams and thumps. Some of the dialogue sounds slightly distorted, like the sound from a speaker that has been over-driven at a party or music gig, it just sounds harsh when it shouldn't. You know when you hold a shell to your ear, and you are supposed to hear the sea? Except you don't, you just hear the real world in an odd way, some sounds are obscured, while other noises sound have a whistley, ringing quality added to them. That's how I would describe how the Psyko 5.1's sound is different to real-life.



The Psyko 5.1 headset is designed specifically for gaming, and it performs better than any other 5.1 headset I have heard, but this is largely down to the fact that other surround headsets are horrendous, whereas the Psyko 5.1 is merely mediocre. Compared to other 5.1 headsets, there is a much more even reproduction of sound from different angles, so grenades and gunshots sound consistent, whether to the side, out in front, or behind. One problem though is that the angle is not very clear at all, and I found it harder to discern the position of off-camera action by listening to the headset sound, compared to stereo headphones.

Also, unlike other 5.1 headsets, the engine noise of the Hummer in Crysis games sounds a lot more natural; the other surround headsets seem to lose the engine noise almost completely. Whereas the other 5.1 headsets lose specific sounds and have difficulty producing sounds from certain angles, this headset loses sound from the frequency imbalance. At times, it's subtle, like when your ears are blocked but haven't popped; you walk around and get on as usual, but don't consciously realise until your ears pop. However, if you are very familiar with certain games, you will notice a large portion of the audio either missing or sounding weird. I certainly felt lost and disoriented in Unreal Tournament 2004, even though I used to play it in European leagues.

The microphone was pretty standard in performance, not as good as the Hammer's mic, and suffered from its inability to be swung up or down. Not being able to position the microphone in the exact position above or below the mouth meant that the sound from the mic had more background noise compared to the other headsets.


Well, I expect many of you will be feeling very disappointed now. I certainly am. With the promise of natural-sounding surround sound, mimicking a home cinema speaker system, and a unique design directing sound in a novel way, I was genuinely excited and keen to hear more about the headset, and indeed hear the surround experience it could deliver. They say that what goes up must come down, and my excitement came down steadily throughout the review, despite my efforts to make the headset sound better. I really wanted this headset to sound amazing!

I don't have any sophisticated equipment to measure the frequency response at the ear cup, but I would expect to see the line of the resulting graph all over the place, with several narrow troughs and odd peaks scattered all the way through the audio spectrum. Towards the top end, some of these peaks make everything sound sharp and shrill, which makes for uncomfortable listening at times. It's quite unnerving and I couldn't watch movies for very long without feeling strangely cheated. I don't have any qualifications in acoustical engineering, but I know that designing a bass reflex tube in a speaker enclosure is a non-trivial matter. That's usually for a fairly regular-shaped wooden box. In this case, we have a system of plastic tunnels to transport the sound from the speakers to the ear cup. I think these WaveGuide tunnels affect the sound in a negative way, and it would probably be impossible to rectify completely.

Another thing that made me feel uncomfortable was the segmented headband cushions. I am very familiar with this type of headband underside, as my AKG K701 also has cushioned bumps, that took over a year to become comfortable. The problem in the case of the Psyko 5.1 headset, is that it is a lot heavier than other headsets or headphones, so the pressure from the bumps feels like someone wearing gloves is pressing down on your head. It's a feeling that you get used to after the first 5-10 minutes of gaming, and will probably forget about until you take the headset off. When I switched to any other of my headphones or headsets, it was a welcome relief to take the weight off from my head. I think the problem is the small cushions. Why could it not be one big cushion? I guess the design is more aesthetic and functional than ergonomic, in that the headband design is shaped to enable the placement of the speakers and the WaveGuides, but at the same time, there seems to be no reason to have small cushions on the headband other than to visually expose the technical design of the headset. If it was a single, large cushion, surely it would be more comfortable? Also, it would block some of the leaking sound from the headband, and perhaps improve the surround experience.

I applaud Psyko Audio Labs for approaching headset surround sound from a different angle, quite literally, but am just too disappointed with the Psyko 5.1 headset's unnatural reproduction of sounds to give it a good award. To me at least, it just sounds wrong.