The sound of Carbon
Before getting to the results of our listening tests, adjust your expectations. Psyko is quite upfront about the fact that the Carbon is optimized for gaming, and that doing so has resulted in "subtle compromises when reproducing music." A series of equalizer tweaks are recommended when using headset to listen to music or movies. The company also suggests turning down the bass while gaming because too much thump can interfere with your ability to "recognize directionality" with other sounds. Surely, having a small subwoofer less than an inch from each ear doesn't help.
When I tested Psyko's first gaming headset, I pitted it against a set of Sennheiser HD 555 stereo headphones. Both audio devices were connected to an X-Fi Fatal1ty sound card, and Creative's CMSS-3D virtualization scheme was used to simulate a surround-sound environment on the Sennheisers. This time around, I swapped the HD 555s for Sennheiser's PC 350 stereo gaming headset. The PC 350 doesn't sound quite as good as the HD 555s, but the headset's included boom mic makes it a more appropriate competitor for the Carbon.
The PC 350 has only two speakers, so virtualization is required for a sense of surround sound. Rather than relying on a discrete sound card, I gave integrated audio a shot with the Realtek ALC892 codec on Asus' P8P67 Deluxe motherboard. This particular implementation includes DTS Surround Sensation virtualization, which was enabled when gaming on the PC 350. The overall sound quality offered by the integrated solution isn't as good as you can get from sound cards as cheap as Asus' $30 Xonar DG, but I wanted to see how things played out with "free" motherboard audio.
My testing began with a collection games, including Portal 2, Bulletstorm, Shift 2 Unleashed, Left 4 Dead 2, and Modern Warfare 2. I spent a fair amount of time with each game (the life of a hardware reviewer can be difficult at times) and always tested the Carbon back-to-back with the PC 350. In each case, the PC 350 setup delivered a better overall listening experience. The Sennheiser headset seemed to have a lot more range than the Carbon, making it easier to hear individual sounds in noisy, crowded scenes. The step down in sound quality to the Carbon didn't impact my enjoyment of the games, but the overall lack of sharpness was readily apparent when I paid close attention to the audio.
Even when listening carefully, I found it difficult to detect differences in positional accuracy with those games. Only in Left 4 Dead 2 did the Carbon's PsykoWave mojo produce superior results. Sounds coming from the rear were easy to pinpoint on the Carbon, but the PC 350 lacked distinction between the left and right rear channels.
Next, I moved onto Counter-Strike, which is a little old but still quite popular among competitive gamers. Positional accuracy is important to those folks, and the Carbon was in its element. Gunfire, footsteps, and explosions had much better separation between the Carbon's rear channels than they did on the PC 350. The quality of the actual sounds wasn't as good, but the Carbon placed them better than our virtualized setup. Of course, Counter-Strike has little background noise to interfere with important audible cues, making it a sort of best-case scenario for the Carbon.
After games exposed the Carbon's subpar fidelity, I didn't expect a satisfying experience with music—and I wasn't disappointed. Even with the recommended equalizer tweaks, which helped a little, the Carbon sounded pretty lousy with everything from KMFDM to Simon and Garfunkel. The bass seemed to be a little smoother than the original design, but drum notes didn't hit nearly as hard as on the PC 350. I also noticed a lot less range in the middle of the spectrum than with the Sennheisers.
For a second opinion, I had Cyril spend a little time with the Carbon. He was equally unimpressed by the headset's overall sound quality and noted distortion and background noise at higher volume levels. Cyril had the Carbon hooked up to an X-Fi sound card, and he pitted that combo against Corsair's HS1 gaming headset. The HS1 plugs into a USB port and has built-in speaker virtualization, so it's a different animal than the setup I used for comparison. The results were the same, however. Cyril thought the Carbon might offer better positional accuracy with desolate soundscapes, but found that rear-channel sounds got muddled together when they were forced to compete with other audio.
Although Psyko has made several tweaks to its surround-sound gaming headset, some things haven't changed. The Carbon's positional accuracy is great, but its overall sound quality is sorely lacking. The difference in directionality versus virtualization schemes is large enough that I'd deem the Carbon a competitive advantage for serious gamers. However, that advantage really only applies in games that aren't littered with the sort of background noise that can overwhelm the headset's limited acoustic range.
At least the asking price is lower this time around. The Carbon's $200 suggested retail price is a third less than what the company charged for its initial model, which will now be sold as the Krypton for $150. With good stereo cans selling for under $100, and decent speaker virtualization available with cheap sound cards and integrated motherboard audio, the Carbon's value proposition looks tenuous at best.
In fact, I can't help but find the outlook a little bleak for this approach to surround-sound headsets. Even assuming that no fidelity is sacrificed when piping sound through the Carbon's waveguides, Psyko still needs seven speakers to simulate a surround-sound environment. Traditional headphones need only two, allowing for much higher-quality speakers to be used at the same price point. Virtualization schemes may not be perfect, but when coupled with superior speakers, they can offer a better overall gaming experience with none of the Carbon's musical drawbacks.
30 comments — Last by Meadows at 11:58 AM on 05/04/11
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