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A quick look at Psyko's 5.1 PC Gaming Headset

Surround-sound headphones perfected?

I've done enough gaming on 5.1-channel speakers to believe that good surround sound can dramatically enhance a game's immersiveness. Unfortunately, building the perfect speaker setup isn't always easy. If you don't have some flexibility with the furniture, getting each speaker into just the right spot in a room can be challenging, especially if you want to snake the associated cabling cleanly. And then there's the matter of what to do during late-night gaming sessions when your your roomates, neighbors, parents, or significant other may not appreciate waking to the sounds of your l33t pwnage.

Headphones seem like the obvious solution to avoid disturbing others. Squeezing surround sound out of a pair of earmuffs is tricky business, though. Some implementations hang multiple speakers around each ear, while others keep the headphones at two channels and instead use virtualization algorithms to trick users into perceiving directional sound. Now there's a new approach: Psyko Audio Labs' 5.1 PC Gaming Headphones.

First things first: this is not another virtualization system. According to Psyko CEO James Hildebrandt, the algorithms used to virtualize surround speakers will only work if your ear shape matches the one used to develop the algorithm. Perhaps that's why I've found some virtualization schemes to be more effective than others; my ears aren't Alfred E. Newmanesque, but their shape has never been able to securely hold the sort of standard earbuds that seem to work for everyone else. Apparently, my ear canals fall outside the norm.

Rather than faking multiple speakers, Psyko uses real ones. And they're not where you'd expect. Instead of sitting beside each ear like in conventional headphones, the speakers are placed on top of your head. Five 30-mm drivers spread out evenly across the headphone band to cover the center, front, and rear channels of a traditional 5.1 setup.

Gunfire and explosions don't rain down from above, though. Instead, the headphones use PsykoWave technology to pipe sound down to your ears. Sounds generated by the headband speakers are directed to the ears via waveguides that also form the frame of the headphones. These waveguides are crafted from an almost rubbery plastic that's stiff enough to support the headphones while still offering enough flex to accommodate oversized craniums.

Peering inside the earmuffs reveals waveguide outlets at the front and rear. These portals to the speakers above are designed to fire sounds towards your ear just like a real 5.1-channel speaker system would. As for the .1, each earmuff brings the thump with its own 40-mm subwoofer. The human ear can't detect direction with low-frequency sounds, so there's no need for these subwoofers to be attached to fancy waveguides.

Enclosed, fuzzy headphones tend to make my head sweat after extended use. Fortunately, the Psykos have optional ventilation. Each earmuff sports a plastic vent that can be tilted open to give one's ears a breather. Cracking this vent also makes it a little easier to hear sounds around you, although you'll hardly feel isolated from environmental noise when the vents are closed.

Overall, the headphones are actually quite comfortable. They're a little heavy due to the extra speakers, but the weight didn't cause me any undue fatigue or neck strain, even after several hours of continuous use. Psyko has done a good job of distributing the weight of the speakers evenly and putting plenty of padding between them and your head. The adjustable ear cups offer plenty of range, too, and they pivot slightly to ensure a snug fit.

If you're into voice communication, the headphones also come with a detachable boom mic that plugs into a 2.5-mm audio jack. I'm actually shocked that a number of so-called gaming headphones on the market don't include built-in microphones. Whether you're discussing strategy for an upcoming round or raid, debating the next map to play, or just talking trash, voice communication is an integral part of online multiplayer gaming.

Because the Psyko headphones don't resort to virtualized trickery, they'll work with any sound card or motherboard that can output a 5.1-channel analog signal. Psyko does include an amp, which has 3.5-mm front, rear, center/sub, and microphone leads that plug directly into your audio source. The headphones have an identical set of cables that plug into jacks at the rear of the amp. Once everything's connected and the amp is plugged in, tell your system it's connected to a 5.1-channel speaker set, and you're good to go.

A pair of knobs on the amp's front panel provide control over the volume and bass. According to Hildebrandt, there's a trade-off between directional sound and bass. Too much of the latter tends to drown out the former, which makes sense given that the headphones situate a subwoofer directly across from each ear.

To the left of the knobs sits an array of LEDs tied to the amp's output channels. If sound is playing on a given channel, the associated LED will light up, providing a nice visual representation of directional sounds flowing through the headphones.