From theory to practice
The first thing I did after plugging the Psyko headphones into my gaming PC was fire up Windows' speaker test. Sure enough, test tones generated on the rear channels did in fact sound like they were coming from behind me. So far, so good.
Next, I tackled a collection of games, including Modern Warfare 2, Bad Company 2, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead 2, Counter-Strike, and DiRT 2. I've probably spent more than a dozen hours playing those games on the Psykos over the last week or so. During that time, and always back-to-back with the Psykos, I also played a number of the same games on two alternatives: the 5.1-channel Logitech Z-5500 speaker setup in my living room and a virtualized surround config on a pair of Sennheiser HD 555 stereo headphones. The same test system and X-Fi Fatal1ty sound card was used in each case, but only with the Sennheisers did I enable Creative's CMSS-3D speaker virtualization scheme.
The verdict? As far as directional audio goes, Psyko's approach has definite merit. The 5.1 headphones don't exactly replicate the experience of a proper speaker setup, but they come pretty close. More importantly, the Pskyos seem to do a better job with directional sounds than CMSS-3D. The X-Fi is certainly capable of creating a surround-sound headphone experience that's more immersive than standard stereo output. However, to my ears, the rear speakers virtualized by CMSS-3D sound more like they're positioned to my left and right. With the Psykos, I hear rear-channel sounds coming from directly behind me.
Distance appears to be a problem for the X-Fi's speaker virtualization system, as well. With Creative's drivers trying to outsmart my ears, sounds seem to play at the same volume regardless of their proximity. I suspect that's an artifact of the CMSS-3D, because it's not an issue for the Psykos or my Logitech speakers.
Psyko describes its approach to surround headphones as creating "The Perfect Room" around the user. That's an appropriate analogy, I think, but it's one that needs to be tempered with some clarification. First, the room's a little small. I had my girlfriend listen to Modern Warefare 2 and DiRT 2 sessions with all three speaker and headphone configurations, and she commented that sounds on the Psykos seemed more immediate and closer than those played back on the living room's 5.1-channel speakers. I've had surround-sound speakers spread out in larger rooms and arranged tightly around my chair in smaller ones, and the Psykos definitely approximate the latter environment more than the former.
Curious to have another set of ears take the Psykos for a listen, I also had Cyril play with them over the weekend. He noted that center-channel sounds seemed to come more from inside his head than in front of it. After some additional listening, I tend to agree. The front and rear speakers sound like they're level with my head and maybe a foot or two in front of or behind me. The center channel sounds closer and higher, as if the speaker is hovering maybe six inches in front of my forehead and another six inches above it. Still, that's better than CMSS-3D's virtualized center channel, which feels like it's lodged inside my cerebrum.
As it turns out, less-than-ideal center-channel speaker placement is the least of Psyko's problems. These headphones carry a suggested retail price of $300, making the perfect room an extremely expensive piece of real estate. Given that lofty price tag, one might expect that Psyko has filled the perfect room with excellent speakers. But it hasn'tnot even decent ones.
Simply put, the Psyko headphones have atrocious sound quality. They offer little range in the middle of the spectrum, and while high notes sound somewhat better, my ears detected a distinct lack of crispness and detail throughout the spectrum. The lower ranges don't provide much relief, either; the bass sounds muffled and soft, as if the subwoofers inside each earmuff have been stuffed with tiny cotton balls. Cranking the bass only invites distortion, and drum kicks don't really hit hard at the maximum, anyway.
For the record, I'm not comparing the Psykos to ultra-high-end audiophile headphones. Sennheiser's HD 555s sell for about half as much as the Psykos but offer signifcantly better sound quality throughout the spectrum. Even my folding Koss PortaPro headphones, which cost just $33, boast higher fidelity.
My ears aren't the only ones that can easily hear the difference, either. Cyril had a similar reaction to the Psykos, noting that his fancy Sennheiser headphones and even relatively basic Plantronics headset have superior sound quality. Perhaps the most damning indightment came from his fiancée, who commented that the headphones that shipped with her Zune sound better. Ouch. But then I have a pair of Zune earbuds, and they really are quite good.
Music tends to highlight deficiencies in sound quality more readily than in-game effects. However, the Psyko headphones' limited range is apparent in frantic firefights, during which individual sounds can easily get lost in a sea of noise. The headphones don't do a particularly good job of melding in-game music and effects, either. One could even argue that the Sennheisers offer a more pleasurable listening experience in those situations. The virtualized speakers may not be positioned perfectly for my ears, but their dynamic range is much better equipped to deal gracefully with a deluge of simultaneous sounds.
It's tempting to write off Psyko's 5.1-channel headphones as an epic failure due to their dismal fidelity. I'm not sure whether low-rent speakers are to blame for the limited range or if the waveguides are somehow polluting the sound. Either way, the end result is a crime against music. Those who value sound quality over precise positional accuracy can do much better than the Psykos with just about any halfway-decent set of stereo headphones.
Discounting the Psykos completely would sell short a notable achievement, though. The sounds produced may be of questionable quality, but they're coming from the right directions. Psyko's novel approach to surround sound really does deliver the most convincing positional audio I've experienced with a set of headphones. To my ears, the 5.1-channel headphones are nearly as immersive as a proper speaker setup. They offer noticably more accurate positional audio than the virtualized surround sound provided by Creative's X-Fi sound cards, too.
So, who might be willing to sacrifice a great deal of fidelity in the name of improved positional accuracy? Hardcore gamers with deep pockets, perhaps. A few hours with Counter-Strike really sold me on the appeal of these headphones for competitive multiplayer gaming. The game doesn't have any music or much in the way of ambient effects, leaving me free to hone in on footsteps, gunfire, bouncing grenades, and other audible cues. In that kind of environment, the Psyko headphones offer a distinct competitive advantage over the speaker virtualization schemes I've used. A true 5.1-channel speaker is even better, but that's not a practical solution for some rooms, nor is it portable enough for LAN parties and tournament play.
Without a deep discount or a huge upgrade in sound quality, though, I don't see many more folks being enticed by Psyko's 5.1 headphones. Maybe that's why Amazon has already dropped its price to $228. Even that price is a stretch in my mind. However, the PsykoWave concept definitely has promise, and I'd love to see it applied with a greater focus on fidelity.