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.
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.