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A quick listen to Psyko's Carbon surround-sound gaming headset

New speakers, but better sound?

Almost exactly one year ago, we had our first encounter with Psyko Audio Labs' unique approach to surround-sound headsets. We rarely cover fancy headsets here at TR, but Psyko offered a fresh take on speaker simulation. Rather than relying on software or dedicated silicon to fake a surround-sound environment, the headset came loaded with seven individual speakers and a bunch of waveguides to create a "perfect room" around the listener's head.

The theory behind this so-called PsykoWave technology was intriguing, and it seemed to work well in practice. Compared to virtualization schemes paired with stereo speakers or headphones, the Psyko headset offered superior positional accuracy. At the same time, however, the headset's sound quality was pretty dismal. The loss of fidelity was a tough pill to swallow given the $300 suggested retail price.

Psyko appears to have taken our critique to heart, because the company is back with a fresh design sporting new speakers and a lower asking price. Curious to see how the perfect room has been renovated, we sat down with the new Psyko Carbon and had a listen.

Although the Carbon is a new model, the headset relies on the same waveguide technology as Psyko's original design. That bodes well for positional accuracy, which is something that virtualization schemes don't always do well. The problem, according to Psyko CEO James Hildebrandt, is that virtualization algorithms are modeled after specific ear shapes. If your ears don't match the ones used to tune the algorithm, positional audio might sound a little off.

Rather than simulating a surround-sound environment with virtual speakers, Psyko uses the real deal. Five individual speakers covering the front, rear, and center/sub channels are situated in the headband. These speakers are linked to waveguides that channel sound to portals situated at the front and rear of each ear cup. The geometry of these waveguides hasn't changed for the Carbon, which also uses the same 30-mm speakers as Psyko's original headset.

Given the marginal fidelity of the old model, it's a little disconcerting that the main speakers haven't been upgraded. Psyko says it tested "a ton" of different speaker configurations before settling on the final setup for the Carbon, which does have new subwoofers in each ear. The subwoofers still measure 40 mm in diameter, but they purportedly boast a better frequency response curve than what was used previously. Because humans can't detect direction with low-frequency sounds, there's no need for the subwoofers to be tied to waveguides.

In a sense, the Carbon is a home theater for your head. It's only fitting, then, that the headset comes with its own amplifier. The amp has volume and bass knobs in addition to an array of LEDs that light up based on which speakers are being activated. Thankfully, the light show falls well short of blinding.

Those 3.5-mm audio jacks stemming from the amp plug into your PC's microphone input and front, rear, and center/sub outputs. A matching set of audio connectors hangs off the headset and plugs into the back of the amp. Psyko trumpets the setup's simplicity—there are no drivers to install and no software to configure. All you need to do is tell Windows it's connected to a 5.1-channel speaker setup. Also, make sure you've selected the right input for the Carbon's detachable boom mic.

The plastic waveguides responsible for channeling sound to your ears also serve as the backbone for the headset. As one might expect from an audio device with seven speakers, the Carbon is a little heavy. I didn't notice any neck strain or discomfort after multi-hour gaming sessions, though. The heavily padded band might make a mess of your hair, but it does a nice job of cushioning the weight of the speakers above. You can also pivot the ear cups and slide them up and down the frame to hone in on the perfect fit for your head.

Cushy headsets are great for comfort, but they can get a little toasty, especially when you're sharing the room with a high-end gaming system in the middle of the summer. Fortunately, a vent is incorporated into each of the Carbon's ear cups. Just be sure to close the vents if you want your wife, girlfriend, or mother to believe that you really didn't hear her calling you for dinner.

If you've been playing close attention thus far, you'll have noticed a number of little scuff marks on the Carbon and its amp. Psyko coats the Carbon's plastic parts with a new rubberized paint that might not be as durable as it feels to the touch. The company says production units should be pristine, though.

Scuffs aside, I quite like the flat-black finish. The matte black provides an appropriately stealthy contrast to the darker upholstery and red accents. Black also permeates the cabling, which is nicely sheathed and offers plenty of length.

Enough about how the headset looks, though. Let's see how they sound...