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

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…

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.

Conclusions

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.

Comments closed
    • d0g_p00p
    • 9 years ago

    It’s a shame that these don’t work or that there is a decent 5.1 headset solution. I had to give up my 5.1 setup in my current apartment and move to headphones. I really miss 5.1 for my gaming sessions. I know it can be done because at my last job in the recording studio there was this $10K surround processor that you plugged one end into a 5.1 setup and the other into a stereo source and it did the whole virtualized 5.1 thing perfect. It could even take a stereo source and turn that into a 5.1 setup. It was really amazing. However like I wrote that processor was $10K

    Anyone know how Tritton’s 5.1 headphones are? I was looking into those but right now the tangle of wires is a huge turn off.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 9 years ago

      [b<]Any[/b<] so-called "5.1" headsets are nothing but gimmick. You have [b<]two[/b<] ears. Headphones are attached to your head so that the speakers move when your head turns. There is therefore absolutely [b<]no[/b<] positional audio information that can be conveyed that cannot be accurately produced by [b<]stereo[/b<] headphones. Your game should properly provide stereo positional information when you've selected stereo headphones as your output device. Trying to use the channel placement and delays calculated for a "5.1" speaker system with headphones is only going to create a messed-up non-realistic delay or echo rather than any useful positional audio information.

        • d0g_p00p
        • 9 years ago

        I disagree. Like I wrote at my last job there was a audio processor that took a 5.1 source and pushed it to a stereo output. I could clearly hear the separation between channels so I know it can be done. Also you wrote:

        “You have two ears. Headphones are attached to your head so that the speakers move when your head turns.”

        Does that mean when you are standing still you cannot hear positional sounds around you? What you wrote makes no sense what so ever. Sure the current headphones on the market sold to consumers cannot do the whole 5.1 trick but it can be done. I can hear the phantom center and side left and right channels using my stereo speakers and Creative’s CMSS-3D effect and again I could clearly hear 5.1 audio through a pair of headphones using that audio processor.

        Positional audio though headphones (or a stereo source) is real if it were not then you should tell Dolby, ILM, Zoetrope, DTS, THM Labs, NHK, Sony, etc that they are wasting R&D money and time to develop the technology.

          • JustAnEngineer
          • 9 years ago

          Positional audio works great with stereo headphones. My point is that it doesn’t work realistically with “5.1” headphones. The positioning delays and attenuation should be accomplished in your software (or sound card’s processor, if you have a discrete sound card) so that it works with stereo headphones.

    • Firestarter
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve never heard of any so called surround headset that can be taken seriously. And as long as they keep making them like this one (just look at it!), there’ll never be one either.

    • NeronetFi
    • 9 years ago

    I’ll stick with my Audio Technica ATH-AD700’s 🙂

    • anotherengineer
    • 9 years ago

    I will stick with my speedlink medusa’s, but I still prefer my old logitech x-530 speakers collecting dust in the box. (my wife didn’t like the ‘noise’)

    • indeego
    • 9 years ago

    What does it sound like to a third party observer? i.e. in a quiet room would someone not wearing the headphones be able to hear the bass/speakers?

      • Meadows
      • 9 years ago

      My bet is “might be, if you’re playing something loud” and “absolutely, if you fling the venting windows open on them”.

    • HisDivineOrder
    • 9 years ago

    This is a great technology, imo. Very clever. Too bad it limits the quality of the sound so much. I’m not convinced they can actually pipe quality sound through those plastic tubes to your ear in this way. If they manage to produce some quality sound, they could have a product that would do rather well, especially associated with a USB sound card capable of producing 7.1 they need to output as an optional accessory.

    But as it is, I think the very means they’re using to transfer the sound to your ear will hamstring any effort to improve the quality of said sound. That limits where such a product can go.

      • RobbyBob
      • 9 years ago

      I’d imagine if they tried to venture into using aluminum as a piping material, they might be able to improve sound quality a little bit.

        • cynan
        • 9 years ago

        Perhaps. But it seems to me that the largest limiting factor is the quality of the drivers themselves. If they are going to spend more money on parts, the drivers (particularly the main stereo ones) should be the first thing on the list.

          • Airmantharp
          • 9 years ago

          You know, I could almost see something like this working with a design that is essentially a surround-sound augmentation of what is already a decent set of cans. Thing is, looking at the Sennheiser HD555’s I just received, I can’t figure out where they’d put more drivers…

    • Meadows
    • 9 years ago

    Luckily, all this garbage doesn’t apply to me as a Quake Live gamer. The game only supports some 90’s relic audio, meaning 2 channels at 22050 KHz sampling rates at most, so while the Carbon wouldn’t have any disadvantage regarding quality, it sure as hell wouldn’t have anything to position better either.

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      Quake 3 is still the benchmark of what twitch gaming should be- play through the game on Nightmare and then see how long it takes you to get banned for hacking on a multiplayer FPS :).

      Though you should really try something a little newer, I think… I use Counter-Strike source as my basic MP FPS, but it has more and more been replaced by Bad Company 2, and I don’t see Battlefield 3 helping that at all.

        • Meadows
        • 9 years ago

        Quake 3 on Nightmare is piss. World-class players have been burning through that difficulty with closed eyes like what, 10 years ago?

        Those shooters you mention are less fun, three or four times slower in pace, and lack the acrobatic tricks too. Where’s the test of personal ability and maneuvering? Have wall-climbing, rocket jumping, and keeping mental track of multiple respawn timers really been displaced by being able to press the Cover button when the game tells you to?

        These newfangled games are good fun in single player mode, I loved the Modern Warfare series personally. But they’re godawful boring in multiplayer, the game physics have no use anymore whatsoever, and they try to make up for it with the ever-so-popular “class-based” multiplayer spices, but that only makes it worse for me. I prefer a level playing field.

          • Airmantharp
          • 9 years ago

          I think you should look closer at Bad Company 2… the piss that is Call of Duty can’t touch it.

          The team based element is superb, and the classes aren’t just useful but necessary; the level playing field is in having an equal number of players on each team.

            • Meadows
            • 9 years ago

            I’m unsure if you’re aware of the meaning of the word “level” as an adjective.

          • RobbyBob
          • 9 years ago

          [quote<]the game physics have no use anymore whatsoever, and they try to make up for it with the ever-so-popular "class-based" multiplayer spices[/quote<] I've been missing the 'acrobatic' element in modern shooters as well. That's why I've been looking forward to trying [i<]Brink[/i<]. While they obviously haven't made it quite as fast-paced as Quake, they've added some interesting movement mechanics. I hope [i<]Brink[/i<] turns out to be a decent game.

            • Meadows
            • 9 years ago

            I’m not making any bets, it’s easier to stick to a proven formula for now, and QL is free if you’re “not pro”. (There are inexpensive subscription plans for bonus content, but no ingame advantages can be bought.)

      • BobbinThreadbare
      • 9 years ago

      I’m pretty sure they had 44k sampling rates in the 90s.

      They had a couple kinds of surround sound too. Aureal, EAX 1 and 2.

        • Firestarter
        • 9 years ago

        Doesn’t mean that Quake3 used them. IIRC Quake3 mixes in 44khz but the samples are in 22khz.

        • Meadows
        • 9 years ago

        That was pretty late in the 90’s, if there nonetheless. id were always big on backwards-compatibility if it didn’t affect the experience, or require them to retard the next big engine, which is why I imagine Q3 still came with 22 kHz audio just before the turn of the millennium, and why it was only their first game dropping software rendering entirely. (Unreal Engine kept that unsightly chain for far longer).

        Firestarter pointed out the mixing, and I have no idea how it’s mixed, but sound is definitely 22.05 kHz. You can actually downgrade it from there, but that’s where it tops out.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 9 years ago

    w00t two first posts in a row!

    ‘Gaming’ headsets are a crock, regardless of 5.1-ness. Get a good set of stereo cans and a decent outboard DAC/headphone amp and you’re golden.

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      While I’d venture to say that the reviewer is spot-on as to the appropriate use of this headset- they’re not a ‘crock’ at least- I’d have to agree with you otherwise.

      I’m slowly moving towards a decent headset setup, though I’m not sure I know how I want to do it yet. While I’d like to get something like Creative’s X-Fi Titatium HD or Auzentech’s X-Fi Forte’ 7.1 (not sure if I trust their hardware quality) with onboard amps, I feel that I’d probably be better served with just a regular Titanium and an external amp. I would consider a DAC, but with an external amp I’d have portability, which would allow me to take the setup with me, and the Titanium’s DACs are probably more than good enough for my purposes.

      I’m also annoyed that the reviewers didn’t venture into DICE’s Bad Company 2- this game has great sound, tremendously overlapping environments, and outright amazing positioning. With just a 2.1 setup (or a cheap headset) I’m able to discern the path of bullets flying near me- and take the shooter out (he shouldn’t have missed!). I think that this game’s rich aural environment would have posed a serious challenge for the Psyko Carbon, and would have shown the traditional headsets in an even better light.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 9 years ago

        There are external DAC+amps but they are a bit of a compromise over more dedicated units naturally. For portable I’m not a big believer in going that route simply because there are going to be compromises with anything portable and I’d rather maximize portability anyway.

      • tanker27
      • 9 years ago

      I couldnt agree more.

      Get a good set of cans like Sennheiser’s or even Grado’s and a clip on mic and your all set.

      Headsets with positional audio are all a crock and not worth the money.

      • travbrad
      • 9 years ago

      Yep, any time someone attaches the word “gaming” to a product it throws up a red flag for me. There are exceptions of course, but usually gaming=more expensive with no real advantages.

      • indeego
      • 9 years ago

      “Get a good set of stereo cans”

      You just had to stop there.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 9 years ago

      [quote<]'Gaming' headsets are a crock, regardless of 5.1-ness. Get a good set of stereo cans...[/quote<] QFT. +1.

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