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.
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.