In an industry as competitive as video games, companies look for ways to differentiate themselves from everyone else in the marketplace. There are really only three ways to do that these days; make something really cheap, or make something really good, or make something really different. Some companies pull off the rare feat of getting two of three, and that’s what we have with the Psyko Audio 5.1 Gaming Headset; a product that is both good and different.
With all the reviews I’ve done on 5.1 headsets, sometimes it can start to feel like I’ve already reviewed the product I’m looking at. Most of the high end headsets have basically the same features at basically the same price. It’s got to be hard to find ways to differentiate outside of form factor and brand unless you’ve got a truly innovative product.
What struck me first about the Psyko is the form factor. It’s got a unique look that stands out from most of the other headsets on the market. The bridge of the headset is significantly wider than the other headsets on the market. I wasn’t aware of it at the time I looked into doing the review, but the form factor of this product is an integral part of the design.
What makes this product so different is that the speakers of the headset are why the bridge is so wide. Instead of being contained within the ear cones as in many of it’s competitors, the audio drivers of the Psyko are contained within the bridge. This allows for an entirely different way of providing sound to the ears in order to do a better job of creating a surround sound environment for the users ears.
By placing the drivers in the bridge, the Psyko uses tubes to relay the sound to the ear cones. The positioning of each driver within the bridge determines how the sound reaches the ear. The sound from the front drivers are pushed through tubes that deliver sound into the front of the ear cones. Similarly, the rear drivers push sound through the rear of the ear cones. The right and left front drivers are offset in their placement so that the right driver is closer to the right ear, and the left driver closer to the left. This means that the sound has to travel farther to the opposite ear.
What does all this mean? It means that because of the placement of the speakers and the use of front and rear tubes, the Psyko allows the brain to assist in creating the surround sound environment. The front sounds are delivered in a way where they are allowed to bounce off the inside of the ear in the same way sound does that truly emanates from in front of the listener. The same thing occurs with the rear sounds bouncing of the inside of the front of the ear. There’s a little difference with how left and right sounds differentiate. The fact that the sound arrives slightly delayed in the opposite ear helps the brain register that the sound is coming from one side as opposed to the other. The sub-woofers are actually in the ears, because subwoofer sound isn’t used directionally.All that science and design pays off in the quality of the audio experience. When I spoke with James Hildebrandt, founder of Psyko Audio, he explained to me that the headset was designed with gaming in mind, and that movie audio actually didn’t work very well with the headset because of the way the audio is balanced for the theatre surround sound experience. One thing I learned a while ago, is that when a manufacturer admits a weakness, ignore them, and test the product on that very weakness.
So I popped in Top Gun, and to my surprise, the sound quality blew me away. I mean serious sound, seriously good sound. At the Psyko’s price point ($299), the sound quality was of course top notch. It was the distinctively strong directional sound definition that blew me away. Left to right front to back, and most importantly front to back sound was absolutely clear. More than any headset I’ve ever used, it was easy to tell the difference between front and back generated sounds.
Top Gun gives you an easy way into the ability to push out directional sound. Cranking the volume while an F-14 Tomcat flies from over your head tells you if the headset is susceptible to distortion. The Psyko definitely doesn’t have a problem with that. In fact, the only sound problem I had is that I wish there was a tiny bit more center channel/subwoofer sound available. This is a problem typical of the 5.1 headsets with multiple sounds drivers, and in this case a very minor one.
Next, I was looking for some more discrete sounds to understand if the headset would handle directional sound in a gaming application that has more of a life and death feel to it. So I turned to The Saboteur, a Grand Theft Auto clone that is set in Paris during the time of Nazi occupation. The thing about sandbox games is that they’re immersive, and therefore pretty easy to find different sounds to identify. In and around the burlesque where the protagonist lives, there are literally scores of characters speaking. Approaching each one, gives you a chance to hear what they’re saying. Further, approaching from a different angle provides sounds from a different direction. Finally, gunshots and footsteps coming from behind are sharp and clear, even when quiet.
As I mentioned, the form factor plays a part in the whole of the sound quality and it does have a small cost associated with it. While the Psyko avoids the extra power adapter of the Tritton, it also carries some additional weight due to the modifications necessary for the Psyko to deliver audio as intended. It’s not so heavy as to render it uncomfortable from the get go, but after a few hours, it does put some tension in the neck. One additional thoughtful aspect to the design is that the covers to the ear cones can be opened to let some air in during longer gaming sessions. I like it for the fact that my ears get sweaty after an hour or two. It doesn’t dramatically decrease the sound quality, but you can tell a difference. Still it’s worth it to make the unit more comfortable to wear.
The Psyko’s volume controls are simple but effective; one knob for overall volume, another for the balance between sub-woofer and directional sound. Further, there are 5 LED indicators that display which drivers are producing sound, as well as one to indicate power. The controls are on the amplifier/decoder and the module is light as well.