Psyko Audio Labs 5.1 Headphones Review


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Surround sound headphones have never had a good reputation in my book, but Psyko Audio Labs has come up with a new, novel approach which could change this segment of the market for the better. Enter the Psyko 5.1 headphones and their analog sound pipes, which are supposed to properly emulate a real surround sound speaker system. Having a completely new approach to sound delivery intrigued me from the start, but how well can this actually work in practice? Let’s jump in and find out.

Packaging

The packaging always sets the tone for the experience and Psyko Audio Labs has done a good job in this aspect. The design and information on the outside of the box is inviting and “cool”. It grabs your eye and gives you the feeling that inside is a high quality product for gamers. On the inside, the packaging is clean and supportive to make sure nothing gets damaged. So, at first glance I was very excited to get these hooked up and on my head.

Front of the box
Front of the box
Back of the box
Back of the box

Individual Components

In addition to the headphones themselves, the box comes with some other parts. The other components include the microphone, amplifier, and power adapter. The amplifier and the headset are equipped with four 1/8″ plugs (front, rear, center/sub, mic) so you have a couple different options when connecting these to your computer. The typical and recommended connection is to plug the amp into the sound card, then plug the headset in to the amp. You can also plug speakers into the amp or plug the headset directly into the sound card if you’d like. I like having the modular microphone so it’s possible to remove it when not in use.

Power adapter and mic
Power adapter and mic
Opposite side of mic
Opposite side of mic

The Amplifier

The amplifier has a couple different features to improve the user experience. First, there are six LED lights on the front to let you know when the amp is powered on and when the individual speakers are active. The reasoning for this is to give visual feedback that the headphones are working properly. The flaw in the functionality of these lights is that their brightness relies on the volume of the sound. So if you have the sound turned down quiet you’ll barely notice them. Likewise if you have the sound turned up very high then they will almost all be lit constantly. The best range I found for having the lights actually be functional and informative was when I had the volume knob roughly between 50% and 75%.

Second, there is a bass level knob. This knob is marked “dir. / bass” which in practice means that if you want to notice any of the directionality, you need to have the bass turned mostly or completely off. Turning this knob towards the maximum bass direction muddies the sound quite a bit and quickly, so I never found myself turning this knob above 33% or so.

Last but not least are the standard volume knob along with the five plugs on the back. The plugs are input for power and mic along with outputs for the headset. There is nothing really fancy with any of these and all function as expected.

Amplifier
Amplifier
The mini-jack connectors
The mini-jack connectors
Front of the amp
Rear of the amp

The Headset

The build quality of the headset is very good.  They are very rugged and sturdy so there is absolutely no need to be overly cautious when handling these.  The headphones have a good amount of weight to them, too, which generally equates to high-quality components.  They are equipped with soft pads all around and swiveling ear pads so they are comfortable to wear for several hours at a time.  The pads are covered with a velvet-like cloth, so it is breathable and won’t cause excess sweating.

I did run in to a tiny issue with the sliding ear cups, which are the adjustment to fit different head sizes.  The headset seems to be designed for a smaller head so I had the ear cups extended to their maximum and they just barely fit me.  Most headphones I only need to make a small size adjustment, so people with large heads may find that these headphones won’t fit them at all.

Another interesting feature is the flip-out ear caps.  These are mostly useful to promote more air circulation to reduce the amount of sweat without having to take the headphones off.  They also allow outside sound in, which means you can hold a conversation with a person in the room without removing the headphones or having to wear them on one ear only.

Top of headband
Inside of headband
Right side of headphones
Right side of headset
Mic installed
Mic installed

The Technology

The main difference in the technology of the Psyko headphones is they try to use analog-means, hollow tubes, to deliver the 5.1 surround experience.  Psyko Audio Labs calls these “WaveGuides”, obviously because they guide the sound waves.  The speakers are moved out of the ear cups and to the top of the headband. They are then attached to two different tubes to direct the sound to the front or back of the ear cup.  The position of the speaker along the tube determines how much delay the sound receives.  So, physics is used to simulate listening to regular speakers in a room instead of a digital processor.  You can find more explanation on the Psyko Audio homepage.

image courtosey psykoaucio.com
Image Courtesy Psykoaudio.com

The Experience

The main target of these headphones is the hardcore first person shooter (FPS) crowd.  In tactical FPS games like CounterStrike Source, it is very important to see as well as hear everything around you.  Gamers must rely on their hearing a lot to tell when there is an enemy around them and especially in what direction that enemy is.  In other games, the location of sound isn’t as important to a gamers success but having an immersive surround sound experience certainly adds to the realism and enjoyment of the game.  To get a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of these headphones, I tested them while playing several different styles of games.

Test System

  • Intel Core2Duo E8400
  • Asus P5Q
  • Enhance 500W PSU
  • XFX Geforce GTS 250
  • Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
  • Western Digital 74GB Raptor HDD
  • Windows 7 x64 Ultimate

Games

  • Counter-Strike: Source
  • Portal
  • Alien Swarm
  • Mass Effect 2
  • World of Warcraft
  • Dragon Age: Origins
  • Dungeons and Dragons Online
  • Need For Speed World

When I was playing the games, I tried my best to really focus on the sound and where it was coming from.  The easiest way to make sure there actually was directionality was in games like Portal or World of Warcraft where I could find a stationary object that was making noise, then spin around in circles near it or run past it.  It was fairly easy to experience the surround sound in Need for Speed World as I was zooming past things.

Counter-Strike:Source was a little more difficult to do a fixed test, but it was easiest to notice the surround effects when stationary and concentrating hard to hear other players footsteps.  I did notice that if there were several sounds coming from different directions, they would all get lost and run together.  This was the biggest qualm I had with these headphones and I think it’s one major area where they fall short of standard speakers.

They’re not marketed as music headphones, and for good reason.  The sound quality isn’t going to knock your socks off.  They can certainly be used but if you appreciate music at all, then you’ll sorely be let down.

Conclusion

So, in short, these headphones did what they were supposed to.  They were comfortable and they performed well.  I could actually distinguish a true 5.1 surround sound experience with them.  However, I’m not trading in my speakers for these headphones any time soon.  They can handle quieter situations the best, when there aren’t too many sounds interfering with each other.   They are certainly comfortable as I had no problem wearing them for hours on end.  Don’t buy these for listening to music and if you have a larger head, try them on first to make sure the ear cups can adjust to fit you properly.  Overall, I’d say these are pretty decent headphones and I wouldn’t have a problem recommending them to someone looking for a quality surround sound gaming headset.

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