Review: Psyko Carbon Surround-Sound Headset

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Short version: While the technology is interesting and unorthodox, the Carbon seems to miss out on the most important role of a headset: sounding good.

Features:

  • Five-speaker headphones with acoustic waveguides for surround sound
  • Analog connectivity to most PC surround sound systems
  • Removable microphone
  • Amp with adjustable bass and LED direction indicators
  • MSRP: $199.99

Pros:

  • Directionality definitely improved
  • Fairly comfortable
  • Setup is straightforward (but could be more convenient)

Cons:

  • Sound has strange distant quality
  • Bulky and creaky construction
  • No good for music/non-game use

Full Review

As you might have read over the last couple years (Psyko’s first headset debuted way back in 2009), Psyko set out to revolutionize gaming audio by turning the headset paradigm on its head. Instead of a pair of speakers next to your head simulating surround sound, they’d put the speakers on top and pipe the sound down to your ears in discrete channels, letting it come out where it should: behind, in front of, or beside your ears.

Their newest design adds look and feel updates, but the technology is much the same, and no other companies offer anything like it. The Carbon is their high-end version, with better cords, connectors, and construction.

So do they work? Based on hours of play with these and other headsets (surround-sound and normal), I’d have to say not enough. They set out to make the best gaming headset out there, and while the Carbon excels in some ways, it simply fails in too many ways for me to recommend them to anyone but novelty seekers.

True to Psyko’s promises, the directionality is very good. Once you get your settings right, and assuming your game supports them (not all do; Valve’s games do, Bad Company 2 for instance doesn’t), you do have an increased sense of where things are coming from. The benefit is, in my opinion, marginal, as stereo placement in good normal headphones covers a large swath of audio territory, and it’s only towards the rear that you have any real failure to communicate direction. The Carbon remedies that (as did its predecessor), and my teammates footsteps in Left 4 Dead 2 did sound very much like they were actually behind me.

The primary problem is the sound of the sound. Maybe it’s just the presence of the long “waveguides” that inspire this comparison, but it sounds like you’re hearing things through a long tube. I tried it on two different sound systems, with various configurations in Windows and in games, and got the same result. It was worse when games didn’t support a stated 5.1/7.1 option, naturally.

Different headsets sound differently, obviously, and one may emphasize the high end or low end more, or provide better definition but worse range. The Carbons fell outside of my “reasonable allowance for headset differences” range; as soon as I put on another headset to compare, I found myself thinking “oh yeah, that’s how that gun is supposed to sound.” The amp has a dial that allows you to choose between more bass and better sound placement. It seems odd that I should have to choose between these two important things, but nevertheless I did find a happy medium.

Could you get used to it? Maybe. But you’d have to live in these headphones, and that’s not an option for a couple reasons.

Music is no good in them, being subject to the same effect. Movies were a mixed bag and I don’t trust the ones I watched or my media player (newly configured) to get it right. But you wouldn’t want to do anything but game in these.

Comfort isn’t really an issue; though the headset is extremely bulky, it’s not particularly heavy, being on par with the Logitech and Razer headsets I have here. I wouldn’t call them truly comfortable (at least, not like lightweight pairs like the Klipsch One and Nox Specialist), but they’re definitely wearable for an hour or two. The earcups feel fine and are quite large enough for the biggest ears. I had to extend the earpieces down to their maximum height to fit, though, and I’d like to think I have a reasonably sized head. If you don’t, you might have a problem.

Setup is straightforward, though the amp requires power and you may find yourself behind your PC a lot, unplugging these when you want to listen to music and plugging them back in for gaming. Some sort of passthrough option would have been appreciated. Why the power and audio aren’t both sent over USB is beyond me. (Psyko says: USB power isn’t enough for their amps.)

Despite the ostensibly improved construction on the Carbon, I found that the multiplicity of interlocking pieces that make these up makes for an unacceptable amount of very audible creak and groan when wearing these.

The removable microphone seemed to work just fine, though being removable, I assume it will eventually be lost.

Conclusion

While I applaud the unique approach to sound offered by Psyko with this headset, the fact is that it just doesn’t sound as good as others on the market. The directionality is improved, but at great cost — plus, these headphones are limited to use as surround gaming headphones, whereas virtual surround headphones like the G35 are multi-purpose and in my opinion provide an adequate illusion of surround. If Psyko can improve the sound (and simplify the build and setup) they may have something, but until then there are dozens of better choices for the discerning gamer.

Product page: Psyko Carbon surround-sound headset