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Psyko Audio's mastermind James Hildebrandt talks to Fudzilla

by on31 March 2009


Interview: Psyko 5.1, gaming surround sound perfection

We had a chance to do a little Q&A with the inventor and mastermind behind the Psyko 5.1 headset, James Hildebrandt. If you managed to somehow miss this great product which got the Innovations Design Award at this years CES and certainly got a lot of attention at CES, be sure to check it out.

Fudzilla: Who is Psyko Audio Labs and why did you go for that name?

J.H.: We are a company focused on making headphones that sound like room systems, instead of sounding like headphones. The name Psyko comes from Psychoacoustics.  Psychoacoustics is an established body of science that studies how our brains perceive sound.  

Our Audio Labs is where the ideas come from.

Fudzilla: There are a lot of other 5.1 surround headphones on the market, what makes the Psyko 5.1 different from them?

J.H.: There is almost nothing the same between Psyko and the other 5.1 surround headphones.

There are two classic ways to attempt surround headphones and we believe Psyko 5.1 overcomes limitations in both of those methods.  The first method is to put one or many speakers around the ear in so-called strategic locations.   It seems they don’t really get any flow of sound.  The other problem is that those headphones still just play the left sounds in the left ear and the right sounds in the right ear.  There no situation in reality where that happens, except if an insect is in one ear – and that is pretty irritating.  Psyko 5.1 plays every sound to both ears with the correct timing difference between the ears.

The other classic method is digital signal processing (DSP).  Front sounds are modified with some frequencies altered up or down to mimic what happens when sound reflects off a person’s ear.  The trouble is that everyone’s ear shape are as unique as fingerprints so the sound signal you are used to hearing to detect front and rear is unique to you.  If your ears happen to match those the DSP is tuned for it sounds good.  But most of us fall outside that range and it sounds unnatural. Their solution is like selling one size of shoes for everyone in the world.  It works for some, but not for most.  The other problem for gamers with this method is that DSP takes time and causes latency in the signal.

Psyko 5.1 solves all these problems with simple acoustics and physics.  There are no speakers around your ear – only sub woofers.  The regular speakers are on top of your head in the headband.  The sound from every speaker is guided (with waveguides) to both ears with the correct timing difference, volume difference, and flow location across the ear.  So no DSP, no latency. 

As an example, the sounds that are supposed to go to the left front room speaker are directed to the left front speaker in the headband.  That speaker is an engineered distance closer to one ear than the other ear.  The waveguide channels that sound to both the left ear and right ear and flows the sound past the front of both ears.  So, both ears hear the sound with the correct timing difference, volume difference and it reflects off YOUR ear so what you hear at your ear canal is what you would normally hear from the room speaker.

Fudzilla: What are the good and bad sides of placing speakers in a bridge on the headband?

J.H.: The good is that every sound every speaker makes is delivered correctly to both ears.

The bad side is that it took a lot of work to refine the concept to make it work. It is a technology not used before in making headphones so we had to invent ways to make it work. All of which is covered in our patent applications. Now that is done it is time for people to enjoy the results of that work.

Fudzilla: Does Psyko 5.1 need some special driver or it solely depends on support for surround sound in the actual game?

J.H.: No special software drivers. Nothing. 

The hardware and game are just set up as if you were playing with a room system.  The game has to provide 5.1 of course, but Psyko is a room system that happens to fit comfortably on your head.

Fudzilla: What are the key benefits when compared to the normal 5.1 speaker setups?

J.H.: It is hard to set up a 5.1 room system correctly.  It is easy to put on Psyko headphones.

For a good room system the speakers HAVE to be in the right locations, they have to be the same distance from you in every direction, the room has to have the right shape and the right amount of damping to remove excessive reverberations but not make it sound dead.  Plus you have to sit in the right spot.  The sweet spot for 5.1 is really quite small in any room.  Shift a bit to one side or front or back and the closest speakers dominate.

With Psyko headphones you are always in the sweet spot.

Fudzilla: Psyko 5.1 got a great attention during CES 2009, what were the positive and what were negative comments that you got?

J.H.: CES is massive and we made a big impact.  We took the risk of launching in the biggest venue possible and competing for people’s attention.   We did it with no gimmicks, just a small booth and our product.

CES is the biggest consumer electronics show in the world and we were repeatedly recognized for the headphones.  Everyone was shocked by the innovative design.  Winning the Innovations Design Award and being a finalist in the CNET Best of CES was formal recognition of that.   But everyone acknowledged it.

Here’s a funny example. A friend of ours had a booth for his company at CES.  His company, CoolIT Systems, makes cooling systems for PC’s. Their booth was at the Sands which is a shuttle bus ride away from where we were located in the main convention center.  There were about 130,000 people at the show.  During the show he would casually ask people during the show what were some of the highlights of the show.  He was surprised how often people said “there is this innovative Psyko headphone”.   So, Psyko stood out in a crowd of 130,000 people.

There was a bit of a problem in the high noise level of CES. We were in the gaming area and there were lots of loud booths around us, including a rock band guitar demo beside us.  They were great guitar players but loud.  Despite that almost everyone said the headphones sound was great but there were a few for whom the show floor noise level was a problem.

When are they going to be widely available and are there any plans on doing different versions of it, with maybe different colors, or some changes in the design?

J.H.: We are planning for a limited run in April and then ramping up production. 

They are available for pre-order now on our web site and we will be rolling out a program to make them more easily available.  We welcome the feedback on the product and who knows what changes there will be, but the focus is on this product.  We had requests for one or two other colors and welcome more comments.

Fudzilla: Are we going to see any new products from Psyko Audio Labs in near future, and are you going to limit your product lineup only on surround headphones products?

J.H.: We are really, really focused on gaming surround sound headphones.

Fudzilla: What is from your point of view the "Holy Grail" in surround headphones sound?

J.H.: The Holy Grail is getting the best gaming experience possible.  For some people that means giving them the audio with the precision direction cues so they can play their best.  For others it means experiencing more of the immersion of the game than before.

That is our goal of The Perfect Room.  With Psyko headphones the listener can get both experiences.
What are the key issues in delivering that kind of perfect headphone surround sound and when do you think it would be possible?

What is perfect for gaming is surprisingly a bit different than what is perfect for other applications, like say movies or music. 

There is an expression in golf – driver for show, putt for dough.  There is a bit of a similarity in gaming - you can play for the experience (immersion), or play for performance (winning).  Here is a quick summary of the difference between those two.

Humans are most sensitive to sound direction in a certain frequency range.  To best perceive the location of a foot step or gun shot you are best advised to turn down the bass.  You can’t easily tell where bass comes from so turn it down so you can focus on the range of sound you are sensitive to.  So the Psyko 5.1 system comes with an amplifier that has a master volume control and a bass volume control.  The amp and headphones are a system that work together to give the optimal gaming experience.

Another issue is comfort for playing games for hours.  I always disliked traditional headphones that got uncomfortable and hot.  So we made the Psyko 5.1 so the listener can open the ear cups and vent them.  This reduces the bass level perceived but that can be boosted with the amp control, or leave it turned down since the bass only masks the directional sound.  On the other hand I know it is nice to sometimes play and get that visceral experience of lots of rumble, so you can close the vents and turn up the bass.

So, back to your question of do we think it is possible to have the perfect headphone surround sound: the answer includes a few factors, immersion, and performance.  We think we have provided both.
Plus, people are saying that the Psyko 5.1 already has overcome the limits of traditional surround headphones and already overcome the problems of setting up a 5.1 room system.  We think we have tuned the system really well for gaming.

Down the road there is work to be done in tuning the technology for other applications – other gaming platforms, for movies, for music, etc. but for now we are focused on just one product for PC gaming.

Thanks for your time, and we hope that we will see more interesting products from your company soon.


Last modified on 01 April 2009
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