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Must-have kit for hardcore gamers pumps up the volume

James Hildebrandt, CEO at Calgary-based Psyko Audio Labs.

Rosa Park/rosa park/The Globe and Mail

The inspiration for James Hildebrandt, CEO and "head psyko" at Calgary-based Psyko Audio Labs, was hearing a friend quip, "There must be a better way of making headphones."

For Mr. Hildebrandt, who just happens to have a degree in engineering and another in engineering and acoustics, the question required an answer. "I thought, 'Yeah, there is something wrong with what's being done with headphones," he says. "Then, it was just a series of steps of discovery in understanding how our brain works and what happens in the physics [of sound]"

Psyko's surround sound headphones, focused on the computer gaming market, are a radical departure from traditional headsets, which position one speaker on each ear. Instead, five speakers are built into the bridge of the headphones above the user's head. The sound follows wave guides or tubes down to both ears, where sound flows from the front and from the back.

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"We took a completely different approach. You don't have any speaker down by your ear because that's not the way you hear where sounds are," Mr. Hildebrandt says.

He describes this innovation as low tech rather than high tech.

"It's exactly the way you hear sound in a room," says Mr. Hildebrandt, who incorporated the company in 2007 after three years of research and development. "Sound flows past your head at a certain angle and hits one ear a little bit before the other. The way it bounces off your ear creates cues in the brain to form a map of what's going on around you. All we're doing is creating exactly the same cues so your brain forms that same map."

Wired magazine recently picked Psyko's 5.1 PC gaming headset as one of the 39 best products of 2010, and Popular Science magazine listed it as one of 2009's leading new gadgets. The company was named one of Canada's hottest innovative companies 2010 by the Canadian Innovation Exchange.

Beyond the inherent difficulties in creating and building something from scratch, Mr. Hildebrandt says the biggest challenges were starting a company - securing funding, putting the right people together and forming a startup.

Computer gaming was a natural fit for his product.

"We're really delivering adrenalin, and that's probably the most addictive drug out there," says Mr. Hildebrandt. "Our target market is those guys who are playing the shooter games. When they hear a gunshot in a certain location with our headphones, they can tell exactly where it happened, can react faster and feel more immersed in the game."

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Mr. Hildebrandt is also looking ahead to develop headphones for other parts of the entertainment industry. "We'll come out with a movie version," he says. "The audio requirements are a little bit different."

One bonus Mr. Hildebrandt enjoyed was being able to tweak his invention to his own liking along the way. "I always hated wearing headphones because they got too hot, so we made them ventilated," he says. "You can wear these things for 12 hours and not get hot ears."

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