Not just another bit of inexpensive gamer gear, this lightweight headset gradually earned my respect.
When I first pulled the Kunai Pro out of its box, I had no idea what to expect. I was struck first by how light and insubstantial it felt. But trying it on, I found that it had surprisingly comfortable deep ear cushions, that fit nicely around my ears. On my relatively large cranium, the headset was just about perfectly snug, and the unit's light weight turned out to be a significant plus: after a few minutes, I literally forgot I was wearing it.
The flexible ‘gooseneck' mic boom is a bit of a departure from today's prevalent rigid designs. But it's endlessly adjustable, and it turns out to be removable (with a firm twist and yank at the base). I noticed that the headset's connecting cable was protected by a sturdy braided sheath, a nice touch on a lower-end product. I began to get more interested...
The Kunai Pro connects via USB, and, as one would expect, it worked perfectly on my PCs without installation of drivers or other software. I had no trouble selecting it as the default output device in both Windows 7 and 10, as well as in my workhorse music player, foobar2000.
Documentation was skimpy. A leaflet labeled "Guidance for Users" offered a description of the headset in 7 short bullet points (repeated in 8 languages) - but no explanation of how to operate it. The vital URL for downloading software drivers was included in very fine print on a loose slip of paper labeled "Caution." Once discovered, that URL took me took me to a Web site almost entirely in Chinese. Fortunately, the word "download" stood out, once I'd scrolled down a bit.
The Web site lists the software as "(windows 7/10)," but it did nothing on my Windows 7 PC. Only in Windows 10 does the Kunai Pro really come alive. Once installed in that OS, the software enables two sound enhancements from Swedish developer Dirac. That company has gained some visibility in home and mobile audio, with digital room correction and other audio processing technology.
I tend to approach such gimmicks with great skepticism. Too often they either claim to solve audio ‘problems' that no one can hear, or create lopsided ‘solutions' that actually degrade overall fidelity. However, I was resolved to keep an open mind with the Kunai Pro.
The audio modes are at least easy to select. The headset's connecting cord has a small white control pad inline. This includes a rocker button for volume up and down, plus a button to mute the mic and another button to cycle between the three available audio modes: unmodified pass-through, as well as Dirac HD Sound and Dirac 3D Audio (virtual 7.1) modes. Little red LEDs indicate when either of the Dirac modes is active.
According to the Dirac web site, the HD Sound mode enables "a state-of-the-art digital audio performance enhancement technology," which is tailored to the individual hardware device. It apparently works by "correcting impulse and magnitude frequency response," and is said to improve "musical staging, clarity, voice intelligibility and bass fidelity."
Translated into English, the idea seems to be to create a more linear response by applying digital processing to correct for distortions introduced by the hardware's own imperfect response. It all reads like the usual bafflegab - but a few seconds after enabling HD, I was forced to revise my views. The technology does actually seem to work
Listening to some of my favorite albums in foobar2000, Dirac HD Sound instantly expanded the sound field and sharpened every sonic element, making individual instruments or voices dramatically more distinct. With HD Sound turned on, the Kunai Pro went from being a pretty average low-end gaming headset to a very respectable open-sounding set of headphones. Turning HD Sound off again felt like shoving wads of cotton wool into the ear cups.
I have no idea what violence Dirac's algorithms perform on the original recorded waveform. High frequencies seem to be considerably enhanced, but low bass is more distinct as well. Overall loudness is elevated somewhat, and stereo separation seems wider. But even on careful extended listening, I couldn't detect any particular degradation in the musicality of the audio. To my ears, there was none of the obvious harshness, distortion, or feeling of artificiality that one might expect with intensive DSP processing.
Of course, we all know that it's rather easy to ‘sweeten' audio in ways that seem instantly appealing, but are either meaningless (a half-dB of volume increase, for example) or in fact degrade overall fidelity. I tend to believe that Dirac HD Sound is subject to some sort of sonic compromises - there's no such thing as a free lunch -- but if so, those compromises seem to be rather well-chosen.
I would still hope that pure unadulterated PCM played through $300 headphones would be a demonstrably superior solution. But at a mere fraction of that price, the Dirac-enabled Kunai Pro deserve to be taken seriously. I hope that in months to come we'll see deep lab analysis that will reveal what's really going on at a low level. But for now, while golden-eared audiophiles may roll their eyes, there's no question that Dirac HD Sound lets the Kunai Pro punch way above its price class.
When it came to Dirac's 7.1 surround mode, I was far less skeptical. I've used several virtual-surround headsets extensively, and have always been impressed by their effectiveness. The directional tracking of our binaural auditory system is well-understood, and easily fooled.
Thus, while I was taken aback by the Dirac HD effect, I was not surprised to find that the Dirac 3D Audio mode worked well. Dirac claims to have superior HRTF technology, and indeed, the Dirac-enabled Kunai Pro is one of the better surround solutions I've tried. In games, creature sounds seemed quite distinctly positioned around me. Ambient sounds such as rustling wind or gurgling water felt satisfyingly enveloping, while audio clarity remained crisp and appealing.
The experience was equally pleasant with movies. Watching a sci-fi blockbuster in Dirac HD Sound mode offered excellent audio quality. But switching to Dirac 3D Audio really popped the sound ‘off the screen,' and eliminated that ‘voices inside your head' feeling you get with headphones. Again, the immersive effect was as good as I've heard from any virtual surround system.
All in all, selling for a surprisingly low price, the Kunai Pro looks like a very strong bet for gamers. And the Dirac software looks like something to keep a serious eye on. ‘Good enough for gaming' may not be the same as good enough for audiophiles, but I'll definitely be interested to hear of any future Dirac implementations.
My only real gripe with the Kunai Pro as it sits is the limitation of software support to Windows 10. The packaging claims compatibility with PC and PlayStation 4, and the Kunai Pro should work in fact work with any USB audio source, but it's a far less attractive solution without the Dirac enhancement. Let's hope Tritton expands support - to other versions of Windows, and to Mac and Linux as well.
Canadian availability is somewhat limited at this point. The Kunai Pro is currently available at US$49.99 on Amazon.com, but the store page does explicitly note that it can ship to Canada.
[Edited at 1815 ET to include Dirac's proper tradenames: 'Dirac HD Sound' and 'Dirac 3D Audio.']