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Creative brings '3D' sound to headphones after US$100m R&D

The Super X-Fi chip can recreate a customised listening experience

Mr Sim is convinced that the company has found the holy grail of headphone audio with the Super X-Fi headphone holography.


HEADPHONES are unnatural, Sim Wong Hoo, founder of Creative Technology, believes.

Sound is pumped into your head from two directions instead of flowing around you. "This makes me queasy," said Mr Sim. "I don't consider myself an audiophile. I'm an audio guy."

He explained that in the same way that vision is technicolour, audio is meant to be 3D. "Do you still own a monochrome TV?"

Creative has kept a low profile for years, but change is afoot.

After blowing US$100 million over 20 years of "whacking in the dark", the engineers at Creative have a new invention they want to show off to the world.

Mr Sim is convinced they have found the holy grail of headphone audio.

Created by Lee Teck Chee, vice-president of technology at Creative, the Super X-Fi headphone holography is powered by a chip that fits into a slim dongle that can be plugged into most headphones or earphones.

So how does Super X-Fi work?

Every person hears sound in a unique way, depending on the shape of their head and ears.

First, artificial intelligence is used to map out how the distinct acoustics of an audio system project sound to a person's ears in 3D space. Once this map has been drawn, the Super X-Fi chip is able to perform reverse computations to recreate a customised listening experience with 3D detail for the listener.

Only this time, the sound originates from just two headphone drivers - one in each ear cup.

Since January, Creative has presented its Super X-Fi to headphone makers and the sceptical press - and received validation.

"We spoke to headphone manufacturers and they were blown away. They are willing to jump on the bandwagon, they know there's money here," Mr Sim told The Business Times at Creative's headquarters in Jurong East earlier this month.

"Many have asked how much is the dongle. When we said it's US$150, they said that's very cheap."

The technology works so well that testers couldn't believe they were listening to a Dolby Atmos demo track on their headphones instead of an eight-piece home theatre system. Many would remove the headphones in disbelief and try to detect any external supporting sound.

If the Super X-Fi in its final form is at least as impressive as the prototype, it will open a whole new chapter for Creative.

In its demo sessions, the first step - ear-mapping - is achieved by placing a pair of earbud-sized microphones into the listener's ears to record how he hears sounds, and matching the listener to one of nine profiles.

But it's not possible for Creative to calibrate the headphones of every user this way, said Mr Sim.

When Super X-Fi is released to the market this summer, users will use their mobile phone cameras to map the shape of their head and ears. More data would have been added to Creative's database by then to improve matching.

Mr Sim, who is also Creative's chairman and CEO, said: "We aim to have 50 million Super X-Fi users in two years. They can be free users, they can be paid users, it doesn't matter."

He doesn't see the Super X-Fi facing any serious competition right now. While some headphone makers claim to have achieved 3D audio, there are red flags. For example, simply squeezing multiple drivers into one ear cup will not create a 3D sound.

"Those that are looking for more money, they may make more noise," said Mr Sim, sizing up the market. "But the serious ones tend to keep quiet. We worry about those that have been keeping quiet.

"But the team here has a lot more ideas. There are more things we will add."

Creative aims to quickly establish leadership by letting users sample the Super X-Fi technology for free through an app that will be released before June. The app will play only songs stored on the phones, and does not work on YouTube or Spotify.

"With the Sound Blaster (it used to be Creative's best-selling product), maybe we were too greedy to grab all the revenue we could," said Mr Sim.

"We didn't want to sell chips. The whole industry was asking us to sell them our chips so they could make sound cards. But if we sold chips, our revenue would be reduced to a fraction, so we didn't sell chips.

"By not selling chips, we invited competition to fill the gap. Competition came in and sold chips. This time, we'll sell chips. We'll sell technology."

The Super X-Fi technology is powered by a new chip that packs five times more computing and digital signal processing power than Creative's most powerful Sound Blaster chip, but consumes less than half the power.

Mr Sim will also drive a clearer split between Creative, the hardware brand, and its subsidiary ZiiLABS, which is the technology group.

The principle here is that Creative doesn't want to be seen as competing with potential customers, like headphone makers and mobile phone makers.

"A big part of Creative is actually a technology company, and that has not been realised by a lot of people," he said.

The 63-year-old is grooming Creative's third-generation leadership. He continues to draw a S$1 annual salary because the company is loss-making.

"I've already moved beyond working for a salary," he said.

Super X-Fi is the result of a challenge Mr Sim threw to his engineers, and something he's wanted for more than 20 years.

"It's my gift to humanity," he said candidly.

"People shouldn't be living in these dark ages where they hear their headphones in such a way that affects their brain. I think it also affects their creativity."