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BT EXCLUSIVE

Creative turns up amp at Vegas electronics show

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Creative chief Sim Wong Hoo with trophies from CES 2019. On display are the SXFI TV and SXFI THEATRE. In front, (from left) is the newer and smaller SXFI chip, the SXFI WIRE and the first SXFI AMP.

Las Vegas

CREATIVE Technology's ballroom at the annual CES show in Las Vegas has not buzzed with this level of activity in 20 years.

The Singapore audio tech firm launched its new Super X-Fi (SXFI) headphone technology worldwide on Tuesday.

As word spread after the first day of demos in its red-curtained studio set up in the Venetian hotel, hundreds of curious media and industry players came striding through the doors. Some possible collaborators also turned up unannounced.

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Visitors with badges from Microsoft, Facebook and a unit of a Chinese Internet giant were spotted in the ballroom. Someone asked if SXFI could possibly be installed in cars.

The Super X-Fi gadgets create headphone sound with "three-dimensional" detail, using a computational audio technology invented by Creative. Most guests who queued to get SXFI tuned to their ears for the first time couldn't help but agree with the marketing - SXFI does make headphones feel like an eight-piece home theatre system.

Speaking to The Business Times on day two of the four-day show, a visibly energised Creative chief Sim Wong Hoo said: "The reactions are fantastic. I'm feeling a lot better right now, with the awards coming in, all the partners blown away. Now they understand what we are doing, all our partners are opening up to it.

"There are also big companies that are interested in non-conventional applications of Super X-Fi in the virtual reality entertainment markets."

Creative swept up four awards on Thursday for its SXFI products, from leading consumer tech writers and reviewers who roamed the exhibition floor in search of the cutting edge.

AVS Forum and Overclock, both US sites with active online communities, crowned Creative their "Best of CES 2019". UK-based TechRadar chose Creative as its "CES Top Pick". Another US site, Sound Guys, also gave Creative an award.

A year ago, Creative took home just one trophy when it debuted Super X-Fi in its prototype form.

Since then, a SXFI headphone amplifier and two kinds of SXFI-incorporated headphones have hit the market.

Launching soon is an HDMI box that will hook your television up with SXFI, which is to be paired with the upcoming low-latency wireless SXFI headphones.

And, in response to what is probably the biggest gripe for SXFI followers, from February, iPhone users will no longer have to borrow an Android phone to download the SXFI app. Creative will release new SXFI software for the Mac and PC next month.

Currently, users need to use the SXFI app, available only on Android, together with their mobile phone cameras to map the shape of their head and ears.

Their headphones are then calibrated based on this unique profile. But Apple blocks the transfer of such metadata on the iPhone, Mr Sim said.

While Creative's rapid release of new SXFI gadgets is keeping audio pundits engaged, Mr Sim said he has not strayed from his original promise - to be the market leader in 3D headphone audio by selling SXFI chips to hardware makers.

"We have to show the way. Because if you just give them a chip, they won't know what to do with it," he explained.

In any case, his engineers have now shrunk the SXFI chip to be even smaller than it was at its first release in September last year.

Where the SXFI amplifier was slimmer than a finger, this chip fits into a module that is slimmer than a slim pinky finger. It's called SXFI WIRE because it's positioned as an in-wire solution.

Mr Sim said: "We showed SXFI WIRE to original equipment manufacturers, and they said, 'Can I have it now?' They want to run with it."

The question is whether Creative has a team that can keep up.

He said: "We have to take it step by step, we don't have so many people. But we have the chips already, this is a new chip, a smaller-sized chip with more integration."

Asked about the sharp fall in Creative's shares last month, Mr Sim said: "I'm not concerned about that. I did tell you it was too high... Not so fast guys. Of course it's good that people are excited. If you believe, you wait, but we can't deliver results overnight.

Creative shares rose 1.87 per cent or seven Singapore cents to S$3.81 on Thursday.

Mr Sim added: "I'm not in a hurry to get revenue. It's not my focus now. What I want is a more orderly way to grow, and the opportunities are abundant. We want to look at the big opportunities, rather than do some sales here, do some sales there. But the first step now is to get a lot of good reviews out there."

"My focus is to make sure that the user experience is very good, that's the key thing. Make sure everybody understands that this is a fantastic product. Then, I'll push the marketing.

"It's a new product, it's very very new. Our ears are all listening so we can provide people with technical support if they need it. It's a learning process."

For instance, some audiophiles have given feedback that with SXFI, details are lost in the highs and lows.

Mr Sim has this advice for them: "Highs and lows can easily be fixed by using the equaliser. It's in the SXFI app, but it's a bit stealth. You can do some fine-tuning."

Brushing off the criticism, he said: "There's always something to criticise. Just like when the first colour TV came out, there were people who criticised it and said it had less detail. But I bet the change will happen. Sit back and enjoy the forest, don't look at this leaf, that leaf."

Indeed, it is a fact that high-quality sound is less obvious to the layman than high-quality colour.

But at CES, where hyperbole and marketing spin are the norm, some people actually felt Creative's SXFI was understated.

One visitor from a top YouTube channel with more than 7 million subscribers told product marketing manager Ryan Schlieper that he could have piled on more hype and got away it: "He said, you could talk about this much brighter and still not be hyperbolic because this is industry-changing, that was his word. And you know they're a very critical, very snarky channel."

Mr Sim said the Creative products that generated the most excitement at the show were the soon-to-be-released SXFI THEATRE and SXFI TV.

That's the HDMI box and proprietary wireless headphones: "The key message here is low latency. For movies it's a must, or you'll notice that the speech is out of sync with the visuals."

This solution could replace whole home speaker systems and benefit suffering parents who dislike loud video games, couch potatoes who binge on TV under cover of night, as well as families that cannot agree on what volume the TV should be set at on movie night, Mr Sim said.

At CES, Creative also previewed its newest sound card, the Sound Blaster AE-9.

Mr Schlieper said: "Because the era of streaming and gaming is coming into one place, we've opened up the door for that person who wants to graduate up to a better microphone. Now they can control everything with one kit, and they can game with it. And they can audio-produce with it, and they can stream with it. It's an all-encompassing product."

Creative also previewed the Outlier Air, a pair of true wireless earbuds capable of lasting 10 hours on a single charge.