When Creative called me up to ask if I was interested in hearing something incredible, I was skeptical but curious.
After all, this was Creative we were talking about, the creator of the SoundBlaster, the default standard for audio in PCs in the '90s and early '00s, but the company as a whole hadn't really had a major hit since.
The company felt like it was in a death spiral after releasing a string of uninteresting products, and while it made a brief splash with its $5,800 Creative Sonic Carrier, that didn't exactly revive the company's fortunes -- no thanks to the crazy high price tag.
That's all about to change, it seems. Creative's CEO and founder Sim Wong Hoo claims to have found the holy grail of sound for headphones: The company's new Super X-Fi technology can turn ordinary headphones into wondrous surround-sound setups. And having tried out the demo personally, I think Sim may be on to something.
The name Super X-Fi may make this product sound like an upgrade to the Creative's existing X-Fi tech, but it's a whole new ballgame for the company. The tech is a result of $100 million invested over 20 years of R&D, all with the aim of figuring out how to make earphones sound natural and not feel like the sound is "trapped in your head."
"We sold tons of headphones but I don't use them. It doesn't feel natural. I can't stand the sound. It's constricted in my head and I don't want to stress myself," said Sim.
Over the two decades of R&D, the Creative CEO would reject the prototypes that made their way to him every other year. Even when the team finally thought it had cracked the puzzle last year, Sim had the design sent back five times. He wasn't even sure if Creative had anything ready to showcase at CES 2018.
But 20 years of effort seems to have paid off. The result is a the Super X-Fi chip, located on a $150 dongle, similar to the more expensive portable amplifier for earphones you'd find in the market. The dongle can turn the sound from your single-driver headphone into a device capable of delivering 7.1 3D surround sound that's natural and realistic.
It's not just a case of pumping out 3D sound out. Everyone's ears are different and this affects the way audio is received. To make sure it sounds right for every individual, Creative spent time scanning ears, collecting data on how sound is received and training an AI to predict a custom sound map. Once that was done, Creative was able to work its Super X-Fi magic.
And it really is magical.
First I took photos of both my ears and face with an app to get my custom sound map. Then I sat down in a home theatre equipped with expensive up-firing speakers for Dolby Atmos effects. Finally I had to take another measurement of my ears by inserting two microphones while a test track played.
The additional calibration wasn't exactly needed, but Creative wanted another profile to show how close it could come to mimicking an actual room. The default sound profile for Super X-Fi is taken in a smaller room, which sounds slightly different as well.
From there, Creative started playing a Dolby Atmos demo video, with sounds coming from the left, right and above. I was then told to put on a headset, and Creative repeated the video. I assumed I would have been able to tell the difference, but the audio coming out of the headphones sounded exactly the same as what I'd previously heard.
I thought it was a trick -- the headphones weren't playing anything, but the speakers were still blasting away. So when I took the cans off to find myself listening to nothing but silence, I think I swore out loud. I was completely blown away.
During the subsequent demos, I switched between the calibrated profile and the one the AI picked for my ears, and found that there was a difference between the two. Creative told me that in the future you'll be able to switch to different sound stages. When you play music tracks, it expands the sound space, making it seem like you're attending a live performance.
"It's like a short-sighted person putting on glasses, everything becomes much clearer," said Sim.
It will be free (sorta)
If this all sounds too good to be true, you'll have to try it out for yourself when Creative releases a free app next month. The app will let you play music you already have on your phone, but if you want it to work magic with streaming services such as Spotify, you'll have to wait for the $150 dongle that's being released in the third quarter of the year.
Creative hopes to get 50 million app users in the next two years. It's planning to certify headphones for use with Super X-Fi for a nominal fee from manufacturers. As each headphone is different, Creative will be able to collect more data on how each one works and use that information to deliver even more realistic audio in future.
While the company originally planned on a crowdfunding campaign to launch its Super X-Fi dongle, overwhelming response at CES 2018 convinced Creative that it had a hit product on its hands and it will be scrapping that idea.
Besides the app and headphones, Creative is also working on wireless headsets with its Super X-Fi chip built in. It's also planning sound cards and boxes for TV sets with wireless headphones. That means you won't need an expensive home theatre setup to enjoy full surround 3D sound. It'll be interesting to see if the app will work as promised. And if it does, Creative looks set to finally return to the highs of its tech heyday.
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