CREATIVE Technology is taking orders for its much-anticipated new headphone amplifier that is based on a breakthrough technology starting Monday, with sales of its first wireless headphones to follow in the fourth quarter.
Both products are designed to give listeners a "three-dimensional" sound experience using a computational audio technology invented by Creative known as Super X-Fi (SXFI).
It is achieved by feeding an artificial intelligence (AI) engine with images of a listener's head and ears taken using a smartphone camera, so it can understand the unique way in which he perceives natural sound.
Once this map has been drawn, Creative's AI engine powered by a SXFI digital signal processing (DSP) chip performs computations to custom-fit the headphone audio for the listener in a way that mimics how he hears natural sound.
The result is audio experienced as though it is coming from outside of the headphones, which some early critics have said is as life-like as an eight-piece home theatre system.
Creative founder and chief executive Sim Wong Hoo believes this "holographic sound" technology will be a game-changer for the headphone industry and could set a new standard in the high-fidelity consumer market.
The new headphone amps were shipped here more than a month ago, he told The Business Times last Saturday.
"In that week alone, I listened to headphones more than I had in my life and I'm now almost addicted," he said.
Initial sales are limited to Singapore. The SXFI amp is as slim as a finger and made for Android users, who can use it with YouTube and Spotify. iPhone users will have to find a lightning connector adaptor.
The SXFI amp will be sold through sxfi.com for S$219 (US$150) each. Early adopters will get a free pair of headphones as well. Worldwide sales of the SX-Fi amp are expected to commence in November.
For now, the SXFI amp works best with 16 models of headphones and earphones, though Creative can expand the list if it wants to. Separately, Creative plans to start selling the first bluetooth headphones embedded with SXFI chips in the next quarter.
"The headphones take more time to manufacture than than the amp because of the mechanical structure, so we are more careful with headphone inventory. We'll be asking people to reserve one now to gauge interest and allow us to plan forward," Mr Sim explained.
"We have already prepared a six-digit quantity of SXFI UltraDSP chips and are ready to ramp up production quickly based on demand. The chips have the longest lead time but lower cost," he added.
The price of the first SXFI headphones has not been revealed but they will be the first in a series, Mr Sim said.
Creative is planning a budget version for gamers that doesn't have bluetooth but can be tethered to a PC. A higher-end low-latency wireless headphone is also in the pipeline.
"This will induce other headphone manufacturers to say, 'Hey, this sells well. We should also get in. We want to grow'," said Mr Sim.
He plans to sell to them his SXFI chips, which can reside in headphones, headphone amps, dongles, set-top boxes, and TVs.
Mr Sim had previously promised a free mobile app - the proprietary Super X-Fi technology can also be implemented as software. But he has changed his mind and the free app will be given out selectively to users by invitation only.
Creative has spent US$100 million over 20 years to develop Super X-Fi.
Improvements have also been made since the first prototype was shown to the public in January, said Mr Sim.
"We had to retrain the machine learning algorithm and that was very massive work. It's not a few engineers writing code. Everybody is involved ... It's a lot of work."
Creative is also prepared to mount an aggressive marketing campaign to back the product launch.
"We are focusing all our marketing efforts on Singapore first, to make Singapore successful," said Mr Sim.
"If it's not successful, we'll just throw money, marketing efforts, until it's successful. (Then) we can go to the US and do the same."
Creative shares fell one Singapore cent to close at S$6.58 last Friday.