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Creative Technology returns to relevance with Sim Wong Hoo's Super X-Fi

Sim Wong Hoo, founder and CEO of Creative Technology. (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)
Sim Wong Hoo, founder and CEO of Creative Technology. (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — He was Singapore’s very own tech superstar in the 1990s but was overtaken by his rivals. Today, Creative Technology founder Sim Wong Hoo is once again making a big splash in sound technology, thanks to his latest product.

With the global launch of its headphone tech Super X-Fi (SXFI) early this year, Creative – which set the standard for consumer audio in the 1990s with its Sound Blaster cards – is riding high on a new wave of interest and numerous accolades.

Twenty years in the making and backed by US$100 million in investment, SFXI, which can make headphone audio sound as good if not better than a multi-speaker surround system’s, has been touted as a game changer for Creative.

Sim, however, is far more bullish on the product’s prospects.

“The SXFI is more than game-changing, it is life-changing,” the 63-year-old Singaporean told Yahoo Finance Singapore in a recent interview. “To me, this is 100 times, 1,000 times more exciting than the Sound Blaster.”

The entrepreneur’s early success story may be familiar to many Singaporeans. Armed with a loan from his brother, Sim and his schoolmate Ng Kai Wa started Creative as a computer shop in Pearl Centre in Singapore’s Chinatown in 1981. More than a decade later, the company’s Sound Blaster cards were being used in more than 400 million personal computers.

However, with the introduction of Apple’s iPod in 2001, coupled with increased competition, the company fell on hard times. In 2006, Creative sued Apple for patents infringement and Apple countersued. The case was eventually settled out of court, with Apple paying Creative US$100 million.

As Apple went on to take 80 per cent of the music players market and Creative’s new product lines failed to click with consumers, Sim stayed away from the public eye.

Creative Technology’s Super X-Fi AMP (left) and Bluetooth headphones. (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)
Creative Technology’s Super X-Fi AMP (left) and Bluetooth headphones. (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)

Praise has poured in for SFXI. The prototype of the headphone holography technology was unveiled in January 2018 and won the AVS Forum “Best of CES 2018” at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

In September last year, the company launched the first commercial product – SXFI AMP, an amplifier packed in a dongle that connects to earphones and headphones for realistic and high-quality audio. This was followed in January by the CES 2019 launch of SXFI Air wireless headphones, which was a resounding success as the SFXI range bagged more than 10 awards.

Creative Technology’s Super X-Fi app. (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)
Creative Technology’s Super X-Fi app. (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)

SXFI’s tech works in tandem with a mobile app that lets users take a picture of their ears and face and customises a sound profile using artificial intelligence. It then maps that onto a database of existing earphones in the market for a personalised listening experience.

Sim said the experience is akin to the black and white TV era being over taken by the advent of colour. “It was something so magical no one believed it was possible,” he asserted.

The SXFI AMP headphone amplifier retails at US$150 and comes with free Aurvana SE headphones, while the SXFI Air wireless bluetooth headphones is sold for US$160. Locally, they can be bought online, at Popular and Challenger stores.

App users and more

Sim declined to say how many units have been sold so far, or how many they are hoping to sell. But he does hope to get 50 million app users in two years, including free users.

“The key is to get as many users as you can, and I am waiting to turn on the nuclear option – give the app free,” Sim said. He expects to release the free app before June. Users can use the app to listen only to local content stored on their smartphones, as it doesn’t work on streaming services on Spotify or YouTube.

“Ultimately, we want them [consumers] to buy our products,” he said.

The company is also in talks with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like smartphone and headphone makers, as well as music app operators for the SXFI technology to be incorporated into their products, Sim said. He declined to identify the companies, other than saying they are “blown away” by the technology and that talks will take time.

Also in the pipeline – the SXFI TV box whereby up to four users can plug in their individual sound profiles using their respective wireless SXFI Theater headphones. The products are market-ready but not for sale yet, Sim said, as he doesn’t want to introduce too many products too soon as it would distract customers.

Still, Sim doesn’t expect SXFI products to make any significant financial impact on the company – which reported a net loss of US$4.9 million for the three months ended 31 December last year – until 2020.

While it may seem that Creative has a new lease on life with the Super X-Fi, Sim is wary about moving too quickly.

“There is a famous saying by Deng Xiaoping ‘摸着石头过河’ which means ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’ and we are doing just that,” he said.

“I am feeling the stones and crossing the river. I don’t want to just jump in the deep-end of the river and drown. Am I being too cautious? Maybe, but having learnt the painful lessons, I have learnt it is better to be cautious.”

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