Audio

Creative Super X-Fi: Surround sound with a dongle

The Super X-Fi, to be released later this year at US$150 (S$197), transforms stereo recordings into what seems like a live concert.
The Super X-Fi, to be released later this year at US$150 (S$197), transforms stereo recordings into what seems like a live concert.

Creative's Super X-Fi simulates3D audio with headphones, creating the best sound for users by mapping the shape of their head and ears

Setting up a proper surround-sound system usually requires lots of real estate and full-sized speakers around a room.

But local audio firm Creative wants to bring that capability into a mobile, convenient package that can re-create surround sound - 3D audio with a realistic sense of depth, space and detail - in a pair of headphones.

Enter the Super X-Fi, a dongle the size of a thumb drive that plugs into any audio source - be it a music player, computer or smartphone - to do exactly that.

The technology has been more than 20 years in the making, said Creative founder Sim Wong Hoo at the company's unveiling of the gizmo at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January.

Creative held a local demonstration of the Super X-Fi earlier this month, but I had the chance to try the device at CES.

The Super X-Fi not only simulates surround sound, but also optimises audio input according to each listener's ears and even head shape.

As such, it requires some setting up. At the demo at CES, we were asked to place microphones into our ears, which mapped every nook and cranny of our ear canals to create personalised sound profiles.

But mass-market consumers who buy the Super X-Fi on release will have to use a smartphone app to take pictures of their face and ear shape, after which software will process the photos to generate the sound profile.

The demonstration was held in a room with a full surround system set-up, with similar audio tracks playing from headphones connected to the Super X-Fi and from speakers throughout the room. At any point, we could put on and take off the headphones to compare the two.

And I was not able to discern a major difference - a testament to how the Super X-Fi works as advertised, putting the listener in the centre of a wide, realistic soundstage.

Take a sample clip from the 2015 movie In The Heart Of The Sea, where the crew of a ship struggles to stay afloat in the midst of a heavy storm.

The surround-sound virtualisation is done extremely realistically as the Super X-Fi is able to convey the movement of heavy waves surging from left to right.

It works for music tracks as well, transforming stereo recordings into what seems like a live concert.

Mr Sim says the dongle will cost US$150 (S$197) when it is released later this year - a relatively low price to simulate a surround-sound system that audiophiles may pour tens of thousands of dollars into.

As it stands, the Super X-Fi is a promising device for those who want to enjoy the immersion of surround sound, but might have constraints in setting up a full surround-sound system.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2018, with the headline 'Surround sound with a dongle'. Print Edition | Subscribe