iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






Interview With Darragh O'Toole, Creative

Talking about the new PCI Express X-Fi sound cards.

April 15, 2009

This is our interview with Darragh O'Toole, European Brand Manager for Audio products at Creative Europe. We already spoke to Darragh about X-Fi sound cards back in 2006, and this only makes his today's answers more interesting.

Maxim Lyadov (iXBT.com): Hello Darragh! Thank you for finding time to answer our questions. Today I'd like to talk about Creative's new sound cards. But first tell us how you are doing.

Darragh O'Toole (Creative): Doing good, thanks, listening to Kaki King on Spotify on a test sample of one of our new USB gaming headsets...totally hissfree!

Maxim Lyadov: Rumor has it that the sound card market is shrinking and sound cards are not Creative's top priority anymore. Is this true?

Darragh O'Toole: Onboard sound definitely changed the soundcard market meaning that you don't need to buy a soundcard every time you buy a PC as you get basic sound built-in, but in the areas of Pro Audio, Gaming, Audiophiles, HTPCs, people still need the best components in the same way that gamers don't just stick with onboard video because it's free. Gamers are a key area for us and the great thing about gamers is that they are the most demanding when it comes to technology and often use their PC for a lot more than gaming so are likely to watch a lot of movies and listen to music on their PC. This means that our cards aren't just great for gaming, but the best all-round card you can buy.

Maxim Lyadov: How would you estimate the competition in the sound card industry? Does Creative worry about rivals? Many consider Creative an Evil Empire and think of other companies as fighters for justice. What do you think about this?

Darragh O'Toole: If a company is a market leader and innovator, you always get people who both hate and love them with equal measure! Microsoft, Apple, Dell all have people who can't live without them, and people who think they are evil incarnate, it's an unavoidable side effect.

Creative has continually pushed back the boundaries of multimedia for the PC and beyond, taking big risks along the way founded on the belief in the technology and products, often creating markets where they and other companies have flourished. (Author's note: apparently, Darragh means Creative's patent for portable MP3 players and that they manufacturing them long before Apple started making iPods. The long court trial confirmed Creative's precedence.)

On the sound side, we continue to let E-MU develop award winning products in a highly competitive market, we introduced OpenAL as a cross platform open standard and have begun licensing our chips to 3rd parties who are bringing out fantastic new products. (Author's note: that is, Auzentech X-Fi Prelude.)

When it comes to support, we're really focussed and in the last year released new driver sets for all of our current ranges restoring features we were forced to remove due to the changes in Vista and now have Windows 7 Beta drivers for all of our current range, so for an Evil Empire, I can safely say, it's heart is stil beating.

Maxim Lyadov: Please tell us how Creative develops new sound cards. Who creates the concept? How is development conducted? Do you personally take part in creating new products?

Darragh O'Toole: Creative still retains a strong R&D team and we work with them to create what we feel is the best product for the market. We take into consideration usage trends, emerging technologies and feedback from current users and forums. The new drivebay for the X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Champion for example was fully revamped based on user feedback and input from Fatal1ty. Gamers wanted faster access to game mode/X-Fi Crystalizer and X-Fi CMSS-3D so we put the buttons on the front and as gamers tend to play in the dark, we made the buttons backlit. As most headsets have minijacks we moved to minijack connectors and with the change in trend to small form factor SFF machines, we made the design modular so it would fit in a floppy drive bay as well as a standard CD bay.

There is input from all regions, US/Asia and Europe, so I will feedback on what I feel is relevant based on personal and market based input as I always install and use the products at home to ensure that in a realistic usage scenario that the performance, user experience and performance is maximised within the bounds of what is feasible and then track the progress closely over the development phase through beta hardware and software to final product. It's great to be able to see your feedback implemented in a final product and then get feedback from users who think it's useful.

When the product development team have consolidated feedback, they will then consult with R&D and tell us:

  • A: yes, great idea, but the technology hasn't been invented yet!
  • B: yes, it's possible, but it will mean that the $99.99 soundcard will cost $999.99, how many do you think will sell?
  • C: yes, it's possible, we have added it to the spec.

Maxim Lyadov: Let's talk about the new X-Fi Titanium series. Finally, we have an X-Fi product with a hardware DSP for the PCI Express bus. We have nearly lost any hope of seeing these announced. But currently there are only gamer cards available. Do you plan to make a PCI Express version of Elite Pro? The matter is that some companies offer PCI Express sound cards with features similar to those of Elite Pro at just $100. What do you think about this? Will Creative answer to this with a new product?

Darragh O'Toole: This has been under consideration for a while as we were focussing on the gaming cards, Windows Vista drivers and a host of other notebook and USB solutions while our 3rd party partners were filling that void quite nicely. Can't give any firm answer, but suffice to say that you will be one of the first to know if we build if we ever build a Titanium Elite. :)

Maxim Lyadov: Try saying "Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Professional Series" aloud. Isn't it too long for a sound card title? Who invents all this?

Darragh O'Toole: That's the shortened version...you missed out Creative at the start. ;)

Maxim Lyadov: The term "X-Fi technology" raises many questions. The first implementation of the X-Fi technology (which is CMSS-3D and Crystalizer) saw the light in the new powerful X-Fi DSP of the 20k series. The description of chip's innovative architecture was impressive. Then we saw how the X-Fi technology was transferred to sound cards with no hardware, then to portable players. Now it's even available for licensing to integrated audio makers (though this fact is not disclosed much). So it seems that the "eXtreme Fidelity" marketing banner is bulging at the seams. Creative assured everyone of extraordinary flexibility and power of hardware DSPs in X-Fi sound cards. But we have seen none of that since the announcement. Except for the dubious software encoding of multi-channel sound into DD and DTS formats. Will we see something new, capable of putting X-Fi's powerful DSP to really good use? A professional sound card, perhaps?

Darragh O'Toole: At present, the best implementation of X-Fi is in undoubtedly the 20k series DSP based soundcards given the immense power available. The key technologies that have emerged as most popular are X-Fi Crystalizer and X-Fi CMSS-3D and the requirement has been less about the flexibility of the chipset, but the scalability of the technology to run on native DSPs like in Xmod, Zen X-Fi, Aurvana X-Fi headphones, Movieworks HD iPod dock or in software form.

DD and DTS encoding are software based any combine well with the X-Fi enhancements as you get the X-Fi processing upfront and then encoding for a single cable connection to your decoder with very little latency, works well with streaming or compressed content. So far, X-Fi series DSPs haven't made it into the E-MU range, but you never know.

Maxim Lyadov: Though the good old Sound Blaster brand is known worldwide, today it might have become a synonim of a mediocre product. If someone needs to stress that a certain sound card is not top-notch, he'll probably call it a "sound blaster". Perhaps, it's time to leave this name aside with the rest of old products, AC'97 codecs? There is probably some marketing need to use this name, isn't there?

Darragh O'Toole: Good point, but Sound Blaster is still a very well known brand with a lot of history and association, it's almost become retro at this stage, so I don't think you're likely to see that change although it might get a new lick of paint. We haven't created another sub-brand to differentiate our high end Sound Blasters, but have always provided a high end range whether it was Audigy eX or X-Fi Elite Pro and it has worked successfully to date.

While you're unlikely to see ads for soundcards on MTV or during the superbowl, your best supporters are your end users and gamers who use and recommend the cards so the key is to keep on creating the best possible products for your target audience and ensuring they are always satisfied.

Maxim Lyadov: As we know, many people would like to use sound cards exclusively for music playback. And by this I don't mean cheap PC speakers in the audio path. Such users needs stereo output of the highest quality, without any crystalizers. For many years now Creative hasn't released any audiophile products. For this reason, many buy E-MU cards just to play music with the best DACs available. At that, some comfort features of gaming sound cards are lost. Other people are quite pleased with products of completely different manufacturers in terms of music playback. What do you think about this? How many such people might there be? Will Creative advance in this direction somehow? Is Elite Pro, the card which is the most related to this question, successful?

Darragh O'Toole: Elite Pro has always been a successful product as there are always people who demand the very best and compared to high end graphics cards it's not an unreasonable purchase. One key item to remember is that the majority of content being played back on a PC is compressed content, be it YouTube, streaming radio/music, MP3, DIVX, so although purists might object to any processing whatsoever (and I'm generally a tone purist!) the fact that X-Fi Crystalizer is a dynamic "make it sound better" button is a big plus and one of those "comfort" features that are very handy. Auzentech and others have been catering for this profile of user so you can draw from that that there are enough audiophile users out there to justify creating cards specifically for their needs. It's something we're continually reviewing, but I don't have any fixed plans in place at present that I can share, but if we make one, I'll make sure you get one. :)

Maxim Lyadov: Thank you for the detailed answers!

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