Sound Cards: Creative Labs, and Alternatives

The last few days have seen a lot of negative press surrounding the largest sound card manufacturer on the block, Creative Labs. Here's a little background on what's happened:

Creative Labs has had a near-monopoly on the sound card market for a long time. Barring onboard sound controllers (like those integrated into almost all Nvidia and Intel based chipsets), Creative cards make up an overwhelming majority of audio cards currently in use. Creative has not done a very good job of getting Windows Vista sound drivers working which offer the same amount of features that their XP drivers have had. A lot of people have been really frustrated by this, since their expensive audio cards weren't working or were giving reduced functionality.

In comes Daniel Kawakami, who decides to write his own audio drivers for his creative card. According to his emails, Creative was actually deliberately modifying the Audigy drivers to disable some features when Vista is detected and were purposefully preventing some of the XP utilities from running. Some of these features include: Dolby/DTS, CMSS/CMSS2, Advanced EQ and FX, DVD Audio, and some other things. The drivers that Daniel_K was making worked well in Vista and enabled a lot of the functionality that users lost when they upgraded from Windows XP.  He wasn't charging for them, but he did have a donation link on his website.

The big hullabaloo started up last week when Creative sent Daniel_K a request to stop producing and distributing these drivers. The general gist is that Creative is looking to protect their intellectual property. They wrote "By enabling our technology and IP to run on sound cards for which it was not originally offered or intended, you are in effect, stealing our goods”. They went on to say that choosing to disable certain features of their sound cards in Vista is “a business decision that only we have the right to make”. A business decision indeed! According to Daniel_K, a lot of the disabled features were re-enabled in a software package called “Alchemy X-Fi”, which you had to buy, even if you were already an X-Fi owner.

Well, this got a lot of folks pretty mad, and there's been a lot of Internet chatter over the last few days about the whole issue. Websites and petitions have already started cropping up. The topic has hit Slashdot, Digg, and even Creative's forums are slammed with angry customers and nasty feedback. In general, word is getting around and people aren't really happy about it.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of Creative Labs. They've been, to date, the most frustrating company that I've dealt with in this industry. A few years back, I was really trying to get some information regarding the pin layout for the front panel connectors on the Audigy2 cards, and trying to get any resolution from Creative was impossible. I'd call them every Friday afternoon, and the conversation would go roughly like this:

Creative: “Hello, how can I help you”.
Me: “Hi, My name is Richard. I called last week looking for some information about the front panel connectors on the Audigy2 cards, and was promised a call back. I never got that call back, so I was calling in to get some information from you. I need to know about getting front panel connectivity on your Audigy2 Sound Cards.”
Creative: “Um, okay. I don't have any of that information right now, but I'll get you a call back right away about that.”
Me: “Yeah, you said that last week, and the week before, and the week before, and I've never gotten my call back.”
Creative: “Well, okay. I'll make sure you get a call back this time.”
Me: “You said that last week too…”
Creative: “Have a nice day sir”.

This, or something close to it, happened every week for about 4 months before I gave up. This is the sort of thing that alienates a customer for life. You'd think that as system builder who was selling hundreds of machines with their product, they'd have at least given us the time of day.

That anecdote aside, Creative has always had terrible software and driver policies. They don't release standalone drivers, but rather bundle them up in giant, bloated software packages filled with a bunch of software that I don't want on my computer. I'm obviously not alone. The massive outpouring of anger towards Creative is purely a result of their poor business practices. Obviously a lot of people have been really frustrated with Creative for a while, and this Daniel_K situation was just the catalyst to set them off.

Competition is good for the consumer. I believe a lot of the reason Creative is as unhelpful as they are, is that they've never really had any direct competition in the audio card market. There's no reason to innovate new products, or offer good service when you don't really have any competitors nipping at your heels. I hope that a lot of people take a look at some alternative sound cards now. It'll be good for everyone – even Creative. For example, look at Intel. Since they had strong competition from AMD, they've actually been forced to innovate much better products, and be much more competitive with their pricing. The consumer wins.

This boycott isn't going to kill Creative or anything close to it (although their stock may suffer a bit), but it could send a few thousand customers to a different hardware supplier. M-Audio, Turtle Beach, and a lot of other companies have been doing good work in the sound card market for a while now, but have remained completely in the shadow of Creative. A good influx of sales to these alternate brands will be good for them, and hopefully they can expand to fill the hole of support and service that has been left by Creative.

I've been really delighted with the newest sound cards from Asus. They're a great card. The drivers are solid, the cards are well built, and the audio quality is great. (However, they do lack any front panel audio support, which is really disappointing.) The Xonar does 24-bit audio output, 7.1 surround, and has the lowest noise floor of most consumer level sound cards. It's a great little unit.

In a fantasy world, I'd love to see Creative follow the lead of ATI and AMD, and release their sound card spec's for open source drivers. Also, while I'm dreaming, I'd like a pony.