Different people want different things from their headphone experience, let’s get that out there right now. Some people avoid any sort of digital signal processing (DSP) at all costs, looking instead to hear the signal as it truly is, with no modification whatsoever. That’s a perfectly valid approach, one well-suited to high-quality content and high-end sources, as well as for audio professionals. If, however, you’re looking for an effective way to enhance your personal audio both at home and on the go, then step right up to Creative’s inaugural Super X-Fi squad.
Creative is launching this new lineup with different products (sold separately) that, from what I can see, offer consumers distinct use-case scenarios. The Creative SXFI AIR Super X-Fi Bluetooth Headphones are at once the more versatile–they connect via standard headphone mini-cable, USB and Bluetooth, plus they have an integrated microSD card slot to function as an independent music player–and less agnostic solution. I say “less agnostic” since the SXFI AMP Super X-Fi Amplifier (review coming soon), by contrast, will work with any headphones packing a 3.5” mini-plug, and it even arrives pre-loaded with a vast library of profiles to customize the sound to various brands/models of cans or ‘buds. The AIR headphones are intended for use with iPhone, Android, Windows, macOS, PS4 and Nintendo Switch, plus they’re compatible with anything that has a stereo mini-jack, of course.
Customization is key to the Super X-Fi philosophy. SXFI AIR is available in black or white, both of them with funky glowing LED rings over the ears. The colors communicate what’s presently going on (power-up, pairing, etc.) but can also be set to user preferences, with about 16 million shades at our disposal. There’s also the SXFI AIR C USB Headset, a less expensive USB/non-Bluetooth version with a more pronounced boom microphone, in black only. (Does the C stand for “cheaper”?) The free downloadable SXFI app for iPhone and Android takes the experience further still, establishing an account that can be shared across the phone and the computer. Completing setup on the phone is mostly easy, with a series of right-to-the-point steps, some quick and some a little less so. Leaving nothing to chance, Creative invites us to photograph our ears and our face, the unique shapes of which can impact on our listening. Once our head map is captured and the data has been crunched by onboard AI, it is added to our account and will be available to all linked Super X-Fi products moving forward. I do need to wait a few seconds to upload my Super X-Fi profile to the headphones every time I first connect via USB, much longer over BT: a pity they can’t “remember” my info.
The level of Super X-Fi enhancement per se is not adjustable, our only choices are on or off (press the physical button or click within the app), although both the smartphone and the PC SXFI Control apps have their own EQ function for further tuning, arriving switched off and defaulting to “Flat” mode. There are Classical, Pop, Game and Cinema modes as well, plus we can finesse the treble and bass settings to create our own custom modes. The review sample arrived a few days too late for me to take them on a recent plane trip, but no matter: Active noise cancellation is not one of their functions.
Back Away from the Ear Canal
The proprietary magic here is the Super X-Fi UltraDSP chip which is built into the AIR headphones. Creative has a long history with such technology, going all the way back to their famous Sound Blaster sound cards, dating back almost 30 years. The goal then is the goal now, to recreate audio closer to the way people actually hear it in the real world. In the past that has meant virtualization—essentially making educated, real-time guesses as to how our audio should sound—combined with keen application of head-related transfer function (HRTF) and so on.
The final frontier has been, appropriately enough… space. Well, perhaps more accurately it’s distance: Because musicians don’t perform right next to our head, and the events of our favorite movies can happen all around us, Creative’s challenge was to move the soundfield outside of the two earcups at their disposal, and beyond the relatively narrow bubble they render. Too often in the past, the desired effect was approximated with the application of simple reverb, which of course can adversely affect the character of the sound. Done right, virtualization and positional audio can create a convincing surround illusion, but the depth and distance remained the toughest nut, cracked here by Creative’s combination of head mapping for each listener, signal analysis, and interpretation. All of that data is then mated with the parameters of a pre-determined theoretical, ideal listening room, and all executed with low power consumption so that the ‘phones don’t die prematurely when we’re out and about.
In truth, I hadn’t extensively used USB-connected headphones in the past, in part because I’m not much of a PC gamer these days, but I’m excited by the possibilities that they open up. I downloaded the SXFI Control app for Windows, signed in and it automatically uploaded my personal parameters. After a little tinkering with the settings of my Windows 10 desktop PC and PowerDVD player, I was able to feed the headphones the full 7.1 audio stream from Blu-rays via USB. This is obviously a very high-quality signal to begin with, the information is definitely baked in by some of Hollywood’s finest mixers, therefore there’s less “heavy lifting” for the DSP chip to do, so I was listening for differences in the overall A/B experience (with/without Super X-Fi).
The variations on the “Ring of Fire” combat scene in Aquaman on Blu-ray were subtle. In general, the soundstage felt bigger and a bit more lush with Super X-Fi on, displaying details that seemed to linger in the vast underwater space. The 360-degree arena and the seething firepit came alive with a grander sense of depth and scale. Without Super X-Fi, the sound tells the story adequately, but it all sounds a good deal flatter, that is, two-dimensional.
The Air Force One rescue sequence in Iron Man III, meanwhile, boasts oodles of directional audio, but it’s all muddled down to a simple stereo rendering without Super X-Fi, whereas Super X-Fi tends to individualize each element in the soundtrack. It’s not necessarily placing the voices, jets and explosions in their precise spots in three dimensions, rather lifting them all up and away from our ears in a most enjoyable way, with the music rising and falling more dramatically to frame the scene. That’s a pretty neat trick, considering that the drivers are still in the exact same place they were before, just delivering the sound in a different way. I liken it to the manner in which an image rises off of the page in a pop-up book, expanding and separating to become something new and out of the ordinary.
Streaming and other lesser-quality video sources showed a more pronounced enhancement with Super X-Fi active, owing to more aggressive signal analysis and interpretation. There’s no mention of bass in the purported benefits, but I detected a slight uptick in LFE power and sharpness as well.
I pulled out my phone’s 200GB microSD card, loaded with a few hundred of my favorite MP3 and FLAC tracks, and popped into the slot on the left earcup. To my surprise, once I tapped the source button to switch to “SD card input” (confirmed vocally), the first track—as automatically determined by the file name, alphabetically—began playing, despite the vast clutter of other content in my various Android folders. I can skip forward or back with a simple swipe of the touchpad (on the face of the left earcup, where all the action is), but here’s the thing: I’m taken back to the days of my iPod Shuffle, when I had to navigate mostly from memory: Who’s this artist? What’s this album? What’s this song? Does the file name start with a word, or a track number? I don’t have a solution to suggest, because a little LCD in the side wouldn’t help since we can’t see it when the SXFI AIR is in place. Perhaps a synthesized voice reading each file name? There’s also a welcome shuffle mode for the music player.
To manage the inserted card in as few steps as possible, we can put the headphones into mass storage mode when connected to the PC via USB, simply by tapping and holding the touchpad for a few seconds. It then appears as a new USB drive on the desktop, and we can add/remove/manage tracks however we see fit.
Music, Music, Music
Without Super X-Fi, music sounds like a person is singing directly into our ears, or a tiny band is living inside the cans. With Super X-Fi, we’re offered the interesting illusion that the band is up on a stage several feet in front of us, the singer and individual instruments placed properly apart, while and the sound approaches from the air around us.
For affordability, selection and convenience, it’s tough to beat YouTube for streaming music. One noun conspicuously absent from that list is quality, which makes YT the ideal destination as a Super X-Fi proving ground. More than a few of the 150M views of Robert Miles’ seminal “Children” are mine, so I have a good ear for this cut, but after an A/B comparison I became more keenly aware of its ceiling in this format, as if the should-be-airy trebles eventually move sideways instead of continuing their upward trajectory. With Super X-Fi, it’s suddenly like driving with the top down, and it’s heavenly.
That was a common theme in my tests, discovering limits I didn’t fully appreciate were there all along, then overcoming them. Without, drum hits often seem muffled; with, I had a greater sense of the impacts, which were more fully realized. In fact, in one of my go-to demo tracks, what had always been a vague thump finally became recognizable as an actual drum for the first time, thanks to Super X-Fi. Secondary instruments that seemed to be hiding are now given the chance to come out and play, no longer relegated to the sonic shadows, while electronic instruments seem to sound less noisy and more musical.
Vocals in particular now tend to sound constricted without enhancement, but are allowed to blossom with Super X-Fi’s help. Creative recommended an old mono clip featuring the great Ella Fitzgerald in concert, her exquisite throatiness now given room to flex, finally. The crowd too seemed to expand from a so-so night at a jazz club to a full house at The Beacon. Although it’s not really in our wheelhouse here at TheaterByte, for fun I tried a couple of phone calls and sure enough, the voices went from firing directly into my ear to the illusion that the caller was sitting across the room from me, a dramatic effect indeed. Worth mentioning is that on the same music and movie content, the experience is basically identical regardless of how I connected to phone or computer, wired or wireless, but for some minor lip-synch issues when watching mobile video via Bluetooth. To be fair, I’ve noticed the same with other wireless headphones as well.
Of more concern is a sometimes-noticeable reverb effect, particularly during quieter passages, even on some already excellent FLAC files. It’s slight but it can appear, discovered after listening to many tracks, many times. Conversely, it actually lessened the reverb inherent to the opening seconds of “Stairway to Heaven,” while also reducing the delicate play of the strings from the left channel into the right. Make no mistake, it does change what we are hearing.
After almost eight solid hours my first day wearing AIR, I experienced minimal discomfort at the top of my dome. The padding in the headband is barely there, but the weight is nigh-feathery despite impressive build quality. The earcups are encircled by soft memory foam wrapped in a breathable synthetic mesh, reportedly replaceable in the future, and the tension across the head has been calibrated to feel good while assuring a secure fit.
- Dramatic spatial enhancement
- Sophisticated touch controls
- Remarkably versatile
- All-or-nothing effect can be noticeable to the point of distraction
- No case included
Anyone looking to enhance their audio in a significant, sophisticated way would do well to check out the new Creative Super X-Fi AIR Headphones. Offering undeniable improvement particularly on compressed, lower-quality audio with minimal downside, they deliver a complete solution with a deep feature set at a price that’s hard to resist.
What’s in the Box:
- SXFI AIR Headphones
- 2m USB-A/USB-C cable
- 5m 3.5mm audio cable
- Microphone (removable, with protective rubber plug)
- Quick Start Guide
- 1-Year Limited Warranty
Specs for SXFI AIR:
- Interface: USB, Bluetooth 4.2, 3.5mm Stereo Input, microSD Card (up to 32GB, FAT32 file system)
- Available Colors: Black, White
- Frequency Response: 20 Hz ~ 20 kHz
- Impedance: 32 ohms
- Microphone Frequency Response: 100Hz ~ 8KHz
- Weight: 11.9 oz./338g
- Driver: 50 mm (1.97 inches) Neodymium magnet
- Battery Type/Life: Rechargeable Lithium Ion, up to 10 hours
- microSD Card Music Player Supported Formats: MP3, WMA, WAV and FLAC
The SXFI AIR Super X-Fi Bluetooth Headphones are available for purchase now at various retailers or directly from Creative Labs
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