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Creative Super X-Fi Headphone Amp Review - Science-Based Surround Sound

Christopher Coke Posted:
Category:
Hardware Reviews 0

Let’s face it, virtual surround sound can be hit or miss. At its best, it makes environments feel big and true to what you’re seeing on the screen. At worst, it can actively make gameplay worse by making you lose position and direction - the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do! Today, we’re looking at an exciting innovation from Creative Labs with the Super X-Fi Headphone Amp. It studies your bone structure and the shape of your very ears to deliver surround sound tailored specifically to you. But does it work? Join us as we find out!

Specifications

  • Current Price: $149.99
  • Amplification:
  • Gain: 3X
  • Max Power (16 ohm): 425 mW
  • Max Power (32 ohm): 370 mW
  • Max Power (300 ohm): 51 mW
  • Max Power (600 ohm): 26 mW
  • Connectivity: PC/Mac/High Sierra Linux, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Mobile, Android 7.0+, USB (Low-jitter Asynchronous USB UAC2)
  • Product Type: Wired
  • Chassis: Aluminium Unibody
  • Finish: Matte-Black Fine-Textured Anodized
  • Dimensions (In inches): 0.4 (D) x 0.7 (W) x 2.6 (H)
  • Weight: 15 g
  • Connector: (Input) USB Type-C, (Output) 3.5 mm TRRS jack

Good things come in small packages. The Creative SXFI amplifier is tiny, less than three inches long and under an inch wider, so already it has something going for it. Having used a number of portable headphone amps, the biggest inconvenience is the extra bulk and extra wires they add to your pocket. Here, the amp connects directly to the USB-C or Micro-USB port on your phone and you connect your headphones directly to the amp, turning it into an in-line remote that changes your audio experience.

The name of the game here isn’t just boosting the volume (though it certainly does that). Despite its simple looks and controls, there’s actually a lot going on under the hood. First off, for you audiophiles out there, there’s a complete high-end AKM 4377 32-bit DAC built in capable of 120dB signal-to-noise ratio and 0.0003% total harmonic distortion. In layman's terms, that means that the amp is able to produce an exceptionally clean signal with no buzzing or white noise to get in the way or your game or music. It also supports high-res audio up to 24-bit/96 kHz with enough power to drive headphones up to 600 ohms. The average gaming headset or consumer set of headphones is usually <50 ohms, so it should have no trouble driving any pair of headphones you might throw at it.

The more exciting tech comes in something Creative calls “audio holography.” It’s a new take on surround sound that tailors itself to the listener. While traditional surround sound works through positional algorithms, it doesn’t take into account the differences in how individuals perceive sound. Your bone structure and the shape of your ear aren’t considered at all and yet are two of the most important elements to how any of us interpret sound. Super X-Fi addresses that head on.

Take Pictures of Your Face and Ear

One of the first things you’ll need to do when setting up your amp is to download the SXFI app from the Google Play Store. Yes, that does mean you’ll need a smartphone to make easy use of the amp’s surround features,  so know that going in. When you get through the process of creating an account, you’ll be prompted to take a clear picture of your face, free of glasses, hats, of bangs. The app uses this picture to interpret your individual bone structure. Then, you’ll need to take a picture of your ear at a 90-degree angle - get help. It’s tricky and makes a difference. This is used to track the crenellations of your ear.

Finally, you have to choose your headphone from a certified list. There are dozens already included and tested to work but the tech should work with any headphones. It did with several non-certified pairs I tried, like my V-Moda Crossfade IIs. For the purpose of our testing, Creative sent over their Aurvana Live SE headphones which were, of course, certified.

After you’re set up, your unique SXFI profile is saved to the device and can be taken anywhere, from your Android phone to your PS4 or Nintendo Switch to your gaming PC. On PC, you can also log into your SXFI account and swap profiles on the fly. This is useful if you like to use a different headset for gaming than when you’re on the move with your phone.

Does it Work?

Yes, and surprisingly well. It’s difficult to describe in a way that adequately shows the difference between normal 7.1 surround sound and what the SXFI delivers, but allow me to try.

Imagine normal surround sound as two boxes, one covering each ear. Within those boxes, sounds can come from the front, middle, or rear of the box and combine for the center channel and subwoofer. At its best, it widens the soundscape and gives you better positioning but is still clearly coming from different points on the same two boxes. Picture this as a 2D image of a headphone wearer with three circles on each ear.

Creative’s audio holography, on the other hand, adds depth to that 2D image. The first thing you notice when enabling SXFI is the sound immediately widening and that’s because, conceptually, we’ve taken those speakers outside of the box and placed them physically around you, just like a true home theater setup. You don’t lose quality or positionality or detail; the soundscape expands naturally and encompasses you in a way I’ve never heard before.

As you might imagine, this kind of effect is elevating for any kind of content. I’ve used it with music and movies and it’s exceptionally good. I’ve used it in games and the heightened directionality has been perfect for games like PUBG and Apex Legends. The wider soundscape and separation of sounds is really what sells it though. No matter what you’re listening to, Super X-Fi makes it sound bigger.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues. One thing I noticed is that EQ settings I’d once been happy with needed to be tweaked. Sometimes, I’d feel like I needed to re-EQ for different songs or games. In truth, this isn’t uncommon, that’s why every music player has presets for different kinds of music, but as a “set it and forget it” kind of guy, it was a bit more tweaking than I expected.

Likewise, while most types of content worked very well, every now and again I’d come across a song where it was less pronounced. I’m not audio-savvy enough to know why this would be, but it happened several times and was noticeable pretty quickly with each.

Final Thoughts

Overall though, whether you cotton to the “audio holography” term or not, there’s no mistaking that Creative has done something impressive here. The surround sound experience they’ve been able to deliver is simply one of the best out there to date. At $149, it’s an expensive piece of kit, but the simple in-line design and multi-device compatibility make it a great choice to increase your aural quality of life.

Pros

  • Quality surround sound tailored to you
  • Easy to set up and take on the go
  • Less cumbersome than other portable amps
  • Works across multiple devices

Cons

  • A bit pricey
  • Requires a smartphone
  • Draws on your phone’s battery

The product discussed in this review was provided by the manufacturer.


GameByNight

Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight