Creative Super X-Fi AIR Review: Spatial Audio Done Right
Get the Creative Super X-Fi AIR if you need a new pair of headphones to use at home or in the office and crave the spatial audio experience. Reconsider if you want to heavily use them on-the-go, need noise-cancellation, or value a long battery life.
Immersive surround sound, packed into a pair of comfortable headphones; it’s the quiet audiophile’s dream. Creative’s Super X-Fi Headphone Holography technology promises to deliver just that. We received an impressive demo of the technology at CES 2020 and took home a pair of Creative SXFI AIR headphones, valued at $159.99, to put them through the test. Here’s what we found.
Creative SXFI AIR Specifications
- Design: closed over-ear
- Drivers: 50mm Neodymium magnet
- Frequency Response: 20Hz-20,000Hz
- Impedance: 32 ohms
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, USB-C, Line-in
- MicroSD Card Slot: supports MP3, WMA, WAV, and FLAC formats
- Microphone: detachable NanoBoom microphone
- Colors: white and black, plus 16.7 million colors for the RGB ear-cup rings
- Weight: 338g (11.9oz)
- Battery Life: up to 10 hours
- Charging time: 2.5 hours
- Price: RRP $159.99, on sale for $139.99 at the time of writing
The SXFI AIR wireless over-ear headphones are fairly lightweight for their size (11.9oz or 338g). Each side of the headband expands up to 1.5inches (4cm) and the ear cups swivel slightly to provide a perfect fit for any head size or shape. The foam-cushioned headband and ear cups complete a comfortable experience.
Creative placed all control options on the left ear cup and an RGB light strip graces the outer edge of both cups. The light comes on when you’re using the headphones and you can customize the colors via the SXFI AIR Control app. Unfortunately, this is a separate app from the one you’ll need to set up your Super X-Fi profile; more on that below.
Overall, the Creative SXFI AIR headphones appear bulky and the absence of a folding mechanism means they’ll take up lots of space in your bag. The lack of active noise-cancellation makes them work best in a quiet environment. That said, the build quality appears solid enough to tolerate an active lifestyle.
Headphone Ports and Controls
Along the rim of the left ear cup you’ll find (from front to back):
- on/off button
- detachable NanoBoom microphone
- USB-C port
- 3.5mm AUX jack
- source selection (Bluetooth, USB, or SD card)
- microSD card slot
- Super X-Fi toggle
The touchpad on the side of the left ear cup lets you control playback and volume or accept calls.
The NanoBoom microphone plugs into its own 3.5mm AUX jack and you can replace it with a better quality gaming microphone if you like. Alternatively, you can take it out and plug up the port.
Two things make these headphones special: the built-in Super X-Fi technology (see below) and the audio source options. The USB-C charging port doubles as audio input for your PC, Mac, PS4, or Nintendo Switch. In addition to Bluetooth and the standard 3.5mm AUX jack, the SXFI AIR also functions as its own audio player when you insert a microSD card; a rare feature in headphones.
How Does Super X-Fi Work?
Super X-Fi is an AI-based technology that uses acoustic modeling to create the impression of spatial audio inside a pair of headphones. The technology is backed up by decades of research.
The perception of sound is incredibly subjective and depends, in no small part, on the shape of your outer ears. Scientists refer to this circumstance as head-related transfer function (HRTF).
“Humans have just two ears, but can locate sounds in three dimensions – in range (distance), in direction above and below (elevation), in front and to the rear, as well as to either side (azimuth). This is possible because the brain, inner ear and the external ears (pinna) work together to make inferences about location.” Source: Wikipedia
Software can simulate those spatial cues, if it knows enough of the listener’s personal HRTF. Creative uses either an in-ear acoustic measurement or a picture-based head map to feed its AI with that data, which then calculates a custom-fit audio profile for every user. Once you’ve connected your SXFI profile, the SXFI software can crunch incoming audio to sound like you were using a surround sound speaker setup.
In early 2020, Creative launched Gen2 of its AI, which brought a range of improvements to Super X-Fi, including the preservation of more sound details, better audio fidelity, clearer sound signature, and higher positioning accuracy, which is key for movies and games.
“At the beginning, our user profile base was in the range of tens of thousands. Over the past year, riding on the successful launch of Super X-Fi, we have accumulated hundreds of thousands of user profiles. This significant jump in real-world data has provided us with the capacity for more research, and importantly, it has enabled us to train the Super X-Fi AI engine to be even more accurate in personalizing the audio experience for our users. This was key in our development of the Super X-Fi Gen2 profile.” —Lee Teck Chee, Vice-President of Technology at Creative and inventor of Super X-Fi
The Gen2 engine also features more efficient power consumption. As a result, the SXFI AIR headphones gained more than 10% battery life. This explains why our headphones, using Bluetooth, lasted for a little more than the advertised 10 hours; a pleasant surprise. I also should note that the headphones turn off rather quickly when not in use. And every single time that happens, I’m startled by the voice that seemingly pops up right next to me to announce “powering off”.
While the SXFI AIR are excellent all-around headphones, you shouldn’t use them for first-person-shooter (FPS) games. Instead, look into the the SXFI GAMER headset, which runs a Super X-Fi engine designed specifically for the FPS-specific sound environment.
How to Create Your Super X-Fi Profile
The spatial audio experience generated by the Super X-Fi AI incorporates your head shape into its calculations. To create your custom profile, you can use the SXFI App to take pictures of your face and ears. Download the SXFI App (Android, iOS), create an account, and log in. Under Personalize, click Start Head Mapping, and follow the on-screen instructions.
We found that the quality of the pictures had an impact on the resulting audio. So make sure you take the pictures with sufficiently good lighting. It’s also easier when you can get someone else to take your pictures for you.
Once you have created your profile, connect your SXFI AIR headphones to your phone via Bluetooth. Then return to Personalize and select your profile. The app will automatically sync your data to the connected headphones. Now you’re ready to enjoy 3D spatial audio.
There’s a second way to create your personal profile. When you’re lucky enough to receive a SXFI demo, as we did at CES 2020, they will measure your personal audio perception using an in-ear microphone. Creative said they might offer this acoustic measurement as a premium service in the future. Until then, you’ll have to use the app.
The SXFI Sound Experience
Creative’s Super X-Fi demo at CES 2020 blew us away. For the demo, we were using Creative’s SXFI AMP with a pair of generic headphones. At one point during the setup, I briefly thought I heard an audio cue from an external speaker. When I remembered I was already wearing headphones, I was sold on the technology and the remaining demonstration convinced me further.
Bluetooth vs. Wired Connection
The experience we had during the demo was outstanding. And at first, I couldn’t quite replicate it with the SXFI AIR headphones, although I used the higher quality audio profiles created during the demo. However, when I switched from Bluetooth to wired audio transmission via USB and from Spotify to a high quality audio source, the sound improved dramatically.
Note: If you have a Spotify subscription, you’ll be streaming at up to 320 kbps (vs. 160 kbps for free users). Make sure you set the streaming quality to “very high” in your Spotify settings.
Unfortunately, Creative opted for the low-quality SBC codec for wireless streaming. Its maximum transfer rate is 320 kbps, making it just good enough for Spotify, though you may experience data loss. SBC simply won’t let you enjoy the full audio quality provided by a non-lossy format like FLAC.
In-ear Measurement vs. Head Map Audio Profile
Personally, I could tell a difference in quality between the audio profile generated during CES and the app-based audio profile. It was more subtle when I took the head map pictures in great lighting. Creative says that the picture-based audio profile reaches about 90% of the accuracy of an in-ear measurement.
Music vs. Entertainment vs. Calls
I most enjoyed the SXFI AIR headphones when listening to music. With default settings, it gives rock and pop songs a club-like sound with good bass and a satisfying 3D effect. For classical music, the overall quality and spatial audio effect were even more convincing.
Audio calls were the least pleasant as the speaker on the other end sounded tinny. Movies and TV shows were somewhere in the middle. I couldn’t shake off the “sound in a can” impression, but the spatial effects were clearly audible.
If you’re not satisfied with the sound, be sure to download the SXFI AIR Control app (Android, iOS) and use the Equalizer to customize your audio experience. It comes with presets for movies, games, as well as classical and pop music. Within this app, you can also disable or customize your AIR’s RGB ring lights.
It’s regrettable that you need a separate app to create your audio profile, but once that’s done, you’ll only need the SXFI AIR Control app to switch between existing profiles and customize your headphone settings.
How Does the SXFI AIR Compare?
Creative isn’t the only company that has come out with a spatial audio product.
Sony 360 Reality Audio
At IFA 2019 in Berlin, we received a quick demo of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio , which also uses a head map to generate a custom audio profile. While Sony’s object-based spatial audio technology works with any headphones and commands no additional hardware, it doesn’t work with any old audio source. 360 Reality Audio is its own music format.
Presently, you’ll need a subscription to a premium music streaming service like Deezer or Tidal, before you can access Sony’s 3D audio format. You’ll also need to use its mobile app to create your custom audio profile. In other words, you’re limited to music available on a streaming service via your smartphone. On the bright side, you can opt for an affordable monthly subscription and see how you like the effect.
During our demo in Berlin, we were impressed with the clarity of the 3D effect, but we noticed a drop in bass compared to the unaltered track.
This mobile surround solution is part of the audio decoders found in many surround sound gaming headsets, including the HyperX Cloud series. You can get a HyperX Cloud II surround sound headset for as little as $99.
The Dolby Headphone technology has been around for over twenty years. Like Creative’s Super X-Fi, it applies HRTFs, but it went with a one-size-fits-all model that lacks user-specific customization.
Our Super X-Fi AIR Verdict
The SXFI AIR are a great pair of headphones for audiophiles who desire an immersive listening experience for music, entertainment, and non-FPS gaming. These headphones will let you privately enjoy surround sound, without bothering your neighbors.
However, the audio quality suffers when using Bluetooth or low-quality audio files, which is why we can only recommend the SXFI AIR if you’re prepared to use a wired connection or can transfer your media to a microSD card. Moreover, given that the headphones don’t offer active noise-cancellation (ANC), the battery life is slightly disappointing. The lack of ANC also limits their use in public spaces.
Get the Creative Super X-Fi AIR if you crave the spatial audio experience in a quiet environment and don’t mind its limitations.
If you already have a great pair of headphones, but want to experience the Super X-Fi sound, try the SXFI AMP, priced at $149.99. It contains the same technology, but it’s completely wired, using USB input from your phone, computer, or gaming console, and a 3.5mm audio jack output to your headphones.