After 6 months since the last preview, Creative Labs has finally began sales of the SXFI Headphone Amp which promises audio holographic sound. Pre-order sale began on 24 September 2018 at 6.34pm and according to Creative, more than 600 units were sold within 2 hours. I placed an order on the website, and for S$219, it comes with a free Aurvana SE headphones.
I collected mine on 9 Oct 2018 at the Creative HQ, where they conducted a demo for new owners. Since I have already went through the session during the March preview, I skipped the demo session. At the same time, I bought the E-MU Teak Audiophile Reference Headphones, which was selling at a promo price S$649 and comes with another free SXFI Amp. This headphones offer was only made known on 5 October when the on-site collection commenced, but the deal is so attractive for a premium headphones, so I had to buy it. The next question is: what do I do with my original order? I managed to find a buyer who is more than happy to buy directly from me without waiting 2 weeks if he were to order only now (thanks, Carousell!).
Super X-Fi Amp: What Is It For?
The audio industry has numerous multi-channel surround formats for home speaker systems, and even developed virtual surround effects for headphones. The SXFI does not aim to replace any existing multi-channel technology. It’s primary purpose is to make headphones audio sound like it’s coming from outside your ears through external speakers in a natural environment. Creative calls it “holographic audio”. Whether you will find this product useful depends on whether you think the above statement in bold is something you are interested in.
The SXFI Amp is the first product developed by Creative to allow audio devices to playback the holographic audio through USB. Essentially, it is a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) with audio chip to convert USB digital signal into analog audio. The Amp has 4 buttons: the large button to enable-disable SXFI mode, the volume buttons and a play-pause button.
To get started, the Creative SXFI App will take photos of the listener’s left ear, right ear, and face. After the profile is created, the listener selects the correct headphone model from the menu, which will further improve the audio result. All these settings will be uploaded to the SXFI Amp, afterwhich you can plug the device on any USB-Audio supported device – desktop, laptop, PS4, iPhone – to listen without the need of any app.
In future, the SXFI audio processor may make its way into other hardware products. The immediate product that Creative is launching is SXFI Air, a wireless headphone to allow iPhone users to enjoy holographic audio without wires.
Does It Work For Me?
6 months ago during the preview event, I tried the demo content and had mixed response. I was impressed, but I was not completely wowed. Still, I believed in its potential, so I ordered one for myself instead of waiting for Creative to arrange for review units (if they ever arrange).
My verdict? Yes it works, and let me explain how and why.
Stereo 2-Channel Music
What SXFI Amp does is to make the headphone audio sound like it’s coming from a pair of speakers in front of you. And for my case, it achieves this effect rather convincingly. As far as I know, none of the casual “room effect” software manipulation in the market – studio room mode, concert hall mode, and all that crap – could achieve this “external speakers” result as good as SXFI Amp.
With standard stereo mode, the songs that you listen over headphones have distinct instrumental placement and intimate details, but essentially the sound staging comes from inside the head, near your face, or at the sides of your ears. not exactly how they are engineered to sound (unless recorded with binaural recording method). Say, if you listen to a symphonic performance in a concert hall, the instruments should sound like they come from a few metres in front of your face, not surrounding you.
With the SXFI Amp, the exact same songs will appear to come from a pair of speakers a few metres in front of your face. In the best case scenario, you can achieve the holy grail moment where you can hear musical sources from the front plane delivering cohesive audio imagery, just like listening through loudspeakers. In some less-than-perfect audio tracks, the audio can sound a little hazy, a little excessive room reverb, frequency balance a little off. In the worse case scenario, this sound staging could sound flat, as if played through a lousy mono speaker. During my initial on-boarding setup, I was dismayed with the loss of audio details. But when I tried other headphone profiles, I found that the “Sennheiser HD650” profile works better than the “E-MU Teak” profile with greater treble clarity and less bloomy midrange.
After listening music over SXFI Amp for a few minutes, your ears would grow accustomed to the new audio experience which feels more natural and less claustrophobic. Then when you switch back to the normal stereo mode, it felt as if you were woken up from your dream and back to “reality”. The reality might not be all that bad, actually. In some cases, when I switch back and forth, I thought I prefer the clarity and details of the standard stereo version, but I definitely prefer the sound staging of SXFI Amp. Go ahead and run through your music collection and even YouTube videos and see if you can experience a different musical experience. Tracks with a more neutral frequency mix (i.e. not too bright treble and not too boomy bass) and less lossy compression will work better.
Multi-Channel Music and Video on Smartphones
Here’s where it gets more interesting. Multi-channel formats are dominated by Dolby, DTS and THX, hence they have developed special software decoders, in many cases, built into smartphones, to deliver surround sound experience over headphones. On the
LG G7+ with built-in DTS:X 3D Surround, I compared the same video file (5.1 audio) to SXFI Amp, and the latter is clearly better, but without comparing side-by-side, the DTS version is not that bad really. I played the same video via the PC desktop, which I felt achieved even more realistic sound staging.
Moving on to audio recording, if you compare an audio file in 2-channel vs. 5.1 channel, the latter definitely sounds more surround, with better instrumental separation and placement. Depending on the recording engineer, the effect might not be very distinct.
Multi-Channel Music and Video on PC
Creative Labs have released an app to personalise the SXFI Amp on Windows PC. Click this link to download.
One little known fact is that Android USB Audio can only support two audio channels, unlike desktop OS (e.g. Windows, Mac) that can support multi-channels. This is also a primary reason why when listening to multi-channel files through SXFI Amp on smartphones, the surround effect does not feel it’s night-and-day.
When I plugged the SXFI Amp to my Windows desktop PC, and configured the Speaker Setup as 5.1/7.1 Surround, the multi-channel experience using SXFI Amp gets even better. Here is a link from HWZ Forum on setting up your computer to achieve better surround experience.
Where to get multi-channel content? Here are the sites I get from.
- http://www.2l.no/hires/ – contains hi-resolution audio recordings in different audio formats for comparison.
- https://thedigitaltheater.com/ – contains movie trailers in multi-channel audio formats. For 2-channel formats, you can search and watch on YouTube.
Again I have to stress: it is not easy to determine whether the multi-channel surround effects processed by Creative SXFI Amp is more accurate than Dolby or DTS or THX. SXFI Amp does not use any of these brand decoders to achieve the surround sound, so it is natural to assume that a matching brand decoder will perform better than SXFI Amp. More important question is: do I feel the SXFI Amp surround sound is significantly better compared to the standard stereo channel feed? My answer is a firm YES. Watching movies with multi-channel over SXFI Amp achieves a supremely improved experience compared to standard stereo, and definitely better than generic “virtual surround” modes.
It Does Not Work for Everyone
After over a week of official retail availability via its SXFI website, a lot of audiophiles and enthusiasts in Singapore have bought it, experienced it, and generated a lot of buzz on forums. Many are visibly impressed, others are very disappointed, claiming it as “snake oil”. Why does it cause such polarising response? The answer is that every person perceives sound differently, and this is precisely why there are hundreds of audio brands and thousands of personal audio products, and there is no such thing as a lousy headphones/speakers, because someone on this planet will like the sound it produces. To further add to the complexity of the algorithm, different earphones and headphones sound differently and has its own distinctive audio character. This is something that the product must consider in its computation.
To quote Creative:
To get a natural, magically expansive audio experience that is truly tailor-made for your individuality, audio has to be produced in headphones based on how YOU perceive sound in real life. We use a complex inverse computation on the headphone audio signal to reverse the claustrophobic effect, bringing the source of the sound outside again – so that it sounds natural, just like in the real world.
Like any technology, this “reverse-engineering” technique will not work for all songs or videos. There are billions of audio content, and thousands of audio-capture standards that it is impossible to accurately replicate the right results. Furthermore, everyone owns different headphone models that sound different to one another. I completely understand how some people feels the SXFI Amp does not meet their expectations. It is no different from selling a pair of “the best” headphones where some people will listen to it and say, “nope it doesn’t sound good to me”.
I’m not saying the above to justify for Creative SXFI Amp. I do think it deserves merit for what it is capable of, but if it does not work for some listeners, I just feel that it’s because it is impossible to achieve consistent results for every user. It’s like wearing a VR goggle to experience a roller coaster ride, which will never be the same as sitting on an actual ride in a theme park. Some people feels it’s so real, while others don’t enjoy it at all. Same logic.
There are definitely room for improvement. For instance, the current implementation does not allow user to tweak the profile and sound characteristics. For instance, a user might want to try other head mapping profiles to find one that he feels work for himself. The Amp might not work properly on some smartphones models. In addition, Creative might offer manual calibration service via mics positioned at the ears and using actual 7.1 surround sound system, which will definitely improve the accuracy of the holographic audio mapping.
This is a difficult review for me to conclude, because there is no straight answer to whether SXFI Amp is a great product. Everyone interprets audio differently, everyone uses different brand of headphones, and everyone has different head and ear shapes. On top of that, there are so many audio content with different recording methods. All these variants will affect how the SXFI Amp reverse-engineer the audio files, and how it eventually turns out to our ears, for better or for worse.
So I’m just going to say how I feel: I have concluded that the Creative SXFI Amp works for me. I knew since 6 months ago that the SXFI Amp will work great for multi-channel content because it already has the data to map the surround effect, but that time I was skeptical about normal stereo music. The most challenging part is to transform a normal two-channel audio music into holographic audio that appears to come from a pair of virtual speakers in front of you. With the production unit reviewed, I find that the SXFI Amp has accomplished that feat through sampling dozens of stereo music tracks.
The SXFI Amp is a valuable piece of audio technology that is capable of transporting me into a virtual living room to enjoy realistic surround audio through headphones. All these without the need for physical multi-channel speaker system, nor turn up the speaker volume at insane levels to enjoy immersive movies. Creative Super X-Fi Amp transforms intimate headphone sounds into natural room audio.
Currently available in Singapore at S$219, it comes with a free pair of Aurvana SE headphones worth S$99. Visit this product page for more details.
- Achieves convincingly realistic holographic audio that creates the perception of a room speaker setting
- Simple hardware solution to enjoy multi-channel audio over headphones without proprietary decoder software
- Requires profiling and calibration that might not work well for everyone
- Not everyone will like the outcome of transforming headphone sound staging into virtual room sound staging
- Stereo conversion does not work for every type of audio content