During the media preview of the SXFI Amp in March 2018, Creative has already shared that they are looking at embedding the DAC into headphones. In October 2018, when the SXFI Amp launched in Singapore, the SXFI Air was already announced but only prototype was available. Finally, the SXFI Air was available for pre-order and I placed it promptly. I had to wait for another month before it was finally ready for shipment.
Super X-Fi: Holographic Audio
To understand the hype of SXFI, you need to read my earlier articles here (March 2018) and here (Oct 2018). In short, SXFI is an audio processor that creates an out-of-the-head audio experience to mimic a natural room environment where the audio source comes from the front of the ears instead of next to the ears. Additionally, it also decodes multi-channel audio to achieve actual 3D sound mapping as recorded by the source material, for instance, cinematic movies. With this, you no longer need to set up physical surround speakers at home to enjoy surround audio.
Most manufacturers have been creating 3D headphones targeted at eSports for immersive gaming. Driven by Mr. Sim Wong Hoo’s belief, he spend decades to develop this technology.
SXFI Air: The First SXFI-Certified Wireless Headphones
When SXFI Amp was made available, Creative was at the mercy of headphones which had different audio character and tuning. It started mapping headphone profiles but they are not perfect. Hence, early adopters are all up in arms and found ways to workaround this, including picking other headphone profiles to fit individual preferences, and adjusting EQ via the SXFI app.
With SXFI Air, Creative is in control. The sound tuning is exactly what they wanted, and indeed the SXFI Air sounded better than any of my headphones played with SXFI Amp, even though these headphones have better audio signature on their own.
The overall design is functional, using plastic and synthetic leather-wrapped headband just like the Outlier Black Headphones. The buttons felt somewhat budget and give out hollow click sounds. The female voice prompts do not sound like a professional talent, which further downgrades the quality perception. The earpads are easily replaceable by twisting the cups. Made with mostly breathable fabric and lined with phleather on the inside wall, they are not as comfortable due to the roughness, but they don’t feel as hot after wearing for long periods.
Listening to SXFI Air without Super X-Fi enabled makes audio sound detailed and transparent, but lacks the impactful deep bass. Mid-bass is politely playing second fiddle, and midrange is also trying not to be too prominent. In this mode, Classical music is its strength, delivering sizzling strings and aggressive brass with light double basses and timpani.
When Super X-Fi is enabled, the sound signature is altered dramatically. With a wider and frontal sound staging, the treble is spread out, yet not too veiled nor hazy (which is apparent in other headphones with SXFI Amp). Midrange starts filling in for better aural balance. Bass turns out slightly more elevated, though it still lacks the massive boom that in-ear headphone buffs enjoy. Instrumentation separation is clearer, and because SXFI Air already extracts the high-fidelity details, these details are further expanded in the SXFI mode to be more discerning to the listener.
To achieve better listening experience, download the SXFI Air Control App on your smartphone and then manage the headphone settings from the app direct. You can adjust EQ, select the source (Bluetooth, SD Card, USB Audio). You can also adjust the LED ring colour or turn off altogether. Creative has consistently created useful companion apps to operate their products.
Here is my custom equalizer graph, boosting bass, elevating midrange, and reducing 4000 Hz.
When doing A-B comparison between SXFI on-and-off modes, one may find that the SXFI-off will always sound more “correct” tonally since that is the original sound. But if you listen to SXFI-on exclusively, your ears will adjust and enjoy the natural stage. After all, when you attended a live concert, you will not get the same precisely engineered and balanced studio-quality audio. If that is what you insist, then SXFI will not work for your ears. In fact, I sometimes forget that I am listening with SXFI-on.
Wired Audio: Digital or Analog
If you dislike the lossy Bluetooth 4.2, the SXFI Air can be listened through USB cable and 3.5mm analogue cable, supported by your audio devices or gaming consoles. You can also insert micro SD card and play music files. Creative is in the process of developing software to further customise the SXFI Amp and SXFI Air, but for now, the SXFI Control. software for the PC or Mac can only load the personalised profile.
When plugged via USB to computers, SXFI Air is recognised as an external audio device of which you can manage the audio settings from the Windows Sound menu, just like SXFI Amp. While connected to the computer, the smartphone is still connected via Bluetooth to the smartphone, from which you can continue to manage the settings, like changing source, adjusting EQ. Note that the SXFI Air does not automatically switch to USB mode when USB cable is plugged in, you need to manually select it before the USB is live and the computer detects the SXFI Air.
Creative designed all the headphone controls on the left side. There is a power button, Bluetooth button, and the SXFI Amp button. The left earpad panel is also a touch-sensor to navigate the headphones with gestures. What I like is that when I change volume or tracks, there are no beeps to distract me from the music.
It also works against me. When I press the power button, I don’t know if I am turning it on or off, as there was no immediate audio feedback. It took a while before I could hear a voice to acknowledge my actions.
After using the SXFI Amp for months with various premium headphones, the SXFI Air turns out to be the best headphones to enjoy Super X-Fi holographic audio experience. It offers great listening versatility – Bluetooth wireless, USB digital audio, 3.5mm analog audio, and microSD playback. It has the ability to apply EQ on-the-fly to suit individual preference, and the fun feature of customising the LED ring colour to satisfy the gaming community.
And thanks to the finer tweaks on the EQ, I am able to better enjoy the out-of-the-head audio experience that Mr. Sim fervently evangelises. The good thing is that the price is very affordable to the masses. Retailing at S$219, purchase from the Creative Store. Enter ‘COMEBACKFOR20’ promo code to enjoy S$20 off, till 31 March.
- Official SXFI Air Product Page: https://sg.sxfi.com/products/sxfi-air
- SXFI Air Support: https://sg.creative.com/sxfisupport/sxfi-air