Most wireless headphones use Bluetooth technology, which has lags, and the audio quality is compressed. The SXFI Theater wireless headphones addresses a very specific group of consumers: those who love to enjoy wireless audio listening but want low latency response.
What is SXFI?
For readers new to this technology, let me give you a brief. SXFI stands for Super X-Fi, an audio head mapping technology developed by Creative Technology over 20 years. During the SXFI launch in March 2018, Mr. Sim Wong Hoo, founder and CEO of Creative, shared his journey in creating this “audio holography”, as he termed this out-of-the-head experience. In the market, this experience is commonly known as “surround sound”, but the technical logic behind it is called “HRTF”, or head related transfer function. If done right, the listener will be able to pinpoint the exact location of an audio source in space.
Most of the surround sound mode that consumers are used to hearing are some basic algorithms that create a false sense of sound staging, with common settings like “studio”, “concert hall”, “living room”, “church”, etc. Here, the Super X-Fi gets more scientific: it requires the listener to take photos of the head and both ears in order to calculate how an audio source reaches the ears and generate a custom profile, resulting in a more accurate 3D audio experience.
Is it Better?
In blind tests, most audio enthusiasts is unable to tell that the sound is coming from inside the headphone speakers instead of from a demo room with multi-speaker system. This is what Super X-Fi is trying to achieve. SXFI does not try to tweak the sound to be as detailed or as refined as what we usually experience on headphones. The rationale behind it is that recordings are created for speakers listening, not headphones, except binaural recordings.
Is it better than normal 2-channel sound? The responses are mixed, but only because the expectations are not aligned. When listening to headphones, listeners are looking at dynamics, details, closeness, resolution. With Super X-Fi, many of the details are not as intimate because the sound source is perceived to be further away. Similarly, you would not be able to hear all the softer recording details when playing music over your living room speakers.
SXFI Theater Headphones
The SXFI Theater is the fourth SXFI-branded product from Creative. The others are the SXFI Amp (a USB-DAC adapter), the SXFI Air (Bluetooth wireless headphones), and SXFI Air-C (wired version of SXFI Air). The SXFI Theater uses proprietary wireless transmission to deliver lag-free audio through the USB dongle.
The retail package comes with accessories like the detachable boom mic, 3.5mm cable, USB-C cable, and USB extension cord.
The USB extension can be useful for other purposes, for instance, to plug a storage device or a network adapter.
Compared to the SXFI Air, the SXFI Theater is about 10 grams heavier, and uses synthetic leather ear cups instead of fabric, making the headphones feel a little more premium than the SXFI Air. They appear to be identical in size. While the overall product feels solid, the buttons have a hollow click which makes them feel less premium.
The headphones are charged by USB-C and lasts about 30 hours. It is possible to listen through direct 3.5mm connection to the source, but SXFI will not be available because the chip is in the SXFI TX USB dongle instead of inside the headphones. There is a rubber cap to cover the recessed mic port.
If this is your first time using a SXFI product and has not created any profile, you need to install the SXFI App (Android or iOS) on your smartphone, register an account, take photos of your head and ears. This one-time on-boarding process will customise the algorithm to achieve better HRTF effect.
Once you are done, the profile will be uploaded from the smartphone app to the headphones via the SXFI TX USB dongle, which you need to plug to a desktop or laptop PC to power it up.
If you already have an existing profile saved on your SXFI App, you can skip the smartphone part. Just plug the SXFI TX to the PC, install the SXFI Control software, login, and it will upload the profile to the headphones.
Setting up is the most painful part of using a SXFI product for the first time, so just bear with it and following the instructions paper in the packaging.
SXFI Control App
Through the app, you can control almost everything on the headphones without pressing the buttons, like on-off Super X-Fi, mute mic, adjust volume. The LED colour can be adjusted.
In the software, the 2 most important settings that I find useful are the Equalizer and the Headphones Configuration. The EQ lets you customise the frequency balance to your preference. Below is my tuning. I like to boost the bass for a more impactful experience, and tame bits of the treble for a little more warmth and fullness. This tuning is not meant to be audiophile-accurate, as I find the SXFI Theater is great for watching movies, gaming, or background music, where the sound comes from outside the head rather than next to my head.
The other setting headphone setting is important because it matches the audio channels of the file source to get a more accurate presentation of the surround effects. It is always better to match the source with the settings: select “stereo” for 2-channel audio, and “7.1” for a movie encoded in that format. Of course, you can mix around to find a better match.
Audio Experience: SXFI vs. Normal Stereo
Listening the SXFI Theater as a normal stereo headphones will get you detailed and cosy treble, open midrange, and tame mid-bass. The sub-bass is relatively weak, but that’s not the limitation of the Neodymium drivers. Sound staging is wide, spread to the left and right, not much frontal image. Overall, good musical balance albeit lacking in the bottom. But that’s not why you get the SXFI Theater, so don’t get it for the stereo mode quality.
With Super X-Fi mode, the sound stage is moved forward into a large spatial environment. The bass is extended downwards with more sub-bass volume, while the treble is somewhat more accentuated, less clean, and thinned. This is partly due to the room effect compared to normal headphones, where the sound comes from a narrower point in front rather than positioning next to my ears.
The thing about listening to SXFI is that one should not switch in and out of stereo mode to compare. Human ears are highly adaptive, and will compensate for any environmental factors. We are also highly subjective, meaning how we feel “loud” or “soft” is relative.
After I rest my ears and start auditioning the SXFI Theater in SXFI mode, I actually enjoy the sound staging presented. Playing movie trailers in 5.1 format is breathtaking and sets me in a home theatre feel. For 2-channel music, it brought the mix into a virtual room setting, but in a tuning that I could accept only from if I want to enjoy music in a casual laid-back mood. One thing that I hoped I could alter is the room size, which I find the SXFI Theater plays a little too large, resulting in room reverbs audible in some recordings.
I prefer listening with the SXFI Amp and Sennheiser HD650 combination. It delivers a warmer fuller midrange, less thin. I believe one of the reasons is that the HD650 is a characteristically neutral headphones.
On the HyperX Cloud Orbit S which uses Waves Nx technology, the sound staging is closer and less out-of-head mapping, less room reverb. Additionally, the HyperX HRTF settings can be manually adjusted, allowing the user to tweak to one’s preference. The SXFI, however, is fixed based on the photos taken of your head and ears.
If you are keen on trying out this out-of-head experience, you should head down to any roadshow organised by Creative to experience before getting one. Among the SXFI products, I think the SXFI Theater is the most relevant, because it uses a low-latency wireless transmission method that lets users enjoy wire-free surround sound without the annoying lag. Also, given the product works best with multi-channel audio source, you need to use the headphones on PCs or Mac, as other handheld gaming devices do not support multi-channel audio . If you listen more to 2-channel audio, I prefer the intimacy of Waves Nx found on the HyperX Cloud Orbit S and Audeze Mobius.
The SXFI Theater retails at S$299, but Creative always has promotions on-and-off during the quarterly IT trade shows. Currently, it’s going for S$249.
- Improves experience when watching movies or gaming
- Low latency wireless audio that connects quickly
- Long battery life of 30 hours
- Hassle one-time set-up process
- Cannot enjoy SXFI with wires
- No tweaking of profile mapping