Creative Technology used to carry a lot of headphones in their product catalog. Its last headphones was the Creative Outlier Black in 2018 and after 4 years, my daughter is still using it without problems. The only thing that gave way is the ear cushions, a common problem with synthetic leather materials. For the past years, Creative launched the Super X-Fi holographic audio, the Aurvana Trio in-ears bud series, the Outlier Air/Pro true wireless series, and several office headsets, and now, finally Creative has returned to this neglected over-ear headphones product line.
The Zen Hybrid comes with all the bells and whistles that users would want from the latest wireless headphones. It has ANC, Ambient Sound mode, supports Super X-Fi holographic audio, it has a battery life of 27 hours (with ANC On), listen wireless on AAC/SBC codec, or with 3.5mm cable even without power, it is compact and you can fold it to carry around. And with a retail price of S$149, it is reasonably priced for an established international tech brand.
During launch, only one colour is available, which is white on accented gold prints. The black model is now available in limited quantities.
It is unlikely Creative will launch a different colour option, as they have stopped offering multiple colour options in recent product launches. I know a lot of owners are deeply concerned with maintaining white-colour headphones, but honestly, the white colour is a rather popular colour and the gold accent adds to the premium style.
The overall headphones might feel plasticky but the headband is reinforced with steel, the clamping force is quite tight and feels secure. The ear cushions and inner headband is made of thicker synthetic leather which I hope will take a longer time to flake. The earcup size is larger than the Outlier Black, fits snugly over my ears. The cushion cuddles my outer ears and has enough thickness to prevent the inside headphone walls from pressing against my ears.
Controls are again straightforward. The power button doubles as a play-pause (click once) and voice assistant (press-hold), the volume button also doubles as track changes if you press-hold. The ANC and Ambient Sound is controlled with a separate button. To activate ANC, tap once. To enable Ambient Sound, double tap. The headphones go into pairing mode automatically when no device is connected. To enable pairing manually, turn off the headphones and then press-hold the power button for a few seconds until the voice prompt enters Bluetooth pairing mode. The headphones do not support multipoint pairing, but it remembers your previously paired devices, so just disconnect from one device and you can reconnect manually with another.
The audio is tuned to satisfy a large consumer base. There are definitely a small group of discerning owners who want a particular type of sound quality, like stronger bass, clearer treble, or more detailed midrange. In wireless connection, the Zen Hybrid delivers clean neutral audio that is sufficiently detailed. The mid-bass is elevated but not bloated, the treble is clear but not shouty, the midrange is tuned down sounding slightly anemic, and this combination allows every instrumentation to be presented with distinct layers. The sound stage is tight and slightly spaced. If I were to nitpick, I would say the main instrument/vocal is not forward, a tad hazy and not sparkling (for my aged ears).
Bringing in the Creative Outlier Black for comparison, the Outlier Black delivers boomier bass and more sizzling recessed treble. The Outlier Black frequency response is more V-shaped, the Zen Hybrid presents overall better musicality while the Outlier Black is mostly about bass and tingling sparkles at the treble.
If I were to EQ on the Zen Hybrid, I would boost the upper midrange and upper treble. And if your music tracks have strong vocal mix, then it should sound fine. I would say that if you have a collection of audiophile files, they might not present the best on the Zen Hybrid.
The passive audio mode presents a different sound signature on the Zen Hybrid. In this zero-power state, the audio offers warmer tone with prominent midrange, similar bass presence, and a warmer treble. Of course, the dynamic range is much better and sounds less compressed compared to wireless. I quite like the wired sound of warmth and tight presentation. Of course, having a good audio amplifier will also affect the sound quality.
In wired mode, you can also turn on the power so that you can benefit from ANC and Ambient Sound mode. With ANC off, the treble is slightly improved with more sparkle. The sound is similar with Ambient Sound mode, but with ANC On, the tuning is transformed and sounded constipated, almost mono, devoid of bass, and as if the sound source is from inside my brain. It is a strange tuning which I hope future firmware can fix it, or else I would not recommend listening wired with ANC On. Note that once you plug the 3.5mm cable into the Zen Hybrid, the Bluetooth radio will be disabled.
The Zen Hybrid supports Super X-Fi sound mode, but you need to play music files using the SXFI smartphone app. For first-time users, the app requires you to register an account and capture your face and both ears in order to compute the HRTF (head-related transfer function) to create a simulated out-of-head audio. The sound is software-processed unlike other wired SXFI products which uses a hardware chip, so the sound is lossy and compressed. It offers a good sample of what you can expect with the hardware version. For listeners who dislike the closed-up audio imaging, the SXFI will let you enjoy music better with the sound imaging that projects to the front of your head.
ANC and Ambient Sound Quality
The ANC is effective in removing ambient murmurs and further reducing any passive noise isolation over the headphone cushion. It basically offers additional ambient sound seal but not as strong as the premium headphones in the market. In noisy environment, you can still hear noises but at a much reduced volume. The good thing is that while activating ANC, although the upper frequencies are not suppressed heavily, neither do they stand out, which is sometimes the case for other ANC headphones. In short, the ANC sounds rather natural, without the feeling of uncomfortable ear pressure.
For the Ambient Sound mode, the Zen Hybrid amplifies the midrange while the lower and upper frequencies are not so turned up. The result is that while you can hear surrounding audio, they sound muffled, and so they are good only for ambient awareness but not ideal for conversations.
One questionable design feature is that the ANC button lights up when ANC or Ambient mode is activated. But since the wearer would not be able to see the LED, I’m not sure why the LED is implemented. Perhaps it is a reminder to owners when they leave the headphones on the table that the modes are enabled, so that they could turn it off to save battery.
In a quiet environment, the mic quality of the Zen Hybrid offers good confidence in capturing the voice, presenting a warm loud tone. But as the background noise gets louder, the Zen Hybrid struggles to pick up the speaker’s voice, resulting in reduced clarity as it tries to cut out the background noise removal and let in the speaker’s voice into the mic. So, the Zen Hybrid will falter when using at noisy places. Also, the mic will pickup wind sound easily.
With the retail price of S$149 (black model at S$159), the Zen Hybrid is one of the more expensive audio headphones launched by Creative, who has always delighted the market with products that deliver excellent value way above its price. After all, it comes with ANC and Ambient Sound modes that most branded headphones do not offer at this price point. And I expect Creative to have regular promotion and discounts to make the Zen Hybrid a very attractive pair of headphones. Currently, Creative online shop is offering at 40%, which comes up to $89.40 for the white model and $95.40 for the black model.