Headphones that try to virtually simulate surround sound have been around for years – even from Creative Labs themselves. Alas, the effect was usually gimmicky and didn’t work very well, and I was always quick to turn it off. That is – until I tried the SXFI Air headphones.
Creative’s SXFI Air are over-ear headphones that use computational audio and individual ear-mapping to simulate a multi-speaker environment. They work best when connected via USB, but can work wirelessly as well (via Bluetooth). You can connect them to your phone, PC, PS4 – or some other devices that support Bluetooth audio.
Even with tiny wireless earphones being all the rage these days, there’s still a market for big (and heavy) headphones that give you the kind of expansive and deep sound you’ll never get from miniature buds. In this review, I’ll take a look at what the SXFI Air have to offer – and where there’s room for improvement.
Quick Look – Creative SXFI Air
What are they: On-ear headphones with personalised Super X-FI “holographic” audio and a microphone for talking/gaming.
- Outstanding audio quality with SXFI turned on
- 10 Hours battery life
- Simulates 7.1 surround sound for movies and games (wired only)
- Both a wired connection (USB-C) and wireless (Bluetooth)
- Built-in mic works well for phone calls, gaming and video chats
- Audio over Bluetooth isn’t as good (No support for AptX)
- No active noise cancelling
- Confusing setup and software
- PS4/Nintendo Switch connection only supports Stereo sound
Features and Specs
- Works On: PC/MAC, iOS, Android, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Amazon Fire TV (via Bluetooth)
- Driver unit: 50mm
- Battery Playing Time: 10 hours
- Full charging time: 2.5 Hours
- Wired ports: USB-C, 3.5mm audio
- Bluetooth Version: 4.2, SBC
- Extra Features: Touch controls, MicroSD slot, Customisable LED lighting, removable microphone
The Creative SXFI-Air are a perfect choice for movies, games and music when you use the wired USB connection. The Super-XFI technology works wonders, expanding the sound all around you. Over Bluetooth, however, the sound is decent – but isn’t as impressive.
Table of Contents
Who are the SXFI Air For?
Creative Labs (known as Creative Technology in some territories) have been around for years, specialising in audio equipment. They’re best known for their successful Sound Blaster card, which dates back to 1989, and in recent years they’ve been diving deep into headphones and speakers that utilise their advanced audio technology.
The over-ear SXFI (short for Super X-Fi) Air headphones represent that philosophy perfectly – slick, good looking (though heavy) headphones that use an advanced chip to work some audio magic. (There’s also a cheaper SXFI Air C model, that doesn’t have Bluetooth).
The SXFI-Air suffer, however, from a split personality: they can be used wirelessly (via a Bluetooth connection), for playing music, movies and games from your smartphone, for example. But, they can also be connected with a USB-C cable to your PC/MAC or PS4.
They sound good whichever way you connect them – but the wired connection is miles ahead when it comes to how powerful and impressive the sound is. The SXFI effect works better (more on that later), the bass is stronger, and you basically get ten times more “oopmh” when your hook the headphones up with a cable.
This big difference makes the SXFI-Air hard to rate. It’s almost as if the Bluetooth connection was an after-thought, as it doesn’t even support the higher-quality AptX Bluetooth standard.
So if your main need is for Bluetooth headphones for your phone, you can probably find cheaper options.
But if your main use is for listening at home, with a wire connecting the headphones to your PC – then you should keep reading to find out how the SXFI-Air gave me goosebumps.
What Is Super X-Fi?
Creative’s SXFI technology, which gave these headphones their name, is used here to simulate a multi-speaker system (up to a 7.1 speaker set) with just two headphones.
Creative calls this award-winning effect “holographic audio”, and the unique part is the personalisation, which the UltraDSP chip achieves by way of ear and head-mapping.
Before you start using the headphones, you need to install Creative’s SXFI app on your smartphone (either iOS or Android). The app is then used to scan your ear and your face, and that data is used to custom-fit the audio to your particular head.
The same technology is incorporated into a lot of Creative’s modern products, and it really shines here. It’s not just about simulating surround sound (though it does that too) – it also helps expand the soundscape, so even when you’re just listening to music, it really feels like the sound is all around you.
Using The SXFI Air
Size and Comfort
There’s no way around it – the SXFI Air are big and heavy. At 338 grams, you’re certainly going to feel them on your head.
Luckily, the ear-cups are soft and comfortable, and won’t hurt your ears even after hours of use. The same can’t be said for the top head-band, which has no cushioning at all, and WILL probably hurt a bit after hours of use.
You control everything from the left ear-cup, where you have the Power button, a Source button (where you switch between Bluetooth/USB/SD Card) and the SXFI button which turns the effect on and off.
And yes, you read that right, the SXFI-Air have an SD Card slot, and you can slide an SD Card full of MP3 files (or WAV, or WMA, or FLAC) in, and the headphones will play them without the need for any external devices. It’s a throwback to those MP3-Player days of yore, and feels a bit redundant today – but might be useful in situations when you can’t use your phone or computer.
The left ear-cup also has a touch interface, which lets you start and stop the music, turn the volume up/down and even skip songs, all by lightly touching the surface of the cup. It’s a nice touch (pun intended), especially when you’re using the headphones wirelessly.
Both sides of the SXFI-Air also have an LED ring, and you can even change its colour. Of course, you’ll never see that colour yourself – because it’s on your head – but if it impresses your friends and relatives, then by all means, go for it. You can also turn it off.
Setting Up The SXFI-Air Headphones
With the headphones looking so slick and impressive, the setting-up part was a bit disappointing in how messy it was.
First, you need to install Creative’s SXFI App on your smartphone, for the scanning part. Confusingly, they have TWO apps, one for scanning and another for controlling the headphones.
Before you scan, you’ll have to sign up for an account with Creative. At that point, the app guides you in scanning one ear and one side of your face. It’s almost impossible to do alone – so you’ll need to ask someone to help you.
Once the scan is done, and the headphones are connected to the phone via Bluetooth, the app will “beam” your personal profile into the headphones. At that point, the SXFI effect is ready to use.
This brings up the sharing problem: once you scan and personalise the SXFI Air, you’re the only one who can use the “holographic audio” to its full extent. Sure, anyone in your family can put on the headphones and listen – but they won’t get the full effect.
Unfortunately, the app and the headphones don’t support multiple-profiles, so if someone else wants to use the SXFI technology, they’ll need to re-scan their own ear and head, upload the new data to the headphones – and that will remove YOUR data, which you will then need to re-upload when you want to use the headphones again.
If you’re planning to connect the SXFI Air to your PC or MAC (which is where they work best), you’ll also need to install Creative’s desktop software.
The Windows/MAC setup process is even more confusing – the manual sends you to Creative’s support page to find the app, but it is well hidden (here’s the direct link).
If your PC has Bluetooth support, you can also connect the SXFI Air to the computer via Bluetooth – but you won’t be able to control them with the software in this case.
Once everything is finally set-up on your computer, and the headphones are connected via USB-C (with the provided USB to USB-C cable), you can use the app to control things like the colour of the LED rings, the equalizer, and whether you want the headphones to simulate a stereo sound, a 5.1 speaker setup or 7.1.
Creative SXFI Audio Quality: Shivers Down My Spine
First, let’s touch upon the Super X-Fi mechanism. You can turn it on and off with a dedicated button, so it’s easy to test and spot the differences.
The bottom line? It works. It really works… but you need to get used to it.
It’s hard to explain the effect this creates without actually hearing it, other than to say it massively expands the sound-stage, making you feel like the music is all around you, instead of just on the left and right sides.
At times it feels like the singer is whispering in your ear (try that with Shawn Mendes or Ariana Grande, whichever way your preference goes), while the band is perched around you.
The effect does lend itself better to some songs, and less so to others. It adds a bit of an “echo” to everything, so if the original song already comes with its own echo effect, things get a bit messy.
But even if it sounds a bit strange at first, keep at it – and you’ll never want to listen to music without it. At this point, when I turn the SXFI off, it feels like I’m switching from a huge speaker system to a small transistor radio.
Remember, though, that as I mentioned before the SXFI Air sound very different when connected via Bluetooth VS via USB-C.
I first tested them with my phone (so on Bluetooth) – and everything I said about the SXFI still stands, but the sound is somewhat low-key.
Once I connected them to my PC with the cable, I almost jumped up in my chair – the sound really goes up to 11. Listening to a drum-filled song (Alphaville’s Big in Japan was a personal favourite during testing) really sent shivers down my spine – the bass is much stronger via the wired connection, and the sound-stage is extended even further.
Watching Movies With The SXFI-Air
Here’s the problem: there’s no direct way to connect the SXFI Air to your TV, so their incredible performance when watching movies is limited, mostly, to watching them on your PC.
You can, of course, watch movies on your phone while the headphones are connected via Bluetooth, and you can also connect them to a streamer that supports Bluetooth (I tested with the Amazon Fire TV Stick which worked fine) – but you won’t get the full experience.
In its defence, while Creative discourage using Bluetooth for movies because of the possible lag issues – I had no such problems, and lip-syncing was perfect even when watching wirelessly on the Fire TV. Your mileage may vary, though.
But if you’re in the habit of watching TV and movies on your PC – then you’ll enjoy everything the SXFI Air can do.
In this case, the SXFI has a neat trick of simulation 5.1 and 7.1 speaker setups – provided your content supports that (Most of the content on Netflix, for example, supports 5.1).
Headphones (and soundbars) that try to virtually simulate surround settings have been making promises for years – and most were, unfortunately, not very good.
The SXFI Air actually do a decent job at that. No, it does NOT compare to a REAL 7.1 setup with physical speakers all around you, but just as it does with music, the SXFI effect manages to engulf you with the sound and make you feel like it’s all around you.
Gaming With The SXFI Air
If you’re a PC gamer, you’re in luck – everything I said about watching movies is true for gaming as well, with the SXFI Air (when connected via USB-C) doing a good job of putting you IN THE MIDDLE of the game.
The virtual surround effect is, again, decent – you’ll hear footsteps behind you, enemies moving from your side to the front, etc’. It’s not perfect, and will probably never be – but it does a better job compared to most “virtual surround” headphones I tried over the years.
You can also connect the SXFI Air to your PS4/PS4 Pro and the Nintendo Switch.
However, the SXFI Air don’t support PS4 Bluetooth, so the ONLY way to connect them is via the USB cable. But the supplied cable is too short (unless you tend to sit real close to your PS4), so you’ll need to buy a longer cable. But then again, who even wants to use wired headphones when gaming on the PS4?
Furthermore, even when connected via USB, the SXFI Air only support Stereo sound on the PS4, without virtual surround. So while it’s nice to have SOME PS4 support, you won’t get everything you get with the PC support.
Bottom Line: Are The SXFI Air Worth It?
The SXFI Air are not perfect, mainly because of the mediocre Bluetooth support.
So why the 4.5 (out of 5) stars? Because when you use them in the, well, “correct” way – they sound incredible. No other headphones in recent years (over-ear, in-ear, or any other ear) rocked my body the way these did, with the SXFI feature turned on.
So should you buy them? It really depends on your use-case. If you do all your listening/watching on your phone – then you should probably look elsewhere.
But if you’re looking for the most interesting and exciting headphones for your PC/MAC, either for listening to music, streaming movies or gaming – with Bluetooth support seen as a nice bonus and not the main event – then you should definitely consider the SXFI Air.
Note: The SXFI Air were supplied by the manufacturer for this review. As always, this did not influence my unbiased opinion of the product.