While tiny true wireless earbuds are all the rage these days, there’s certainly still a place for bigger, over-the-ear headphones – especially when they’re also wireless. As good as all those petite earbuds get, it’s impossible to mimic that feeling of big, comfy headphones blasting music into – and around – your ears.
The new Creative Zen Hybrid Bluetooth headphones tick a lot of boxes: They’re super comfortable, they offer great battery times, they’re foldable so you can easily carry them in your bag, and they have decent noise cancellation – so they are ideal for the gym or a long train ride.
Not everything is perfect, though – and just as these headphones are light and pleasant to carry and use, so is the audio quality, well, just light and pleasant. The bass leaves a lot to be desired, and the best word to describe the overall music quality is vanilla.
So let’s dig in deeper, as I review the pros and cons of the Zen Hybrid.
Quick Look – Creative SXFI Air
What are they: On-ear wireless headphones with ‘hybrid’ noise cancellation and a foldable design for easy carrying.
Value For Money
- Very comfortable to wear
- Excellent battery times
- Decent Active/Passive noise cancellation
- Both Wireless (Bluetooth) and Wired (3.5mm)
- Built-in mic works well for phone calls
- Very weak bass
- No advanced sound codecs (like aptX)
- SXFI feature only works with local files
- Not cheap
Features and Specs
- Driver unit: 40 mm Neodymium Drivers
- Battery Playing Time: ANC On: 27 hours / ANC Off: 37 hours
- Full charging time: 2-3 Hours / Quick charge: Five hours with a Five-minute charge
- Ports: USB-C (Charging), 3.5mm audio
- Bluetooth Version: 5
- Audio Codecs: AAC, SBC
- Extra Features: Ambient mode / Super X-FI Audio Ready / Foldable for easy storage
The Creative Zen Hybrid are a decent pair to carry around with you in a small bag and then wear on your head for hours on end. The sound is very clean, but is also quite bland – especially if you’re a bass fan.
Table of Contents
Who Are The Creative Zen Hybrid For?
Audiophiles and longtime computer geeks surely remember the name Creative Labs and their legendary sound card from more than 30 years ago, the Sound Blaster.
Now known simply as Creative, the company now focuses on a range of audio products – from sound cards to speakers and headphones. I was a big fan of their home-theatre focused SXFI Air Headphones, and their true wireless Outlier earbuds are highly regarded.
The new Zen Hybrid headphones lie somewhere in between – you can certainly use them around the house, but they’re light enough to be used outside as well – whether on a long train ride, in the gym, or just walking around the block.
The included 3.5mm audio port is almost a rarity these days, and gives you some more flexibility in what you can connect the headphones to.
The ‘Hybrid’ part of the name comes from the noise cancellation – they use both “Passive” noise cancellation – meaning, the seal around your ears – and “Active” noise cancellation, which uses microphones to pick up and “cancel” outside noises before they reach your ears.
Active noise cancellation technology has been getting better and better in recent years – and it shows. While not perfect in this case (much of the noise cancellation comes from the great, comfortable seal), the Zen Hybrid do a good job of filtering out monotonous sounds like the hum of a train (or an aeroplane), and even the clicking sounds of a keyboard – though they don’t work as well with loud piercing noises like screaming children or hungry cats.
The music, unfortunately, is just OK – the sound is clean, and remains pleasant even if you crank up the volume – but the lack of any meaningful bass is going to be a deal-breaker for some.
Using The Zen Hybrid
Size And Comfort
Over-ear headphones are often too heavy and bulky for my tastes – but that’s not the case here. The Zen Hybrid are almost the perfect size, managing to cover your ears while not being big and heavy.
They’re good looking with minimalistic design elements, and are currently available in just one colour – white (though cream/off-white would be a better definition).
And most importantly for over-ear headphones, the earcups are very comfortable. They don’t press too hard on your ears, and the upper band doesn’t squash your head down (I’ve had headphones that gave me literal headaches just from pressing down too hard).
The Hybrid Zen are also foldable, and have three positions – a flat fold, half fold and a compact fold – depending on where you want to tuck them into.
In the box, you get a soft carrying pouch, a USB-C charging cable, a 3.5mm audio cable and the instructions manual.
Pairing And Controlling
The Zen Hybrid come with Bluetooth 5, and not 5.2 – which is a shame for brand new headphones. Still, pairing them with a phone and with a laptop was quite easy, with the devices instantly finding the Zen.
The connection was stable throughout, and I never had any Bluetooth connection issues or crackling noises that sometimes pop up.
The Zen Hybrid don’t have touch controls – instead, there are three physical buttons on the right earcup: Volume Up/Down, Power and ANC / Ambient.
The Power button is used to Play/Pause and to activate your phone’s digital assistant (Siri/Google), the Volume buttons can also be used to skip songs backwards and forwards, and the ANC button is used to alternate between ANC, Normal and Ambient modes.
Creative Zen Hybrid Audio Quality
By now, you already understand my main issue with these headphones: there’s almost no bass. It’s a weird decision, especially in headphones that don’t offer a native equaliser app.
While some headphones go too far in the other direction, with overpowering bass that covers everything else, I really think that even people who don’t like bass as much as I do will find the levels here lacking.
That being said, when you listen to quiet, easy-listening type tracks, the sound is quite pleasant – just like the earbuds themselves.
Listening to Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits, demonstrated how thin the sound can get.
The acoustic guitar, even when lower in the mix, was coming out nicely – as did the synth riffs. However, the house beat, which is meant to propel the song, suffered from a lack of low spectrum volume.
Things improve somewhat when you dial up the volume – and the overall sound wasn’t harsh or distorted, just very vanilla.
Moving on to an older pop classic – Ray Parker Jr.’s Ghostbusters – the energy and synth-galore we’re used to from this 80s anthem got a bit lost.
Again, the sound was pleasant enough with clear vocals and a punchy drum machine. But the bass left a lot to be desired, and this time when I dialled up the volume the sound got somewhat muddier.
The Active Noise Cancellation (along with the tight construction’s passive NC) does help when you’re in a noisy environment, though it’s aimed more at train rides than walking through a crowded market.
There’s also an Ambient Mode, which does the opposite – it amplifies outside sounds, so you’re more aware of your environment. That’s useful when you’re cycling, running outside, or generally need to know what’s going on around you.
Being this comfortable means the Hybrid Zen are also useful for watching films on your phone (or via Bluetooth streaming devices like the Amazon Fire TV Stick). Because their sound is so clean, they’re particularly useful in films and TV shows where it’s sometimes hard to understand the speech.
And lastly, a word about Super X-FI, a Creative technology that the Zen Hybrid are compatible with.
SXFI is used 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 is done by installing an app that helps you map your ears.
I’ve listened to several Creative devices with Super X-Fi, and it typically does a pretty good job of simulating surround sound – either for music, films or gaming.
In this case, however, the Super X-Fi support is almost a non-starter, since you can only use it for local content stored on your phone. You can’t use it with streaming music services like Spotify, you can’t use it with video streaming services, and you would have to find long lost MP3 files on your phone, just so you could hear what this technology sounds like.
For that reason, Creative calls this feature a “Preview” of Super X-Fi. But until there are additional use-cases for it on modern phones – it’s not all that useful, even if the technology itself is impressive.
Zen Hybrid Battery Times
Being meant to be carried around and used on the go, battery times are important – and the Zen Hybrid deliver a good number.
With the Active Noise Cancelling turned on, you can get up to 27 hours of listening, and with ANC turned off, you can get up to 37 hours, which is quite decent for most use-cases.
Fully charging them (with the USB-C port) can take up to three hours – but they have a Quick Charge feature that lets you get up to five hours of listening with a quick charge of just five minutes.
As always with headphones, your mileage may vary, as the battery times depend on the volume levels you’re using, the connection strength, and other factors. But all in all, I was able to use these for hours on end without having to recharge.
Bottom Line: Are The Zen Hybrid Headphones Worth It?
It’s a tough call this time, because there’s a lot to like about the Zen Hybrid: I like the design, the ANC is not bad, the battery times are great, and they’re among the most comfortable headphones I’ve tested.
But it’s all about the bass for me in this case, and the sound is just too thin to be able to recommend these for any serious music listening sessions.
If you’re looking for a comfortable pair to take with you on the go, for some easy listening (or maybe listen to podcasts, or watch films on the tube) – then these are not a bad choice, especially if you can snag them at a discount.
But if you’re looking for headphones that will rock your world – there are better options out there (even from Creative themselves).