Creative has been steadily expanding its SXFI-powered offerings, from the original SXFI Amp, to their wired USB headset with SXFI processing embedded with the SXFI Air C and very recently, a Bluetooth version of the same headset called the SXFI Air. What more could they release now?
It goes without saying that the Creative engineers are obsessed with sound themselves, and they realize Bluetooth isn’t always the best wireless solution although it is the most convenient and ubiquitous option. Under certain usage scenarios, Bluetooth is sometimes prone to syncing/clipping issues, but by and large, Bluetooth is usable for most general needs. However, for enthusiasts and serious gamers, this is the very reason why they are wary of wireless options.
To address this group of users, this is where Creative’s upcoming SXFI Theater headphones come in.
It is quite like the wired SXFI Air C headphones for core features such as using 50mm Neodymium magnets for its drivers, has an impedance of 32 ohms, frequency response between 20Hz to 20kHz, shares the same design with removable ear pads and has a nano-boom microphone for video chats, etc. What the upcoming SXFI Theater brings to the picture is its low latency wireless connectivity by way of a supplied USB adapter known as the SXFI Transmitter. Like the SXFI Air, it will have a battery integrated into the headphones that will require charging over USB Type-C, but it will forego frills like Bluetooth connectivity, microSD card slot, and ear-cup touch controls.
For discerning listeners, the proprietary wireless pairing and connectivity improve audio quality who cannot put up with the occasional micro stutters, skips, and clipping that is associated with audio playback over Bluetooth connectivity. This also means that the solution is mostly relegated to systems that can recognize and take advantage of full USB peripheral connectivity like desktops and notebooks, but it will not work on AV devices like speakers, TVs, and other such equipment – at least not directly.
To bring SXFI headphone audio to TV and AV devices, Creative is also working on another project called the Creative SXFI TV box.
The device is meant to be placed between your TV and existing audio source, which could be a game console, a Blu-ray player, or even an AV receiver. It has HDMI-in and HDMI-out ports, both supporting the latest HDMI 2.1 standards to help pass through all the relevant HDR video data to and from your connected devices. Should you have an AV receiver that controls all your source switching needs, the SXFI TV box will sit neatly between the AV receiver and your TV, without affecting your existing setup; you can still control audio/video sources just as you’ve been doing previously. On and before we forget, it supports HDMI ARC, so it will work just as well to use your TV as your audio/video source since many now use smart TV platforms to consume streaming content.
Source connectivity aside, the SXFI TV box comes with four USB ports to allow you to plug in the SXFI Theater headphones’ SXFI Transmitter (wireless USB adaptor, refer to the first photo in this section). Take note that the transmitter also stores your head and ear mapping profile information so that you can plug it into different devices, such as the SXFI TV box or your PC and your profile moves along to whichever device you’re using. This is how you can interface the Creative SXFI Theater headphones with your TV/AV devices.
What if you already have a good pair of headphones that you wish to “SXFI” and interface with the SXFI TV box? If you own or plan to get SXFI Amp, you can plug that to the SXFI TV box and then connect your wired headphones of choice to it. The SXFI Amp stores your head and ear mapping profile, while also providing the SXFI wizardry required to transform your audio listening needs with your wired headphones.
The test setup in Creative’s demo suite was a TV connected to the Creative SXFI TV box, so I've actually tested the usability of both products covered in this article, but the real test is to discern if I encounter any of the stutters/jitters that are occasionally noticeable over Bluetooth connectivity. A PS4 Pro was used as a source to playback streaming content and Blu-ray content, which naturally connected to the SXFI TV box.
To rule out streaming content factoring into any uncertainties in my listening session, I spent more time running through action sequences in Blu-ray movies such as Ant Man and Wasp, Doctor Strange, Enders Game, Gravity, Mission Impossible 4 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After all, Wi-Fi in a convention hall is usually spotty. To my delight, Creative’s SXFI Theater headphones worked without a hitch, and I observed zero instances of audio anomalies over my 30 minutes trial. Regarding sound quality, knowing full well what to expect of SXFI audio by now, I wasn’t disappointed, and the headphones delivered audio as though I was listening over speakers in a theater or hall. What I noticed is when your audio source is coded for multi-channel audio, especially in high bitrates like in Blu-ray content, the Super X-Fi DSP can map it environmentally far more satisfactorily (while factoring in your head and ear mapping profile).
Next, I switched over to Netflix and gave it a shot at /running some streamed movies and series like Designated Survivor to see how it copes with audio sources from streaming content where bitrates are far lower but sufficient for most TV viewers. Thankfully internet connection was stable, so I noticed no audio anomalies here as well. What about SXFI audio quality with the SXFI Theater headphones? Well, it was serviceable but it doesn’t wow me all the time, and it felt like a limitation of the audio source quality – at least for the streaming movies I've tried (which aren't Netflix productions). However, many Netflix supported or produced series are often streamed at higher quality visuals and often have multi-channel audio support like Dolby Digital Plus. So even if the audio bitrate can’t match Blu-ray standards, it's still plenty good for streaming content. So yes, Designated Survivor sounded like I was watching in a cinema theater with a bigger than life audio and I was pleasantly surprised. You’ll never experience those characteristics over your TV speakers or home theater system, but SXFI audio gave me a chance to experience it as though it was screened in the movie theater.
Lastly, I’ve to make a note that all my observations were using a neutral audio profile and not my personal head/ear mapped profile. It might have improved further if I was using my audio profile, but I wasn’t able to do so at the demo suite.
Regardless, I’ve been told that all of what I’m experiencing is from pre-production hardware and software and there’s a lot more time for both fronts to be tweaked before the products are slated to go into retail.
So there you have it; two more upcoming products that add to the SXFI ecosystem support. Both devices can be expected in the second half of 2019. Creative reckons the price of the SXFI Theater headphones should hover around the price point of the Bluetooth enabled SXFI Air headphones. Meanwhile, there’s no indication yet of the SXFI TV box.