Creative SXFI Gamer review: Super X-Fi in a gaming headset
Creative SXFI Gamer review: Super X-Fi in a gaming headset
Note: This article was first published on 9 July 2020.
Super X-Fi meets gaming
In early 2018, Creative introduced the world to Super X-Fi, a nifty headphone holography technique that, in a nutshell, aims to let you enjoy a far wider soundstage on in-ear monitors and headphones. Since then, Super X-Fi has made its way into a range of products, including the tiny SXFI Amp, headphones like the SXFI Theater, and the excellent Sound Blaster X3 USB DAC, which I own. The idea is to simulate the experience you'd get from a multi-channel speaker setup, so you don't constantly feel like you've got a couple of tiny speakers stuffed into your ears.
However, the wider soundstage that Super X-Fi enables also has one obvious application that Creative didn't actively go after at first – gaming. Gaming headsets have been in constant pursuit of more accurate positional audio, with a range of both true and virtual 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound offerings. I've never really bought into the marketing around these types of headphone configurations, and I generally find conventional stereo audio more reliable in games. That said, having experienced Super X-Fi for myself, I was keen to see what it could do for a gaming headset with just two drivers.
Enter the Creative SXFI Gamer, which the company says is its best-ever gaming headset yet. It's targeted at PC gamers who want pinpoint accuracy with positional audio, and it comes with Super X-Fi baked in. There's also a dedicated mode for FPS games called Battle Mode, which is a brand new profile that's exclusive to the SXFI Gamer for now.
What can it do?
According to Creative, Super X-Fi uses complex algorithms and computationally intensive techniques to create a unique sound profile for you. It does this by mapping your head and ears using your smartphone camera and a companion SXFI app. These pictures allow it to identify unique physical traits that determine how you perceive sound, and an AI engine then uses these parameters, along with the dynamics of the headphones you're using, to create a multi-dimensional map with room-scale acoustics.
Since I'd already created my own Super X-Fi profile, setting up the SXFI Gamer was relatively simple. All I needed to do was download the SXFI Control app on my PC, sign in, and load up my personalised profile. From here, I was able to toggle between Super X-Fi and Battle Mode, or turn off the holographic effect altogether. Battle Mode is a version of Super X-Fi that has been tuned for FPS games. It's supposed to help you hear positional cues more clearly, presumably by emphasising things like footsteps and weapon reload sounds, and pinpoint their location and distance with greater accuracy.
You can toggle between modes using the SXFI button on the left ear cup, and doing this triggers a helpful voice that tells you what mode you're switching to. However, I generally preferred to change modes using the SXFI Control software – it felt snappier and I could immediately switch to the mode I wanted without waiting for the voice cue.
The left ear cup is adorned with a variety of hardware controls, including buttons for muting the microphone, toggling the LED lighting effects, and a volume wheel. They're all smartly placed and easy to access, and I didn't have any trouble learning their positions and getting used to them.
The CommanderMic extends from the left ear cup, but it's removable, so you can get rid of it and use an external mic if you want. Creative says this is its best microphone yet though, utilising what it calls SXFI inPerson technology that can detect human voice and enhance audible speech while cancelling out background noises. On top of that, the red LED in it will blink when the mic is muted, so you don't waste time chattering and wondering why no one is responding. In my time with it, the mic worked pretty reliably, and my teammates reported no issues with ambient noise or voice clarity on my end. To put things in perspective, the whir of my graphics card is constantly picked up by my Blue Yeti Nano desk mic.
The SXFI Gamer also ships with a bunch of different cables, including a tough Kevlar USB-C cord, a regular 3.5mm cable, and a USB-C to USB-A adapter in case your PC doesn't have the right connector.
Is it comfortable?
For someone who generally finds most headphones pretty painful after a while, the Creative SXFI Gamer was pretty comfortable even after hours with it on. The clamping force was just right, and the plush leatherette ear cups certainly helped. Leatherette ear cups do tend to peel or flake after a while though, especially after being exposed to perspiration, so that's something you might want to keep an eye out for in the long run.
It also helps that the headband features 12 precise numbered notches, so you can adjust the headset to fit you just right. That said, I'd have liked to see thicker padding on the headband itself. As it stands, you'll be able to feel the headband digging into your head after a while.
Overall, build quality feels pretty solid, even if I don't feel that the plastic ear cups do much justice to Creative positioning this headset as its best gaming headset yet. Fortunately, the plastic isn't flimsy and another added benefit is that it's light. Nevertheless, a metal construction would definitely have lent it a more premium feel. I'm also not a fan of the RGB lighting on the ear cups. They illuminate a dial-like pattern of sorts, which feels unnecessarily complicated and looks a bit cheap. I'd much have preferred if Creative went for a similar look as the SXFI Theater, which looks far cleaner and more modern.
But more importantly, how does it sound?
I tested the SXFI out in Valorant, where being able to pick out the location of enemy footsteps and other audio cues can arguably make or break the game. You're probably wondering whether or not Battle Mode makes a difference – I'm happy to report that it does, although I'd stop short of saying that it's life-changing and will immediately allow you to hear your opponents from across the map. But compared to the standard mode and the regular Super X-Fi profile, I'd pick Battle Mode in a heartbeat.
That's because of the extra sense of space you get in Battle Mode. While holding A Link in Ascent, I was able to hear the enemy running back out down A Lobby and the distinct sound of boots on metal when they came clumping down Mid Catwalk. And when compared to Super X-Fi, Battle Mode offers crisper audio for footsteps and gun reloads. And in shooters where voice communications with your teammates are of paramount importance, Battle Mode also brings your teammates' voices closer to you, making them sound clearer and as if they're literally in your ear, as opposed to being part of a distant, discordant tapestry of gunfire sounds.
However, while Battle Mode is the clear winner for audio clarity in games, Super X-Fi is my go-to choice when it comes to music and movies. Battle Mode just makes vocals sound strangely nasal, while the standard mode without Super X-Fi pumps out tunes that sound thin, reedy, and lacking in body. Highs on the SXFI Gamer also sound a little too prominent, shrill even, but this was somewhat mitigated by switching to the Super X-Fi profile.
When it comes to music, the headset simply sounds a lot better with Super X-Fi on. When you're toggling it on, you immediately feel the soundstage expand around you, and this sense of space helps create a greater sense of immersion in the song at hand. Unlike many gaming headsets, there also isn't an overwhelming emphasis on bass, so the other frequencies don't get muddied by the low-end.
It works better with songs with simpler instrumentation, such as FM Static's Tonight, where Trevor McNevan's vocals shine through more clearly, and Billy Joel's Vienna. Its emphasis on mid-range vocals also means it pairs well with mandopop numbers like 像鱼 by 王贰浪, lending a certain fullness to her voice and allowing it to envelope you. However, it falls short on songs that require a more refined touch, such as TENDER's Erode, where many details from the keyboard and synths in the background were somewhat obscured.
But the SXFI Gamer is no audiophile headset, and I think it does well enough by the standards of most gaming headsets. It handles games, movies, and music quite capably, and while it's lacking in clarity and doesn't quite offer the lush notes or details I've come to love on the Shure SE535, I'm pretty happy with it overall.
At S$179, the SXFI Gamer is priced pretty reasonably. You get decent audio quality and Creative's nifty Super X-Fi technology, on top of easy-to-reach controls and a good microphone. It's a solid all-around headset and a literal jack of all trades. The design is comfortable too, and my one gripe is the plastic ear cups and the gaudy RGB lighting effects (though at least you've some control options).
That aside, if you're looking for a pair of gaming headphones with good positional audio, you might want to give this a close look.