Creative SXFI Air Hands-On Review: An intriguing but ultimately disappointing pair of over-ear headphones
We were over by the Creative Outlier Gold when we reviewed the TWS earbuds earlier this year. While the earbuds offered excellent value for money at under US$100, we were unconvinced by Creative's Super X-Fi software. The Outlier Gold earbuds rely on a software-based implementation of Super X-Fi and lack Creative's Super X-Fi UltraDSP. So, Creative kindly sent us the SXFI AIR that does feature its Super X-Fi UltraDSP. Creative supplied these headphones for free, but the company did not have a say on our thoughts contained within this article.
SUPER X-Fi DSP: What is it?
The SUPER X-Fi DSP is a processor that Creative includes in multiple products. To date, the DSP can be found in the SXFI AMP, the SXFI Theater, the SXFI Air C and the Sound Blaster X3.
According to Creative, the DSP consumes under half of the power of its most powerful Sound Blaster chip while outputting 5x the computing power. The DSP supports up to 8 channels of 24-bit 96 kHz audio and uses algorithms to deliver what Creative promises is a holographic audio experience. In practice, the DSP creates greater space between instruments and mimics a surround-sound set up.
Super X-Fi can be tweaked from within the SXFI app. The app can store multiple scans of your ears and head.
Design and Fit - Comfortable but large and heavy
As for the SXFI AIR, Creative has done a great job with the build quality of its premium headphones. The SXFI AIR weighs 338 g, which makes the headphones 84 g heavier than Sony's WH-1000XM4. With that said, the SXFI Air has plush earpads that make the headphones exceedingly comfortable to wear. Creative states that the earpads are made from "soft protein leather", and they have aged well in the few months for which we have been using the SXFI Air.
The earcups have a limited range of motion, which is handy for getting a good fit. The earpads are also removable, although we cannot find where Creative sells replacements. The company has glued the locking mechanism to the earpads, so there is no easy way to re-use the former either. The earpads are easy to clean, at least.
The SXFI AIR has a mostly plastic build, apart from the aluminium headband running through the headphones. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it minimises the weight of the headphones. Still, the finish feels noticeably cheaper than on other more expensive over-ear headphones like the Surface Headphones 2 or Sony's WH-1000XM range.
Connectivity - All methods of are welcome
There are four ways of using the SXFI AIR. Creative has included a USB Type-C port, a 3.5 mm jack and a Bluetooth modem. The latter operates on the older Bluetooth 4.2 standard, but we encountered no issues with drop-outs or latency when using the headphones. Creative has included a microSD card reader too for playing MP3, WMA, WAV and FLAC files. We are unsure of the benefits of having a microSD card reader, but it is novel. There is also a 3.5 mm microphone jack. Creative has included a small microphone in the box, and a plug should you not need a microphone. The one that Creative includes is unobtrusively small, though.
We encountered no issues with connecting the SXFI Air by line-in, Bluetooth or USB. Pressing the SOURCE button cycles between the four inputs, although the voiceover sounds rather comical. Without going into depth, the voiceover sounds like someone pretending to sound robotic.
The SXFI Air charge via USB Type-C and support up to 7.1 surround sound when connected to a Mac or a Windows machine through this output. However, the headphones only support the SBC Bluetooth codec, which is a shame considering that the cheaper Outlier Gold is compatible with the higher resolution aptX codec.
Controls - Touch controls and physical buttons
The SXFI AIR relies on touch controls for controlling playback. Swiping on the left earcup adjusts volume levels or switches tracks, while a tap will play or pause audio. This only works when listening to music or videos, for reference.
Creative has also included three physical buttons. A power button sits above the microphone input, making it simple to find when wearing the headphones. The SOURCE button, meanwhile, is between the headphone jack and microSD card reader. This is the most difficult button to find blind, in our opinion, as the Super X-Fi button has a textured finish. Overall, we have no complaints about the touch controls or the physical buttons on the SXFI AIR.
Software - Overly complicated
The SXFI Air is compatible with Windows 10, Mac OS X 10.13 or higher, PS4 firmware version 5.0 or later, Xbox OS version 10.0 or later and Nintendo Switch OS 5.0. All support USB connectivity except Xbox OS, but we understand that is a restriction on Microsoft's behalf and not Creative's.
The SXFI Air is also compatible with Android and iOS, for which Creative has developed two apps. Firstly, there is the SXFI app where you can customise Super X-Fi settings. Then, there is SXFI AIR Control, which mainly controls the RGB lighting on the headphones. There is also a link to the SXFI app, although we had to sign in and press skip for the SXFI AIR Control to remember that we had signed into our Super X-Fi account.
While the software experience on smartphones is complicated, there is only the SXFI Control program for macOS and Windows 10. However, Creative does not deliver firmware updates for the headphones via any of its apps. Instead, the company buries firmware updates on a support page. It is also only possible to update the SXFI Air using Windows 10, so anyone without a Windows 10 machine is out of luck.
We cannot understand why Creative obfuscates firmware updates, as the most recent one adds Super X-Fi Gen 2 support and allows the RGB light rings around the earcups to be toggled on or off. Our headphones did not have the most recent firmware update applied when we started using them, and neither of the apps prompted us to download a newer version. So, we imagine that many people who own the SXFI AIR will overlook any firmware updates that the company posts.
Call & Sound Quality - Acceptable but not amazing
Sadly, sound quality is not an area of strength for the SXFI AIR. Creative has equipped the headphones with 50 mm neodymium-magnet drivers that have a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. The headphones have an impedance of 32 ohms, too. Setting the specifications aside, audio simply sounds flat at default settings. Switching to SXFI adds depth to some music and creates a wider soundstage when playing games.
The Stooges eponymous album, for example, sounds richer with SXFI on. The same applies to lots of electronic and ambient music. However, SXFI can make vocal-heavy music sound echoey, though. Other music sounds like it is being played over a stereo system in the next room, which is an odd but not necessarily bad experience. Overall, its implementation is much better than Outlier Gold and improves immersion when playing games. The SXFI Air would not be our go-to pair of headphones when listening to music though as SXFI removes the immediacy from a lot of music.
Incidentally, the SXFI AIR always reminds us to set up SXFI mode in the SXFI app if we switch the headphones on having left SXFI mode enabled. There is no way to skip this reminder, and it happens even if we have already set the headphones up.
The microphone quality is pretty decent, though. Everyone we spoke to remarked that we sounded clear and free of most background noise. However, other people's voices sounded muddy and unclear. Switching to SXFI mode resulted in people sounding overly echoey, so we could not find a happy medium.
Battery Life - Short runtimes
Creative claims that the SXFI AIR will last up to 10 hours between charges, but we cannot attest to this. In our experience, we cannot get to the end of a working day without needing to recharge the headphones. This is not the case when using the headphones over USB Type-C, but battery life over Bluetooth is incredibly short considering the size of the SXFI AIR.
For comparison, the Sony WH-1000XM4 can last up to 30 hours with noise-cancellation switched on. Likewise, the Surface Headphones 2 will last around 16 hours between charges. Both are noticeably smaller than the SXFI AIR, so we do not know why the latter has such comparatively poor battery life.
Verdict - Good headphones let down by middling battery life and sub-par audio quality
The Creative SXFI AIR currently retail for US$139.99, having been discounted from US$159.99. For the money, Creative has created a pair of headphones that support a wider array of connectivity than most over-ear headphones, even if the inclusion of a microSD card reader seems superfluous, in our opinion. The SXFI Air also has a thick pair of memory-foam earcups, which make the headphones comfortable to wear for hours on end.
However, the headphones do not last as long as we would have liked, or expected. Additionally, the SXFI AIR does not even sound as good as the cheaper Outlier Gold earbuds at default settings. Enabling Super X-Fi mode overcomes this limitation, but the SXFI AIR is crying out for better drivers.
The software situation is a mess too. Only Windows 10 users can install firmware updates, for example, and there are two apps for smartphones. Ultimately, it feels like the SXFI AIR is trying to do too much. Sadly, it does not excel in any department.