Creative Super X-Fi review: A 'holographic audio' eargasm Credit: Gordon Mah UngIDG
IT & Systems Management

Creative Super X-Fi review: A 'holographic audio' eargasm

Few things in technology are guaranteed to bring you actual joy, but Creative’s Super X-Fi just might qualify for that list.

In short, the Super X-Fi distills decades of audio work into a tiny, portable dongle no bigger than a USB thumb drive that transforms smartphone, laptop, or PC audio with “holographic audio,” according the company.

While that sounds like a lot of superfluous ad copy, we have to admit that after weeks of using the Super X-Fi, the company is on to something. We’d almost believe Creative’s claim that it has found the “holy grail” of audio, but we’re disinclined to recall the Quest Knights just yet.

sfi pixel2dongle 1 Gordon Mah Ung

The Super X-Fi (right) is the size of a finger but offers far more advanced audio than the Google Pixel 2XL audio dongle (v1) on the left.

Getting started with the Super X-Fi

The Super X-Fi features a USB-C port on one end, a standard 3.5mm analog jack on the other, and features volume, shuffle, and a single control button on its surface. A tiny LED changes state from green to orange to let you know if it’s at work or not.

To get started with the Super X-Fi, you first download an Android app though the GooglePlay store. You then take pictures of your head which is analyzed by Creative to pick the perfect audio profile for your particular head shape.

This is necessary because so much of how we hear sound is determined by the timing differences of audio arriving in our ears, and the shape of our head and earlobes plays a large part of it.

sfi ear IDG

The Super X-Fi app scans your head to determine what is optimimal for you.

Besides profiling for your head, you also pick from a set of listed approved headphones in the app, or set it to “generic” for either headphone or in-ear. The headphone profiles are fine tuned by Creative to make the most of each pair’s sonic characteristics and fit style.

Creative actually has an even more optimized approach for mapping that uses in-ear microphones to precisely model audio for your head while frequency sweeps are run on a surround system. Obviously, this isn’t something that’s currently feasible for your average consumer. But we can say that in demonstrations of the Super X-Fi mapped using the in-ear microphones, we had a tough time distinguishing the Super X-Fi from a decently high-end Dolby Atmos system.

For now, the head scans using a phone camera are the next best thing.

Having that extra information is how Creative distinguishes the Super X-Fi from all other spatialized audio solutions. Creative expects its algorithms to get even better still as it adds more scans to its growing database.

sfi couragejack Gordon Mah Ung

On one end is a USB-C port, and on the other is a 3.5mm jack, which many companies have banned from phones.

Inside the Super X-Fi

Crack open the Super X-Fi and you’ll find an AK4377. That’s a 32-bit, 768KHz digital analog converter from acclaimed audio company Asahi Kasei Microdevices. The other chip is Creative’s Super X-Fi chip. The company is pretty secretive about what the Super X-Fi does exactly but we’d guess it relies on such technologies as Creative’s Crystalizer, CMSS, and dozens of other audio patents the company has in its war chest. 

Yes, true audiophiles who pursue the highest-resolution FLAC or DSD files will scoff at Creative’s bag of audio techniques as gimmicks or magic tricks, but in our listening experience, the Super X-Fi was nothing short of phenomenal.

Super X-Fi and music

With stereo content over a good set of headphones or in-ear earphones, most music is rendered as if a singer or band is inside your skull. In fact, we’re so accustomed to this John Malkovich feeling that switching on the Super X-Fi may throw you off for a second or three.

If you keep listening though, you’ll eventually realize you’re just not used to the sound of a band in front of your head, where they would be if they were performing for you.

If we were writing Creative marketing lines, it would be easy to say that the Super X-Fi is like having a personal audition by musicians. 

Using whatever wizardry Creative has summoned from its library, there were times when the difference was stunning. It had us combing through our collection for more music to re-experience.

superxfi 2 IDG

With the Super X-Fi in Windows, you set the OS to output as discrete 7.1 audio, which the dongle then reassembles positional audio from.

Super X-Fi and games

Want to feel like you have an advantage in a multiplayer shooter? Want to be further immersed further in an open world? Plug that Super X-Fi into your PC and enjoy a 5.1 setup at the comfort of your desk with no pesky speakers or wires to worry about.

Online games like Destiny 2, Battlefield V, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 worked like a dream and provided a level of feedback that made us feel as if we were cheating. When you can accurately place a sound without any visual feedback and respond to it, it becomes a game changer. Did it make us a better player? No, it’s not magic. But it did give us a deeper sense of our surroundings than we’d experienced before. The Super X-Fi will also pass microphone data as well, for when you are teaming up with your buddies.

The spatialized sound even increased the immersiveness of single-player games like The Evil Within 2, DOOM, and Red Dead Redemption 2 (gasp—a console game). Yes, the Super X-Fi also works with the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, but not on the Xbox One due to current restrictions from Microsoft. 

We’ve been using the Super X-Fi primarily to play games for two months and it’s become a must-have. In situations where a dedicated 5.1 sound system isn’t an option, the Super X-Fi is the next-best thing whether you’re playing on a TV or PC.

And for those who are worried about Creative drivers, have no fear, this is plug-and-play—meaning you can’t blame the company anymore if your build locks up mid-match!

Super X-Fi isn’t perfect

Be forewarned, the Super X-Fi is not perfect by any stretch. As we said, there will be times when you’ll be floored by just how good the Super X-Fi sounds. But there will also be times when it’s just meh, or even just wrong. Maybe a pinch too much reverb, maybe the vocals are processed out as a little too thin. Android users will also be annoyed by the device asking for permission to access the Super X-Fi (Creative says it’s a security limitation imposed by the OS).

There also isn’t much customization in how much depth you can add to the spatialization. In future iterations we’d love to see the ability to push the “speakers” out further, or adjust how much reverb is in the space with you. Fine-tuning like this can further trick the brain to accept you are indeed listening to speakers in the space with you.

Fortunately, in situations where the Super X-Fi’s processing isn’t working for you, you can click a button on the device to switch it off. You’ll still get the benefits of a 120dB SNR, 32-bit AKM DAC, which is likely a big improvement over anything built into your phone or laptop, or the generic dongle that came with your phone.

Read on to learn more about our listening tests.

Super X-Fi works best with unspoiled sources

In our experience, the Super X-Fi seemed to tickle us most with older, unspoiled music. The older the better. Mono recording? Even better.

For example, an Amazon-downloaded Hank Williams’ Jr. MP3 of “Angels Are Hard to Find” (recorded in 1974) sprang to life with Super X-Fi,  where the only thing that could possibly make it better was a hay bale and ice cold Lone Star beer.

When it comes to gaming, your experience is likely to be better with games from studios that put a ton of resources into their sound teams, such as DICE and Blizzard—we found the Super X-Fi to shine bright here.

sfi power Gordon Mah Ung

We found that the Super X-Fi typically used just a little less than half a watt of power under load, which didn’t seem to hit the phone’s battery life much. That’s not bad, but the Google USB-C audio dongle is even less at a 10th of a watt, so there’s a power cost.

Super X-Fi improves bad MP3s

If you saw “MP3” and did a needle-scratch, stop. Yes, most audio snobs will turn up their noses at MP3s the same way a coffee enthusiast recoils at the mention of Folgers, and that condescension is warranted. MP3s are inherently compromised.

Interestingly, we found this to be one of the areas where the Super X-Fi really shows its stuff. For the vast majority of average folks who have boxes of MP3 files they collected in college from that corner store called Napster, the Super X-Fi can, and will, make many of those files sound better.

Obviously, your mileage will vary depending on the MP3 and how processed it was from the studio, but by and large, it improved most of the music we listened to.

That’s not to say the Super X-Fi won’t make FLAC files also sound better. A 24-bit, 96KHz recording of the Eagles singing “Hotel California” sounded so much improved, that even Jeffrey Lebowski would likely approve.

sfi led Gordon Mah Ung

The large round button on the Super X-Fi lets you turn off any processing, making the dongle a standard USB Audio DAC. The LED turns green when processing is on and orange when it’s off.

Headphones matter too

As we mentioned earlier, in addition to profiling your head shape, the Super X-Fi’s app also uses a profile for your specific headphones. The list includes several major brands in addition to Creative’s own models, such as AKG, Apple, Audio Technica, Beyerdynamic, Bose, HIFIMAN, Jaybird, Koss, Massdrop, Oppo, Sennheiser, Shure, Skullcandy, Sony, V-Moda, and Venture Electronics plus its own Creative and E-Mu models. All told, there were 43 headphone models supported at the time of our review, with more to come. (Generic profiles exist for models not on the list.) For our testing, we used Creative’s $850 E-Mu Teaks, $150 Aurvana Trios, and a set of Aurvana SE’s that go $59. All had Super X-Fi profiles but we also used a pair of unprofiled Mionix Nash 20 gaming headphones as well as a set of Polk headphones and Sennheiser HD700s. The Nash 20 and Polk’s used the generic profile while the Sennheiser HD700s used the very similar Sennheiser HD800 profile in the app.

Does the headphone quality matter? Yes, definitely. 

While there is some overall “enhancement,” don’t expect the Super X-Fi to make your lousy headphones sound great. Still, we were pretty happy with the results from the Aurvana SE’s that sell for $60. And a generic profile shouldn’t be a deal breaker. In fact, the Sennheisser HD700’s sounded great. Just don’t expect a magical transformation from subpar cans.

headphones2 IDG

Creative has added 43 different profiles at last count that the Super X-Fi supports. You can also use generic profiles too.

Super X-Fi’s positional audio is excellent too

All of the above pertains to the Super X-Fi’s ability to improve stereo content but the other big selling point is positional audio, which is marketed as being comparable from a Dolby Atmos setup. Really? Well, yes and no. While in a controlled environment set up by Creative, we found it hard to tell the difference... at times. But honestly, few who actually have a true surround sound system are likely to ditch it for the Super X-Fi.

Still, if you want “Dolby Atmos” (hyperbole aside) in your ear, it’s going to be hard to beat the Super X-Fi right now.

For our close-listening tests, we used the Super X-Fi’s profile generated by taking pictures of our head and ears combined with the profiles for the in-air Aurvana Trio and E-Mu Teak headphones, respectively. What’s cool about the Super X-Fi is that it functions as a basic USB Audio 2.0 device. That means anything that supports USB Audio 2.0 should technically work with the Super X-Fi.

On the PC there’s one more trick you perform. Rather than let it default to a standard two channel audio device, you set it to 7.1 audio in the control panel. This lets Windows spit out eight discrete channels over USB, which the Super X-Fi then processes back into surround audio.

In our close-listening tests we used the oldie-but-goodie RightMark 3D Sound, which lets you carefully position an audio source around you.

sfi 2 Gordon Mah Ung

One end, of course, features a standard 3.5mm “courage” jack that’s been banned by most phone companies.

The problem with using just RightMark 3D to judge the Super X-Fi is that the antiseptic feel detracts from the surround audio. So rather than rely on just moving an object around in DiretSound3D, we also relied on what people might actually use the Super X-Fi on the PC for: watching videos—on YouTube (yes, audio and cinema snobs, recoil in horror again.)

To replicate our RightMark 3D audio test, but with some control, we first used a 360-degree recording with an integrated 5.1 audio track using the Google Chrome browser. For the video, which you can see here, a 360-degree camera was mounted on the turret of an M4 Sherman tank at the Thunder Over Michigan 2017 show. Besides the thunder of machine guns and tumble of the Detroit motors, the audio includes several passes by a P-51 Mustang. That let us rewind the video and repeat the P-51 pass using the Super X-Fi on and off, with the ability to “move” our virtual heads in the video. The result? Far better positional and far better immersive audio. Would we say we felt like we were a GI on the front of a Sherman? No, but it certainly sounded more like it than pure stereo output.

This, again, seems to be the strength of the Super-Fi: to render what would be pretty mundane audio into far more immersive audio. Another video we used for listening tests featured the repeated flybys of a Huey UH-1 helicopter (which you can see here.)  Switching off the Super X-Fi made that large rotor whop-whop-whop of the Huey sound dull and lifeless. Turn it on though, and the device adds just the right amount of reverb and touches to, well, make it feel like you are about to land in a hot LZ along with Four Leaf Tayback and Sgt. Lincoln Osiris during the Wet Offensive.

It’s not just YouTube videos, of course. We also used CyberLink PowerDVD to closely listen to James Cameron’s Avatar on Blu-ray. Say what you will about the movie, the audio mastering is well executed. We used one particular Na’vi scene where the characters fly past waterfalls and we could clearly hear—or at least we believed we heard—the waterfalls behind us.

And that’s the thing. Over the years, we’ve wondered if positional audio isn’t more the the power of suggestion than the power of HRTFs, reverb, and other audio filtering. You are, after all, using two channels to fool your brain into thinking something is behind you, or above you. We’ll let the audio nerds argue that in forums, but what we can say is the Super X-Fi really does a damned-good job at making you believe it and that is really all that matters in the end.

Conclusion: Just buy it?

As good as the Super X-Fi is, convincing consumers this is something they need is still an uphill battle. Again, we believe that most of the time, you’ll find the rendering of the content that you listen to vastly improved. That runs the gamut from your FLAC files to MP3s and, yes, YouTube videos of WWII-vintage warbirds taking off.

But do you care enough about the audio from your laptop, phone, or desktop to invest $150, along with purchasing a decent pair of headphones, and then deal with wires too?

The truth is, we know few will do that, instead favoring Bluetooth. And that’s a real shame because we can honestly, and unabashedly, say your ears are missing out without the Super X-Fi.

sfi usb Gordon Mah Ung

Once you set the Super X-Fi for your headphones and head profile, the USB-C jack and USB Audio support means you can take it just about anywhere with you and immediately enjoy less oppressive audio.

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