Creative SXFI Amp


#1

Like most of you, when I heard about Creative’s SXFI, I approached it with a healthy dose of skepticism. Tech reviews were gushing how they couldn’t hear the difference between SXFI and the 7.1 system in Creative’s listening room at CES 2018. Yeah. Right.

But, the conceptsounds so fucking cool. The app maps out the contours of your face and ears and customizes a HRTF/HRIR profile to give you realistic 3D sound. It’s DSP so good that it tricks your brain into thinking it’s real life. Holy shit! We’re one step closer to the Matrix!

Like with any piece of headgear, we need to find something easy to call it. SXFI is pretty short, but how should we pronounce it? SeXFI? SuXFI? I guess a quick listen will let us know. For the purposes of clarity, and because I’m lazy, I’ll refer to the virtualization as “SXFI” and the hardware as “the Amp.”

The Arrival
You tear open the padded shipping envelope in gleeful anticipation of the shiny new toy that you know lays within. The rigid cardboard case is on par with what you expect modern, high-end tech to be packaged in. When you pull open the top, your eyes are greeted by tasteful shiny trim bordering the matte black aluminum unibody of the Amp. The pictures don’t do it justice. The Amp is quite the slick bit of kit.

When you plug in the included USB-C to -C cable, it seats with a satisfying click. The 3.5mm headphone jack is similarly secure and further inspires the confidence that nothing is going to move unless you want it to. Nothing ruins a party faster than unwanted slips when you’re sticking your plugs into different receptacles.

The play/pause, Vol+, Vol-, and SXFI buttons are clicky and responsive. Creative really didn’t skimp out when putting this thing together. It exudes quality and luxury. No other USB stick-type DAC comes close to matching the style and feel of the Amp. This thing is gorgeous. SeXFI, indeed.

You just hope that the beauty isn’t only skin deep.

The Amp
And it isn’t. You plug the other end of the short USB-C cable into your Note 9 and fire up your reference playlist. Damn, this thing sounds great with everything you throw at it. BOOM rattles your balls, One Kiss sends you into bliss, and Lemon turns your brain into marmalade. The AK4377 DAC chip is audibly transparent and the implementation is fantastic.

Along with a midnight black background, the Amp powers the somewhat insensitive and very hungry LCDi4 to ear bleed levels, all without breaking a sweat. There’s zero distortion no matter how many times you mash that Vol+ button. This. Thing. Is. Amazing.

And then you hit that SXFI button.

The App
SXFI is activated by a dedicated button on the Amp and controlled by an Android-only app. The first time you fire it up, you’re prompted to take pictures of your right ear, face, and then left ear with clear guide lines in the app. Preferably by a friend or loved one. Sorry, guys but it looks like you’re on your own here. Luckily, a mirror selfie works just as good, if but with a bit of effort.

The app features an every-expanding list of SXFI-certified headphone presets, a music player, and a 10-band graphic EQ that’s adjustable in 0.1db increments. It features a visual representation of how the FR is actually being affected, taking in account the preset Q-values of the GEQ. The only other place I’ve seen this type of awesome EQ is with the latest firmware update of the ES100. Nice.

Once you get the Audeze Reveal Plugin DSP Settings for the LCDi4 ported over to the app, you’re ready to rock and activate SXFI.

The SXFI
Immediately, the sound is taken out of your head and put into 3D space. Soundstage narrows a bit but depth and height are multiplied. It’s more like an intimate club than an arena. It sounds like the House of Blues. It’s uncanny how it sounds like you’re really listening to a live band playing in a room. Unfortunately, you happen to be standing outside the double doors, waiting to get in.

Everything is compressed. Dynamic range is chopped in half. FR is wonky, with bass sounding muddy and booming. Mids are recessed while the upper mids are accentuated and shouty. Female vocals sound like you’re listening to a poorly tuned karaoke system and you haven’t had enough booze. This shit really SuXFI.

The Aftermath
You get your wife to keep taking pictures of your face and ears until it’s obvious that she just wants to punch them. You try to fine tune the FR via the fantastic EQ but your skills are not up to the task. You listen to nothing else but SXFI “enhanced” music in vain hopes that your brain will burn in, instead of melting and dribbling out your nose. It doesn’t work.

But then, something strange happens. Your brain hears a 7.1 audio stream from a movie you’re watching on your desktop and matches up the auditory cues with the visual. By the time you hit the Kessel Run in Solo, something clicks and everything makes sense. You stop dissecting everything and just enjoy the ride. Once you start listening critically, it all falls apart again. SXFI is like Boo from Super Mario World. As long as you don’t look it in the face, it’ll sneak up and surprise you.

It’s great for the office or when you have to concentrate. It turns every song into LoFi and then pushes it out of your head so that there’s room for thoughts to sneak in.

Technical Difficulties
So you start thinking, and like any good headphone nerd, you start plugging it into everything else. This time-honored technique has produced some really, really great sound through these happy little accidents. It’s also produced some real disappointments, kinda like you were to your mom. SXFI plugged into the LG V40 falls squarely into the latter camp.

Every 30 seconds or so, the stream just falls out of sync for about 10 seconds. Digital distortion slowly fades in and then back out. It sounds like a robot finishing in your ears. Nothing you try fixes it. You’ve traded emails with tech support for the past 3 weeks – at least you had someone to talk to over the holidays, right? – but have had no luck. Your music still sounds like shiny metal sliding down your throat. I’d love to be immersed, but SXFI sometimes just spits you back out to the desert of the real.


#2

Nicely written! If you’re looking for something a little more subtle and are comfortable using VST plugins you might like Redline Monitor from 112dB.


#3

Very entertaining, thanks. I am not a Surround Sound fan with headphones but it sounds like a great little Amp.


#4

I’ll have to check that out. I’m currently running Audeze Reveal and HeSuVi in EQ APO. What does Redline do?


#5

From their own description

It replaces the extreme stereo separation that is characteristic for headphones by the detailed stereo image of near-field monitor speakers without any detrimental effect on the audio. Basically it is a so called ‘crossfeed plugin’ with a few nifty extra’s, that add extra spatiality while keeping the sound as clean as possible. It combines filtering, frequency-dependent delaying, mid/side processing, and room simulation to create a convincing acoustic soundstage that allows you to properly localize sound sources. It also adjusts the relative levels of panned sources as they appear on speakers, and moves the soundstage from an indeterminate location inside your head (with headphones) towards a clearly defined location in front of you.

Basically, it’s advanced crossfeed. I like it because the effect is subtle compared to room simulation and 3D oriented stuff. It doesn’t really mess with frequency response or introduce extra reverb. Basically, it just narrows the stereo image, tightens the imaging and in particular makes the phantom center image stronger. I still have to be in a pretty optimistic mood to feel like it truly moves the music out of my head and towards the front, but I find the results pleasant regardless.