Remember Creative Labs? Back in the early '90s, the company came out with Sound Blaster sound cards that were the sound card of choice for every PC during that time. In fact, I don't recall a single PC without a Sound Blaster (or Sound Blaster Compatible) sound card.
This Singapore-based company manufactured virtually every kind of PC peripheral, from headphones to microphones, PC speakers, MIDI keyboards, and even early MP3 players. They even owned THX for a short while.
Recently the brand has been turning heads again with its Super X-Fi (SXFI - pronounced "sex-fy") headphone technology. At CES 2020, I was handed the SXFI Amp, a tiny dongle touted to recreate a surround-sound holographic environment with headphones.
The SXFI Amp has some good hardware to bolster its credentials. It uses an AKM AK4377 digital-to-analog converter, and the amplifier is capable of 3x gain with the support of high-impedance headphones up to 600Ω, so it packs a serious punch.
The key to this 24-karat magic in the air comes from a digital signal processing (DSP) chip, which Creative dubs the Super X-Fi Ultra DSP. It's a gargantuan name with a Herculean task, capable of decoding and processing up to eight channels of 24-bit 96KHz of audio simultaneously. The website does imply that this is the best thing since sliced bread, so we'll see about that.
Creative's SXFI Amp retails for US$150, currently available worldwide via their official sites only. For my review purpose, Creative also handed me a pair of Aurvana SE over-ear headphones. The good news is it's one of the certified headphones that take full advantage of Creative's SXFI technology, so it's an ideal ecosystem for this review.
You'll need the SXFI app before you can plug and play. And it's available for both Android OS and iOS devices. The app is essential in personalizing the amp to work just for you. It will instruct you to take photos of your ears and face and uses complex algorithms and mapping techniques to determine how best to deliver sound your way. I was lucky enough to have this done for me during CES 2020, which provides a very accurate calibration - the same method and accuracy as using a Smyth Realizer that cost 20x more!
Once I finished connecting everything, I then pressed the SXFI button on the amp. This is when the SXFI Amp shows its true holographic might. The soundstage dimensions are exponentially increased in all directions, and imaging takes on a lifelike presence. Sounds are no longer trapped in your head but rather coming from all directions around it. Bear in mind that this is not a surround sound emulator, this is an environment emulator. The difference is that surround sound emulators emulate fake surround (usually unconvincingly) through a pair of headphones whereas environment emulators emulate the listening area, making the sound appear as though it was being played at Creative Labs' reference sound room in Singapore.
The SXFI Amp also works as an actual headphone amplifier. Forget the fact that most of the hype went to the listening acoustics emulation, the amplifier provides 300% amplification gain for an injection of power strong enough for even 600Ω-rated headphones (at least that's what the spec sheet says - I don't have a 600Ω-rated headphones in my collection).
Listening to a multitude of albums along with audio from YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video, I can honestly say that there is hardly any fatigue experienced with the SXFI turned on. The sound is airy and very spacious - as if I'm listening to an extremely good surround sound system.
No, it's not as good as the Smyth Realizer that I use as a reference point. But then again, it is not US$3,500 either. At less than 1/20 of the price of Smyth, there is really nothing to complain about. My only issue, and a minor one, is a slight echo on vocals/dialogue. But it's not prominent enough to even consider it as a negative.
Bottom line: this device is highly recommended in my books if you're looking for a more immersive personal listening experience at an affordable price.