First look: Creating 3D headphone audio with the Super X-Fi

Posted:
in General Discussion
AppleInsider goes on with Creative Labs' Super X-Fi, the aluminum dongle designed to turn any headphone set into a 3D soundstage to improve the audio your music and movies.

Super X-Fi
Super X-Fi dongle


We skeptically greet claims of apps and software that pledge to drastically improve the audio quality of your laptop or smartphone instantly. More often than not, they usually utilize some version of adjusting the EQ, which could be done by a user and a very little bit of know-how. So, when we were offered a demo of the just-launched Super X-Fi dongle during CES, we furrowed our brow a bit, and headed into the impromptu theater room to adorn a set of headphones, each affixed to its own Super X-Fi device.

Creative Labs, the company that created the X-Fi, debuted the device as a prototype in 2018 and quickly won an award for its audio reproduction abilities. A year later, the product is finally available to the masses.

The idea is that Super X-Fi -- SXFI for short -- focuses on the spacial soundstage of the headphones and attempts to reproduce an immersive 3D soundstage within the headphones themselves. In short, music should feel like you are standing in front of the stage, rather than having the singer in your ear. When listening to a movie, it creates almost a lite version of Dolby Atmos.

At the same time, it serves as a headphone amp, pushing more power to your cans than your iPhone would ever do.

As the demo kicks off, we were impressed out of the gate. A simple sound test announced a different area of the 7.1 surround sound and it accurately sounded like each of the distinct zones, enough that we took off our headphones to be sure the sound we heard came from them, and not the speakers surrounding us. We were then guided through a series of demos, both movies and music, designed to show off the prowess of the device.

A demo is just that, a demo. It is tailored to the strengths of the device and was without a doubt extremely impressive. They are designed to want you to throw your money at the product on the spot, and not think that hard about the real-world application while you're still impressed.

Once we got to spend time with our own playlists, our thoughts were a bit more mixed.

Super X-Fi slide
Super X-Fi slide


As a headphone amp, we saw big differences between using and not using the SXFI. It made a difference, even on our nice MW50's.

The 3D sound was a little less impressive as we tried out different tracks. It for sure altered the sound, giving it a much larger soundstage, but it will require more listening to see how it plays out across the entire gamut. In the brief time we used it, we really liked the sound, but the mids seemed to be slightly missing.

Regardless, I think I will be grabbing one to use with my iPhone or Mac and further testing will be really needed to see how SXFI really alters the sound and how much better it performs.

AppleInsider will be attending the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show starting on January 8 through January 11 where we're expecting 5G devices, HomeKit, 8K monitors and more. Keep up with our coverage by downloading the AppleInsider app, and follow us on YouTube, Twitter @appleinsider and Facebook for live, late-breaking coverage. You can also check out our official Instagram account for exclusive photos throughout the event.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 9
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 20,593member
    FWIW this has been available for purchase as an Android-compatible product for a couple of months, receiving pretty mixed reviews that tend to lean the positive. Whether they improve sound reportedly depends a lot on what you use them with (laptop/smartphone) and the type of music or media played.  There's also been an iOS headphone set available from Creative with the same hardware built-in for a couple months too. 

    I suspect some iPhone users will love 'em while others will find them a big waste of money. Some buyers have referred to them as an acquired taste. 
    edited January 11
  • Reply 2 of 9
    Would a dongle attached to an iPhone have access to the 5.1 audio of a movie? It's one thing if it's taking a stereo track and trying to simulate a three-dimensional soundstage. It's quite another if they're taking a multichannel soundtrack and spatially orienting it in a set of headphones. 

    For reference, if you record live sounds using two microphones oriented in a dummy device like two ears on the sides of a human head, that audio played back in a set of headphones will recreate the sound space such that the listener can discern not just left and right but also what's in front, in back, and up above, just as if he or she were in the place where the recording was made. It seems like it ought to be possible, then, to take a surround or atmos multichannel recording and dump it down into a set of headphones such that it recreates the experience of sitting in a theater with surround speakers all around. That could be interesting.

    Of course, if you reflexively turn to look in response to those footsteps coming up behind you, the whole world would turn with you. That could be weird.
  • Reply 3 of 9
    "SXFI" has to be the worst acronym/initialism ever.  What a tongue twister!

    This device is only relevant for headphone using cables?  Count me out.
  • Reply 4 of 9
    ...Mids were slightly missing... End of the story for professional musicians. Thanks for saving my time, Andrew!
    williamlondon
  • Reply 5 of 9
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 20,593member
    ...Mids were slightly missing... End of the story for professional musicians. Thanks for saving my time, Andrew!
    If you're a professional musician and/or audiophile I can't imagine that any devices that heavily modify the artists intent would be acceptable, "mids missing" or not. 
    Andy.Hardwake
  • Reply 6 of 9
    colinngcolinng Posts: 108member
    3D sound can be played back with no additional hardware; look up virtual barbershop on YouTube. Our brain determines distance from the delay between different frequencies, a shift caused by how different frequencies travel along our external ear. 

    Thus you can record extremely spatially realistic audio - some recording artists use mics embedded in dummy heads with realistic external ears. 

    So the spatial separation is a source issue; I can’t imagine trying to process output could ever put back the spatial data that wasn’t captured in the recording process. 
  • Reply 7 of 9
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 20,593member
    colinng said:
    3D sound can be played back with no additional hardware; look up virtual barbershop on YouTube. 
    Binaural recordings....
  • Reply 8 of 9
    gatorguy said:
    ...Mids were slightly missing... End of the story for professional musicians. Thanks for saving my time, Andrew!
    If you're a professional musician and/or audiophile I can't imagine that any devices that heavily modify the artists intent would be acceptable, "mids missing" or not.

    Amen, bro! 

  • Reply 9 of 9
    A bit odd that you did not post the glaring fact that there is no iOS version of the app at this point. Or that the app requires setup (with an Android phone, presently) utilizing photos of the ears and head to allow the algorithm to work properly. In fact, it is hard to know if your audio shortfalls might be attributable to not doing the setup...a lot of missing detaiks that would make this review more useful.  Currently, there is a workaround to connect to iPhone utilizing Apple’s camera kit, but it supposedly can be glitchey, and certainly adds considerable expense to an already pricey arrangement. 

    A lot of folks have been eagerly awaiting this unit for a year now, but are waiting even more for an ioS friendly version.  Perhaps a retest is in order at that point? Or a revisit to your review once you have had more time to work with what you have.

    It is pretty common among audio enthusiasts to know that personal adaptation to anything new in audio is a major part of the “break-in” or “burn-in” process.  In fact, more evidence points to the possibility that “getting used to” the new presentation is as big a part as the process of the audio equipment settling into its groove.

    i am not ready to write off this sxfi thing just yet, because there have been a huge number of positive reviews from reputable audio and tech sources. 

Sign In or Register to comment.