Sound Blaster X3 Review: Portable Super X-Fi Audio For PCs And Consoles

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Sound Blaster X3: Super X-Fi's Personalized Audio Experience

The Sound Blaster X3 is part of Creative Labs' line of Super X-Fi products, each of which comes equipped with the Super X-Fi UltraDSP chip. Creative says Super X-Fi is a world-first DSP which recreates the sound stage of a nice set of speakers using just a pair of headphones. When you listen to music or movies or game audio on headphones, the source is all you hear. By contrast, when listening to those same audio sources with speakers, you also hear sound bouncing off of walls, floor, and ceiling, and Super X-Fi aims to recreate the room inside your headphones. Creative calls Super X-Fi "magic", but in reality it's a combination of facial mapping and some AI-assisted computation performed on the audio stream before it's sent out to the headphones.

headmap setup sound blaster x3
The mapping software works easily enough, but you'll need someone to aim the device at your head

It all starts with the Super X-Fi app for Android (on Google Play) and iOS (on the App Store) and a Creative Super X-Fi account, which stores your head map. We used the Super X-Fi app on our Galaxy S10+ to map our faces and ears. This is really a two-person job, since we found it impossible to get the camera on the phone to look directly at our ears while it was completely out of our field of view. Once that problem has been tackled, however, the app reads the photo to get the contour of ears and facial features, and then uploads that map to your Super X-Fi account. This is necessary to get the map into all the different places it can be used: Sound Blaster Command on the PC or Mac, or into the Sound Blaster Command mobile app which controls the X3 while it's attached to a PS4 or Switch. Once all the mapping has been completed, that map is uploaded to the Super X-Fi account, and Creative's cloud infrastructure computes a headphone profile. 

What Super X-Fi Adds to Music

Sound Blaster Command and the Super X-Fi mobile app then let you select which headphones you're using. Creative has built profiles for many popular sets from companies like AKG, Sennheiser, Shure, and Apple's Beats family. The company also sells Super X-Fi certified headsets of its own in the Aurvana and Outlier product ranges. We happened to have two sets of compatible headphones: Shure's SE215 in-ear monitors and Sennheiser's HD280 Pro over-ear cans. Along with that, we've also got a pair of Creative Aurvana Live! headphones, which are an over-ear wired analog set with closed backs. The Shure and Sennheiser sets are some of the most popular $100 headphones on the market among music enthusiasts who don't want to break the bank, while the Aurvana Live! retails on Amazon for around $70. 

auria live sound blaster x3

Super X-Fi basically achieves what Creative set out to do. In the cases of all three of our sets of headphones, the sound stage was a realistic representation of listening to music in a room if the room was completely empty. While nothing quite replaces the way you can feel bass through a big, loud subwoofer, Creative's AI-assisted computational audio wizardry does a reasonably good job of putting the music in the room with us instead of directly into our ears, with a few caveats. Let's talk about what Super X-Fi gets right, and what feels a little unnatural.

One of the things that can be problematic with listening to music on headphones is panning. Some tracks are pushed far left and far right to create stereo separation but when those effects are mixed in a studio, engineers use a big pair of speakers. Those studio monitors put sounds into a room and while a mix engineer predominantly hears the left or right in their left or right ear, the sound bounces around the room and "leaks" onto the other side. The most convincing aspect of Super X-Fi is how the sound naturally "cross-feeds" into the other ear. The music business gurus at Sound on Sound talk about this phenomenon in more depth, if you're interested. 

However, the reverberation in Super X-Fi was a little TOO strong for our tastes. For sure, sound reverberates off of walls and floors and bounces around in any room you listen to music in, even the best of treated rooms. The problem is that the room sounds completely empty, but nobody sits in an empty room. Anything soft—the couch, a chair, even our bodies—absorb some of the sound bouncing around the room. We'd love to dial this aspect back a bit so it's not quite so obvious. The other problem we noticed is that Super X-Fi really rolls off the high end. This is obvious in cymbal crashes, which shimmer in many of our favorite songs, but become dulled when Super X-Fi is enabled. Turning on the equalizer and adding a high-end shelf helps, but when the high-end frequency has been removed from the signal, EQ can only help so much.

Wanted: Customization Options

We'd really like it if Creative would give users control over how heavily the different effects are applied to music. Overall, Super X-Fi works well enough, but some songs fare better than others. For instance, classics like Aerosmith's Dream On, or Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven sounded a little more natural. On the other hand, modern pop was mixed for the modern masses who—like my wife—consume everything through the little earbuds that come with their smartphones or, if they're lucky, slightly nicer headphones like Apple's EarPods. For example, Billie Ellish's bad guy sounds echoey and muddy with Super X-Fi. We'd love to adjust the stereo separation without also adding too much reverb. Even modern acoustic tracks like Taylor Swift's Lover sounds a little unnatural. Overall, we like the idea of Super X-Fi, though. 

super xfi account sound blaster x3
Super X-Fi involves selecting a personalization profile

These effects may sound like a gimmick to some folks, and they're definitely a personal choice. To illustrate that point, we set up a new Super X-Fi profile for my wife, slapped some headphones on her head, and played back some tunes. She instantly picked out the Super X-Fi effects and said the music sounded like it was in a cave. She consumes everything through headphones, though: games, videos, and music, and she's used to all that stereo separation. Not to belabor the point, but if Super X-Fi had even half the options that the SBX profiles page does to dial back these effects, we'd be able to adjust the music to fit our personal tastes. 

The Super X-Fi mobile app also doubles as a music player, but it only works with files that are on the device locally, and it doesn't seem to do any processing on its own. Folks who want to use Super X-Fi with their phones would need to pick up either a Super X-Fi headset like Creatives SXFI Air or Outlier Gold Bluetooth headphones or a Creative SXFI Amp, which strips a lot of the extra functionality for PC, Mac, and consoles and has a much smaller form factor. Unfortunately, when we connected the Sound Blaster X3 to the Galaxy S10+ via a USB Type-C cable, the blue LED around the volume knob wouldn't light up and the device wasn't recognized. Creative's specs indicate that for the Switch in un-docked mode, the device needs to be powered externally, so it's probably just not getting enough juice from the mobile device. 

sbcommand eq sound blaster x3
You can apply a single EQ curve to the Super X-Fi settings

Speaking of games, we'll take a look at gaming and movie playback performance next.

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