Creative SXFI Theater review

Creative’s SXFI technology made a big splash at the 2019 and 2020 editions of the CES in Las Vegas, picking up a large number of awards for audio quality and innovation. Its use of “headphone holography” has since been implemented in a number of different products, and as an outlet that focuses on both gaming and movies it’s the SXFI Theater that really managed to draw us in. Here’s what makes this headset unique, why we like it, and what we didn’t like about it.

Unboxing/build

Within Creative’s lineup of headsets, the SXFI is certainly on the higher end in terms of pricing, and it shows in the design and build quality. The SXFI Theater has a neutral black design to it, with leather finishing on both the headband and the earcups. The connecting piece between the headband and earcups is somewhat shiny, but the rest of the headset has a nice matte look to it. There’s a color ring around the earcups that’s fully customizable through an application, but it can also be turned off if you don’t like the ‘gamer’ look or want to conserve battery power.

While the SXFI Theater is meant as a wireless headset, it also comes with a standard 3.5mm audio cable that you can use to connect it to a legacy audio device, mobile phone or table – though it will revert to standard stereo output that way so if that’s your primary mode of listening to audio this isn’t the headset for you.

Also included in the box is a charging cable for the headset, which works with a USB-C interface, as well as a USB dongle that connects to your PC, laptop or videogame console to establish a wireless connection with the headset. There’s also a little wired dock that you can plug the dongle into, which is useful if your console/PC is tucked away behind a wall or door, or simply too far away from where you’re sitting, and you want to improve the connection a bit. Because we never experienced any issues with the connection this felt optional to us, but it’s a nice inclusion to accommodate different setups – which is also true for the included microphone, for those who enjoy voice communication while gaming.

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All of the controls and connections are on the left earcup, which makes for a rather busy layout, especially when you’re just learning how to use it – though there are only two buttons: one being the power button while the other one switches the SXFI functionality on and off. Our only gripe was that the volume dial feels a bit cheap, but at the end of the day we’re really happy with the build quality here.

Setup/ease of use

As mentioned, the SXFI Theater can be used out of the box as a standard wired headset using a 3.5 cable, and it will resort to standard stereo output in this configuration. Setting the headset up for wireless use is also very easy, as it was instantly picked up after inserting the included dongle into a PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 5 – with similar results on a PC/laptop, though the installation of drivers might take a bit longer there.

Where the challenge begins is the moment you want to start using SXFI’s personal audio holography features – and this is where this headset becomes somewhat of an enthusiast’s piece of hardware, even though it’s extremely easy to use once setup is completed. And although it’s not a terribly complex process, it is one with a ton of steps.

Hooking up the dongle and headset to a PC, we first updated the firmware on both. We then proceeded to install the SXFI app on a tablet in order to set up a personalized profile, which includes creating an account and taking pictures of both ears and the shape of your face. This step, which is easier when you have someone to hold/direct your phone or tablet, certainly feels innovative and helps build anticipation. It’s also easy enough to do, but completing the process isn’t the end of it – your profile has to be installed onto the SXFI Theater now.

To do this, you have to install another application on a supported PC/laptop, after which you’ll insert the included dongle in order to connect the PC/laptop to the headset, while also pairing with your mobile device via bluetooth. Do all that successfully, and the previously created personal profile will be uploaded to the headset – after which you’re good to go. As you can see, computer novices might run into a few stumbling blocks here.

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Luckily, using SXFI in movies and games is just a matter of turning on the feature with a single button press after completing the setup process, although you’ll have to reconnect things if you want to switch between profiles, making things slightly cumbersome if you plan on sharing the headset with others who all want to make use of the SXFI function.

Comfort/performance

The build quality of the SXFI Theater with its nice leather pads pays off when using the headset for lengthy gaming sessions and/or movies. Because of the material used, your ears don’t get hot, and passive noise cancellation works well even though there’s no kind of excessive pressure on your head – also a bonus if you’re wearing it for a long three hour movie.

But what about SXFI and the advertised “personal holography”? We’ve seen terms like “virtual surround sound” getting thrown around for over a decade now, so spatial effects in audio aren’t new. Therefore, we weren’t that surprised to find that the SXFI Theater delivers a richer soundscape with the SXFI feature enabled. Listening to stereo output first, the difference was night and day after switching on SXFI, with especially deep and powerful lower tones – great for action sequences in both games and movies.

Does it rival a theater experience where the theater has a full Atmos setup? Well, no, but if that’s your frame of reference than a lot of alternatives will feel like a step down. If you have a standard TV speaker setup, or a cheap surround sound solution, then you’ll probably love what SXFI can deliver – and it does so without interrupting those around you. That’s great news for those looking to play or watch in a living room or office where there are others around, as regular stereo sound feels vastly inferior after trying this, at least for surround-rich media and games – the source and nature of your content will determine your mileage here.

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Where this headset differs from those “virtual surround” headsets, however, is that you can personalize your soundscape – in addition to adding equalizer setting to suit your preference. How well this works and sounds is always going to be a tad subjective, but switching between profiles did indeed result in soundscapes that differed from one another – whereas other “virtualization” headsets come with a one-size-fits-all preset. And while you can sometimes tinker with a few settings to change the generated effects, simplifying it to the point of just taking three pictures is brilliant – even if the setup process can feel elaborate.

What’s also impressive is that the SXFI Theater’s batteries are listed to last for up to 30 hours on a single charge. While we didn’t quite make that in our tests, it’s worth noting that we had the LED light rings enabled and regularly tested at higher volume, and for it to last well over 25 hours is impressive enough already. In other words: you can binge-watch entire seasons without having to recharge, and it recharges quickly.

Connectivity

Part of why you can’t just set up the SXFI Theater using your mobile device is that the headset doesn’t support bluetooth itself. Instead, it communicates with the included dongle using its own dedicated low-latency signal at 2.4GHz, which is far more efficient than bluetooth at reducing/eliminating audio lag and drops.

The more convoluted setup process that follows from that design choice is unfortunate, but a small price to pay for enthusiasts. They might lament that the SXFI Theater requires a PC or console to operate though – and there’s no support for Xbox here. What’s especially unfortunate is that there’s no way to connect the headset to a dedicated BluRay player or amplifier either, which can feel like a pity if you just invested in a fancy 4K BluRay player and screen. We looked into ways of hooking up an optical cable, but ultimately weren’t successful without resorting to a PC again as a go-between.

Conclusions

Creative’s SXFI Theater is a great showcase of the company long legacy of audio innovation – the personalized audioscape that you create even giving this a futuristic flair. Sure, the elaborate setup will deter casual fans unless they have tech-savvy help, but as a technology SXFI is a great feature that works really well for gamers and movie fans who can’t (always) resort to blasting audio out over their regular speakers at high volumes. With decent virtualization and strong and clear audio, especially for content that relies on the long-to-mid range, this is a great way to watch that action-packed film after midnight without waking up the neighborhood.

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