Creative Zen Hybrid Pro SXFI: Cinematic headphones that many listeners can experience together

Creative latest ANC wireless headphones, the Zen Hybrid Pro, comes with one feature that 99% of the consumer wireless headphones in the market does not have. It’s the ability to broadcast audio to many headphones at the same time with ultra low latency. Why do you need that, you may ask. Well, get a couple of the Zen Hybrid Pros and then you can watch a movie or listen to streaming music with your spouse without disturbing your family members or house mates. Or get a dozen headphones for an open-space listening event – silent party perhaps?

LE Audio and LC3 Codec

The technology that drives this capability is Bluetooth LE Audio, a new audio standard that consumes lower energy and supports more efficient bitrate. It transmits through the new audio codec, LC3, and powered by Auracast broadcast audio. LC3 has been around since Bluetooth 5.2 but it is not widely adopted. On its own, LC3 is a better codec than SBC with higher quality audio in lower bitrate. I suppose the biggest reason that manufacturers do not use it is due to lack of adoption: why introduce a new codec if most of the devices out there are not using?

Having said that, there are actually brands that have been using LC3 in their products. For instance, Sennheiser’s AMBEO soundbars use LC3 to communicate to the wireless subwoofer. Samsung is also using LC3 for its products to deliver the features that LE Audio promises – the ability to stream audio to multiple devices. When more products have the LE Audio and LC3 supported, then the benefits become more widespread. Imagine you can just switch over your existing wireless headphones to a special channel to listen to audio broadcast over Bluetooth – in airports, or museums, or learning institutions.

3 Variant Models

Now that you have a little more understanding about Bluetooth LE Audio and the LC3 codec, let us now talk about the Zen Hybrid Pro. Creative has packaged the Zen Hybrid Pro into three bundle variant models. Here is a summary of what they come with:

  • Zen Hybrid Pro – comes with headphones. RRP S$149
  • Zen Hybrid Pro Classic – headphones, boom mic, BT-L3 audio transmitter supporting LE Audio. RRP S$189
  • Zen Hybrid Pro SXFI – headphones, boom mic, BT-L4 audio transmitter supporting LE Audio and Super X-Fi. RRP S$219

They go on sale from 10 Nov 2023. Pre-order now to enjoy S$30 discount.

If you buy only the Zen Hybrid Pro headphones, then you can connect to your existing devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops, gaming consoles, etc.) over SBC, AAC, and LC3/LC3+ if your device supports. It is essentially an upgraded Zen Hybrid that supports LE Audio and RGB colour around the earcups, with optional boom mic.

Creative BT-L4 Bluetooth LE Audio Transmitter

The BT-L4 is basically the BT-L3 with built-in SXFI chip. Super X-Fi was launched in 2018 and since then, the features remain largely unchanged. You need to take photos of your ears and let the system work out some computational algorithm to determine the optimal sound to achieve the out-of-the-head audio holography. Since then, there are already many more popular 3D-audio formats, like Sony 360 Reality Audio, Dolby Atmos, Apple Spatial Audio. It seems like a coincidence, but simulated surround audio seems to pick up after Creative’s big announcement of Super X-Fi. Now, with Creative’s new LE Audio headphones and the USB transmitter, could it also signal the rise of Bluetooth Auracast adoption?

Creative App (Windows)

The same Creative app that you install for other USB products – like Creative Sound Blaster X5, Creative Live! M3, to name a few – will recognise the BT-L4 and you can access many features like Acoustic Engine, EQ, SXFI, Mixer. The playback page allows you to select up to 32-bit 96000Hz resolution, while the recording quality can be up to 24-bit 48000Hz.

Audio Quality

It then leads to the question of how the Zen Hybrid Pro sounds. Let me start with standard stereo audio quality. The Zen Hybrid Pro is full of bass, much more because of the cosy ear cups that packs your ears with no room to breathe keeps the sonic intensity. The treble offers clarity but struggles to overcome the strong bass boom, and does so if the audio tracks are not excessive at the lower frequency. This means the Zen Hybrid is not an ideal headphones for a neutral listening experience, though it can be easily overcome through custom EQ. The sound staging is also uninspiring, with instruments closely positioned near the ears.

However, it’s a different story when you turn on Super X-Fi mode. The Zen Hybrid Pro is easily your saviour if you want to enjoy immersive multi-channel cinematic audio experience without possibly getting complaints from your family and your neighbours. You can turn up the volume as much as you want on the Zen Hybrid Pro and enjoy the surround sound. This is where you will appreciate the bass tuning: the Zen Hybrid Pro offers quite the identical sub-woofer experience, minus the reverberations that you feel through the skin. And because the multi-channel sound is generated from the headphones right next to the ears, actually you can hear the directional audio details much better than over physical speakers even though the sound source appears from outside the ears.

For stereo music, the SXFI mode does make the sound stage come from outside the headphones in front of you, but I find the frequency tuning is too heavy on the upper midrange. Pushing it down will reduce the excessive chesty tone and make the audio more refined and less bloated. After listening for a while, you really get the impression that the audio is coming from your home speakers instead of from the headphones.

ANC and Ambient Mode Quality

Through the smartphone app, the ANC and Ambient mode level can be adjusted. The ANC offer adequate background noise removal while not too aggressive to feel total silence. Similarly, the ambient mode lets in some background noise but does not sound very open.

Mic Quality

The normal Zen Hybrid Pro does not come with a boom mic, but based on my testing, I do not find that the boom mic delivers better fidelity. The only benefit is that the mic is positioned nearer to my mouth which achieves better pick-up. However, the mic quality for either mic lacks the high frequency, which is puzzling. Also, the boom mic does not support DNN noise cancellation on background mic noises. I would use with the boom mic where possible for better voice pickup, but using without it does not reduce the quality much.

Verdict

The Zen Hybrid Pro SXFI is a splendid headphone for immersive cinematic experience with multi-channel audio. Its ultra-low latency makes it ideal to be used for gaming and movie watching, and the USB transmitter enables broadcast audio to multiple headphones, which I find it a compelling use case where several people can listen to the same audio content at the same time. I highly recommend you to get one unit of Zen Hybrid Pro SXFI (retails S$219) and a few additional Zen Hybrid Pro (retails S$149) so that multiple people can enjoy the same audio content over headphones simultaneously without complex workaround.

Summary