CES is essentially two million square feet of flashing lights and mega-hype, each company claiming it has the most amazing gadget that will change your life. But every once in a while, I just might have stumbled onto something — Creative’s tiny Super X-Fi headphone amp — that actually delivers.
“Holographic” is a buzzword here at CES, used to describe the sound. What it means is that while listening to regular headphones, attaching the Super X-Fi dongle makes the audio sound like it’s coming from outside the headphones. Not just like virtual surround sound pumped into your ear canals, but replicating the distance and spatiality that defines the sound of everyday real life.
During my demo with Creative at CES, they started by taking pictures of my face and each of my ears within their phone app. The idea is that our heads are all physically shaped differently, which naturally affects how we hear stuff. With my customized head mapping profile loaded onto the Super X-Fi amp, they attached it to headphones and ran curated video clips.
To give an aural benchmark, they first played a 7.1 surround sound clip through some great sounding loudspeakers placed throughout the room. Then we listened to the same clip through headphones attached to the special dongle — and it was pretty amazing. I had to keep pulling the headphones off because I swore the sound was coming from the speakers. But it wasn’t. It was coming from the headphones!
As the demo continued, they played 5.1 content, then stereo and finished with a mono playback that might’ve ironically been the most impressive of all. It sounded like I was sitting in a little jazz club with Ella Fitzgerald performing live just for me. The effect was uncanny.
Of course, it’s difficult to convey in written words what it sounds like. But think of it this way: in real life, people don’t talk directly into your ears. They’re standing at a particular angle and distance away from you and your brain perceives that sound accordingly. So even if you’re recording and listening to 360-degree binaural audio, it suffers the same fate of sounding like it’s just going right into your ears as opposed to as if it’s around you.
What’s cool is that the app is just used for programming. So you do that initial head mapping, establish your profile and tell it what headphones you plan to use. (It works with any headphones up to 600 ohms, but is optimized for a few dozen so far with others being added.) Then it’s all loaded onto the Super X-Fi amp and you don’t really need the app until you want to change a setting. You can take this super dongle anywhere; connect it to your phone, tablet or laptop; and listen to dramatically improved movies, games and music.
Available now, the Super X-Fi amp goes for $150. And they’re currently running a special that throws in a $100 set of over-ear headphones for free.
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