The backs of the ear cups both feature microphones, which are used by the active noise cancellation feature. The left ear cup has a panel which can be flipped open, revealing the battery cavity (the X-Fis take two AAAs).
The right ear cup is where you'll find the on/off switch and three buttons: NC, Crystallization, and CMSS-3D. The first toggles noise cancellation, the second attempts to restore compressed music, and the third is a virtual surround sound mode.
The bottom of the right ear cup also has a volume dial, which is handy for changing volume, and an 1/8-inch port, which is handy for connecting your headphones to a sound source.
In the box you'll find the headphones, a travel case, two cords (one male-to-female, and one male-to-male), two AAA batteries, an airplane adapter, and a 1/4-inch adapter.
The main durability issue with the X-Fi headphones is that they creak. A lot. When we squeezed the ear cups, they creaked like a haunted staircase. While we don't think they'll shatter like glass if you drop them, they also don't seem like they'd put up with abuse as well as other headphones. On the bright side, everything else about these headphones seems durable. Despite being creaky, the cups are solidly attached to the band. The cups can rotate around and tilt. Moving cups add durability by reducing stress points -- especially if you just throw these in a travel bag -- but will also suffer from wear faster than non-moving parts. The band can extend, which again, might accrue damage faster than a non-extending band. These last two points are negligible, however. If the cups had better plastic, we'd say these headphones were pretty durable.
The Aurvana X-Fi headphones are kind of plain for over-ear headphones, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The ear cups look a bit plasticky, but the padding is covered in faux-leather, which is classy. Though somewhat bulky on the head, the X-Fi headphones are a fine option to wear to work, assuming you don't mind the glowing, blue LEDs on the side. While no one is going to look particularly cool in these headphones, those with corporate jobs will appreciate not looking like a DJ or snowboarder either.The Aurvana X-Fi over-ear headphones are Creative's entry into the world of active noise cancellation. Unlike many competing noise-cancelling headphones, the Aurvana X-Fis allow you to switch the noise cancellation on and off, and will let you listen to music even if your batteries are dead. The Aurvana X-Fis also feature a few filters that change the way your playback sounds. Despite these extra features, the X-Fis manage to be priced at $300, which seems to be the average rate of noise-cancellers these days. The first thing we noticed: the headphones perform very differently with noise cancellation off than they did when it was on. After we ran the test a bunch of times with it on and when it was off, we noticed that, in terms of the way we score, there wasn't too much of a difference between them. The results with noise cancelling on were slightly better, so we used those figures and graphs for scoring. In this section and the distortion score section, we've also provided a graph of the headphones' performance with noise cancellation turned off. The first graph has noise cancellation turned off, the second graph has it turned on.
As you can see, with noise cancellation on, the overall frequency response is significantly quieter than when it's off. We're assuming this is partially because, with cancellation off, your playback has to compete with far more external noise, and Creative didn't want their headphones to be ill-prepared. Whatever the reason, switching noise cancellation off will give you a far more dynamic -- in fact, a little too dynamic in the bass -- frequency response. The bass starts out overly emphasized, then dips back down to a good level of emphasis, then tends to get a bit over-zealous towards the high end. With noise cancellation on, the line is far more flat, slightly underemphasizing anything from the middle frequencies on up. If you're looking for a more dynamic sound, keep the cancellation off if you can. Of course, if you think keeping the cancellation off is a sure-fire way to get better audio quality, you'd better read our distortion section below.
Most of the headphones below, noise-cancelling or not, performed poorly. Relative to other noise-cancellers, the X-Fis' score isn't bad. Compared with the HD 555s, which lack cancellation but have good audio quality overall, there isn't much of a difference. The Pioneer SE-A1000s trounce the X-Fis firmly, however, with a really controlled frequency response while still adding emphasis to the bass and some high frequencies. Also, the SE-A100s' left and right channel both have a very similar response; the Aurvana X-Fis and, to a much greater extent, the Bose QC2s both have some issues with the channels offering the same frequency response.
One important factor to keep in mind is that, although the X-Fis' frequency response was a bit low, it wasn't erratic. First of all, slightly quiet playback shouldn't be a huge issue with noise cancelling turned on, since there won't be as much interference from external noise. Secondly, since the line is more-or-less flat, all you need to do is bump the volume up a bit for an even frequency response.
Again, we've run this test both with noise cancellation on and off. Noise cancellation might have screwed up frequency response, but it certainly fixes a lot of distortion. We would've expected the noise cancellation to cause more distortion, since it adds extra sound waves to the mix and messes around with which noises actually make it to your ear.
Without noise cancellation on, there's a minimum of about 0.5% distortion throughout the spectrum, with a few peaks that approach a noticeable 3%. If you were to listen to a track with a pair of low-distortion headphones, then switch to the X-Fis sans cancellation, you'd notice the difference.
These results, coupled with the results of the frequency response test above, show the Aurvana X-Fi headphones are going to fall short in some way, regardless of the power switch's position. This isn't really much of an issue, however, as long as you know which setting to use when. If you're on the go, switch noise cancellation on and bump up the volume a bit. You'll get low distortion, good isolation, and a slightly flat response (whether that's a good or bad thing is up to the listener). If you're at home watching a movie, keep cancellation off. You'll get deep explosions, sibilance and other high-pitched sounds won't get lost in the action, and the distortion won't matter as much.
The Aurvana X-Fis received an average score on this test when noise cancellation was on. If the feature were switched off, they would've gotten a downright terrible score. We have seen better performance from noise-cancelling headphones, but unlike these comparison headphones, the Aurvana X-Fis have the ability to turn their cancellation on and off.
The Aurvana X-Fis have average tracking. In the bass it looks like there's a weird jump towards the left ear cup, which means either the right ear cup was a lot quieter or the left ear cup was crazy loud. Either way, after that blip the graph evens out a bit, with the volume slowly meandering towards the right channel. Towards 1 kHz the volume quickly shifts towards the left, but only by a handful of decibels. Afterward the tracking gets a bit erratic. Fortunately, none of the swings are particularly noticeable: the sharp ascents and descents only jump a few decibels at a time.
This is another test with average performance. While the tracking certainly wasn't perfect, compare the X-Fis' result to the QuietComfort 3s'. The biggest shift the X-Fis showed was a 6-decibel shift before 1 kHz; the QC3s had a 20-decibel jump, plummet and jump within a very short spectral range. All the other headphones featured slightly better tracking than the X-Fi since they had smaller, less noticeable jumps from the left channel to the right.
The Creative Aurvana X-Fi headphones were capable of outputting 114.55 dBSPL of music with acceptable distortion levels. This isn't bad: we award maximum points for 120 decibels, which isn't too far off from what the X-Fi was capable of.
Like most noise-cancelling headphones, the fancy electronics really only give you a boost in blocking out bass frequencies, but actually create more noise in the middle frequencies. In terms of total sound cancelled out, the X-Fi headphones did well. They would definitely serve you well on an airplane ride.
The X-Fi headphones beat all comers on the battlegrounds of active noise cancellation. The two non-cancelling headphones below also have semi-open backs and cloth padding, which is notorious for not providing a good seal with the ear. Although the amount of bass blocked out is impressive, the X-Fi, even as the new site active-cancelling champ, can't outperform a good set of in-ears. Etymotic Research's ER6is weren't as good at blocking out bass, but they blocked out quite a bit more high-end noise.
In terms of headphones for a commute by bus or train, however, we think the X-Fis are the best choice.
First of all, contrary to what seems logical, noise cancellation doesn't make a difference on the amount of sound the headphones leak out. This is especially important for those who are planning on using their X-Fis in a library, study lounge, or the quiet car on Amtrak. The X-Fi headphones may stop sound from getting in, but they let more sound out than you'd think. On a bus or other environment with a lot of external racket, the person next to you would probably be able to make out the song you're listening to. The music probably wouldn't be so loud as to be obnoxious, but it would be noticeable. If the room is quiet, even moderate volume levels would carry pretty far. Also, the active cancellation would block out others' attempts to shush you, making you seem like a callous jerk.
We test comfort the way anyone would test comfort: by wearing the headphones for a while. For the purposes of this test, we customize the headphones to have the best fit, then wear them for an hour. After the hour, we didn't have any real issues with comfort. The ear cups are soft and didn't press against our head too tightly. At the end of the hour, we could definitely feel the band putting pressure on our head, but it wasn't particularly uncomfortable.
We thought either the cups or the band might get a bit uncomfortable after the six hour mark in our wear session, and we were partially correct. We didn't so much have an issue with the cups being tight on our head, but the band became slightly aggravating. The problem with the band is its padding. The foam between your head and the band's hard interior feels like it's made out of Tempurpedic-esque material. Once all the air gets squeezed out of it, however, it feels a lot like the hard stuff underneath it.
The Aurvana X-Fi's main cable measures just under 4 feet, 11 inches (just about 1.5 meters) and is detachable. You can also opt to add an extension cord to the mix, extending the total length of the cord to slightly more than 10 feet (a bit over 3 meters). This is a good range for cable connectivity. The 4 foot-long cord will allow you to connect to a media player in your pocket with too much slack, and the 10-foot cord will let you hook up to a stereo system across the room. Also, as a pro-tip, if you plan on using the extension cord, it makes more sense to connect them to the headphones and use the normal cord to connect to the media source. The normal cord has that right-angled plug, so tacking on the extension cord will give you a cable with a bend in it. Connecting the extension cord to the headphones ensures a straight cord, which is optimal.
There are also two adapters included: a 1/4-inch adapter and an airplane adapter.
There really aren't many options to customize your wear experience. The cups can twist and tilt a lot, and the band can extend. While these features are a big help for customizing fit, they're standard. The Aurvana X-Fis do come with an extension cord, which will allow you to take them out for a walk without having too much slack and also let you hook up to your home theater system.
Over-ear headphones are never all that portable because they're big. In-ear headphones can easily get shoved in a pocket when you're not using them, while you'll need a backpack to stow a pair of over-ears.
For some reason every pair of noise-cancelling headphones comes with a case that looks identical to the ones Bose came up with. In a pleasing bout of irony, it looks as though Creative has chosen to jump on the unoriginal bandwagon as well. The good news is all these companies have chosen to rip off a good case design. This case will keep your Aurvana X-Fi headphones and all their fixins safe and organized. Of course, since this case isn't a bag of holding, it doesn't do much to reduce the amount of space your headphones will take up.
These headphones are slightly more portable than the average pair of home theater cans, however, since there's a 4 foot-log cord option: the perfect length to reach that tape deck in your pocket.
As with most headphones with fancy electronics inside, the Creative Aurvana X-Fi headphones are a bit bashful about letting you see them naked. You could probably get the screws out with a 1/16-inch Torx-head (looks like a six-pointed star) screwdriver, but not many people have those lying around. Also, the cup padding is glued on. This makes it hard to pry off and, once off, hard to stick back on (although the glue does keep a lot of its stickiness).
Once you have managed to pry off the cups, you can ooh and aah over the innards of your headphones. Being able to get down to the circuitry is good if you like keeping a meticulously clean set of headphones, or if you just like disassembling your gadgets from time to time.
Overall, however, the Aurvana X-Fis aren't the easiest headphones to maintain.
These headphones will still work even without batteries, which is awesome. They do, however, require batteries to run the noise cancellation and other features. Therefore, they aren't 100% battery independent, since you don't have access to 100% functionality without batteries. Still, it's nice that, when the batteries die out, they'll still pump out your tunes -- they'll just do so at a diminished capacity.
Adjusting your volume levels can be a real hassle. You need to reach down into your pocket, then attempt to find the volume keys by touch, all while your slippery media player darts around your pocket like a cornered cuttlefish. Who has the time or patience to even bother? Thankfully, Creative has created a creative solution to all your volume-altering needs: a volume dial! Now changing the volume is as easy as gently stroking your earlobe.
Active Noise Cancellation
The noise cancellation feature is fairly basic. You hit the button, it turns on. Hit it again, it turns off. The Sony NC500D let you choose from a few different noise cancellation curves, and while they weren't all that different from each other, it did allow for a small amount of customization. We're huge fans of the ability to shut off noise cancellation: why this isn't a standard feature of all headphones, we'll never know. Take notes Bose: although Creative totally stole your case schematics, you could stand to learn a thing from their 'on/off switch' technology.
We also tested the battery life of noise cancellation. With it engaged, you should be able to squeeze about 18 hours, 44 minutes of battery life from a pair of AAA batteries. This isn't bad -- it should last you a flight to Japan and then some -- but it's not particularly amazing. Also, you'll have to keep pumping out cash for AAA batteries as they die. The bright side? You can carry spare batteries with you, or buy them in stores. With proprietary batteries you live and die by the availability of power sockets.
Crystalizer & CMSS-3D
You may have noticed two other buttons next the one that toggles noise cancellation. These buttons turn on the Crystalizer and CMSS-3D features respectively. The especially bold can turn on both at once, even while the noise cancellation feature is on.
What exactly do these two buttons do though? According to the manual, the Crystalizer 'dramatically restores the quality of compressed audio tracks such as MP3 or poorly mastered CDs.' The CMSS-3D button 'delivers a more natural audio playback,' whatever that means. Poor showing, instruction manual. The X-Fis' site corroborated the Crystalizer's function, adding that the CMSS-3D button 'expands your stereo MP3s and digital movies into virtual surround sound over the headphones. Voices are centered in front of you and ambient sounds are moved all around you.' The site even provided a helpful graph of what the X-Fi did. Since we're pretty sure that graph they portrayed is pure witchcraft, we did a few tests of our own. Below is a dazzling table of science. Behold: frequency response graphs for every function the Aurvana X-Fi headphones can perform.
Warning: these frequency response graphs only partially explain what's going on. We would've posted distortion graphs as well, but the line just went straight up off the graph and didn't come back down again. Plus, even if we showed the distortion graphs, they wouldn't describe much about how the sound had changed, just the amount by which it had changed.
In any case, the Crystalizer tends to have a middle ground in terms of bass activity, then follows the same curve as noise cancellation, meaning anything from mid-range sounds on up will sound a bit on the quiet side. This is interesting, since the website claims the Crystalizer enhances the highs and lows. We're not 100% sure how they're enhancing them, but it certainly isn't with volume augmentation. If anything enhances the highs and lows, it's normal playback, without any bells or whistles enabled. The CMSS-3D just emphasizes every other frequency band and hopes for the best. In terms of a general curve, it has a bass response similar to normal mode. It also has a bit more life in its higher-mids than the Crystalizer or noise cancellation do.
At $300, the Aurvana X-Fi headphones are priced at about what the Bose QuietComfort headphones are priced at. Since it performed about as well overall as they did, we think it's a solid option. We still aren't sold, however, on the absurd prices for active noise-cancellers nowadays. On audio quality they generally underperform other headphones. Also, while the noise cancellation is certainly a welcome feature on over-ear or on-ear headphones, a good pair of ear plugs still blocks out more sound (see the Etymotic ER6is). There's really no reason for active noise-cancelling headphones to cost as much as they do. We blame Bose for inflating the market.
In any case, if you're hell-bent on getting a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and are expecting to spend about $300, you should definitely consider the Aurvana X-Fis. If you're looking for good audio quality, there's other, better options; likewise for total sound cancelled.
The Creative Aurvana X-Fi headphones are a mixed bag of interesting and lame. We liked the ability to choose to apply different playback augmentation tools, and we're sure mainstream consumers will as well. The audio quality was pretty average, although the X-Fis have captured the title of 'Active Noise Cancellation Champ,' if only for now. We liked the multiple cords, which allowed both portability and cross-room cable connectivity. We didn't think the headphones were particularly comfortable, however. We especially liked the ability to be able to listen to music even when the batteries were dead or removed. This reason right here will probably steal away a few potential Bose buyers.
Do we think the Aurvana X-Fi headphones are a good alternative to the Bose QuietComfort series? Yes. This doesn't mean, however, that they're a particularly good deal. Active cancellation is a buzzword at the moment, so the feature comes with a trendy tax. The feature also allows the headphones to dabble a bit in the realm of portable headphones and home theater headphones. The active cancellation lets you take these out on the town while offering isolation that rivals mid-range in-ear headphones. The inclusion of the extension cord also allows you to connect to a home theater setup. If you want versatility and the latest trend, then consider the X-Fis. If you're looking for either portability or a home theater solution, there are better, more dedicated options out there for about half the price.
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