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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Creative Aurvana X-Fi...


Recently, I received a pair of Creative's Aurvana X-Fi flagship headphones for testing.

Aurvana X-Fi. Interesting name. Somewhat gimmicky perhaps, especially the "X-Fi" part, but definitely raises one's expectations of these cans. So can it really achieve aural nirvana? And what is aural nirvana? Audio quality is a very touchy and subjective topic. 

Being in the music industry, I have seen and personally embarked on lengthy discussions (sometimes leading to arguments) about what constitutes "good" sound. Of course, being in the creative part of music (not consuming music, but manufacturing it), people like myself have to think more along the lines of what will translate well to consumer playback devices when we have such discussions. That is why the equipment we use has to sound as uncoloured as possible, so that we always have reference point.

Then we begin to add or take away things in the music so that when played back on devices like the iPod with iPod earphones, or the Zen with Zen earphones, or your TV speakers..., it translates well. Of course this adding and taking away has a lot to do with how our ears perceive sound too. Typical human hearing tapers off at the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum, ie, it is not as sensitive at hearing a bass guitar or reverb tail ends as it is at hearing an electric guitar. But that's another PhD thesis altogther.

Let's zoom in to earphones/headphones. Typical consumer level earphones sound somewhat tapered off at both ends of the frequency spectrum. The reason is pretty simple, it is expensive and impractical to make drivers that can produce a flat frequency response at every section of the frequency spectrum. To bring a generic pair of earphones anywhere near to what sound engineers deem to be "acceptable", the cost of manufacturing would multiply, making it unfeasible at this price point. 

The bigger the driver, the easier it is to get a more balanced sound where the low, mid and high frequencies are easily heard. There is a reason why everytime there is a shot of your favourite pop start recording in a studio, he/she is always wearing HEADphones and not earphones.

Ok, enough rambling. So where does the Creative Aurvana fit in the world of headphones? Well, it is definitely prosumer and not consumer. The features are pretty impressive. There's active noise cancelling and 2 sound modes, X-Fi Crystalizer and X-Fi CMSS-3D. I don't know about you, but the names of those 2 sound modes are a bit too much for me.

Let's get on to how it sounds. I tried to look for the frequency response graph of these cans online but have been unsuccessful. No matter. It's how they sound that is important. Before I proceed, let me state the angle that I will be coming from in writing this article. Being a music arranger/producer, I don't use earphones or active headphones with noise canceling. I own a few pair of headphones but non of them actually are noise canceling active headphones and the only pair of earphones I use are the Shure E5C (for traveling or when I don't want to look like Princess Leia on stage).




So this article is written purely based on my knowledge and experience with sound quality as someone who makes a living off the subject of creating music and "good sound". I do not have any reference to other active noise-canceling headphones, except for a pair of Sennheiser PXC150 which was given to me, and just by looking at them, you already know that they are not in the same league.  


So here goes.

Packaging

The headphones come packaged in a sizable box that has plenty of pictures and literature explaining the headphone's features. Not the cleanest or hip-pest design but definitely informative.






Opening up the box reveals a nice nylon weave semi-hard zipper case. A very nice touch, but expected for the price.





Very neatly packed indeed.







Physical attributes

The left can houses all the controls. On/off switch, volume wheel, noise cancellation, X-Fi Crystalizer and X-Fi CMSS-3D buttons.





The right can houses 2 AAA batteries that power the headphones.





The padding found here are of the very soft and comfortable variety. Like a Beyerdynamic DT-150, but even softer.






The notched extender mechanism for adjusting the length of the headband feels nice and sturdy. They even sound good when in action.





Performance

Time to actually listen to it then.

Plug in one side of 3.5mm mini jack to the headphones and the other side to the playback device.




For this test, I will be using mainly my Nokia N82 as the playback device. I chose a phone for a few reasons. This pair of headphones seem to be targeted at mobile music rather than stationary use. It has noise cancellation, which suggests it's meant to block out the world. Besides listening to music on the move, where there are many situations where the environment is noisy, there is hardly any need for noise cancellation. The X-Fi Crystalizer is meant to enhance MP3's or as they put it, "meticulously restore lost details and vibrancy in compressed music such as MP3 and even audio CD". Using a mobile phone will show how easy these pair of headphones are to drive as they generally have less powerful amplifiers as compared with dedicated MP3 devices, as well as see how much they "restore" the AAC files in my phone. All AAC files are encoded at 128 kbps.





One of the great things about the Creative Aurvana X-Fi is that it functions both passively and actively. It works like a normal set of headphones even when there are no batteries put in or when it's turned off. So even if you run out of juice with your headphone batteries in the middle of no where, you're not stuck with no sound.

Let's listen to them in this mode 1st. No batteries.




I play Diana Krall's "I've Got You Under My Skin" which I feel is right up there in terms of production quality. My first impression is the overall tonality is a bit too sharp. The higher frequencies (8000 khz upwards) are a bit too pronounced. Well, I'm really not surprised given that this product is targeted at a large majority of people who would appreciate this "open-ness". Also the vocals seem to be a bit behind in the mix, giving it a scooped EQ curve (bass and treble turned up while the mids are turned down). Not my cup of tea, BUT, it certainly sounds decent. Everything can be clearly heard and the spatial size that the mixing engineer intended is accurately represented. Small details like the sustain pedal movements of the grand piano and breathing of the string players, the classical guitarist's guitar moving against his pants can be heard. Definitely characteristics of a decent pair of studio reference monitor headphones.

Playing Black Eye Peas' "Where Is The Love" reveals the same scooped sound. The heavier drums are nicely reproduced. All the musical elements are clearly heard. The strings sound slightly trebly but acceptable. The guitars sitting way behind in the mix can be heard clearly. The higher frequencies are too accentuated for my taste. It makes the hi hats and cabasa sound too similar.

Organic Britpop like Cold Play doesn't so good with this scooped EQ curve. Overall tonality when playing Cold Play's "Politik" is cold and harsh. Using crash cymbals as a ride cymbal exposes the weakness in this tonal characteristic. Linkin Park works better. The Aurvana X-Fi's adds even more edge and attitude to the humbucking guitar pickups plugged into what sounds like a wall of dual rectifier guitar amps on "Don't Say". The hi hats in this case cut through the dense mix of the massive guitars which is necessary. Very nice.


Now let's switch on the power.




Whoa! The mids come right back up and and the volume got a boost. I get culture shock for a few seconds. I let my ears rest for a while before proceeding to listen. Sometimes your ears get accustomed to a certain sound characteristic and by suddenly changing it results in an inability to be objective. But this has proven one thing, the power switch alone makes a HUGE difference in sound quality and volume.

After having a cup of Japanese jelly, I continued to listen. Ahhh. Much better now. I play John Mayer's "No Such Thing" and the acoustic guitar panned to the right during the intro sounded nice and crisp. You can hear that he is striking the strings of his guitar pretty hard and you can actually accurately guess the brand of the guitar he is using as well (Martin). I still find the treble a bit bright and the mids a bit forward though. Bass is nice and tight but not very deep.

Switching to Randy Waldman's "Peter and the Wolf" (piano trio with trumpet and tenor sax), the bass reveals some weakness. Being not very deep, it makes the double bass sound thin and boxy. The bright treble gives plenty of "air" to the recording but makes the brushed snare drums and dry ride cymbal sound slightly too bright.

Next, I played Kyoto Jazz Massive's "Deep In Your Mind". The characteristics of the Aurvana's suit this song perfectly. The mastering of this song is quite compressed sounding, the "pumping" of the mastering limiter shines through. The phasing stratocaster sounds a delight and the vocals sound full and nice. The synths are presented in a very balanced way with the harshness that is typical of consumer headphones absent. A very enjoyable listen.


Ok, now to the main event. The 3 buttons that is what this pair of headphones is all about. First up, the noise canceling button.




The headphones themselves fit very well, cutting out a big portion of any ambient noise. But turning on the noise cancellation drastically cuts out even more of it. Very impressive. Just for comparison, I put on my Sennheiser PXC 150's. First thing you notice is that there is virtually no difference in terms of cutting out ambient noise when you wear them due to the fact that they sit on top of your ears instead of surrounding them. Switching on the noise canceling on the Sennheisers help a bit but not much. So in terms of noise cutting, the Aurvana's are extremely effective. I can easily see the Aurvana's being a great tool at cutting out airplane noise letting you sleep in peace.

However, the noise cancellation predictably affects the sound of recordings. Simply put, it scoops out frequencies around the 500hz range, which is actually not that bad of a thing since with the power on, the Aurvana's do a little bit mid forward. They're even quieter than my Shure E5C's stuffed uncomfortably deep into my ear canals. I find them excellent in this respect. I am not sure how they stack up against the competition, but it's hard to see any other product being much better at the Aurvana's for noise cancellation.


Now, to arguably the most important button on this pair of headphones: the X-Fi Crystalizer button.





This is where the magic supposedly happens. Creative claims to "restore lost details". Ok, physically speaking, that is impossible. Whatever data that is lost cannot be magically found and restored. If you rip your CD with an 8-bit algorithm, no amount of X-fi, Hi-fi crystals or diamonds can do anything to help the sound. The most anyone or anything can do is compensate the losses with clever use of equalisation. Which is in essence what the Crystalizer does. I have to admit, I am extremely skeptical when it comes to these kinds of things. How can one single preset EQ setting work for everything since every recording sounds different?

Nevermind. I push the button and I am pleasantly surprised. It has non of the "forced" characteristics of typical equaliser boosts. What I heard is an overall improvement in terms of sound quality. Playing Robin Thicke's "Lost Without You" and toggling between X-Fi Crystaliser on and off reveals a few things.

Firstly, the bass is much deeper. Often times, when you boost bass frequencies on a consumer level music device, everything becomes muddy and the tone of the recording becomes very coloured. The bass guitar instantly became deeper. It's like switching between a cheap Peavey bass amplifier with an 8" speaker cone to an Ampeg tube amplifier driving 2 speaker cabinets with multiple 12" and 15" speakers.

The mids sound pretty much the same. Not much difference here with the Crystalizer on or off.

The highs are extended, as expected. Now, the term I used is "EXTENDED". This is very different from the term "boosted", which is what you get typically from consumer level products. The effect is much more pleasant. Although still too bright for my tastes, it is nontheless pleasant. It exhibits very little of the harshness that treble enhancement software/hardware at this price point.

This may be a bold statement, but the Aurvana sounds more like a $4000 Rupert Neve EQ than an iPod EQ. I never expected this, but I actually like the Crystalizer!

The last button is the X-Fi CMSS-3D button.





This button, I am extremely skeptical about. To me, anything that messes with the ambience of a recording is just erm, for a lack of a better word, wrong. Some devices add reverb or delays to alter the size of the ambience of a recording, while others do it with phase alterations. Out of these 2 types of technology, if I had to choose one at gun point, I'd pick the phase alteration.

Well, judging by the Crystalizer, the Creative engineers seem to know what they're doing, and not surprisingly, the CMSS-3D sounds like it uses the phase alteration technique. I guess if they have to have it, this is the right choice.

Ok, so how does it sound? Well, I'll be blunt. I don't like it. It sounds, well, out of phase. I often use this technique in music production to make something like, the sound of a beach, sound bigger than it actually is, but I seldom apply it to musical instruments. The CMSS-3D button creates a sense of "hollowness" to everything, but the thing that bothers me most is that it changes the panning settings of the musical instruments. For example, a hi hat of a drum kit is usually panned to the right as that is what you see when you watch a right-handed drummer play on stage. With the CMSS-3D button on, the hi hats are moved to the middle of the mix. In fact, most things are moved from the sides to the middle.

Maybe in situations where one is watching a movie with these headphones, the CMSS-3D button might have its use. The nature of phase alteration is to give a perception of "open-ness". I can easily see how some people would find this sound appealing as it makes panning settings less precise, giving a feeling of being "unboxed". Again, it's not for me.

However, having said all of that, I have to add that the sound quality with the CMSS-3D turned on is still quite acceptable. The basics are all still there. Good bass, treble and mid responses are intact, especially when you combine the Crystalizer with CMSS-3D.


Conclusion

So, being used to reference studio monitor headphones, I actually quite like the Creative Aurvana X-Fi headphones. They seem well-made with nice materials. They are as comfortable as any headphones I have tried, and I have tried many in my life. They sound good and their Crystalizer technology works pretty much as they claim, which took me by complete surprise. The CMSS-3D, while not something I'd use, is something that is not hard to imagine some people would like, especially for movies. The noise cancellation feature is extremely effective without affecting the tone of the recordings too much. They are easy to drive too. I could get a decent volume level even from a mobile phone. The volume pot is nice and smooth and I could not perceive any tonal change or crackling typical of volume pots found on devices in this price range.

It comes with a nice case that will fit quite easily into a carry-on luggage and also all the adaptors that you will ever need to use these headphones in any situation.

If there is something I'd change on the Aurvana X-Fi's, it would be making them less bright sounding or maybe a switch that allows the user to choose the level of EQ being applied to the sound as the headphones already have good basic tonal characteristics. That I feel would bring them closer to something that would appeal to even audiophiles or purists. I think it's important as that group of people are the ones who are willing to sacrifice size for sound quality.

All in all, this is a pair of very nice headphones and certainly is as good or better sounding than any prosumer level headphones I have listened to.

Definitely recommended.




10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just like you, I don't really like the trebly (cheerful, as you say :D) quality in my headphones.

Care to mention if tweaking the phone's EQ had any effect on that ?

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