Growing up in the decade of shame, building a gaming rig back then was much more limited in options and Creative Labs was the go-to for sound cards. A trip down memory lane with Sound Blaster anyone?
When I was offered the chance to review the Creative Zen Hybrid, who was I to say no? I was curious to see what Creative has done since I last had a good look at their portfolio.
As a reviewer, I see a lot of packages come in. But I have to say I was a bit blown away by how compact the box is for the Zen Hybrid headphones.
In a 15 x 14 x 9cm box, Creative has managed to fit in a set of headphones, a decently plush drawstring carry bag, a stack of paperwork, a 80cm USB-A to USB-C charging cable and a 1.2m long 3.5mm AUX-in cable.
There is nothing new in the headphones being foldable, but still it was impressive to see just how compact it can get. The carry pouch is better than many I have come across, a really nice touch to show you don’t need an expensive hard case to still feel classy.
My Zen Hybrid comes in a flat white, with rose gold letterings which I actually don’t mind too much. I do really like that on the inside of the earcups, Left and Right are labelled very clearly with large letterings. No fumbling around to figure out if you got them on the right way, or squinting to look at tiny notations. This one is big, bold and even blind Freddy can’t miss it.
The unit tips the scales at 273 grams which is a fairly standard weight for wireless headphones.
Behind the scenes are dual dual 40 mm full-range Neodymium drivers, Creative promises high-quality sound without any fuss. From accurate bass with a warm sound signature to crisp, clean highs, hear each beat and every layer with clarity.
One of my first-world problems as a reviewer is just how little time I have to learn the controls of a new product. It doesn’t matter how long I have been doing it, sometimes the learning curve is just going to take too long and I go with a cheat sheet.
No such problems with the Zen Hybrid. It has a power button, a volume rocker and an ANC button. That’s it. The physical buttons performs multiple duties depending on what you are doing with the headphones.
The designers have really put some attention to details here. Both the power button and the volume up button features a tiny bump that tells you without the need for a visual check, what your fingers have located.
The headband is steel reinforced, with an adjustable slider. Both sliders have length markings on them, and the ratchet feels firm as you adjust the length.
The earcups are made from protein leather and are generously padded. Even for me who is quite sensitive to headset tightness around my head, these are quite comfortable to wear. My ears can get a little warm but that is hardly a surprise with leather earcups.
There is no excuse for problematic Bluetooth pairing in this era, and the Zen Hybrid passes with flying colour. No issues, no fuss.
From the get go, the Zen Hybrid didn’t raise my pulse rate in any negative way. The speech audio quality was good, really good. I was on some mission critical Sev1 calls with cast of thousands, and the incoming audio was clear and distinct. The feedback for the outgoing audio was that it was ever so slightly muffled, but was intelligible and no one had any issues with it.
What is interesting is that the earcup does the bulk of the heavy lifting for noise cancellation. It does a very effective job to the point that I am oblivious to my partner or daughter trying to get my attention. Couple that with ANC turned on I can just tune everything out , sometimes to my detriment.
One of the big selling points of the Zen Hybrid is certified for Super X-Fi profile, and this needs of course, the SXFI app from your smartphone’s respective app store.
But what is Super X-Fi? The tl;dr would be a personalised audio experience in a headphone, to recreate the listening experience of a high-end multi-speaker system in a professional studio.
There is a little bit of pre-work to be done before you can enjoy SXFI, namely follow the wizard to create a personalised SXFI profile. This step here requires some help as you need to follow the guide and take photos the “head mapping” algorithm. I couldn’t align the grid blindly and there was no audio feedback to tell me how close I was getting (or more accurately, how far off the mark I was). On the bright side it only needs someone to take three photos whilst aligning the grid and the job is done.
Is it marketing or does it really make a difference? I can’t really comment on the SXFI profiles and how much of a difference it really does make. I am pushing my late 40s and it is fair to say nothing is running at my peak. However the difference between SXFI on and off is quite distinctive – the bass is punchier, the trebles are more crisp with SXFI turned on. I did test out the Zen Hybrid with a variety of genres of music and it is quite an amazing experience by and large. Some genres seems to work better than others, and for others, the tweaking may have unintended consequences and you will definitely hear it.
Overall the playback does seem to have substantially more spatial depth without sounding unnatural. I actually feel spoilt now after having experienced what SXFI can do.
But there is of course, a caveat to everything. SXFI is restricted to files on the local device only and you have to use the SXFI app. There is no support for streaming services which is a shame.
It has a rated battery life of up to 37 hours with ANC off, and up to 27 hours with ANC on. These numbers are pretty good on their own and is more than enough to get you through a day. A full charge takes up to 3 hours.
The audio feedback when changing modes will interrupt the audio feed briefly. It doesn’t cut out the sound but mutes it to a large degree. It can be distracting and I generally leave it where it is unless I absolutely need to change it on the fly.
Whilst the Zen Hybrid has a 3.5mm port (and a supplied cable), the sound experience is completely different and not in a good way. It is both heavily bass biased and everything else sounded tinny. The sound compression pretty much punches you in the ears and it is about as far from the SXFI experience you can get. I felt like I have been decanted out of the best seat in the house and unceremoniously ditch backstage. Thankfully at least in my case, I would only ever resort to this when the Zen Hybrid is flat out of charge.
There was some slight confusion on my part using the app. Under the Manage My Devices tab, the “Available Wireless SXFI Devices” just spins endlessly. The actual SXFI toggle is in the music selection pane, at the bottom next to the play button.
Lastly, the SXFI profile is named by date and time. Generally not an issue but if you do want to lend it to someone else to try, it is hard to keep track without the ability to name them manually.
The Creative Zen Hybrid has a RRP of AUD $174.95 (Black) and AUD$159.95 (White), which is to be honest, an absolute bargain for the sound quality you get. I love the the build quality, the overall sound quality. SXFI works and it works amazingly well for most parts. There are some limitations with SXFI available for device local files only which is a shame.
What’s more is that at the time of publishing, the White version has been discounted to AUD$95.95 and Black to AUD$95.95. It is a no-brainer especially with the holiday season just around the corner.
It has been a while since we have awarded the DRN Pulse Award, and the Creative Zen Hybrid definitely deserves the recognition. DRN would like to thank Creative for providing the review unit.
Wearing Style: Over-ear
Operating Temperature: 0–45°C
Product Type: Wireless Headphones, Wired Headphones
Weight: (Headphone) 273g, (3.5 mm AUX-in cable) 69.8g, (USB charging cable) 69.8g
Color: Black, White
Frequency Response: 20–20,000 Hz
Driver: 40 mm Neodymium Driver x 2
Battery Type and Life: *Based on moderate volume level. Actual battery life will vary with usage settings and environmental conditions., 1 x rechargeable Lithium-ion polymer battery (500 mAh), (With ANC on) Up to 27 hours, (With ANC off) Up to 37 hours
Charging Time: 2 to 3 hours
Connector Type: Bluetooth 5.0, 3.5 mm Stereo Input
Bluetooth Profiles: HFP (Hands-Free Profile), A2DP (Wireless Stereo Bluetooth), AVRCP (Bluetooth Remote Control)
Bluetooth Operating Frequency: 2402-2480 MHz
Audio Codec: AAC, SBC
Operating Range: Up to 10m
Ear Pads: High-quality, soft protein leather