Creative SXFi Amp

Review Date: 22 January 2022

SPECIFICATIONS

  • DAC Chip: AKM AK4377 (Single)
  • SNR: 120 dB
  • SUPPORTED INPUT FORMAT
  • 2.0/5.1/7.1 channel, 24 bit/96 kHz
  • THD + N: Up to -110 dB (0.0003%)
  • IMD: < 0.0022%
  • CROSSTALK: < -75 dB
  • AMPLIFICATION GAIN: 3X
  • MAX POWER (16 ohm): 425 mW
  • MAX POWER (32 ohm): 370 mW
  • MAX POWER (300 ohm): 51 mW
  • MAX POWER (600 ohm): 26 mW
  • CONNECTIVITY: PC/Macs, macOS 10.13, High Sierra Linux
  • CONSOLES: PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch
  • MOBILE: Android 7.0 and above only
  • USB: Low-jitter Asynchronous USB UAC2, No drivers required
  • CHASSIS: Aluminum Unibody
  • FINISH: Matte-Black Fine-Textured Anodized
  • DIMENSIONS: (In mm) 9.7 (D) x 17.5 (W) x 67 (H)
  • WEIGHT: 15g, 0.5 oz.
  • CONNECTOR:(Input) USB Type-C, (Output) 3.5mm Single Ended

Headphones:

  • FOSTEX T40RP MK3 (Magnetic Planar, 50 Ohm, 91db Sensitivity)
  • Beyerdynamic DT880 (Dynamic Drivers, 600 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)

IEMs:

  • Etymotic ER4SR (Single BA, 45 Ohm, 96db Sensitivity)
  • TRN VX Pro (8 BA + 1DD Hybrid, 22 Ohm, 106db Sensitivity)
  • TIN HiFi T3+ (Single DD, 32 Ohm, 105db Sensitivity)
  • Shure KSE1500 (Single Electrostatic 200V, KSA1200 Energizer)

Earbuds:

  • VE Asura 3.0 FE (Single DD, 155 Ohm)
  • VE ZEN 2.0 SLQ (Single DD, 320 Ohm)

Sources:

  • Windows 10, Foobar 2000 (USB 3.0 Power)
  • LG V50 ThinQ (UAPP USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
  • Sony Xperia X Compact (UAPP USB Exclusive Mode, Bitperfect)
  • Creative SX-Fi App (Windows & Android)

Comparative Reference DAC/Amp:

  • iFi ZEN DAC V2 + ZEN CAN Stack (15.1 Vrms)

LISTENING EQUIPMENT USED IMPARTED HUGE INFLUENCE TO SOUND IMPRESSIONS & RATING

Creative SXFi Amp was released in 2019. Yes, it is an old product by 2022. Especially now that we have waves of new Dongles released every month at alarming rate. Largely unknown to many due to Creative’s approach of marketing SXFi as part of their “soundcard” solution targeted at gaming community. Thus you will not find SXFi being promoted on the music segment. On top of that, Creative opted to sell SXFi directly and it is very difficult to find it anywhere else. My own SXFi was purchased directly from Creative Singapore with the help of my good buddy Ray Chan.

Build, Functions, Usability

With TRN VX Pro, surprisingly great synergy between them

The key driver for me getting SXFi was due to the fact that it uses AKM4377 DAC chip, the very SAME one used in Lotoo PAW S1 and S2. Admittedly over the course of #donglemadness I have develop a fondness for AKM based DAC/Amps over other manufacturers. I was an ESS Sabre hardcore user at the start of 2021, but by the end of 2021 I found myself absolutely addicted to the sonic performances of Ovidius B1 and CEntrance DACport HD, both of which being prime examples of exceedingly well tuned AKM devices. So, no denying that I have secretly hoped to unearth another refined unit of AKM based Dongle in this SXFi.

SXFi is like a MacGyver’s Swiss Army Knife. It has some nifty features to inspire excitement and practical usage.

For a start, SXFi has two very tactile and large volume adjusters built into the unit that works like a pivot. Right in the middle there’s a simple rounded button serving as Pause switch. Throughout my extensive usage I have found these buttons being super useful and practical. However apparently the volume adjusters are not 100% independent. Depending on where I connect my SXFi, it could also serve as a remote adjuster to the source volume levels (this is true for PCs). On Android devices, it can work independently based on the settings set in UAPP or HiBy Music Player. One thing for sure, need to be very careful when connecting SXFi and activating it. Switching between devices could reset the volume level and suddenly everything goes to MAX!, Caution!

Then there’s a big toggle switch for two sound modes that SXFi capable of. Normal and Gaming mode. For music listening I am 100% on Normal mode, but when I attach it to my PC, playing Elder Scrolls Online and Fallout 76, I switched to Gaming mode. Gaming Mode offers spatial surround sound which really works for FPS and TPP games. Enhanced 3D imaging from the 7.1 or 5.1 staging (can be setup in SXFi App). I must say that the Gaming mode is definitely not for music indulgence, for music playback it just sounded unrealistic and odd. Switching to Normal mode and now SX-Fi will behave as a proper music playback Dongle.

Creative SXFi has apps for both PC and Android. This is where things gets a bit unique for SXFi as compared with other Dongles. A whole lot of parameters can be setup and configured on PC, however for Firmware updates it can only be done via SXFi Android App, where I was required to register as a new user and setup a “profile” including taking photos of my ears!. Suffice to say that I managed to get around it as I have no need for an app to know my ear shapes so that it can “fine-tune” a sound profile based on my ear ergonomics and preferred listening devices – I was never a fan of EQ or any artificial enhancements so I always prefer to run it stock with EQ always off and avoid anything that resembles flavoring tune-ups. The entirety of my impressions on SXFi is as bare boned stock without any optimization. I would not want to do it any differently.

SXFI Control App on Windows 10. In the background Foobar200 Player 😀

Here’s something a bit tricky that I would like to share. Once I was able to register myself successfully via the Android SXFi App, immediately I was prompted with an option to upgrade the FW to the latest version which is 2.01.08. Without even thinking I clicked yes and all done smoothly with over the web update.

However!, when I reconnect my SXFi to UAPP and HiBy Music Player, now both unable to play anything. Both apps uses USB Exclusive mode. I was totally stumped and dumbfounded. No bitperfect means no enjoyment for me, literally.

Not giving up, I played with some configurations and yet the issue persists. SXFi now simply unusable with two of my favorite apps. The regret I felt for agreeing to update the FW was beyond words.

Then I switched to SXFi own App and hey hey! properly detected and connected, with full USB exclusive mode via SXFi own app. I could live with that. The caveat being, SXFi App does not have advanced Playlist features. So I contacted Creative Support online and asked for two things – either they update the SXFi app with Playlist feature or they tell me how to downgrade to the old FW. In the mean while, I have found a workaround where I activate SXFi app first and then minimize it in the background. Switched to UAPP and disallow UAPP from seizing USB control, play it directly instead. Works perfectly fine. In this setup, playback is in bitperfect with access made possible by SXFi app in the background serving as a Proxy and the frontal UAPP as the jukebox. Fine by me after all.

Endurance wise, SXFi scored respectable 7 hours of continuous playback from 100% to 1% on my Sony Xperia X Compact (Android 8, 2700 mAH battery, Airplane Mode, UAPP bitperfect), driving TRN VX Pro. That is 1 hour extra from the other competitors like Cayin RU6, Lotoo PAW S2 and iBasso DC05.

Sound Impressions

Truth be told. I was totally surprised by SXFi sound from the first time I plugged it in. Driving my super stubborn Magnetic Planar headphone of FOSTEX T40RP MK3, what I heard was an output which is wholesome and vibrant. It is as effortless as it is spacious. Fluid handling of dynamic transients end to end with no hint of micro distortions even on the most rumbling of Bass sections. Note weight and density nothing short of near desktop class performances, perhaps being critical I would say just lacking some finesse on overall headroom and technicalities (imaging and details). But if I am not comparing, what I get was something which is truly enjoyable and addictive. From, that moment I knew this SXFi is special. The last time I reviewed a Creative Dongle was the Sound BlasterX G1 which impressed me with great sonic performances – except that G1 was vastly underpowered and unsuitable for anything demanding. SXFi is more than double of what G1 capable of, in fact Creative claimed 3X gain and I am not going to argue with them on that.

After spending more hours regularly. I have found SXFi to be quite adept at pairing with literally anything. Especially serving as AUX feed for my Shure KSE1500. Equally amazing when paired with my sensitive IEMs of TRN VX Pro and TIN HiFi T3+. Throw in my longtime favorite, the Etymotic ER4SR and yet again SXFi exhibited deft synergy to inject life into that finicky single BA IEM. The same can be said of the pairs of VE ZEN 2.0 SLQ and VE Asura 3.0FE. This is one hell of versatile Dongle. It has the power for demanding stuffs as it is refined for sensitive ones.

Tonality and timbral characteristics of SXFI is assuredly near analogue and organic. Just the way I expect it to be and like it. SXFi is a very neutral sounding DAC/Amp without any hint of boosting in any particular frequencies. There’s no hint of the output being digital sounding or metallic. It has great balance of crispness and smoothness. Resolution and details handling being top notch, especially when paired with highly resolving and transparent partners. With musical partners, it sounded very musical and vibrant – keeping things well controlled without imparting overcooked sense of euphony.

Being neutral, the presentation of Mids, Treble and Bass largely depends on the paired partners competencies and signature. That’s how a great source should be. About the most prominent thing SXFi impart would be the tonal balance and timbral temperament. As it is, I am hearing deeply extended Treble and Bass responses with clean and great textures – exhibiting micro details where applicable. Mids presentation being very neutral, not as forward or recessed, it has great clarity for vocals and instruments – with touches of organic sense to the notes. This organic approach I regard as realistic.

Technical wise, assuredly SXFI performs on the level of the top dogs. Soundstage projection being wide and spacious as it is tall and with proper depth. Spatial positioning precise and holographic. Resolution, transparency and details handling expertly done. If I must nitpick then I would say that SXFi shines the best technically with already technically competent partners, when paired with something less technical like ZEN 2.0 or T3+, it is more musical and less focus on precision. I get surgical clean layers separation from my ER4SR, Shure KSE1500, T40RP MK3 and DT880. With TRN VX Pro, it’s a middle ground, the VX Pro being a very special unit that is coy with the balance of being fun and analytical at the same time – any which way. I love them all. The general theme for SXFI, being fluid and mature, amazing speed with great dynamics coherence and harmonics.

Blissful partnership with KSE1500 Electrostatic IEM

Driving Power

As part of #donglemadness 2022 standard procedures, driving tests with two of my most difficult to drive Headphones. My desktop stack of iFi ZEN DAC V2 + ZEN Can (15.1 Vrms) used as a reference to ascertain how close SXFi able to drive those two juggernauts. With the ZEN stacks providing 100% experience, this is how SXFi compares:

CREATIVE SXFi 3.5mm SE

  • Fostex T40RP MK3: 90% (Vol 85/100)
  • Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm: 80% (Vol 90/100)

The percentage being indication of how close SXFi to that iFi ZEN Stack. Of which the criteria for comparison as follows:

  • Listening loudness (proper level)
  • Dynamic transients and density
  • Headroom spacing and staging
  • Imaging strength
  • Details articulation

Now, it does need quite a bit of volume cranking to get to proper loudness levels. On my DT880 it hovers at 90/100. But when proper loudness has been matched, the output is simply amazing as can be hoped for. Not an easy thing to achieve for something so compact as it is.

Additionally, I have spent quite a bit of time pitting SXFi against other #donglemadness combatants. Including against the reigning champion and my personal No.1, CEntrance DACport HD. And here’s my findings:

Windows 10 64bit (USB 3.0 Power Delivery)
Sinne Eeg: We’ve Just Begun (FLAC 24/9.6 kHZ)
Diana Krall: The Look of Love (FLAC 24/9.6 kHZ)

Headphone 1: Fostex T40RP MK3 (91db, 50 Ohm, VE SDIC BAL Cable)
Headphone 2: Beyerdynamic DT880 (96db, 600 Ohm, VE SDIC BAL Cable)

iFi ZEN DAC V2 + ZEN Can (4.4mm BAL 15.1 Vrms, 3780mW combined)
Fostex T40RP MK3 Vol 40/100 Gain Stage 2 of 4
Beyerdynamic DT880 600 Ohm. Vol 35/100 Gain Stage 2 of 4

CEntrance DACport HD (3.5mm SE 4.1 Vrms, 775mW combined)
Vol 44/100 High Gain (T40RP MK3)
Vol 50/100 High Gain (DT880)

  • Performs 98% to ZEN Stack output, overall
  • Both exhibited similar analogue organic signature. Polished, crisp and smooth
  • Both equally great with macro and micro details
  • Both practically on par with technicalities

Creative SX-Fi Amp (3.5mm SE 2 Vrms, 370mW combined)
Vol 52/100 High Gain (T40RP MK3)
Vol 56/100 Adaptive Gain (DT880)

  • Performs 85% to ZEN Stack output, overall
  • Similar analogue organic sound to ZEN Stack, just slightly less on smoothness and air
  • A tiny bit less sharpness with imaging compared to DACport HD and ZEN Stack
  • Layers separation having less space in between compared to DACport HD & ZEN Stack
  • Marginally less width of headroom vs DACport HD and ZEN Stack

Lotoo PAW S2 (4.4mm BAL 2 Vrms, 150mW per channel)
Vol 78/100 High Gain (T40RP MK3)
Vol 80/100 High Gain (DT880)

  • Performs 90% to ZEN Stack output, overall
  • Smoothest analogue and organic unit among them all, yet still crisp
  • Very slightly Mids centric vs DACport HD & ZEN Stack
  • Milder edged imaging (but not fuzzy)
  • Staging and headroom width lesser than DACport HD & ZEN Stack

Last but not least, how does SXFi compares against Lotoo PAW S2? both being AKM4377 based. SXFi does seem to have a bit more juices on power as seen on the tests done above (With Windows 10, USB 3.0). But really when loudness matched, both equally amazing. S2 remains the one with more refined smoothness and SXFi will be sandwiched between S2 and RU6 in this regard. SXFi is not as crisp as RU6 nor does it as smooth as S2. By all account on its own SXFi is already as smooth and crisp as it can be, and that is something which is already on the levels of top performers.

Four way battle, SXFi pitted against ZEN Stack, DACport HD & Lotoo PAW S2

VERDICT

Creative SX-Fi is a very special device. Totally underrated and almost unknown. Not being trendy or hyped at all. With an old AKM4377 DAC to boot. But what matters is the sonic performances. I enjoy my time using SXFi, despite some quirks with the FW update and initial App orientation.

SX-Fi, despite being focused more as a gaming “sound card”, has proven itself to be an even more competent DAC/Amp for music indulgences. I am hearing a very mature sound output which does not fail to impress. SXFi does not fell into the trap of the obsession to provide super clean, clinical, bright and resolving devices like what is observed being the trend nowadays, Dongles that sounded great but lacking realism and organic touch, clean but digital sounding. SXFi has managed to strike the balance of articulated finesse in sound reproduction – of being technically competent and musical at the same time. A true winner in my book.

💚Highlights

  • Well balanced analogue and organic timbre, mature presentation
  • Great technicalities
  • Great musical presentation
  • Compact yet full of features
  • Impressive battery drain to the host
  • Highly affordable

💔Lowlights

  • Very finicky SXFi App setup (initially)
  • Compatibility with UAPP and anything with USB Exclusive mode suffers after FW update

⭐⭐⭐⭐½ ($67.00)

Best Pairing: Flexible up to 600 Ohm

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