Creative is already a name in the audio industry, so let’s see what their sub-3K TWS earbuds actually sound like!
It’s not our first time reviewing earbuds, but definitely the first coming from an actual audio brand. Here comes Creative. A company based in Singapore and is known for their audio devices such as speakers and headsets. What they sent us our way is the new Zen Air. An affordable pair of sweatproof (IPX4-rated) earbuds with noise cancellation. Its main feature is its special music player and app called Super XFI which you can download manually on Google Play and Apple App Store by either searching for it or scanning the given QR code in the manual.
Creative Technology describes itself as a “global leader in the personal lifestyle audio and multimedia digital entertainment products.” They have been in the market for 40 years and specialise in “premium wireless speakers, high-performance earphone products and portable media devices.”
With that experience in the audio space, how good are the Zen Air TWS earbuds in practice? That’s what we’re going to find out.
Before we proceed, here are the basic specs of the Creative Zen Air.
- 10mm Neodymium Driver
- Bluetooth 5.0, 10mm range
- Omni-directional Microphones, Hands-free operation
- Ambient Mode and Noise Reduction
- Codecs: AAC and SBC
- Small, Medium, and Large Silicone Eartips
- IPX4-rated earbuds
- Charging Case with USB-C port
- 18 hours total playback
- 6 hours with buds alone
- Super XFI compatible
When it comes to being creative, they do that with the box itself. The thing is filled with useful information from top to bottom and front to back. We’ll get there later. When you open it, you’re greeted with the pill-shaped charging case wrapped in a plastic bag which is pretty large but also lightweight. This contains the earbuds but we aren’t sure if they are charging or not since a blue film covers the magnets. Underneath that are your spare ear tips of three different sizes, a small USB-C cable for charging, and four pieces of paper. There is a pair of manuals. One in Chinese and the other in English. There’s also a Read Me document and a warranty card. Not exactly the most environmentally-friendly packaging we’ve seen.
When the designers of Creative got around this box, they were probably former physicians because outside of medicine packages, we have never seen a box this full of text and information. Kidding aside, the entire box contains everything you need to know about the earphones, including technical specs on the left side of it. The back even tells you the supposed contents. It’s this level of detail we’re dealing with. Not necessarily a bad thing but it could be overwhelming. The Enco Air2 Pro box isn’t this loaded with information. There’s just a need for a perfect balance between too much information and too few. Some you could just add in the manual.
We opened up the Zen Air out of its plastic bag to get it to breathe. The beautiful pill-shaped case finally revealed itself. We like the design of it. Sure, it was made of plastic, but the inside feels high-end. Though funnily enough, reminds us of a waffle maker. See, you even got the protruding shape of the earbuds on top. The buds really want to remind its users that it is indeed SXFI-ready. So they add this marking outside AND inside of the case. The box also has this marking at the front so you cannot forget it. Don’t forget, you can download the app from the Play Store or App Store by searching for it or scanning the QR Code that came with it.
You can also use these earbuds while doing your workout as it is IPX4-rated. Therefore, it is sweatproof (not the charging case, however). The earbuds feature a silicone tip that are comfortable to wear and they don’t fall over so easily. While there are L and R markings, they aren’t printed over the buds but are rather embossed, so it can be hard to see them. Through the power of common sense, you can easily identify which one is the right earbud and which one is the left.
The buds themselves are probably one of the most unique designs we’ve seen (aside from the Cherry Buds Cube of course) and the stems are flat, unlike the curved ones we normally use. We also like where the gesture sensor is located. It’s conveniently at the top lags of the earbuds and does not intertwine with the other parts of the buds, so you can easily control them without mistouching them.
The inside also lights up when you replace the buds right in. It charges via USB-C at the back and due to its curved design, it couldn’t stand right up. There is a small notification LED at the bottom of the case which lets you know whether the buds are on low battery, charging inside the case, or fully charged. We’re yet to test if the claims on the box are true.
Super XFI App:
Super XFI, as the app describes it, recreates the experience of using an immersive multi-speaker system right through your own ears. The method is 100% computational so it uses AI and your own face mapping, to determine the best sound experience for you. This enhancement is only available for certain earbuds, such as the Zen Air. We also found out that this mode also works for certain AirPods models and the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus.
When you download the app for the first time, it asks you to log in or register. It’s probably there so that you can access your facemap on any device so long that it’s connected to the same account. You can scan as many faces as you want, even if it’s someone else’s. Though you cannot rename them which can get confusing whose face is who.
The app also has demo music you can use to test out S-XFI but you cannot listen to it outside of this app.
The app itself is a music player, like every music player out there. It scans for your mp3 files in the folder you have selected and then lets you play them through the app. You can trigger S-XFI here and even lets you access an equalizer. It only detects local files and downloaded content from streaming apps like Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube Music cannot be played.
The app will automatically detect if you’re using S-XFI-compatible earbuds and it detected ours easily after we connected them to Bluetooth in our device. In this case, the OnePlus Nord 3. If you have a different pair, you can select that easily in the app.
When your music file lacks any sort of thumbnail or cover, it creates AI-generated patterns as the overlay, as opposed to a dull music icon like in many others. The app is straightforward and simple and it’s focused more on that S-XFI algorithm than it is a music player. It doesn’t have Hi-Res support nor a way to customize how the app looks aside from the light/dark mode options.6=6 fr
The Zen Air connects via Bluetooth 5.0. Outdated for its price of PHP 2,797. Even the Cherry Buds Cube, which is more affordable, has Bluetooth 5.1. It might not sound a lot but Bluetooth 5.1 connects way faster and has better latency than Bluetooth 5.0. Also, using newer versions of Bluetooth allows earbuds to connect to more than one device simultaneously but you won’t get that here. The Enco Buds Air2 Pro and the Honor Freebuds 3i have these features and they work.
Nevertheless, the buds are very easy to connect. Just enable Bluetooth and our phone detects the buds quickly. It showed up in the Bluetooth settings quickly too. After we connected it, we scanned the QR Code on the leaflet which led us to the Super-XFI app.
It has a maximum range of 10mm and going farther will cause the earbuds to break up and even disconnect. This is the standard range for all earbuds.
As for latency, the buds will sometimes crack or break up in certain apps. It also has trouble playing music played on Poweramp for some weird reason. Occasionally, YouTube videos will break up and start lagging. The box does not tell what its latency is. Most of the time however, connectivity is consistent and smooth, even when playing games despite the lack of a game mode so you don’t have to worry about these buds dying out.
The Creative Zen Air has gesture controls located at the top of its stem in each bud. They have a comfortable reach and do not obstruct when holding the buds.
Even if the S-XFI app is present, there is no way to customize the controls. These controls are preset in the manual so if you lose it, good luck identifying how many taps are needed to play/pause or activate ANC and ambient mode.
These controls are slow. It takes a few seconds before your taps are registered and I found myself tapping multiple times before I could actually enable ANC or play music. These buds can also control calls. You can answer and decline calls directly but due to how slow it is, it’s best to just use your phone to answer and decline.
The box claims of 18 hours playtime with the case included and 6 hours of use just with the earbuds alone. However, that is with ANC disabled. An amazing feature of these earbuds that other buds don’t is the inclusion of wireless charging, normally found only on more premium earbuds. While we don’t have a wireless charger here in the studio, it’s nice that Creative added it on the Zen Air so you have the option to either charge with the tiny cable provided or use a wireless charger that you already own.
Each bud has a 60mAh battery and the case itself has a 400mAh battery. While the manual mentioned approximately 2 hours of charge, we’re not entirely sure if this refers to the case plugged in or the case charging the buds inside. A LED indicator is present to let you know if the case is approximately full, or when the buds are charging inside.
After 30 minutes of charge, the case still showed red, indicating that the case wasn’t fully charged yet. Keep in mind we kept the earbuds inside so they are being charged simultaneously as well. We are monitoring the case every 30 minutes to see whether the LED light changes colour from red to green.
The case was fully charged after an hour. That means the suggested 2-hour charge time on the box is actually faster in reality. The buds are charging inside the case while the case itself is also charging simultaneously.
We were able to keep the buds running on their own for 6 hours without ANC which matches the one indicated on its box. When the case is fully charged, the buds can last for 3 days to a week on our usage which is very impressive already.
With ANC enabled, the buds lasted a little shorter, around 3-4 hours which is still pretty good because using Active Noise Cancellation requires a lot of power and it’s nothing sort of impressive to see that these buds last this long with ANC on.
According to the box, each bud has a 10mm neodymium dynamic driver. This is necessary to achieve the “multi-speaker-like” experience that Creative is trying to attain while also reaching a wide range of frequencies. The leaflet mentions that the frequency range of these Zen Air buds range from 20-20,000Hz. Neodymium also produces lower distortion. We’ll discuss more about speaker and headphone drivers in the future.
The S-XFI Mode in the app is akin to Dolby Atmos but it’s based on Creative’s own line of sound enhancement. To reiterate, this mode is 100% computational and so it uses a variety of factors, such as your own facemap.
With S-XFI off, the earbuds have a pretty loud volume and vocals are very clear. We also like the amplified bass and excellent sound details. That’s thanks to the high-quality neodymium driver used. We could hear some of the lowest notes at an audible volume. Each song we played feels complete and immersive.
Now, with S-XFI on, the sound drastically changes. Now, it sounds shallower with the bass nerfed to oblivion in exchange for lower distortion and clearer vocals. It suffers from certain genres like Eurobeat because that heavily uses bass. It is half decent when listening to pop music but not ideal for any genre that is heavily dependent on using bass. It’s trying to sound like surround sound but with only two supporting codecs (SBC and AAC), that’s going to be a challenge. We tried changing the codecs in our phone but after exiting Developer Options, it goes back to SBC, and we don’t know why it does either.
In short, S-XFI mode is a poor man’s version of spatial audio and Dolby Atmos. It’s better to keep the mode off for a better sound experience which defeats the whole purpose of the app.
Outside of the S-XFI app, the said mode has no practical use and therefore, is a gimmick. It can also be cumbersome to use, especially the face scanning feature because you need someone else to scan your face. The fact that you need to register is a hit-and-miss because that means you have to stay connected to the internet to use these face maps, which offer little variety and improvement to sound quality.
MICROPHONE QUALITY & ANC:
To enable ANC and ambient mode on these $60 (or about PHP 2.8K) earbuds, you need to press twice on the left earbud. The first two taps enable Active Noise Cancellation and the second two enable ambient mode. Doing this again would turn it off.
The ANC here is pretty weak. The scene above is me sitting next to a strong storm and I could still hear it clearly. It feels more like a muffler than it is a canceller, sort of like a silenced pistol wherein the sound is muffled but still pretty loud, making the ANC feel like a last-minute addition by Creative just so they could market these cheap earbuds as having it. Though with music playing, background noise is almost non-existent. But still, even at moderate volumes, you could still comprehend the noise in the environment.
By the way, ambient mode is supposedly a weaker version of ANC. However, due to how ineffective ANC on these buds is already, ambient mode just feels like ANC off but slightly, barely muffled.
Thankfully the microphone quality is great for such a cheap pair of TWS earbuds. Thanks to the omnidirectional mic, my voice is loud and very clear, almost like a cheap lapel. However, lapel microphones normally have better separation than in-ear TWS buds and this one shows. For what these microphones are, they are decent.
The Creative Zen Air are a decent pair of earbuds that does more than it asks for. With a price of PHP 2,797, you get ANC and wireless charging which is not heard of in its price range.
Its balanced and loud sound, clear microphones, and built-in equalizer make it good for starter audiophiles. It’s also ideal for long trips because of its long-lasting battery. Even at moderate volumes, these earbuds pack a punch and each and every note produces a high level of detail. To think these use a smaller driver compared to other buds we’ve tested before.
The S-XFI app is gimmicky and cumbersome to use and its so-called enhancements only provide so little to improve the sound. Turning on S-XFI mode destroys the bass completely in exchange for more amplified vocals and treble. We still prefer the feature turned off making the app pointless.
While it has ANC, it’s pretty weak and feels more like a muffler than it is a filter since we could clearly still hear background noise. However, the buds are excellent when it comes to their microphony as they are detailed, clear, and loud.
The Creative Zen Air is definitely creative in its own right, starting with its futuristic design. It’s one of the most unique we’ve seen and we have reviewed a lot. We appreciate the effort Creative is making with S-XFI and we’re hoping they could improve its quality as we can see the potential of it being a decent Dolby Atmos competitor if developed well.
- Unique, modern design for the buds.
- Gesture controls are well-placed and do not obstruct the rest of the buds
- Highly detailed sound with an excellent bassline, loud volume, and very clear vocals.
- Voice recording quality is great for its asking price
- Case charges fast and both case and buds are long-lasting, potentially lasting for a week
- For earbuds that cost PHP 2,797, wireless charging is an option
- IPX4-rated means you can use the earbuds while exercising and are virtually sweatproof
- S-XFI app is clunky and cumbersome
- S-XFI mode is gimmicky and provides a worse sound quality by completely eliminating bass
- Weak Active Noise Cancellation
- Non-customizable controls. You have to rely on the manual
- Control response is slow
If you wish to purchase these great-sounding buds, then you can head over to Creative’s stores in Lazada and Shopee. Moreover, you can visit Creative’s Online Store which offers not only TWS earbuds but also soundbars, Bluetooth speakers, headphones, and even webcams at value prices!