Creative made a name for itself early on as an audio powerhouse. With its Soundblaster line of audio cards and its Cambridge Soundworks speakers, they became a household name. Over the last few years, specifically with the X-Fi line, I have not been as impressed as I used to be. Now, it looks like the sleeping giant has re-awakened, bringing with it a bag full of awesomeness that promises goodies to more than just the PC gamer set. The Soundblaster Evo Zx headphones are part of their new Evo line, and are a stylish and powerful contender in the wireless headset market. Packed with features that apply to both gearheads and those that are just interested in a good set of headphones (thanks to their on-board audio-processing capabilities), the Evo Zx offers an impressive list of features, making it easy to get lost in whatever you are listening to.
The headset is a slick-looking piece of hardware with Creative’s trademark red and black colour scheme. Aesthetically, the headset is not the most subtle in terms of its bling factor; however, they’re not out of place relative to most of the headsets available these days, and they come off as what I would call “futuristically elegant”, looking like something from a science fiction movie – perhaps something from Cybertron (The Transformers) or from Tony Stark’s house (Iron Man).
The Evo Zx is constructed of durable plastic, but it feels quite solid, giving it a feeling of durability. There are adjustment options for both sides of the headband, as well as swiveling earcups, ensuring that the headset fits comfortably on a wide range of people. Speaking of comfort, I have to say that the Evo Zx is one of the most comfortable headsets that I have ever worn; the headband curved very subtly in the middle and is padded in the centre, allowing the headset to rest on your noggin without feeling intrusive. The leather-like material around the inside of the earcups is soft and doesn’t seem to cause too much sweat (although this does happen in marathon sessions), and the pressure exerted by the combination of the headband and the earcups on the outside of your ears is firm enough to block out a fair amount of outside noise without feeling like your brains are being squeezed out of your nose. I noticed that the earcups do not fully envelop the ears; but didn’t pose a problem as they did not pinch the outside edges of my ears.
A few buttons can be seen on the surface of the ear cups, which have obvious control functions (power, and skipping tunes). The multi-function button has been integrated into the design of the right earcup, and it glows when activated (red or blue, depending on the function1). The quality of all of the mechanical parts is good, and is in keeping with the structural integrity of the rest of the device. Buttons don’t feel like they’re cheap, instilling confidence that they will still be working a year from now. The Evo Zx is also somewhat portable, and can be folded to about half the size. I have seen better folding mechanisms on some headphones, but given the quality of audio that emanates from the Evo’s, I’m not going to complain.
A lot of the time, a fancy-looking headset will actually be severely lacking in the audio department (talk about bait-and-switch!); the sound quality of the Evo Zx is even more amazing than its physical appearance. I first tried this out with some Jazz and Blues (one of Hugh Laurie’s songs) and the level of clarity that presented itself was quite astounding. I love being able to hear everything in a recording of an acoustic instrument (and vocal performance) – and the Evo Zx serves this up on a silver platter. Switching songs and genres served only to emphasize that the Evo Zx can deliver an immersive audio experience with practically any type of music. Between the beefy FullSpectrum™ 40mm drivers and the on-board audio processor, audio sounds rich and full, with a wide dynamic range composed of clear highs and thundering lows – with no sacrifices anywhere in between. At first, I found the unit to be bass-heavy; but this is in comparison to other headsets – and really, the Evo Zx sounds much more full all around rather than heavy on the low end.
Now, I have to mention that I was listening to all of this music wirelessly (using Bluetooth) – from my iPod Touch. In fact, I’m listening to music on that same device right now – but since I have already paired my Evo’s to it, I don’t need to worry about having my iPod near me. It’s sitting upstairs at this very moment; but the signal is crystal-clear and the usual “Bluetooth lag” is minimal if not present at all. Pressing the SBX (power) button allows me to shift between various sound profiles without causing a delay (thanks to the Soundblaster Central app loaded on my iOS device). There have only been a few times in the last few weeks when the signal has dropped – but that only momentarily while was when I was changing profiles using the app rather than the headset itself. At any other time, the wireless connection between the Evo Zx and my iPod Touch is solid. As an added bonus, the Evo Zx is NFC capable, meaning that if you have a device that supports it, you can simply tap your Evo Zx to your NFC-capable smartphone and they will be connected instantly.
Decent folding factor. Not the best, but not bad.
This performance will serve the user well in a gaming environment as well. Subtle sound effects like footfalls and reloads around corners are as easily heard as gunshots and explosions. I played a few rounds of Battlefield 3, as well as Skyrim, and Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians2 and the Evo Zx does a great job with the primary sounds (direct player interaction) while not sacrificing anything in the background. Over the years, developers have been increasing the quality of environmental sounds in their games, so having a device that enables you to hear everything (thanks to the EVO Control Panel’s Smart Volume) allows you to enjoy the audio the way it was meant to be heard, and it will give you a tactical advantage while you are playing. The 7.1 surround sound emulation is really great, and comes in quite handy in games that require you to be on your guard against threats from behind as it will enhance your virtual spatial awareness. All of this is configured with the EVO Control Panel, which comes with a number of presets as well as through customization options that you can save and recall.
Note that the on-board audio processor will preempt your sound card (as is the case with most USB head phones) – but in this case you might be happy that you did. Unless you have a high-end sound card and a headset that takes advantage of some of the more advanced connection methodologies, you will most likely be just fine with the Evo Zx. This becomes more impressive when one considers that the Evo Zx is powered by a 3.7V 1500mAh lithium ion battery. The fact that it actually lasts for the full 8 hours (slightly longer, truth be told) while using the SB-Axx1 is pretty amazing. And should you be the victim of poor timing, and your headset runs out of juice, you can always plug in using the cable with the 3.5mm plugs and keep on listening (albeit, with a bit less “oomph”).
Easy to reach controls are durable and responsive.
As a communications device, the Evo Zx is a reliable piece of hardware. With Creative’s CrystalVoice technology, your microphone input is enhanced in terms of quality. I tried this device with my iPod Touch, my PC and my Playstation 3. In all three cases, my voice was really well captured, with very little in terms of background noise. Even walking down the street with cars zooming by, the Evo Zx did a fantastic job with the microphone capture. All this without an unsightly boom microphone sticking in your face, too! Definitely an added bonus! And if you’re watching a movie, you can still answer incoming calls from another Bluetooth-enabled device, thanks to the ability of the headset to maintain two Bluetooth connections at the same time.
The Evo Zx comes with a microUSB-to-USB cable (about 6 feet long), a 4-pole analog cable (about 4 feet long), a padded portable carrying case and a quick-start booklet. To fully utilize the features on your PC, you’ll need to be running Windows Vista 32-bit or greater (minimum OSX 10.5.8 on an Apple); for optimal use on your smartphone, you’ll need to be at or better than iOS v5 or Android V2.2 and up. At $249 (on the US Creative Store) the Evo Zx is definitely an expensive prospect, especially considering that the wireless component doesn’t carry over to consoles (except to PS3 voice chat). However, the versatility, portability and quality of this headset make the price a bit easier to justify3. It would be interesting to compare the Evo Zx to its more powerful sibling (the Evo ZxR); it’s $50 more, but comes with 50mm drivers and active noise cancellation.