Creative Sound Blaster EVO ZxR Review

Introduction

Creative is a company that has been making many audio-related products for a long while now, starting with the Sound Blaster cards, and they have been diversifying in all kinds of products since. Thanks to one of the other two guys, I managed to snag one of Creative’s latest headsets, the Sound Blaster EVO ZxR, which basically is like a Swiss Army knife of headsets.

Some background: I’m not an audio snob (I’ll happily listen to MP3s), and absolutely roll my eyes at the audiophile rubbish that comes along, but I definitely like my good audio. I currently own a Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro, which are really good value in headphones if you ask me, and prior to that have used way too many crappy headsets. The list of headsets I have used and never liked include the Sennheiser PC160, Logitech Precision Gaming Headset, Steelseries Siberia, Razer Carcharias, and the Logitech G230. Even my previous headset, the Creative Fatal1ty Gaming Headset, was used mostly because it boasted an awesome microphone and a low price. Audio-wise, it was not the worst, but certainly not my choice to use if I had one. All of them, with the exception of the Logitech G230, suffered from bad to terrible bass, designed to make explosions sound pretty damn awesome, and everything else sound really shit.

With that in mind, let’s see if the Sound Blaster EVO ZxR escapes from the Booming Pit of Gaming Headset Doom.

Hardware and Design

The EVO ZxR is a circumaural (that is, the ear cups cover your ears, not sit on top of them) headphone design that has built-in microphones and Bluetooth technology for wireless operation, with the option of acting as a wired headset as well. Since it has Bluetooth, that means it can be used with both a computer and a smartphone. To top it off, there is active noise-cancelling circuitry in the EVO ZxR. That is a lot for a headset to cover!

The design is pretty nifty, but not too loud like some “gaming” headsets I’ve seen. The sides of the headset are made of a clear plastic that normally glows red when switched on, and blue when put into Bluetooth pairing mode. Unlike many headsets, there is no boom microphone: Only the presence of two meshed openings on the right earcup gives away the presence of the microphones. That’s right, the EVO ZxR has two of them, as they act as beam-forming microphones for voice pickup. There’s another two on the side of each earcup to enable the active noise-cancelling feature to work.

Creative EVO ZxR Microphones

The twin microphones of the headset.

Also along the right side of the headset are the various controls. The main clear plastic piece is actually the main action button, which controls play and pause, as well as answer calls. When held down, the same button puts the headset into Bluetooth pairing mode. It also is where the NFC action takes place: Tap your NFC-enabled smartphone there to initiate the pairing process. The rest of the headset’s buttons are around that plastic piece. They are the forward and rewind buttons, the power and SBX effects button, and the active noise-cancelling and talk-through button.

Controls: That's a lot of buttons!

Lots and lots of buttons.

Talk-through? Yes, unlike many other headsets, but like some high-end in-ear monitors, the EVO ZxR features a way to listen to your surroundings without taking it off. Pressing that button when the noise-cancelling is active turns off the audio input, and allows exterior sound to be played through instead! More on noise-cancelling and talk-through performance later in the review.

Along the rim of the right earcup, just behind the headband, is the scroll wheel for volume control. It’s has a nice action to it, and using it is much more precise than a potentiometer slider found on many earphones, and much easier and faster than the two-button setup found on most Bluetooth headsets.

Volume control wheel.

The volume control. The EVO ZxR is also one of the more photogenic products I’ve ever shot. That red is a very nice shade.

The build of the headset seems solid enough. The headband is made of metal (though it’s plastic on my old Creative Fatal1ty and that is still going strong), and the swivel mechanism on the earcups did not call themselves to any particular attention. Neat plus point: Swivelling earcups on headphones make it easier for me to hang them on my desk drawer knobs. When laid flat, the headphones hug the drawers perfectly, and will not fall off easily. Who needs to spend the US$25 for the Sennheiser headphone holders?

Having Bluetooth meant that wireless connections are possible, but both sound quality and features take a hit when used with Bluetooth on the desktop  so I had to rely on using the micro USB cable to relay the data instead. I am unsure if it is due to not using Creative’s own Bluetooth dongle with the The cable also charges the headset, so the decision to use Micro USB makes it very convenient. There is also a 3.5mm audio jack next to Micro USB port if you want to use an analog connection. Note that you give up most of the features that way. Both ports are located on the right side of the headset.

The earcups are covered in pleather, and the underlying cushion is unbelievably soft. They feel so nice to touch. Surprisingly, the EVO ZxR doesn’t heat up any faster as say, my DT 990 Pros, which uses velour pads.

Comfort

Comfort-wise, the soft cushioning combined with the mild clamping force from the handband made wearing the EVO ZxR an experience that was not painful. I don’t recall having any issues over a four hour gaming session, which is pretty long as it is! The earcups are not the biggest though, so if you have fairly large ears, they might pinch a bit. I have a medium-sized head, and there was still plenty of three to five clicks on each end for the EVO ZxR’s headband to adjust to for bigger heads.

I did not test for comfort at extreme usage lengths. Even the most comfortable of headphones will start hurting after about six to eight hours for me.

Software

I’ll briefly cover the software: It’s pretty straightforward. Basically the control panel, which is available for Windows, Mac OS, Android and iOS, lets you control how you want the EVO ZxR to sound. While it’s optional for the smartphones, it’s pretty much mandatory for the computers. Sorry if you don’t like installing stuff. Both are similar, but I mainly messed about with the software on my desktop, so the next bit is written from that perspective. A quick look at the Android app shows that both desktop and smartphone software functionality appear to be nearly identical.

The software firstly lets you configure the SBX profiles. That’s Creative’s fancy name for their effects, which includes the both the equaliser and surround sound effects. Oh, and there’s that Crystalizer thing that I am not particularly convinced with, but it works for some people. There are three profiles available, but you can customise them if you want.

There is also a “Smart Volume” gain adjustment, but I felt it was a bit too aggressive: On silent bits of music or when there is soft ambient noise it cranks the volume way up and the background hiss begins. This is problem is not limited to Creative either, as my Asus Xonar Essence STX has the same issue. I am not sure if anyone is going to perfect this: I don’t think we are that lazy to change the audio volume every now and then. Right? Right?

Humanity, don’t make me lose faith in you.

Creative also added some silly stuff, like voice-changing effects for you to use. While a few might be funny enough to be used for pranks, I think most will leave them untouched for the gimmick they are.

Audio Quality

Now, here’s the the most important bit: How does the EVO ZxR sound?

Well, I won’t place them as my favourites, but they are definitely much better than most gaming headsets. They are still pretty much tuned to give that kick at the lower end, but at least it’s not bloated, nor overly boomy. Bass is controlled well enough that some tuning with the equaliser can minimise it for non-bassheads.

The midrange and treble on them are good, but not exceptional. I found the mids a bit odd, but have not been able to put my finger on it. Certainly not noticed 99% of the time, but for a few pieces of audio with emphasised mids, the EVO ZxR just failed to find the sweet spot. It’s a bit odd because it seems fine in other times. Perhaps there’s a small band where the drivers don’t respond as well?

Soundstage is not particularly wide, but adequate. I must confess to being totally spoilt by the DT 990s and their expansive soundstage. The EVO ZxRs are not “fast” headsets either: complex sequences of orchestral music can sound a bit muddy. It’s definitely better than 75% of the gaming headsets I have tried though.

A lot of the complaints are mitigated (but not made to disappear) with the equaliser. The 50mm drivers here respond quite well to the tweaks I gave it.

In gaming, the extra bass helps. Explosions sound fantastic, and artillery fire from 105mm howitzers in Company of Heroes are absolutely menacing. As is the dread when you hear enemy counter-battery fire. Incoming!

As a portable headphone, the EVO ZxRs carry well and the quality loss from using Bluetooth was not really noticeable in a mobile use scenario, but the mild clamping force means that this is no closed headphone. Active noise cancelling is usually only as good for repeating low-frequency noise, and you would be surprised at how much noise outside isn’t that. Buses, subways, all vehicles have a large component of their noise that definitely extends into the mid-range. Trying out the noise-cancelling in a MRT ride barely made a difference. Once underground the noise from the train more or less drowned out my music. At least the same can be said for its effects on audio quality. No noticeable difference was detected with the noise-cancelling circuits engaged.

However I still don’t like the sensation of noiseless air pressure on my ears though: Soft music or quiet ambient noise makes this bad. I felt like a headache was coming. Your mileage might vary on this.

Sadly, the neat trick with the EVO ZxR, the audio passthrough, isn’t always that useful. If you ever had issues with recording a video with either wind noise or just loud ambient noise, well, you will get the same issues here. A strong breeze will render you unable to hear your friend next to you, as will a moderately crowded public setting. If you’re taking public transport, just forget the feature and take off the headset if you need to hear the bus driver yelling at you to please kindly pay the damn fare since you were too busy tinkering with that shiny new headset of yours.

As for the other end of the audio quality test (this is a headset you know), the EVO ZxR gives a good performance. Considering it does not have its mic in a small boom arm, I say that is pretty remarkable. I have tried headsets with boom mics that are fail to perform to acceptable standard (I’m looking at  you, Logitech G230), so this is a big plus in my book. The sound quality has a little more reverb though, as a result, and does sound a bit more boomy than many mics. Here are some samples!

Creative Sound Blaster Evo ZxR Audio Sample

Creative Fatal1ty Gaming Headset Audio Sample

Rode Videomic Audio Sample

The Rode Video Mic is included as a basis for comparison. As you can hear, the good ol’ Creative Fatal1ty Gaming Headset still sounds very good, despite its price. On that note, if you play any kind of online game and are in a leadership role, I still recommend it if you are looking for something the troops can hear you without you needing to spend a bomb on a headset. You do sacrifice a bit in build quality and incoming audio quality though. My own unit is a bit flaky with a somewhat faulty potentiometer.

Conclusion

creative-evozxr

The toughest thing when it comes to passing a conclusion is when a product isn’t spectacularly good, such that its worth it all the money it costs, or when a product isn’t spectacularly bad, such that its not worth any of the money it costs. The Creative Sound Blaster EVO ZxR is a good product, with a lot of features, but its versatility comes at a high price. It debuted at S$399 (~US$320), which is a lot for a headset. Now that it is S$299 (US$240), the price is far more palatable, but some might still find it expensive. Its value comes strictly from how much of an all-in-one you need. Gamers who don’t need the Bluetooth features might want to go with a cheaper headset, and audiophile gamers are likely to have their needs met with multiple products.

Still, I can’t say this is bad, and if I couldn’t use my DT 990s for gaming, I certainly would use these. I even won’t mind them for some music playback from time to time. If you can get a good deal on this, then it goes straight to recommend, especially if you just want to buy one and only one pair of headphones. This will cover just about every need and usage scenario a gamer or even a casual user would have!