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There's no shortage of noise-canceling headphones on the market, but only one pair features Creative's sound-enhancing X-Fi technology: the Creative Aurvana X-Fi headphones. These headphones offer good sound quality and a comfortable fit, but it'll cost you--about $300, to be exact.
The Aurvana X-Fi's design is somewhat counterintuitive, in that the main use for the X-Fi technology is improving lossy formats (more on this shortly), which are coming from an MP3 player a lot of the time. Yet an MP3 player is portable, and these headphones aren't compact. The padded headband--which has a somewhat cheap feel to it--terminates in two full-size earcups that easily surround the entire ear with their thick, cushy padding. These fold in so that the headphones can lie flat, but that's as small as things get. However, Creative does include a hard-shell carrying case and an airplane adapter, which imparts a certain air of portability that should please frequent fliers. And it must be said that these 'phones are quite comfy for extended wear (on long flights, for example)--so long as you're not wearing large earrings. Also, Creative doesn't ignore the headphones' usefulness for sedentary listening: A removable 5-foot cable--combined with a 5-foot extender--is more than adequate for most at-home applications (and you get a quarter-inch adapter, as well).
On first glance, the Aurvana X-Fi earcups appear to be fully closed, but closer inspection reveals that these headphones are actually somewhat open. Two screened openings--which look rather like miniature speakers themselves--adorn either cup and allow air to enter, which helps to create a listening experience more akin to speakers. Of course, the holes also allow sound to escape, so your neighbors can easily discern your listening tastes. The left earcup also houses a slot for two AAA batteries, while the right contains controls for the various sound-enhancement options. There's an on/off switch and three buttons: one to activate the noise-cancellation feature, one to turn on the X-Fi Crystallizer, and one to turn on the X-Fi CMSS 3D.
The stars of the show here are--of course--the various sound-enhancement capabilities. At the most basic level, you have active noise cancellation; nothing new here. You turn it on, and the Aurvana X-Fi produces some white noise to cancel out low-end hums, such as those of an airplane engine or air-conditioning unit. The feature worked well in our tests, successfully blocking out the AC and a server unit nearby. But it's the X-Fi technology that sets these headphones apart, and before we go into the performance results of that, a little background is in order.
In these headphones, X-Fi consists of two parts: the Crystallizer and the CMSS 3D. The former works by first identifying the components of an audio track that have been damaged or cut off during the compression process. Then, it selectively fills in the gaps, which are found mostly in the high and low ends of the track. The result is clearer, more sparkly details and more thumping bass. The 3D feature works just how you'd expect: by moving the sound away from your ears and into the space around you, thus simulating surround sound speakers. (For plentiful details on both of these sound effects, read our Creative XMod review.)
Without the X-Fi effects activated, the Creative Aurvana X-Fi headphones offer sound quality on par with the Bose QuietComfort 2s, which is to say: great. Still, we don't really see any reason to listen to them without at least the Crystallizer activated--it does a fantastic job of filling in the low end, especially in bass-heavy tracks, which really shine. The high-end enhancement is quite subtle and hard to pick out. If anything, it boosts the level of the highs somewhat, but we didn't notice a considerable improvement. The 3D effect is a matter of preference. It's certainly successful at taking the sound away from the head, but these test listeners actually found sound to be more encompassing with this function kept off. However, we should note that we were testing with music, and this feature is better-suited to games and movies, so if you're looking for headphones for a variety of media, these will fit the bill. We also feel compelled to mention that the X-Fi effects will not fix every problem with a compressed file. Background hiss, for example, may even become slightly magnified.
On the whole, we're pretty impressed with the Aurvana X-Fi's sound quality. Highs are crystal clear, mids are rich (and not affected by the sound-enhancement features, by the way), and lows are thumping. We're also glad to see technological advancements of this sort being made in headphones, and although these 'phones don't quite match the enhancement ability of the XMod, it's nice to have X-Fi in a more portable form.