Creative SXFI Carrier Soundbar Review
- Surprisingly big sound
- Decent amount of bass
- Dolby Atmos support
- HDMI 2.1 connections
- SXFI is a cool feature
- Mobile app is effective
The not so good
- Front-heavy soundstage
- No Wi-Fi, AirPlay or Chromecast
- No DTS:X support
- No expansion options
What Is the Creative SXFI Carrier?
The Creative Carrier SXFI is a 5.1.2-channel soundbar that supports Dolby Atmos and Creative's own Super X-Fi holographic headphone technology. The soundbar is not only paired with a 10-inch wireless subwoofer but contains proprietary speakers developed in conjunction with Dolby. There's also Creative's own SuperWide technology and some powerful amplification, affording this diminutive soundbar a considerably bigger presence.
There are plenty of features as well, with two HDMI inputs and an output with eARC. The ports are all HDMI 2.1 with passthrough for 8K, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack, USB-C and optical digital inputs, and Bluetooth 5.0. It's not cheap at £899 as at the time of writing (August 2021), and Creative might not be the first name that springs to mind when choosing a soundbar, but let's see how the Carrier SXFI performs.
Design, Connections and Control
The Creative Carrier SXFI is a fairly compact soundbar that's designed for TVs with screen sizes of 55 inches and smaller. It's finished in black, is reasonably well made, and feels solid in terms of its engineering. The ends are angled in at the front to allow the side speakers to project a wider soundstage, while the central section has the physical controls above the centre speaker, a front LED display to the right (which can be dimmed), and a 3.5mm headphone jack over on on the left.
Considering its size, there's a surprising number of speakers inside with three forward-firing drivers for the front left, right and centre channels, two side firing drivers for the width channels, and two up-firing drivers for the overhead channels. The various speakers are behind mesh grilles, with the centre channel behind its own little round grille. The connections are housed in a recessed area at the rear, where you'll also find brackets for wall mounting the Carrier.
The soundbar itself measures 880 x 128 x 76mm (WxDxH) and weighs in at 3.6kg. The included wireless subwoofer measures 225 x 430 x 450mm (WxDxH) and weighs 12.8kg. The sub uses a side-firing 10-inch driver with a port at the front, and Creative claims it can get down to 25Hz. The sub's build quality matches the main unit, and it's also finished in black. There's a total of 450W of amplification, with 250W allocated to the soundbar, and a further 200W driving the subwoofer.
In terms of connections, the Carrier is actually quite impressive, and has two HDMI inputs and an HDMI output. Unusually for a soundbar, these connections are all full HDMI 2.1, which means support for eARC on the output, along with HDCP 2.3 and 8K/30Hz, 4K/120Hz, VRR, ALLM, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision passthrough.
The HDMI 2.1 inputs and outputs include eARC, and passthrough of 8K, 4K/120Hz, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision
There's also an optical digital input, a 3.5mm analogue input, a USB-C audio input, and an SXFI-enabled USB audio output. There's no Wi-Fi built-in, but there is Bluetooth 5.0 (A2DP) for a wireless connection. Finally, there's a connector for the AC power adapter. The soundbar and subwoofer connect wirelessly but there is a 3.5mm jack on both for a wired connection if necessary.
On the soundbar itself there are controls for power on/off, volume up and down, source selection, mode selection (which cycles through Movie, Music, Night, Neutral, and SuperWide), and the Super X-Fi mode.
There are plenty of control options, including a decent remote control and Creative's excellent mobile app
There's also the Creative mobile app for iOS and Android, which offers all the controls, setup options and a calibration process to fully optimise the placement and settings of the soundbar and subwoofer. In addition, there are advanced settings for custom-mapping buttons for IR remote control, subwoofer bass adjustment, auto standby, display brightness, additional input/output setup and firmware updates.
There's a decent remote control included that fits comfortably in your palm and is easy to use with one hand. At the top are the power and mute buttons, and beneath these are all the inputs. Then there's a circular playback and volume control, flanked by info, LED brightness, and menu buttons. Under these you'll find the modes and bass up/down, buttons for switching between the speaker and any attached headphones, and the control for turning the Super X-Fi headphone feature on. Finally, there are six customisable buttons at the bottom that are set up using the mobile app.
Features and Specs
The Creative Carrier SXFI supports Dolby Atmos object-based audio using an immersive 5.1.2-channel speaker layout with width and upward-firing drivers. Creative has partnered with Dolby to include the company's new Dolby Atmos Speaker System (DASS), which features new innovative acoustic concepts designed to push the performance limits and capability of a compact soundbar when it comes to three-dimensional audio.
In addition to supporting Dolby Atmos, the Carrier also decodes Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus. However there's no support for DTS:X, although this format is becoming increasingly less important as Dolby dominates the streaming services. The Carrier can support audio up to 24-bit 192kHz, and each of the seven speakers and subwoofer has its own DSP-controlled amplifier, with a total power of 450W RMS and peaks up to 900W.
The Carrier includes a number of Creative's proprietary technologies, including SuperWide, which is designed to expand the soundstage of stereo content to produce a sonic experience that's much bigger than the soundbar's compact dimensions.
Along with Dolby Atmos, the Carrier supports Creative's proprietary SuperWide and Super X-Fi headphone technology
The other big selling-point of the Carrier is the SXFI part of its name, which means it supports Creative's Super X-Fi Headphone Holography technology. This recreates the soundstage of a surround speaker system in headphones, and uses artificial intelligence processing to personalise it for a natural listening experience. Super X-Fi supports Dolby Atmos, and works with any headphones via the 3.5mm jack on the front of the Carrier. However, for the best results Creative recommends using its low-latency wireless SXFI THEATER headphones. A pair was provided along with the Carrier, and we'll discuss the experience in the performance section of this review.
Set Up and Operation
The Creative Carrier SXFI is easy to set up: place it in front of your TV (stand or wall), and put the subwoofer to the left or right of the main unit. The two are paired in the factory, but this can be reset if necessary, and you can also use a 3.5mm cable for a wired connection if there's interference. Then all you need to do is connect the sources, and depending on how many there are you can either go directly to the TV or via the soundbar. If you're using the former, the eARC connection can send lossless audio back to the soundbar, along with the audio from the TV's built-in apps.
Setup is easy, with a choice of stand or wall mounting, and a wireless subwoofer that connects automatically
HDMI-ARC will also allow you to use your TV remote to control the volume on the Carrier, but if your TV doesn't have ARC, you'll have to use the optical digital connection instead. If you're planning on taking advantage of the more bandwidth-heavy features associated with HDMI 2.1, you should make sure you use cables rated at 48Gbps. You can also send audio via the analogue and USB-C inputs, and for Bluetooth, press and hold the Bluetooth button to pair a device for wireless streaming. Finally, you just plug the soundbar and subwoofer in and you're good to go.
While set up is simple, for the best results you should follow these basic guidelines. For a start, make sure the side- and upward-firing channels aren't obstructed. Ideally the soundbar should be at about ear height, and you should be sat at least 1.2 to 1.5m away. The subwoofer is designed to be used in the corner of a room, but ensure there is at least 10cm between the side-firing driver and a wall. For the up-firing speakers to work properly you need a flat and reflective ceiling, with an ideal height of between 2.3 and 4.3m (so a very high or vaulted ceiling is best avoided).
The mobile app not only provides access to all the controls, but also allows for optimisation of the setup
The Creative mobile app doesn't just offer all the controls you need for operating the Carrier, it also provides additional settings, and optimisation via a calibration setup. The latter allows you to input the actual distances from the sweet spot to the soundbar and subwoofer, as well as the ceiling height. You can also use the app to allocate the six custom buttons for additional IR remote control.
If you're planning on taking advantage of the Carrier's Super X-Fi capabilities and want to use the SXFI THEATER headphones, there's a separate USB port into which you attach the SXFI TX (transmitter). You'll also need to download the SXFI app (iOS and Android), and use this to setup your Super X-Fi profile by taking pictures of your face and ears on your phone via the app. Complex algorithms are applied to custom fit the audio through a sophisticated Head and Ear-Mapping process, thus personalising the headphone experience.
The Carrier was tested with a Panasonic DP-UB820 4K Blu-ray player, a Sony PS5 games console, a Manhattan T3-R Freeview PVR, and an LG 77C9 OLED TV. The latter's ARC capability with Atmos was tested using its Netflix, Disney+ and Apple TV+ apps, and its lossless eARC capabilities were tested by connecting the 4K disc players to the TV and sending lossless audio back via HDMI. An iPhone X was also paired with the Carrier to test the quality of streamed music.
The Creative Carrier SXFI might look small but it sounds big... really big. The addition of side-firing speakers adds real width to the front soundstage, while the up-firing speakers provide overhead channels as well. As a result, there's a wall of sound in the first third of the room that surrounded the 77-inch OLED with which this soundbar was being tested. There's plenty of power too, with the 250W of amplification ensuring the volume can go loud without sounding strained or distorting.
The performance with Dolby Atmos is generally very good, with intelligible and focused dialogue, precise placement of effects around the front of the room, and overhead channels that sounded clear and well-defined. However there are limitations, and the lack of any surround or rear overhead channels means the immersive audio soundstage is front-heavy. It's also hard for audio objects to be steered around the room as seamlessly as the sound designers intended, and this is especially true with a highly directional soundtrack like 1917.
Creative has sensibly designed the soundbar to handle the mid-range and higher frequencies only, leaving the lower end of the frequency range to the subwoofer. This approach pays dividends, in part because the 10-inch driver allows this sub to dig deep, but also because it's well-integrated and crosses over with the soundbar smoothly. As a result, this diminutive system is able to handle titanic soundtracks like Godzilla vs Kong with great aplomb, ensuring the big bass moments hit with the intended impact, and giving the battling behemoths plenty of weight.
This diminutive soundbar sounds much bigger than it looks, while the sub produces seriously deep bass.
The Carrier proved equally as effective with less-immersive soundtracks, handling the 5.1 sonics of Star Wars: The Bad Batch with skill. Once again the dialogue is clear, music is spread effectively across the front of the room, and the bass moments are delivered with gusto. The only downside is the lack of surround, but that won't be an issue for less demanding TV soundtracks. There are a number of sound modes: Movie gives soundtracks more scale, but also boosts the bass (which is already fairly forceful); Music gives more focus to two-channel audio; Night reduces the dynamic range and bass for more social TV viewing; and Neutral leaves the audio unmolested.
While the Carrier is primarily designed to enhance the audio of your TV, you can also use it listen to music. Since the only wireless option is Bluetooth, the quality of streamed music is somewhat limited, and there's no support for AAC or aptX. However, you can enjoy 24-bit 192kHz via the USB-C connection, but the obvious limitation with a soundbar of this size is the lack of stereo separation. You can use Creative's SuperWide setting to give two-channel music a greater sense of stereo separation and thus more scale, but this is achieved at the expense of good stereo imaging.
While you could use the Night mode to binge your favourite shows without disturbing the rest of the family, if you invest in a pair of Creative's SXFI THEATER headphones you don't have to compromise. These comfortable and wireless headphones work brilliantly in conjunction with the Carrier, while the Super X-Fi app and related technology does an amazing job of creating a three-dimensional sound field in your head. In fact, they're so effective you might find yourself using them even when you don't need to be quiet. Whether it's TV shows, movies or gaming, this technology gives everything a new dimension, and this soundbar system proves a capable performer.
Creative SXFI Carrier Soundbar Review
Should I buy one?
The Creative Carrier SXFI soundbar is a solid all-round performer that produces immersive Dolby Atmos thanks to a 5.1.2-channel speaker configuration. The soundstage is inevitably front-heavy, with no surround presence, but the Carrier's delivery is bigger than it looks, and well-integrated bass from the 10-inch subwoofer ensures a decent low-end extension. Its diminutive size make it ideal for smaller rooms and screens, but it has sufficient power not to disgrace itself in larger rooms as well.
The Carrier is easy to setup, especially when using the excellent mobile app, and the remote control is significantly better than the credit card-sized zappers often included with soundbars. The HDMI 2.1 connections ensure the Carrier is future-proofed, but there's no Wi-Fi, AirPlay or Chromecast, which is a shame. There's no DTS:X support, which is bad news for Blu-ray fans, but you do get some fun features such as support for Creative's Super X-Fi holographic headphone technology.
The Carrier isn't cheap, and the lack of certain features might put some people off, but if you're tight on space or are just looking for a good soundbar to accompany a gaming TV, then this creative bit of thinking comes recommended.
What are my alternatives?
This segment of the soundbar market is very competitive, and there are a number of similarly-priced alternatives. The Sonos Arc is definitely a popular choice at £799, and like the Carrier it supports Dolby Atmos but not DTS:X. You obviously get the Sonos ecosystem, along with AirPlay 2, room correction, and built-in Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. There's no subwoofer included, but you can add one, plus there are optional rear speakers for a full (if expensive) 5.1.2-channel system.
Another alternative is the LG SP8YA, which only costs £599. This 3.1.2-channel soundbar includes a 7-inch subwoofer, and supports Atmos and DTS:X. It works with Alexa and Google Assistant, plus it supports AirPlay 2 and Chromecast. There's also eARC, Hi-Res audio support, an option to add wireless rear speakers, and a handy AI room calibration feature. The only thing missing is HDR10+ passthrough, but otherwise this is a great-value package.
Finally, there's the Samsung HW-Q800A, which costs £799 and also delivers a 3.1.2-channel speaker layout with an 8-inch wireless subwoofer. There's support for Atmos and DTS:X, along with built-in Alexa, eARC, Dolby Vision and HDR10+ passthrough, and AirPlay 2. There's a host of proprietary Samsung features like Q Symphony and Tap Sound, plus Hi-Res audio support, an option to add wireless rear speakers, and SpaceFit Sound for easier setup with Samsung TVs.
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