Personal Audio

SXfi

Creative: Super X-Fi

We met with a huge number of audio companies, from Audio-Technica, to Cleer, to Edifier, along with gaming powerhouses Corsair and Logitech, but the very best product came from a name you all probably haven't heard from in a while: Creative. The company behind essentially all high-end audio used in PCs today, Creative has been on a 20-year mission to revolutionize headphone audio to make it work more like a surround speaker system. And with its new SXFi Headphone Amp, it has achieved the impossible. Creative calls it "headphone holography," and while that sounded goofy to us at first, after our personalized demo at the Creative booth at CES, we seriously can't think of a more appropriate name. It is mind-blowing, and it is a must-have! Using ear mapping and some seriously-advanced algorithms, it can make sound piped directly into your ear canals sound like its coming from speakers all around you.

In the demo, Creative had us sit in a room with a 7.1 speaker setup, and turned the speakers on and off as we put headphones on our head and too them off again. Seriously, it sounded exactly the same. Again, it's hard to explain why this is a big deal, but if you've ever felt "claustrophobic" when wearing headphones, this is the solution. And even if you haven't, SXFi will provide a soundstage that you simply would not believe. Sure, plenty of headphones reviews will go on and on about a wide soundstage, but they'll stop that their tongues wagging and start their jaws dropping once they've heard the SXFi. At $150, every high-end headphone owner has to try it.

Note that it works best with Android phones and Windows PCs, and it does require a wired connection. Our sample used a USB Type-C connection, which is great for phones, less great for PCs, as most cases don't have front-mounted Type-C ports. We did give it a try in a few rounds of Battlefield V, and the effect was incredible - walking through a bombed-out cathedral actually sounded like you were in a huge, echo-filled space, and explosions didn't just hit your ears, they came at you with depth and direction. Note that because SXFi spreads out the soundstage so effectively, it's better with atmospheric and surround-encoded content than vocal content. We found it defocused vocals too much in some tracks, causing it to sound unnatural (most people only have one mouth, after all, and even when they are piped in through speakers, it's typically just in front of you).

Honorable mention goes to HyperX for its ground-breaking Orbit S wired headset, drawing on a unique collaboration between it and its Orange County neighbor Audeze. Indeed, this union came about in part because these two audio powerhouses are headquartered less than 10 miles apart. The good news for PC gamers is that they can now get serious audiophile sound along with gamer-friendly features like awesome 3D head tracking and a high-end microphone all in one package. We predict that despite the $330 price, the Orbit S will become a new "must-have" headset for well-heeled gamers. 

 

Wireless Networking

Netgear: The Orbi Mesh Lineup

If you're getting a cutting-edge router today, it's a mesh router, period. And among the many products on display at CES from the likes of Linksys, TP-Link, and D-Link, one line of products stood tall: Netgear's Orbi mesh system. Designed to be superior from the start, Orbi uses a "hub-and-spoke" system where the hubs and spokes aren't identical, unlike everyone else that is putting out mesh systems where each node is sub-optimal for its assigned task. More importantly, Netgear is expanding into important new markets, announcing its new Cable Orbi at CES 2019, which has a built-in cable modem for users of cable internet that want to enter the modern age of wireless networking rather than being stuck in the slow lane. Also on display was the new Orbi Smart Speaker, which is two devices in one: an Alexa-powered smart speaker infused with Harman/Kardan audio, as well as a node for the Orbi mesh system. It will come bundled with an Orbi base station for $500 when it hits the market later this spring. Sadly, we were shocked to see that Linksys, which took an early lead in mesh networking with its Velop line, had nothing new at CES, which may be a sign of bad things to come under its new Foxconn ownership. 

 

Honorable mention goes to D-Link for its aspirational 5G Gateway. While this was, by D-Link's own admission, just a mockup, 5G is set to revolutionize not just cell service but home Internet service as well, and D-Link is working closely with providers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast to ensure that the huge bandwidth provided by 5G (on the order of 40x faster than average DSL) is available to home Internet users at launch.

 

Smart Home

Ecovacs: Deebot 960 Ozmo

Robotic vacuums have been around for quite some time (iRobot introduced the Roomba in the early 2000s), but what's new is the incredible competition in the market. Whereas Roomba was once synonymous with robotic vacuum, it was clear at CES that other companies are stepping out in front in terms of innovation. The most impressive robotic vacuum we saw came from Ecovacs, which uses a combination of optical sensors and LIDAR to not only see obstacles, but identify them as well. Using artificial intelligence that's always growing, the Deebot 960 Ozmo actually identifies objects, for example shoes or socks, and knows that they should be avoided. Any user of a robotic vacuum today knows the whole "clean up before cleaning up" routine, and Ecovacs is looking to end that with its high-end 960, which will come in at $1,000 later this spring.

 

Honorable Mention goes to Cleer for its new Mirage Smart Display Speaker. While Cleer is known for shaking up the headphone industry, having recently released its giant-beating Flow Noise-Canceling Headphones, the Mirage simply came out of nowhere to stake a claim as most innovative smart speaker. Featuring the brand-new Royole folding AMOLED touchscreen, it offers the high-end audio of dedicated smart speakers with a screen for video and photos. Of note, the cylindrical shape is much better tailored to house a speaker than a flat panel, like Amazon's Echo Show devices that the Mirage will compete with.

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