Creative Sound Blaster EVO ZxR review
There aren't many pairs of gaming headphones that we'd happily wear outside of the house, and despite adding NFC and Bluetooth connectivity Creative hasn't managed to convince us otherwise with the SoundBlaster Evo ZxR.
The on-ear headset has a distinctive black and red colour scheme, but the plastic construction and glowing LED ear cups aren't exactly something we'd like to be spotted in on the morning commute. That's a shame, as the ZxR has NFC and aptX Bluetooth let you connect a smartphone or tablet with a tap, along with active noise cancelling which should make it ideal for cutting out unwanted background noise. You'll at least be able to drown out the noise of the TV in the next room when gaming, although there's still a tell-tale hiss when ANC is active.
A talk-through button temporarily silences your music, disables ANC and boosts volume from the outside world using the microphone if you need to talk to someone nearby without having to take off the headset – it worked as advertised, but you do look a little rude using it in the office. All the buttons are on the right ear cup, letting you power on the headset, toggle ANC and talk-through, change tracks and adjust the volume without digging a phone out of your pocket or minimising your game.
Once you've settled down in front of a PC, however, the ZxR begins to make a lot more sense. The huge 50mm drivers are surrounded by padded leather earcups which completely surround your ears, while the comfy headband applies just enough pressure to keep them in place on your head. They create a reasonable seal, but you'll need to switch on ANC to completely silence the outside world.
An on-board sound card can be tweaked using the accompanying Sound Blaster Central smartphone app, which is available for iOS and Android. It lets you choose between three pre-sets, or jump into Pro Studio mode to enable effects like virtual surround sound, Crystaliser, bass boost and dialog plus, which boosts certain frequencies to make speech easier to hear. There's also an equaliser to give you even more control over your audio preferences. These all affect the headset itself, rather than each individual device, meaning you can tweak playback for gadgets like tablets or gaming handhelds that wouldn't normally support these features.
PC and Mac owners without Bluetooth will need to connect the headset with the bundled micro USB cable to use the integrated sound card - if you use the 3.5mm audio cable you get basic stereo sound only. When connected over Bluetooth, the integrated battery is good for around eight hours of wireless listening, but you can continue using the headset using the bundled USB cable if you run out of power.
Stereo microphones are built directly into the ear cups, which means you don't need to fiddle with a boom mic every time you want to join an in-game chat. Voice quality was excellent, helped by Creative's CrystalVoice mode which reduces ambient noise; it can't silence everything around you but it does a better job than headsets without any kind of noise reduction.
Out of the box, sound quality was well-rounded for a gaming headset, although not exceptional. Games produced satisfyingly meaty explosions and gunshots crackled at the high end. However, as is usually the case with audio products built for gaming, music and film don't always benefit from an excessive low-end. Music was a little too bass-heavy for our tastes, with a lot of rumble higher up the frequency range than we would expect from a great pair of headphones. You can tone this down using the smartphone app, but only if listening via Bluetooth or USB. The mid-range also takes a back seat to bass, so TV and films benefit from a tweaked EQ.
The optional virtual 7.1 surround sound mode works reasonably well, but is no substitute for true surround sound with multiple speakers; if you need precise directional sound to pick up those tell-tale footsteps in a game of Counter Strike the ZxR likely won't be precise enough for you.
Crystaliser is a more useful addition if you listen to a lot of compressed music; it is supposed to restore the highs and lows that get lost in the encoding process. It certainly gives music extra punch, making hi-hat and cymbal crashes stand out in a mix, but some may find it a little harsh depending on the musical genre.
For £200, we would expect a gaming headset that you could take outside the house without losing serious style points. It might be well built, but it's impossible not to notice how much is made from plastic, and sound quality isn't miles above every other gaming headset we've seen around this price. If you don't mind spending £200 on a headset for gaming, be it on PC or a handheld, the ZxR has its merits, but if you also want to listen to music on the move we don't think it's the jack of all trades Creative wants it to be.