With decent sound and effective ANC, the Creative Zen Hybrid are a solid choice, despite their limited feature set
- Comfortable fit
- Smartly implemented controls
- Solid battery life
- Weak bass response
- Not compatible with the Creative app
- SXFI only works with local files
After a string of successes with recent true wireless earbuds such as the Outlier Air V3 and Outlier Pro, Creative has returned to the over-ear arena with its latest headphones – the Creative Zen Hybrid.
With a comfortable fit, effective noise cancellation and clear, balanced audio, the Zen Hybrid certainly have the key bases covered, but a limited feature set sees them struggle to stand out in the ever-expanding ANC headphones market.
Creative Zen Hybrid review: What do you get for the money?
The Creative Zen Hybrid will set you back £100. That outlay gets you a pair of wireless over-ear headphones that operate over Bluetooth 5.0 and support the SBC and AAC codecs. There’s a fabric carrying pouch included in the box, along with a 3.5mm audio cable that allows you to use the Zen Hybrid over a wired connection and conserve battery.
Currently only available in white, the Zen Hybrid look pretty stylish, with gold Creative logos in the centre of each earcup and gold text with phrases such as “Super X-Fi Headphone Holography” circling the cups. From a distance, this text adds a nice little flourish to the design, but having the product’s name and the technologies it incorporates displayed on the earcups looks a bit silly close up.
The headband is reinforced with steel, giving the Zen Hybrid a rigid frame that doesn’t shift around when you move your head. To compensate for this firmness, the top of the headband is padded with a synthetic leather cushion that’s suitably plush and helps create a very comfortable fit.
The earcups also provide a decent level of passive noise cancellation. This isn’t your only weapon against unwanted interruptions, however, as the Zen Hybrid offer active noise cancellation that Creative claims can cut out up to 95% of background sounds. There’s also an ambient mode for situations where you need to be more aware of your surroundings. Both are activated via a dedicated ANC button, which can be found on the right earcup, alongside a 3.5mm jack, multifunction power button and a volume rocker.
Battery life clocks in at roughly 27 hours with ANC turned on, but you can squeeze out another 10 hours if you keep it switched off. While this isn’t the best battery life we’ve seen from a pair of wireless over-ear headphones, it’s decent enough for how little the Zen Hybrid cost. Once depleted, the provided USB-C cable will refill the battery to full in roughly an hour and a half.
As with a number of other Creative audio products, including the Outlier Pro earbuds, the Zen Hybrid support the brand’s proprietary Super X-Fi holographic audio technology. Accessed through the dedicated SXFI app, this uses head mapping to create a personalised audio profile that seeks to emulate a multi-speaker system inside the headphones, expanding the sense of space within the Zen Hybrid’s soundstage and improving instrument separation.
Creative Zen Hybrid review: What did we like about them?
Audio is delivered via 40mm neodymium drivers, and for the most part, it impresses. The soundstage has decent breadth and individual instruments have plenty of room in which to express themselves. The opening bass riff in Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”, for instance, sets the rhythm before the drums and guitars fold in above it, each clearly distinct from the other, creating a cohesive multi-layered effect.
With complex instrumental segments, the well-articulated mid-range allows vocals to shine through. The chorus of “Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met…)” by Panic! At The Disco sees Brendon Urie singing against a backdrop of multiple competing instruments and backing vocals, but nothing ever overshadows the lead. Crisp treble reproduction also plays its part, hitting all the high notes and crescendos without distorting to any noticeable degree.
The noise cancellation the Zen Hybrid offer isn’t the best around, but it’s good enough for most situations. Switch it on and the drone from a fan will fade away, although it doesn’t completely eradicate the rumble of a busy road. Equally, the ambient mode serves its purpose, filtering external sound into your audio to increase your awareness of what’s going on around you. It sounds a bit over-processed, but fulfils its brief.
Switching between these two modes via the ANC button is just one function that the intelligently implemented controls have to offer. As well as adjusting playback volume, the rocker can be held down to go back to the previous track or pushed up to skip to the next one, while the power button also doubles as activation for your voice assistant. Google Assistant and Siri are both supported but are only available when the headphones are connected via Bluetooth.
The Zen Hybrid’s foldable design is also praiseworthy. The earcups swivel 90 degrees and this allows you to to store them in three ways: with the earcups flat, with the cups flat and one earcup tucked in against the headband, or both cups rotated at a right angle to the headband in a compact fold. This makes slipping them into a bag or coat pocket very easy, so you won’t always have to wear them around your neck when they’re not in use.
Creative Zen Hybrid review: What could be improved?
While the audio profile is generally well balanced and reproduces individual elements of a musical score cleanly, some may find the bass response lacking. It’s not completely absent – something raucous such as Skillet’s “Monster” still pulses with low-end energy – but there isn’t enough weight for it to feel truly impactful. We’ve previously criticised similarly priced models such as the Anker Soundcore Life Q30 for being overzealous with bass, but this tuning goes too far in the other direction.
The Soundcore Life Q30’s over-emphasised bass response is at least easily rectified via the companion app, but unfortunately no such option exists here. While there is a Creative app, it’s not compatible with the Zen Hybrid, so there’s no way to adjust the equaliser and crank the bass up a few notches. This also means that you can’t adjust the ANC or ambient modes in any way.
Wear detection would have been a welcome inclusion, but given the Zen Hybrid’s price, it’s not entirely unreasonable for Creative to have omitted it. Less forgivable is the lack of Bluetooth Multipoint, which allows headphones to remain connected to two input sources at once. When cheaper models such as the Audio Technica ATH-M20xBT include this feature, its absence here stings.
Finally, I’ve encountered Creative’s SXFI mode when reviewing the brand’s wireless earbuds and my position here is much the same. While the overall effect of SXFI is impressive, its application is extremely limited. It can only be used when listening to locally stored music files, and with most people nowadays gravitating towards streaming services like Spotify or Deezer, its inclusion doesn’t really add much.
Creative Zen Hybrid review: Should you buy them?
At £100, the Creative Zen Hybrid offer decent value for money, with reasonably well-balanced audio and noise cancellation that’s effective in most environments. Plush cushioning and ample battery life ensure you can engage in extended listening sessions in comfort, and the compact, foldable design makes them pleasingly portable, too.
As with most products, you’ll need to pay more if you want all the bells and whistles, and there are certainly over-ear headphones available with beefier bass reproduction and a broader range of features. But for anyone seeking a no-nonsense pair of wireless over-ear headphones with solid sound quality and effective noise cancellation, the Creative Zen Hybrid are a fine choice.