TechnologyTell

TechnologyTell Review: Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 Speaker

Sections: Accessories, Accessories, Audio, Communications, Gaming, Mobile, Portable Audio, Reviews, Smartphones, Speakers

0
Print Friendly

Creative Labs has been well-known for their Sound Blaster sound cards for PCs. I’ve always used them in my gaming rigs throughout the years. They’re powerful, feature-rich, and have never let me down. Creative has had their brand of speakers over the years, too.

Many Creative speakers comes in pairs, ideal for desktop or laptop use. Some included a subwoofer, and a few more were 5.1 systems capable of full surround-sound for movies or gaming. But with the wave of portable Bluetooth speakers on the rise, Creative has been throwing their hat into the ring with the competition.

The Creative Sound BlasterAxx series have had a modest start. A warm up, maybe? The consensus on those are pretty mixed. But for all the complaints and shortcomings of the previous models, Creative has gone above and beyond with the very recent Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200.

Design & Controls

The Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 has a distinctive hexagon shape that’s an inch or so shy of two soda cans stacked on top of one another. Grabbing the speaker is like holding a cold one, so Creative definitely got the circumference just right!

Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 box

Box contents

The top of the Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 features touch-controls mainly related to volume and voice. While the button areas work fine, the volume slider has its quirks. It’s not that precise, especially if you’re sliding your finger up and down. I’ve found that a lingering touch works best, although I still can’t set the volume to the second-to-lowest level. It just doesn’t want to stick.

The back of the speaker has even more goodies to play with. The physical buttons provide on/off/Bluetooth, track control for playing off the MicroSD card, and megaphone operation. Down below the woofer are USB in/out ports, audio in/out ports, and the card slot itself.

It seems like a lot, but it’s no big deal once you’ve familiarized with it all.

Features

The Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 is packed with a bunch of neat features. So much, that it’s worth flipping through the user’s manual twice (twice). The megaphone, voice-changing effects, and voice recorder (needs inserted MicroSD card first) are pretty much what one assumes them to be. My kids love playing with these (to the point of trying to hide the speaker from me), as no connected smartphone or tablet is needed.

Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 top

Top control panel

The MicroSD card slot is awesome. Load the card with songs, plug it in the Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200, and play music independently.

This lets you place the speaker down without having to worry about breaking the Bluetooth wireless connection (which is shorter and touchier than I prefer). It also frees a device from having to manage that music too.

The drawback of music via the MicroSD card is that finding specific song(s) is a chore. There is no screen, so you need to know the content of the card since the track navigation only advances/reverses track to track, album to album. What works for me is to fill the card, and then simply let the speaker shuffle that music for hours on end. Done and done.

The aux-out (headphone) port is useful, not only for private listening through a set of headphones, but also for allowing another speaker to harness the internal power of the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 and its multi-core SB-Axx1 processor. Essentially, the Creative speaker transforms into an external Creative sound card.

Sound Quality

The Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 can get plenty loud, enough to fill a medium-sized room adequately. Despite the smallish stature, it can still hold its own outdoors so long as you’re not too far from it. However, higher volume levels make quick sacrifices to the overall audio quality.

Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 rear

Rear controls

Like most speakers out there, the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 distorts at maxed volume (both speaker and connected device, simultaneously).

If I max the speaker’s onboard volume, I can push my Galaxy Note 2 volume levels to about 50-75% before audio quality typically starts to suffer. When there is too much volume for the song being played, highs turn brittle, the mids distort, and the lows are wiped of their depth.

The Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 has an SBX button which, when enabled, enhances the music’s overall body and dimension. What the speaker lacks in output, due to physics-related limitations, is made up with SBX. Creative stuck one of their multi-core SB-Axx1 processors to assist on the job. Music sounds good with the SBX off, but it sounds better with it on.

Though subtle, the SBX enhancement brings bits of instruments and vocals to the foreground, especially the parts that might be missed otherwise. The music comes out sounding less flat and less like it’s coming through a tube. It also draws the listener in. The SBX feature is fully configurable with the Creative app (read on), if you’re one that likes to tweak with settings.

Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 ports

All the ports, neat and labeled

Overall, the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 is great at staying tight and handling sharp changes in volume. There is very little glare too. Voices and instruments sound relatively untouched by the electronics they’re coming out of.

Although the design of the speaker doesn’t lend so much for lateral imaging, the sound that comes out has space to breathe. The Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 captures the sultry, breathy female vocals in the foreground on the song “Dissolved Girl”, off of the Massive Attack album, Mezzanine. As I listen through this song, I can pick out how individual elements stay strong, all without crowding or stealing sunshine.

I really like how the highs sound. Hi-hat taps and brushes on cymbals are distinct from each other. The vocals up in this range are sweet and wonderful to listen to. The “Diva Dance” song off the movie soundtrack for The 5th Element, can be played without any of the high vocals turning sharp or breaking.

Although Amy Winehouse’s soulful voice is in the realms of the mids, the track “Back to Black”, on her similarly-titled album, features a ringing tambourine in the background. Those tambourine hits are crisp and unique. They don’t sound exactly the same, as can happen with other speaker systems.

Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 cans

It’s exactly this tall!

The mids are slightly warm and showcase some good depth and detail. While listening to Michael Buble, his vocals are strong, forward, and I can hear the chest behind his voice as he sings. Trumpets and saxophones have this great, burnished tone to them too. There is a really wonderful timbre to the instrumentals throughout the mids (highs and lows too, but especially the mids).

These characteristic tones of the instruments add much-needed pop to a soundstage that doesn’t have firmly-defined lateral edges. But at least the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 delivers on creating that front to back distance of instruments and vocals.

The bass output on the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 is decent for the size. It has a quick punch and clean, controlled delivery. The speaker works hard, evidenced by the huffing of air from the rear woofer port. Despite that action going on, the lows are heard far more than they’re felt. The lows are negatively affected by excessive volume quicker than the mids or highs.

As much as I enjoy the lows, they lack bark and lean more toward sounding light. Many people won’t think that the low-end output is enough. I do feel the same way, especially with specific songs and certain genres of music (e.g. trip hop, tribal, rap). This tends to happen with audio devices that are small, and especially if they aren’t bass-centric, which is the case with the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200.

There is a way to nudge just a bit more body from the lows. The out-of-box bass power of the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 is only at 40%. The Creative app, which is not half bad, lets you adjust sound aspects as well as push the bass output up to 100%. While it won’t cure the hunger, it does help to satiate a little more of that low-end craving.

There is an audible hiss that comes from the speaker while it’s not playing. It’s unaffected by volume, but is eliminated with the mute button.

Creative Sound Blaster Central App

For the record, I’ve never been terribly impressed with manufacturer’s apps for their own speakers. Equalizers? Those are native to any self-respecting music app (e.g. Google Music, Amazon MP3, etc.) on the market. Sound enhancement via the app’s music player? I’m not motivated to suffer half-baked functionality for some marginal sound boost. Especially since it does nothing for cloud music or streaming players.

But Creative’s app is different. And I think I really like it, especially since the app runs separately in the background, allowing me to use whichever music app I wish.

Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 app1

Presets to choose from

The Creative app features a total of nine SBX profiles – three each for music, movies, and gaming. What’s special about these is that the adjustments are fully transparent and adjustable.

When you tweak something, you can generally hear an immediate difference. Mostly. Depending on the song playing, the difference can range from imperceptibly subtle to totally obvious.

This is where one can bump the bass. You can even feel more air exhausting from the woofer port when pushing the power from 40% to 100% (more than sufficient enough to tip the lows from “good” to “ugh” if you get carried away). Examples? Details can be enhanced or diminished, explosive sounds can be tempered, or the microphone can be more focused and clear for team-play gaming communication.

Explanations for each aspect are provided within the app, so you have an idea of what you’re doing without having to reach for the manual.

Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 app2

This is what you can tweak

The speaker maintains the same SBX Default settings, even if you exit the app or turn the speaker off. The default SBX profile (named SBX Default) automatically resets to its default values when you select a different profile.

All the rest (the other eight profiles) allow modifications to be saved. But if you ever change your mind or make a mistake, there is a handy reset button for each.

And, as if that weren’t enough, each of the presets has its own equalizer settings with 11 adjustment sliders (most apps give you 5). You can also choose from the standard equalizer picks (classical, rock, pop, etc.) or save custom ones you create.

The Creative app permits access to audio settings only when the speaker is on and connected. There is a bit of lag between making some of the adjustments, so be patient. Flip some values too quickly and too far, and you’ll hear nothing while the speaker processes it all. Then BAM, it comes all at once.

The Creative app also lets you check the battery status of the speaker. Unfortunately, it’s just a graphic bar with no numerical percentage (maybe they’ll update?). The app also acts like a remote control, providing a visual representation of the top and back of the speaker. If you plan to play music off the MicroSD card slot like I do, this alone makes the app worth it.

Battery Performance

The Creative Sound BlasterAXX 200 packs a sizeable 5200mAh internal battery. The USB port on the back of the speaker lets external devices tap into that reserve when needed. The 5V 1A output is good enough for most everything except tablets and phablets (sort of).

There are 3 LED lights located at the bottom front of the speaker, which indicate (poorly) battery life left. When in standby mode, only the middle LED will light up, and all three lights remain solid and not blinking when the speaker is fully-charged.

Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 bottom

Seal pops off for use with the dock

The speaker charges out only when it’s on or in standby mode, which means that one can’t really use the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 like a completely stand-alone external battery. For the sake of seeing how much I could squeeze out in total, I kept the speaker in standby mode through all the cycling.

Because the speaker is using power while in standby, the efficiency rating of the internal battery is difficult to determine. The standard efficiency rating of external battery packs on the market  is 70%. This means that a battery listed as 1000mAh will effectively deliver only 700mAh.

After a handful of full charges and full depletions, the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 finally settled to a peak average of 3016mAh (58.8% efficiency if we exclude the fact that the speaker has been using energy while in standby). Out of the box, it barely eked out more than 2200mAh. But with each new full charge, the threshold increased to where it now consistently delivers over 2900mAh.

2900mAh is enough to fully-charge an iPhone 5 stock battery (1440mAh) once, while leaving a solid 6-7 hours worth of wireless speaker playback with the remaining 50% of the speaker battery. That, in itself, is significantly more than other speakers can claim or accomplish. Not too shabby, indeed.

Bluetooth & Voice Communication

By default, the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 doesn’t auto-connect to devices when it’s turned on. That setting needs to be enabled through the app first. The Bluetooth takes a few seconds to kick in once the speaker has been turned on or returned from standby.

Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 dock

The dock itself is nothing flashy

When it comes to wireless range and strength, I’ve experienced better. But I’ve also experienced far worse too. I can go about 20 feet before the connection starts to break. The Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 does not like walls, floors, or passing bodies either.

As for communications with the speaker, I’ve primarily used it during hands-free phone conversations. I’ve been told that my voice sounds natural and without distortion, so long as I’m within a few feet of it. Beyond that, some enunciation is required.

The voice focus and noise reduction features of the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 appear to work well. Aside from having my voice occasionally cut out for a split-second, it comes in loud and clear.

Sound BlasterAxx Docking Base

Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 docked

Not bad looking, eh?

The dock available for the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 is just a permanent recharging base. Pull the circular silicone seal from the bottom of the speaker to expose the contacts before setting it down. The bottom of the dock itself has a place to store that cover so it doesn’t get lost.

Like docks for most types of mobile devices, it’s handy to have a permanent home without daily fussing around with cords and plugs. It makes it easy to pick up and go when you want, all without a second thought. The price, however, is pretty steep for what it is, even though it comes with a set of regional plug adapters.

If you can score it on sale for $40 or less, get it! A speaker like this is definitely worthy of a throne for a permanent spot amongst your gadget collection.

Verdict

The Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 is truly like a Victorinox Swiss tool, but for speakers. It performs as a Bluetooth/NFC wireless speaker, an external battery pack, a standalone player (with a MicroSD card), a gaming microphone, hands-free for voice conversations, voice recording, and a wired speaker either through an audio or USB cable. With the right app, you can even karaoke anywhere with it too.

For a speaker of this portable size, the amount of detail is impressive. The music not only sounds great, but it’s very fun and enjoyable to listen to. You can get soul when you want it, energy when you need it, and serenity when you deserve it. The Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 picks up on and captures those essences. There is also a lot of control and flexibility with how you want to listen to your music too.

The significant weakness of the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 is how it requires its owner to keep the volume in check. Seriously in check. Too much (and just one bump can do it), and rich-sounding music will quickly tarnish. Because of this, the speaker can’t achieve that wide, thick blanket of sound that’s desirable for backyard or pool parties. Intimate and personal is where the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 excels.

It’s hard to find another speaker in the same price/size bracket that comes close to matching what the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 offers. Although it’s not without a few minor flaws, the overall performance and quality is leagues ahead of the previous AXX speaker models. At the current $149 price, the Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 is extremely hard to pass up and well worth it, beat for beat, ounce for ounce.

0
Print Friendly