Review: Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier Dolby Atmos Soundbar

AVS Forum Top Choice 2018 - Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier Face

Can a single soundbar plus a wireless subwoofer provide a true 3D immersive audio home theater experience? That’s the question I set out to answer in this review. When it comes to a clean and easy installation, you can’t beat a fully self-contained soundbar. Can such a system deliver a proper 5.1.2 3D immersive audio experience without the help of satellite speakers? In this hands-on review we’ll find out if Creative’s X-Fi Sonic Carrier ($5799 MSRP) has what it takes.


Specifications 

The Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier is, bar none, the largest and heaviest self-powered soundbar I’ve ever reviewed. It is also the sturdiest and most full-featured, with the most connectivity options—by far.

This soundbar measures 59.9” (high) x 5.9” (deep) x 3.8” (high) and weighs 35.3 pounds. It sports 15 total drivers on the main unit, plus there are two drivers on the sub, which the company calls a 15.2 configuration. Each driver gets its own amplifier plus DSP, which is the key for implementing the audio processing magic that delivers convincing 3D immersive soundfields.

The total amplification within the soundbar adds up to 400 watts RMS (800 peak). The driver complement consists of the following:

– Five 1” aluminum alloy tweeters that play up to 40 kHz
– Eight 2.75” aluminum-magnesium alloy midbass drivers, each in an individually sealed enclosure.
– Two 2.25” aluminum-magnesium alloy full-range surround-channel drivers. These are side-firing, each in an individually sealed enclosure.
– The tweeters used for Atmos/height channel reproduction are mounted in waveguides to direct the sound.
– Creative provides cloth grills for the 2.75″ drivers.


The waveguide-mounted height channel tweeter is on the right.
Photo by Mark Henninger

Creative’s long history of making PC soundcards and audio interfaces have given it considerable experience in implementing sophisticated DSP processing. The X-Fi Sonic Carrier is packed with computing power, including an upgradeable 4K Android video engine that uses a quad-core ARM Cortex A-53 2GHz processor plus a hardware Dolby Atmos decoder.

Here’s the rundown on connectivity, taken from Creative’s website:

– Bluetooth version: 4.1
– Bluetooth codec: aptX®, aptX Low Latency, AAC, SBC
– Bluetooth features: A2DP receiver for audio playback on Sonic Carrier, A2DP transmission for audio playback on Bluetooth headphones
– Wi-Fi: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac 2.4GHz & 5GHz
– Speaker-Speaker wireless link: Supports up to 4 wireless subwoofers
– Line level input: Stereo 2Vrms analog RCA connectors
– Line level ouput: Stereo 2Vrms analog RCA connectors
– Auxiliary input: Stereo 1Vrms analog 3.5mm connector
– Microphone inputs: 2 x ¼” microphone connector supporting most dynamic microphones
– USB host: 2 x USB 2.0 type A connector for USB flash drives and HDDs
– USB power: USB type A connector for providing power to peripheral devices (Rated 5V 2A)
– SD card slots: 1 x SD card slot, 3 x MicroSD card slots
– HDMI inputs: 4 x HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2
– HDMI output: 1 x HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2 and ARC
– Optical inputs: 2 x Toslink
– Ethernet: 1 x Gigabit Ethernet
– Decoder support: Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS:X (coming soon)

The X-Fi Sonic Carrier comes with both a dedicated remote and a wireless touchpad keyboard, which made signing into apps easy. It also has a built-in IR blaster that relays remote control signals to the TV if the soundbar is blocking the TV’s receiver.

The four HDMI inputs are all HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2 as is the HDMI output, for compatibility with the latest in HDR content. Three HDMI inputs are on the rear and one is located on the front panel behind a flip down door.


The front of the soundbar has 1/4 microphone inputs, card readers, aux. in, USB ports, and an HDMI port. Photo by Mark Henninger

The system ships with one wireless sub that is a real beast. It’s a large, ported sub offering  600 watts RMS (1200 peak) of power and dual-opposed 10″ high-excursion drivers. The sub measures 20.9” (high) x 12.0” (deep) x 22.9” (wide) and weighs in at 59.5 pounds—you won’t see a sub like that ship with any other soundbar.

The X-Fi Sonic Carrier offers an app for iOS and Android devices that—to me anyhow—represents the best way to use the system. It can’t do everything, you’ll need the remote or keyboard to use apps. But when it comes to adjusting settings and choosing surround modes you can’t beat the app.

In soundbar terms, the customizability offered by the X-Fi Sonic Carrier (including through the app) is deep. Each channel’s level—including the sub—is adjustable in 0.5 dB increments. If you have tools (REW and a miniDSP UMIK-1 in my case), you can tweak the channel levels for a very precise calibration.

This soundbar lets you apply any upmixing mode you want to movies/music, with numerous to choose from. You get to choose how wide and enveloping you want your soundfield, or you can have the soundbar leave the content alone. Upmixing options include both Dolby Atmos and Creative’s own 15.2 SuperWide processing.

Crucially, the app itself is blazing fast.


Setup

Although the Sonic Carrier is a relatively complex device, combining elements of an AVR, streaming set-top box, and surround-sound speaker system, the setup was fairly simple because there were almost no cables involved.

For this review, I chose to install the X-Fi Sonic Carrier in my upstairs home theater. The idea is to see if the Sonic Carrier has what it takes to not merely serve as an enhancement to TV sound, but rather deliver a full cinematic experience with the visceral impact and 3D immersiveness that home theater enthusiasts expect. And I figures what better way is there to do that than to directly compare it to a heavy-duty 7.1.4 Atmos system.

The reference home theater system features a 120-inch (horizontal) 2.40:1 Stewart Filmscreen StudioTek 130 screen, a Sony VPL-VW365ES projector, and a Klipsch Reference Premiere 7.4.4-speaker 3D immersive audio sound system (that also includes dual GoldenEar SuperSub XXL subs and dual Klipsch R-115SW subs). A StormAudio I.ISP 3D.16.12 integrated pre-pro powers the rig and the whole system is calibrated with Dirac Live.

I placed the soundbar itself on a shelf right underneath my screen and put the subwoofer in the front right hand corner of the room. After plugging in the soundbar and sub, I connected an Apple TV 4K to the HDMI 1 input and ran a 50-foot FIBBR UltraPro 18 Gbps fiber-optic HDMI cable from the sonic carrier’s HDMI output to the Sony projector. Running a cable from the front of the room to the back is specific to using a soundbar in a home theater, of course with a TV you’d just use a short copper HDMI cable like this BJC Series-FE. That process took just a few minutes.


First Impressions

After booting the Sonic Carrier I was presented with the Android TV interface. I connected to Wi-Fi and immediately signed into the already-installed Tidal app. The first track I played had too much bass, so I tweaked the subwoofer’s output until it sounded balanced and started listening to The Dub Revolutionaries by Sly & Robbie and The Mad Professor in the SuperWide X-FI mode and loved what I heard—the enveloping soundstage brought back my memories of hearing the Sonic Carrier for the first time at CEDIA 2017.

The most immediately obvious advantage this sound bar enjoys over any that I’ve heard before it is that it can play louder and deeper than the competition. Of course, you’d hope this to be the case considering how costly this system is, but even though it’s impressively large for a soundbar, just looking at it doesn’t convey how loud it can get while still delivering clean and dynamic high fidelity sound—the drivers appear too small to do what they do.

A quick measurement with a calibrated microphone confirmed what I suspected, the X-Fi Sonic Carrier gets a lot louder than any self-powered soundbar I’ve measured and does so without distorting. Furthermore, the sub plays deeper than any wireless soundbar sub I’ve measured before.

Measured from 1 meter away, full-range pink noise measured a whopping 112 dB, which is 20 dB louder than many soundbars and 10 dB louder than the loud ones. And the sub’s in-room response amounted to -3 dB at 24 Hz and -10 dB at 20 Hz. Notably, a nearfield measurement pegged the -10 dB point at 24 Hz, so there is some room gain involved, but overall this is a powerhouse sub for a soundbar.

That level of output is much closer to what you’d expect from a high-powered AVR-based system than a soundbar and was more than enough to energize the entire room. Plus, the output of the soundbar was clearly tuned to offer a well-tuned response at a typical seating distance (in this case about 10 feet back from the soundbar, 11.5 feet back from the screen).

I checked out various clips from a Dolby Atmos demo disc and wound up thinking Creative was spot-on in describing it as a 5.1.2 effect. The positioning of sound objects correlated quite precisely with what I’d expect from an AVR-based 5.1.2 speaker system featuring side-surrounds. And the Mad Max: Fury Road clip on the Atmos demo disc sounded as enveloping as I’m used to hearing on a good system.

Notably, it never sounded like the audio was coming from the soundbar itself, vocals floated right in front of the screen and it was very easy to track the apparent position of different sound objects.

As far as hight effects go, it was about as effective as other Atmos-enabled 5.1.2 speakers I’ve used, and more effective than other Atmos soundbars I’ve heard.

When compared to 7.1.4 3D immersive sound, I could hear how the virtual surround and two-channel Atmos was not quite as effective as having rear surrounds plus four physical overhead speakers. But again, Creative does not make that claim; and 5.1.2 capability is a totally accurate descriptor of what this soundbar offers.

What’s key is the Sonic Carrier does what it does without the need for additional speakers and thanks to its sub can offer the output and bass extension—plus sheer output—required for true home theater sound, and not just casual living room duty.


Calibration

I used the X-Fi Sonic Carrier app in conjunction with REW and my UMIK-1 to set levels for each channel to within a tolerance of 0.5 dB. The result showed there is a benefit to performing this sort of adjustment, with an improvement in the holographic nature of the soundfield the Sonic Carrier projects.

What makes the Sonic Carrier so interesting is that once it’s calibrated, you can dial in the soundfield you prefer with great ease. Indeed, with the app in hand it actively encourages you to find the combo of setting that you ear tells you sounds the most pleasing. Folks, welcome to the wonderful world of subjective audio.


Music

This is a soundbar for music lovers. I swear! Hard as it is to believe, I find listening to the X-Fi Sonic Carrier to be revealing. The key is that you can tweak the soundfield to your liking with the app. The Super Wide Audiophile upmixing mode and the Super Wide X-Fi modes offer sonic thrills for electronic music while some of the other modes are a bit more laid back.

The key is that Creative’s modes for music listening are not gimmicks. Rather, they emulate different speaker setups and the varying soundstages that would result.

I have a playlist on tidal I use for speaker evaluation and the X-Fi Sonic Carrier did a great job, even with “classic” torture tests like the Tron: Legacy soundtrack as well as more modern material like Datsik’s Master of Shadows and Bassnectar’s Reflective Parts 1 & 2.

Thanks to the clean (i.e. low distortion) sound, deep bass, and surprisingly high dynamic range of this system, what I heard involved me in the music in a way that is unprecedented for a soundbar. If you treat the Sonic Carrier with respect and sit properly centered like any self-respecting audiophile. All I can say is that if you enjoy stereo imaging, if you properly calibrate this system, it will pay off.

And don’t worry, I also checked out some classic reference points like The Beatles Abbey Road and Enya’s The Very Best of Enya, and of course The Chronic by Dr. Dre… albums I’ve been familiar with for many years. It does justice to them, too.


Movies

For the X-Fi Sonic Carrier to succeed, it needs to ace the task of putting the viewer inside a movie by enveloping them in 3D immersive sound. It also needs to handle dialog well and deliver a compelling listening experience even with films that have a basic 5.1 soundtracks.

I got all that out of the Sonic Carrier. Dolby Atmos content tended to be the most compelling in terms of true immersion, but the umpixing also works wonders with 5.1 mixes.

This soundbar projects a completely convincing bubble of sound around the listener, which allows you to follow sound effects as they pan through the room. I checked out action scenes from recent flicks such as American Made, It, Blade Runner 2049John Wick: Chapter 2, Dunkirk, Atomic Blonde, Detroit, and Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle. All passed the “I’m not even paying attention to the sound system because I’m in the movie” test.

The soundbar plays loud, the sub plays deep, and the X-Fi Sonic Carrier can do justice to real Atmos mixes while also providing a “better than soundbar experience” with 5.1 content. Plus, DTS:X support is on the way, although currently content mastered in format is quite limited.


Games

Gaming is in Creative’s blood and the X-Fi Sonic Carrier is perfect if you seek the most over-the-top gaming soundbar in the world. I played Assassins Creed Origins—which has Dolby Atmos sound—and found the audio illusion was uncannily like being inside the game.

Of course most games do not yet have Atmos, but many have sophisticated audio mixes nonetheless. I checked out a couple of the recently-reviewed game titles on the Xbox One X, namely Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Call of Duty: WWII. It also delivered all the sound effects and subtle ambient cues that help make Grand Theft Auto 5 Online seem so realistic.

Two additional Dolby Atmos game titles—Gears of War 4 and Super Lucky’s Tale confirmed that Atmos adds palpable height cues to the audio mix and creates the most immersive bubble of sound.

Overall, gaming with the Sonic Carrier delivered full immersion with both traditional surround-sound and Dolby Atmos. You can spin your character around in circles and hear the sound effects swirl around the room to match the view—a cool trick you can’t do with movies.


Android TV

I’ll keep this short and sweet. Android TV is there and it’s a viable platform. It has an app store where you’ll find a lot of popular apps. So in that sense, the X-Fi Sonic carrier is utterly self-contained. Having said that, I prefer Chromecast and Roku and Apple TV to it. The good news is adding any (or all) of these streaming platforms to the Sonic Carrier is doable thanks to all of the inputs it offers. But, you can in fact use it to stream content all on its own, too.

If using the Android TV platform allowed Creative to build the slick app then it’s served its purpose, IMO.


Conclusion

Listening to the Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier has been great and it does measure up to its promise, which is that it offers the depth and power of a real-deal AVR-based 3D immersive audio system in one rock-solid and hyper-capable package.

Between its ease of use, tremendous connectivity, the demonstrable effectiveness of its upmixing, its support for true Dolby Atmos, and… well… it’s general awesomeness I have no choice. I’m awarding it an emphatic AVS Forum Top Choice 2018.


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