X-Fi Sonic Carrier review: Home theater of the absurd

It's the finest soundbar on the market. But for the money, is it better than conventional surround sound?

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For playing music I’ve ripped from CD, encoded in FLAC, and stored on a NAS box, I typically used the IR remote to browse Plex Media Server running on a WD My Cloud Mirror. But I’d then switch to the mobile app to choose the DSP algorithms, because the physical remote only lets you turn the X-Fi effect on and off. The mobile app, meanwhile, only allows you to browse storage local to the Sonic Carrier; you can’t browse music on a server or access online music services such as Spotify. You can stream from Spotify (or any other service) on your mobile device to the speaker via Bluetooth, but it’s far better to run the Spotify app on the Sonic Carrier itself: You get the benefit of the TV display, and you don’t need to leave your phone within Bluetooth range of the speaker.

Performance with 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray movies

I watched a couple of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray movies with the X-Fi Sonic Carrier: Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Mad Max: Fury Road in my home theater, using an Xbox One gaming console for transport and a 55-inch Samsung Q7F quantum-dot TV as a display. While I do have a Dolby Atmos-capable A/V receiver (an Onkyo TX-NR737) connected to a 5.1 speaker system, I don’t have height speakers installed in my ceiling.

sonic carrier front left Michael Brown / IDG

One tweeter and two mid-ranges handle the left front channel (same for the right)..

But as I said earlier, I’ve also been evaluating a Focal Evo Sib Dolby Atmos speaker system, so I compared the Sonic Carrier to that. The front left/right speakers in this system have separate drivers in the tops of their cabinets that—like the Sonic Carrier—are designed to bounce height audio cues off your ceiling to simulate ceiling-mounted speakers (you connect two pairs of cables to these speakers, so that the up-firing speakers are amplified separately from the front-firing ones).

The soundtracks of both movies sounded good on the Focal speakers, but they sounded great on the Sonic Carrier, rendering dialog crystal clear in even the most action-packaged scenes and with bass response from that massive subwoofer penetrating deep to my core. There’s just a couple of problems: First, my ears didn’t perceive any audio effects coming from above with either system—and that’s the whole point of Dolby Atmos. In both cases, I placed the speakers in an open space in front of my TV, so nothing above them would block the soundwaves from reaching the ceiling, but I don’t think either system could go the distance (6 feet 9 inches for the Sonic Carrier, and 5 feet 6 inches for the Focal).

sonic carrier control buttons Michael Brown / IDG

You can control almost everything, including music playback, with buttons built into the top of the aluminum enclosure.

Second, the Sonic Carrier was only rarely able to fool my brain into hearing any audio effects as emerging from anywhere other than the front of the room. In The Last Jedi, it was in the scene where Rey hears the whispering voices that lead her to the building housing the last original Jedi texts. Creative’s speaker was also effectively immersive in the cave scene where Rey confronts her mirror images and snaps her fingers. The Focal system, which has genuine surround speakers that, yes, must be hardwired to your receiver, was much more effective in this regard. How could it not be, with those speaker cabinets placed right next to my listening position?

Performance with music and streaming services

Ironically, the X-Fi Sonic Carrier delivers a far better performance with music in stereo than it does movie soundtracks in surround sound. This soundbar delivered impeccable reproductions of tracks encoded in FLAC, but it was supremely impressive streaming 320Mbps tracks from Spotify. I typically prefer to listen to music unadulterated by DSP algorithms emphasizing frequencies in ways the artist might not have intended, but once I enabled X-Fi mode, I found I didn’t want to turn it off. The algorithm opened music up and presented it on a wide sound stage that sounded positively live.

sonic carrier dsp settings 2 Michael Brown / IDG

The X-Fi Sonic Carrier has a powerful digital signal processor onboard. The best way to tap it is via the app.

The Sonic Carrier offers five broad DSP experiences: Audiophile Music, X-Fi Super Wide, Movie, Gaming, and TV Series. You can enable various subsettings for several of these presets. There are four for Audiophile Music, for instance: Direct mode, in which the original signal is passed through without any digital signal processing at all; 15.2 Focus manipulates the original sound signature just enough to broaden the sound stage so it sounds like it’s coming from a pair of speakers spaced farther apart than the Sonic Carrier’s physical width; 15.2 Wide is a wider soundstage using the full 17-driver array—think Space Balls’ Ludicrous speed—and finally, there’s 15.2 SuperWide, an even wider sound stage. Yes, at that point you will have gone Plaid.

Creative also exposes many of the system’s DSP knob and switches, figuratively speaking, so you can tweak the speaker’s performance to your personal taste. But you’ll need to turn to the X-Fi app for this, which can lead to a confusing dance until you get the hang of which tools control which features. Your actions are executed immediately, however, and they’re reflected on the TV’s display as well as in the app (well, some of them are—the GUI doesn’t have all the elements the app does). You can apply varying amounts of the Dolby Atmos effect to music by dragging your finger around a circle in the app, for example. And you can choose from 15 EQ presets (acoustic, classical, hip hop, rock, et al) or create your own, either by dragging bass and treble sliders with your fingertip or adjusting frequencies along 10 points on a curve. Creative provides three slots for storing custom IQ settings.

sonic carrier exploded view Creative Technology

This exploded view of the X-Fi Sonic Carrier shows the 15 discetely powered and controlled drivers in the soundbar itself. 

Bottom line: Way, way over the top

Apologies for taking so long to answer the question I’m sure everyone wants to ask: Is the X-Fi Sonic Carrier worth $5,800? If you’ve read the entire review, you’ll know that I’d answer with a highly qualified yes. The hardware justifies the price tag, as does its performance with music. This audio system will move you like few others can—at any price. If you want an audiophile audio system virtually free from wires, the Sonic Carrier will scratch that itch.

But home theater in general—and immersive sound in particular—is the Sonic Carrier’s raison d’être, and that’s the one application where I found its performance wanting—at least in comparison to comparably priced conventional Dolby Atmos audio systems. It never fooled my ears into believing sound was coming from anywhere other than the front of my home theater. If you find wires anathema, or just impossible to deal with due to your home’s construction, you might find the immersive-audio compromise worthwhile. I don’t have that problem and I won’t settle.

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At a Glance
  • It is without a doubt the best soundbar ever conceived, but that doesn't make it the ultimate choice in immersive audio for a high-end home theater.

    Pros

    • Outstanding high-resolution audio performance
    • The soundbar and the subwoofer both are fantastically powerful
    • Virtually eliminates surround-sound wiring nightmares

    Cons

    • Doesn't truly deliver an immersive audio experience
    • Way over the top for smaller home theaters
    • Juggling the onboard controls, the mobile app, and the IR remote can be a hassle
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