It’s been a busy year for Creative, the audio veteran responsible for everything from soundcards to studio monitors. Its SXFI technology, as found in the Creative SXFI Air headphones, impressed with its excellent new take on stereo separation on a headset. And now it turns its attention to true wireless buds with the Creative Outlier Air, to great effect.
While they’re not boasting the same SXFI technology that the over-ears managed, these are still a top-notch pair of cord-free earphones, really pushing what’s capable from a ‘budget’ oriented set of true wireless earbuds.
Price and availability
The Creative Outlier Air true wireless earbuds are a real bargain at just £74.99 / $79.99 (roughly AU$140) if bought directly from Creative. You’ll pay more if you grab them from somewhere like Amazon, so go direct to the source in this case.
With great sound quality and excellent battery life, that’s a steal, especially when compared to rivals like the Samsung Galaxy Buds or Apple AirPods which, while smarter, can’t compare to the Creative Outlier Air in terms of audio quality.
That said, we’d still consider the plucky upstart that is the Funcl AI, neck-and-neck with these Creative buds if budget true-wireless earbuds are what you’re after. They’re lighter and louder, with a more compact case at a comparably-affordable price, even if the overall sound quality isn’t quite as rich. And, if you’re after the best of the best and have a little more cash to splash, go for the RHA TrueConnect True Wireless Earbuds, our reigning king of the category.
If you’re unfamiliar with the form factor, the Creative Outlier Air earphones carry on the tradition of other true wireless earbuds: they’re completely wirefree, with just the bud part sitting in your ear. Each has its own onboard battery, and they can be charged by slotting them into an accompanying charging case.
The buds are of the curvy, dome-like style as opposed to the toothbrush-head look you get with the Apple AirPods or RHA TrueConnect. The buds are black with gun-metal great accents, with the charging case being predominantly that gunmetal grey shade.
They sit lightly and comfortably in the ear (though the do protrude a bit for any onlookers to gawp at), holding snugly into position in the ear canal, meaning you shouldn’t need to worry about them falling out when travelling around. With an IPX5 water resistance rating, the Creative Outlier Air buds will survive a sweaty workout or rainy day too – just don’t charge them until they’re fully dry, or attempt to go swimming with them.
Each earbud also has a button encased in its outer shell. Depending on how many times you press each earbud, this can be used to control many different things, from playback to answering calls, and even activating your hands-free voice assistant, be that Google Assistant or an iPhone’s Siri helper. However, these buttons can be quite stiff, and pushing them while the buds are in your ears quite uncomfortable. A touch-sensitive pad would be more convenient, though we’d imagine its omission is part of the effort to reach a value-oriented price point.
The charging case itself is a little on the chunky side. It’s by no means heavy at a mere 54g, but at roughly 7.5cm x 4cm x 2.5cm (L x W x D), you’ll notice it more keenly in a pocket than your phone thanks to its girth.
The case charges over USB-C, and has four indicator lights to show if each bud is charging, if the case is being charged, and if the case is charging the buds on the inside. Pushing one end of the obloid case reveals a slide-out spot for popping in the earbuds, which snap in magnetically for powering up.
It’s a tidy package then – we’re happy to eschew fancy conveniences like wireless charging for the sake of keeping the price down.
Connectivity and battery life
Red and blue alternating lights circle the earbuds of the Creative Outlier Air when you remove them from their casing. This indicates they’re ready to be found and paired by your Bluetooth device of choice, with the first bud paired being set for that session as the main bud, should you want to go mono with a single earpiece in. Reversing this is as simple as replacing the main bud in the charging case, and leaving the other connected.
The buds turn off when returned to your case and automatically pair again when removed, if they’re within a 10 metre range of a recognised Bluetooth device. It’s a consistently stable connection – we had no problems with drop outs during the entirety of our testing period.
The Creative Outlier Air earbuds also make use of aptX over Bluetooth 5.0. That helps to maintain a stable connection, and is key to keeping audio in sync with any video that you might be watching on a tablet or smartphone. The buds can squeeze the best possible audio quality out of the SBC and AAC codecs too, giving you great sound from digital files on supported devices.
Battery life with the earbuds is close to class leading, too – an incredible effort given the price point. According to Creative, you’ll get 10 hours in the buds per charge, as well as an additional 20 hours in the case (or a further two full bud charges) for an overall battery life of 30 hours. It’s a claim that seems reasonable too – playing at ear-splitting maximum volumes, we squeezed close to 9 hours out of the buds on a single charge. The case itself charges in about 2 hours too – a not unreasonable amount of time, and that’s inclusive of powering the buds if they’re sat inside the case at the same time, too.
When it comes to sound quality, the Creative Outlier Air earbuds are shockingly good. They offer great clarity, but also bass power that we’ve not seen elsewhere in the true wireless space. It runs the risk of overwhelming the mids at times, but Creative just about manages to keep everything in control for a very enjoyable listen – there’s real ‘oomph’ to the Creative Outlier Airs that tend to be lost by other models in the true wireless category, making use here of a graphene-coated 5.6mm driver in each ear.
Depending on the device they’re paired with, they can go quite loud, but it's the sense of stereo separation that's truly impressive. There’s an excellent sense of space when listening, for instance to Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’, with the opening guitar harmonics chiming through as the strums, drums, harmonica and slide guitar weave intricately around each other.
Keeping with the Neil Young theme, Saint Etienne’s cover of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, with its synthesized keys and drums hit moodily, with a punchy bass line pumping through without sounding flabby.
Hankies at the ready, and Elliot Smith’s vocal-only ‘I Didn’t Understand’ shows the wonderful insight the Creative Outlier Air earbuds are capable of, with Smith’s undulating vocals smoothly sweeping through, letting you hear the vulnerability in the tragic singer’s voice.
If you’re using the earbuds for calls, you’ll be pleasantly surprised too – each bud has its own microphone, leading to clear conversations on the go.
If the Creative Outlier Airs have a real failing, its with the way their fit can negatively amplify bone conduction. To be clear, it’s that sense of hearing the sound of your own body through your ears – the thud of every footstep as you walk along with them in. If you’re sitting still listening to them, they’re fantastic, but if you’re off for a brisk walk or (even worse) hitting the treadmill, it can be hugely irritating. Naturally, everyone’s ears are slightly different, and so it may not be quite as pronounced an issue for some people. But it’s more noticeable here for this reviewer than it has been in any earbud in recent memory, so its worth cautioning against at the very least.
Setting aside the extraneous noise mentioned just above, the Creative Outlier Airs are otherwise a fantastic pair of true wireless headphones. They tick the three core boxes that you’d need from the form factor – top notch sound quality, a comfortable fit and impressive battery life. That they can do it at a very affordable price point just makes them all the more attractive.
All images: TechRadar
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