Pros: Clear sound, powerful noise cancelling (both phones and mic)
Cons: Active noise cancelling applies a volume curve in wired mode, firmware isn't upgradeable
Let me just start off by saying I'm quite inexperienced with audio, please excuse the probably rather awkward terminology. I do have a pair of CAL!s to compare with so I'll do my best. Another thing to note is that I use very low volume levels compared to my friends, on one occasion it even went as far as a set of headphones sounding fine to them while they were terribly unbalanced to me (as in left channel missing completely). This in combination with being a fan of heavy bass has turned out to be somewhat of a curse without a proper EQ.
Most people think of unloading magazine after magazine of ammo in a repetitive game. I however play racing games, which asks a lot more from the audio setup. In an FPS you generally need to hear where your enemies are and some short lengths of speech. In a racing game you still need to hear the other cars, but if you want to get the most out of your car then that's not even close to enough. The engine of your car produces a sound which tells you what it's doing; RPM, load, boost pressure from the turbo and so on. All this combined tells you how quickly the engine will respond and the amount of power to expect. If you can't hear your turbo, then you may expect more power that you will actually get since it isn't properly spooled up.
All frequency bands matter; the mid range will tell you the RPM, the bass will tell you the engine load and the treble will reveal the available boost pressure. That's just the engine alone. Unfortunately most games use poor quality recordings, most notably for Italian sports cars which will usually lack a lot in the low range. They do make a ton of treble and mid range, but you can't escape the fact that such a high displacement engine will still produce massive amounts of bass. For this test I used Forza Motorsport 4 and a wide variety of cars.
CAL!: These headphones gives a very good idea of what the engine is doing, turbos are quite faint but still audible. Compared to the CAP they seem to lack a bit of depth despite the more prominent low range.
CAP (wire): More immersive and slightly deeper, although weaker, bass. Turbos are still faint yet very clear which tells me the treble response is better.
This is a very mixed bag. The CAL! sounds clear but only until I go outside. The ANC of the CAP does wonders in a city environment for me. Without ANC the CAL! would probably be slightly better than the CAP given equal cushions. The cushions take away a lot of the high frequencies while the ANC obliterates the remaining frequencies. One time I walked past an idling moped and barely heard a thing until I turned off the ANC.
CAL!: Very good frequency response and with my carefully crafted EQ settings these are pretty much spot on.
CAP(wire): Sounds clear and even more so than the CAL! but I still have to play around with the EQ more in the bass area. It does go noticeably deeper though.
CAP(wireless): Very low distortion and much better detail than with the wire which suggests I need a better amplifier for proper testing with the wire attached.
This is very tricky due to the nature of heavy voice compression. Not much else to say here really.
Samsung Galaxy Note 3: Decent sound, but only compared to much cheaper phones. Gives a "meh" like feeling.
CAP(wireless): Very clear sound, bass seem to be amplified slightly which further adds clarity to the speech and doesn't put as much strain on the ears. Possibly my best phone experience ever, I even put them on before long conversations.
Departing from the sound itself, what can the headphones offer?
BT: It's nice not having a cable getting caught up on everything. Since it uses a built in amplifier the amp can be tuned for these exact drivers and it shows. The sound is very clear and balanced as a result. The range is considerably shorter than with my Sony MW600, but still plenty for reaching the phone in your pocket. The MW600 reaches through two thick concrete walls, the CAP barely reaches through one of them.
ANC: Amazingly good, doesn't block out all noise but definitely enough to not bother you. The downside is that it only works in wireless mode which I imagine simplifies the circuitry a bit, but for the price this should have been worked out properly, especially considering the airplane ANC mode. If you wanted a bypass for driving them directly from an external amplifier you'd turn off ANC anyway.
NFC: I can see the appeal, they add very little to the cost and makes pairing a breeze. Yet I'm not entirely comfortable with having an NFC tag on my head, it just feels strange.
Comfort: Excellent, I've worn these for hours many times and the only complaint would be that they block the air from circulating around the ear since they are completely closed. Not really a complaint though as that's to be expected from truly closed headphones. The first impression is that they will feel too heavy to wear for extended periods of time but the headband cushion takes care of that a lot better than I expected. I've had much lighter headphones feel a lot heavier on me after a while.
Build quality: Very good, it feels very solid and while on the heavier side doesn't feel like a brick. The headband extends with rather flimsy looking plastic but apparently they can take a fair bit of stress too.
The USB port: Despite the cheaper EVO Zx(R) headset lineup from Creative having all kinds of customization, a sound card and upgradeable firmware using the USB port, this one is for charging only. I can understand why there's not built in EQ in these since they're designed to sound as accurate as possible, but a sound card or at least a way to upgrade the firmware would be nice for headsets in this price range.
Voice feedback: A much overlooked feature with these headphones is that they will tell you a lot of what's going on in speech rather than cryptic beeps and melodies. The sound for pairing is a short beep though I'd imagine most people would perform this procedure without wearing the headphones to begin with. There's a voice telling you when it's powering on or off, how much battery there's left (quickly press the play/pause button twice), when the battery is running dry and which ANC mode you're on when changing modes. It's a very nice feature which adds a lot to the premium feel of the headphone despite the relatively low quality recordings.
So, are these any good? Definitely. Are they worth the price? Depends on your use case. If you only want to use these with the cable attached then you're missing the point. These are clearly made to be used while travelling and that's where they really shine. The build quality and sound quality with ANC enabled on the go will have you arrive relaxed and cheerful, while having them tethered to a computer all day will probably leave you wanting more bang for your buck. If you're like me and use them while commuting and occasionally connect them to a gaming console then these offer a very complete experience. I can however imagine the airplane ANC mode only being available in wireless mode being an issue on flights and I'd love to hear Creative defend this decision.
I guess the bottom line is; if these broke today, would I get another pair to replace them? Yes. Despite it's odd shortcomings, they're still great headphones which offer a very rich yet specific feature set without any real competition. There are many similar headphones which does almost the same, but none of them quite tick all of the boxes like these. It is however very important that Creative utilizes their head start and improves on this model before their competitors get here, because they will most certainly try. ANC in wired mode would be the most obvious issue to tackle here but bringing over some of the premium features from their EVO Zx(R) series would definitely do them good as well.
By chance I noticed that ANC actually does work with a wired connection, the volume curve is different though so I had to turn it up before I heard anything. The review has not yet been updated to reflect this.