The headphone industry isn’t known for its rapid evolution. There are developments like spatial sound and steady advances in Bluetooth audio fidelity, but for the most part, the industry counts advances in decades rather than years. That makes the arrival of the first wireless buds with MEMS drivers quite the rare event. I recently wrote about what exactly and why it matters, but Creative is the first consumer brand to sell a product that uses it.
Creative unveiled two models, the Aurvana Ace ($130) and the Aurvana Ace 2 ($150) in tandem. Both feature MEMS drivers, the main difference is that the Ace model supports high-resolution aptX Adaptive while the Ace 2 has top-of-the-line aptX Lossless (sometimes marketed as “CD quality”). The Ace 2 is the model we’ll be referring to from here on.
In fairness to Creative, just the inclusion of MEMS drivers alone would be a unique selling point, but the aforementioned aptX support adds another layer of HiFi credentials to the mix. Then there’s adaptive ANC and other details like wireless charging that give the Ace 2 a strong spec-sheet for the price. Some obvious omissions include small quality of life features like pausing playback if you remove a bud and audio personalization. Those could have been two easy wins that would make both models fairly hard to beat for the price in terms of features if nothing else.
When I tested the first ever xMEMS-powered in-ear monitors, , the extra detail in the high end was instantly obvious, especially in genres like metal and drum & bass. The lower frequencies were more of a challenge, with xMEMS, the company behind the drivers in both the Oni and the Aurvana, conceding that a hybrid setup with a conventional bass driver might be the preferred option until its own speakers can handle more bass. That’s exactly what we have here in the Aurvana Ace 2.
The key difference between the Aurvana Ace 2 and the Oni though is more important than a good low end thump (if that’s even possible). MEMS-based headphones need a small amount of “bias” power to work, this doesn’t impact battery life, but Singularity used a with a specific xMEMS “mode.” Creative uses a specific amp “chip” that demonstrates, for the first time, consumer MEMS headphones in a wireless configuration. The popularity of true wireless (TWS) headphones these days means that if MEMS is to catch on, it has to be compatible.
The good news is that even without the expensive that the Singularity Oni IEMs required to work, the Aurvana Ace 2 bring extra clarity in the higher frequencies than rival products at this price. That’s to say, even with improved bass, the MEMS drivers clearly favor the mid- to high-end frequencies. The result is a sound that strikes a good balance between detail and body.
Listening to “Master of Puppets” the iconic chords had better presence and “crunch” than on a $250 pair of on-ear headphones I tried. Likewise, the aggressive snares in System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” pop right through just as you’d hope. When I listened to the same song on the $200 with personalized audio activated the sounds were actually comparable. Just Creative’s sounded like that out of the box, but the Grell buds have slightly better dynamic range over all and more emphasis on the vocals.
For more electronic genres the Aurvana Ace’s hybrid setup really comes into play. Listening to Dead Prez’s “Hip-Hop” really shows off the bass capabilities, with more oomph here than both the Grell and a pair of $160 House of Marley Redemption 2 ANC — but it never felt overdone or fuzzy/loose.
Despite besting other headphones on specific like-for-like comparisons, as a whole the nuances and differences between the headphones is harder to quantify. The only set I tested that sounded consistently better, to me, was the Denon Perl Pro (formerly known as the ) but at $349 those are also the most expensive.
It would be remiss of me not to point out that there were also many songs and tests where differences between the various sets of earbuds were much harder to discern. With two iPhones, one Spotify account and a lot of swapping between headphones during the same song it’s possible to tease out small preferences between different sets, but the form factor, consumer preference and price point dictate that, to some extent, they all broadly overlap sonically.
The promise of MEMS drivers isn’t just about fidelity though. The claim is that the lack of moving parts and their semiconductor-like fabrication process ensures a higher level of consistency with less need for calibration and tuning. The end result being a more reliable production process which should mean lower cost. In turn this could translate into better value for money or at least a potentially more durable product. If the companies choose to pass that saving on of course.
For now, we’ll have to wait and see if other companies explore using MEMS drivers in their own products or whether it might remain an alternative option alongside technology like drivers and headphones as specialist options for enthusiasts. One thing’s for sure: Creative’s Aurvana Ace series offers a great audio experience alongside premium features like wireless charging and aptX Lossless for a reasonable price — what’s not to like about that?