Creative Xmod Review

Promising the world on a plate is rarely a great idea – everyone has different expectations of what that dish should look like. With Xmod, Creative kicked against that wisdom to promise the device will “make your MP3s sound better than CDs”, simply by shoving your digital audio through the device.

The way MP3, AAC and other digital music formats work is to compress music to a smaller and more manageable file size. In order to achieve this compression, these technologies strip what it sees as superfluous data from the music file, including the highest and lowest points of the audio wavelength. Compression aims to remove musical elements which aren’t audible to most people. What you end up with is a replicant of the original track – to most ears it sounds identical, but there are many audio purists who can instantly spot the difference between a compressed and an uncompressed piece of music.

It’s in response to this that Apple added its Apple Lossless ripping feature to iTunes. That format also strips some data, but very little, which is why for passionate audiophiles, lossless is the format of choice.

The level of compression applied to a track is articulated as bitrate. The higher the bitrate, the better the sound quality and the larger the file size. Standard CD bitrate (WAV) is 16 bits/44.1kHz with 1:1 compression. At its very simplest, an iTunes-purchased track uses 1MB of space for each minute of song; an Apple Lossless equivalent uses 5MB/minute and the original CD uses 10MB of space per minute of song. What this means is that you lose elements of your music as you attempt to shrink file size – and what’s removed can never be recovered. What Xmod tries to do is enhance those compressed tracks to put those missing elements back.

Creative has fielded two technologies to achieve this. The X-Fi 24-bit Crystalizer attempts to put back those sound elements that were lost during compression, while the X-Fi CMSS 3D re-creates surround sound as if through nine virtual speakers. The two work together to apply algorithms that attempt to convert your compressed music back into 24-bit surround audio, which is better than the 16-bit on a CD.

X Factor
We certainly experienced more depth, better clarity and more presence to the music. Highs were much clearer and bass boomed. Xmod does a good job of putting extra zest into your digital music playback experience. The music sounds far less flat than compressed music usually does. We would argue that CDs sound better than an Xmod-enhanced digital file, but you will enjoy the results – they are impressive. And if you play a CD through the device, the sound is outstanding.

The surround-sound emulation helps this by creating a much wider sound field. When using headphones, your perception of where the different instruments are will be transformed – you’ll be able to separate the different musical elements much better than before, though on some tracks we did experience a small amount of background hiss. Using the two on-board switches to enable and disable the two applied technologies got rid of this and still left us with improved audio playback.

The device doesn’t interpolate sound, instead it analyses different sounds to detect what sort of instrument is being played and attempts to restore specific sounds typically stripped-out by compression.

The Xmod is highly portable. The white device is about the size of a large mobile phone. It measures approximately 110 x 48 x 14mm. It also hosts a large (35mm diameter) silver control knob, which raises its depth from 14mm to 25mm. The device ships with a carrying case, earphones, a USB cable and a user guide.

When announced, much was made of Xmod’s ability to enhance MP3 sound, and it seemed a product ideally suited to iPod users looking to improve their travelling soundtrack.

Unfortunately, it’s not a portable solution: it must draw power either from a computer’s USB port or using a power adaptor that isn’t supplied with the product. You can use Xmod with an iPod, but only if you plug the sound enhancement device into the mains. It’s no mobile accessory.

Xmod could be invaluable to connect your iPod to your home entertainment system or a set of powered speakers. You’ll get much better sound than most such systems offer when playing digital music.

Connect Xmod using USB to your computer, connect a set of speakers to the Xmod, and your iTunes library can be played at impressive, near-CD sound.

OUR VERDICT

If you want to enhance your iPod audio on the move, Xmod won’t do it. What it does is boost music playback through speakers from an iPod or computer when you are stationary. In the future, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Creative apply these successful technologies in digital music speaker systems.

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