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Monday, January 01, 2007

Creative Xmod Review
(Review unit kindly provided by Creative)

Pros: Simple plug-and-play sound solution which enhances sound quality.
Cons: Expensive, cumbersome, not portable. Tweaking settings is a bit awkward.
Price: S$139 retail

The Creative Xmod is a hardware device that will take any sound input and enhance it. Besides functioning as an external sound card (supposedly better than the onboard sound motherboards give you if you've no separate sound card, but it doesn't make a difference to me), it has the X-Fi Crystalizer which restores what was lost in the music's being compressed (viz., MP3s don't sound as good as CDs) and the X-Fi CMSS-3D which adds a surround sound effect to the music. In plain English, the Xmod makes your music sound better.

X-Fi technology is marketed as being revolutionary ("a quantum leap in the way we listen to aduio"), but really this technology has been on the market for years; I've been using DFX, a DSP plugin for Winamp, for 6 years and it makes my music sound better, with fewer odd effects introduced. The marketing is even more ridiculous when it claims that it delivers "An Experience Beyond Studio Quality". Unless it's psychic and can read the artist's thoughts, letting it deliver to you what the artist truly intended for you to hear, this is not possible. It's like restoring the Last Supper and making it even better than when it was hot off Da Vinci's brush.

The Xmod plugs into your computer's USB port and diverts audio data from the sound card to itself. You then plug in your speakers or earphones to it and enjoy the enhanced sound. Unfortunately, this means that the Xmod is effectively useless for listening to music on the go, since it requires a power supply. I was hoping it'd have an onboard battery, but the best alternative is an AC adaptor (which comes separately at S$69), so. Since most of my music listening nowadays is done via my iPod, this isn't very good.

Although the Xmod can be used out of the box without adjusting any settings, besides using its big knob to change the volume, users can adjust the level of sound enhancement by pressing the top cover and turning the knob. The Ah Beng-esque flashing of the blue LEDs indicate how much sound enhancement is being applied - a short period (rapid flashing) means it's revved up to the max while a long period (slow flashing) indicates that your music is being treated gently. Unfortunately, the G Spot of the Xmod (the place to press to turn on its configuration mode) is quite hard to find, and I always have to go by trial and error. Often, pressing a spot which worked previously brings no results, so I have to slowly feel my way around the top cover of the device, methodically prodding sections until I hit its G Spot.

Unfortunately, the Xmod's documentation is not very good, since it mainly goes on about the Xmod making music sound better without describing how this is the case. The documentation says that the Xmod is not suitable for gaming, and that they recommend their Sound Blaster card. I haven't tested it with games so I can't say, but generally in games what you want is the acoustics and their interaction with the sound effects.

For some reason, when I listen to the Xmod using my laptop and earphones, when there's no sound coming out of the machine, I will, from time to time, hear metallic pops. I still get the pops after muting the sound on my laptop, but turning off either or both of the X-fi Crystalizer and X-fi CMSS-3D solves the problem. At first I thought it was a problem with my unit, but Ray said he gets this problem with his PC too (but not his Mac), so it must be some weird PC-specific conflict.

To test the Xmod, I tried it out on several types of music, and my impressions are listed below. I'm not an audiophile, but in some ways this is good, since my guess is that most people aren't audiophiles either so my impression will be closer to what readers might have. iPod In-Ear Headphones were used, together with my IBM T42 laptop and Winamp.

Piece: Schubert - Impromptu D.899 No. 2 In E-Flat - Allegro (Brendel)
Quality: 192kbps MP3
Genre: Solo piano
Impression: The notes were more vibrant and the underlying chords were brought out and made more distinct, where previously they'd been slightly muffled.

Piece: Bach - Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns Die Stimme - 4 - Chorale Verse II - Zion Hort Die Wachter Singen (Karl Richter)
Quality: 192kbps MP3
Genre: Choral; Cantata Chorale
Impression: The organ was richer and more sonorous and the violins were richer. The tenor solo sounded a bit hollow though, due to the 3D tinkering.

Piece: The Mighty RAW - Go Fly Win
Quality: 192kbps MP3
Genre: Rock
Impression: The drums were more richer and deeper and the electric guitar, err, I think the word is sharper. The original audio was a bit muted but this brought out the electric guitar. Again, there was a bit of the hollow problem, but turning off CMSS-3D solved the problem. I tried reducing the CMSS-3D effect but even at a low level the hollow-ness was a bit artificial sounding.

Piece: Bob Rivers Comedy Corp - Walkin 'Round In Women's Underwear
Quality: 192kbps MP3
Genre: Easy Listening (Synthesiser, Voice)
Impression: One of the things I dislike about Bob Rivers songs is that the synthesiser sounds like shit. The Xmod cannot make it sound like an orchestra, but I was surprised by what it could do: the lousy bass was made more prominent (I hadn't really noticed it previously) and the piano almost sounded real.

Piece: Schubert - Piano Quintet 'The Trout' -III-Scherzo.Presto [Richter&Borodin Quartet]
Quality: 128kbps MP3
Genre: Chamber
Impression: The violins sounded much brighter, and previously unnoticed flourishes and chords came to the forefront.

Piece: Chanticleer - Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant
Quality: 192kbps MP3
Genre: A Cappella
Impression: Nothing. Maybe the voices were a bit brighter, but then the human voice isn't much affected by these technologies.

Overall verdict: The sound quality was generally enhanced at the top and bottom ends of the spectrum and previously unclear lines were brought out, especially the bass ones. Unfortunately, background hiss (? - it's like the background buzz you hear when you turn up speakers to maximum volume even if nothing is coming out of them) was also increased.

The effect of listening on earphones was changed - the location of the sound moved from either side of my head to inside. This is supposed to minimise headphone fatigue but I don't get that problem. Hollow sound from CMSS-3D was a problem though, but surround sound doesn't suit all genres of music or all musical tastes.

Some songs sounded a bit too vivid and thus over-engineered, but that shouldn't bother most people, seeing how engineered most popular pieces are.

Conclusion: The ironic thing about this type of sound enhancement (regenerating lost frequencies) is that casual users won't appreciate them beyond a general sense of "Wow it sounds better". However, audiophiles frown upon the artefacts (unwanted noises) they inevitably generate together with the good ones. So I would think that this sort of product would appeal to those who enjoy music, but not so much that they spend their time surfing the Hydrogenudio forums.

If you're looking for a simple plug-and-play solution to make your music sound better, the Xmod could be the thing for you. Unfortunately its price is quite steep. Personally I'm sticking to DFX, since it's cheaper, software-based (less cumbersome) and introduces fewer artefacts.

See also: Ray's review
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