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If Microsoft are a shower of corporate gibbons intent on stealing your cyber-soul through their large monopoly of bug-filled operating systems (not to mention the comedy sidekick of the three red rings of doom on the X-Box), then that should make Apple the caring, sensitive, consumer-minded alternative. However, unless your name is Linus Torvalds or Tim Berners-Lee, such sentiment is, quite frankly, bollocks. Once a blood-sucking corporate oligarchy, always a blood-sucking corporate oligarchy! Take the I-pod for instance. Marketed to create a belief it's the only MP3 player in existence; heavily patented to prevent competition from borrowing its exquisite control pad design; and recent versions claiming to do more than just play MP3s (as long as you're happy for them to do the other things badly), suggests they are a much closer relation to the hairy chimps of Microsoft than one would conceivably imagine.
Sure, an I-pod looks particularly cool with its funky futuristic design and you can fill the damn thing with enough music to make a Radio One DJ weep; but it does have its technical limitations. For an MP3 player the sound is relatively shoddy (well, it sounds like a bag of drowning cats in my ears), meaning you're not really getting the bang of the drums for your buck. And if you're an elitist music snob purchasing an MP3 player for general 'on the go' movements, sound quality usually takes precedence. This is where Creative's Zen X-Fi comes in.
For those not in the know, Creative are another corporate brand of litigious so-and-so's that have been fiddling around with soundcard technology since the early 1980s and have since cornered the PC soundcard market. It's not always a given that longevity in a specialist area determines expertise (see Microsoft Windows), but Creative have been producing solid sound hardware for what seems like eons now. The Zen X-Fi, released in June 2008, is the latest addition to the relatively successful Zen series of MP3 players and is the first to make use of Creative's Xtreme Fidelity technology. Supposedly, this restores any compressed audio format with crystal clarity to take your music to a 'higher level'.
Sounds gimmicky, right? Well, every new MP3 player needs a strong selling point against the marketing might of the I-pod and when you take into consideration the look and intuitiveness of the Zen X-Fi, it certainly needs it. Put it this way; the Xen isn't the most aesthetically pleasing MP3 player you're ever likely to own. That's not to say it's completely fugly, it's just not as stylish as an I-pod. About the size of a credit card and around half-an-inch thick, the Zen X-Fi does have the perception of being a bit brickish (obviously catering for the increased sound quality in the circuit boards it encases). Yet, it is well crafted, the LCD screen is large and user-friendly and, despite the perception of being the unit of MP3s players, is surprisingly lightweight in ones hand.
The control panel is more of a design flaw, however, although through no direct fault of Creative. I'm sure they'd like to have implemented the I-pod's snazzy and intuitive control pad for scrolling through play-lists and the like with relative ease, if they were allowed to. Instead, trying to build on perfection is a one-way street to failure. With the Zen X-Fi it's just a case of too many buttons making for an unintuitive process in navigating the LCDs menu screens. Sure, you get the hang of it after while, as well as working out how to define specific short-cut options, but for the least patient amongst us it could be a relative cause of frustration. Likewise, the X-Fi is also hindered by some early teething problems with its menu screens. Frankly there's far too much navigation than necessary. Scrolling from the music page to the option page in order to change the shuffle/repeat settings, or fiddle around with the equaliser is a real chore. Ideally you'd expect a sub-menu within the music page to do this for you, but this isn't the case. And how exactly do you go about setting up a bloody play-list? Quite frankly, it's unintuitive bobbins that requires far too much time than necessary to understand.
So far, so sounding like the I-pod is still the way. However, time to play the Zen X-Fi's trump card. That gimmick - well, it isn't really a gimmick as, technically, this latest version of the Zen is fanfeckingtastic! The sound quality really is immense and, not only that, the choice you have regarding the sound dynamic you want for your player knocks the socks off any I-pod. From the basic eight pre-set equalizer options (Rock, Vocal, Jazz, etc.) to the five custom equalizers you can configure manually, already makes it stand-out above most similar products. Yet when you add the two X-Fi options available, crystalizer (which enhances the audio quality by identifying key elements that were lost or damaged during the compression process, and re-masters them using selective audio enhancement) and expand (which converts audio to surround, making it sound more natural and realistic), your typically compressed 128mhz MP3 suddenly sounds as if it was being played at a live gig!
Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration. Yet it does improve the fidelity between the process of compressing CD quality sound into an MP3 far more than nearly all other MP3 players, making the quality and depth of the tunes you listen to far superior than their base constituents would usually allow. It makes a Radiohead track such as Paranoid Android all the more joyous to listen to as you can identify every squeak and fart going on in the background, which merely compliments raher than overpowers the rest of such a memorable rock tune. Additionally, base frequencies are richer and more defined and drumming just seems cleaner and clearer. The sound really is that good. Even more so, this is amplified through a quality set of universal headphones (meaning you can use them on other things, not just the Zen X-Fi) to maintain little degradation in the sound quality as it hammers into your eardrum. It makes rocking out to Biffy Clyro on the underground of a morning even more pleasurable!
This is made even easier by the excellent software package Creative has included with the Zen X-Fi. It incorporates a brilliant music library utility (far superior to I-Tunes in that it retains the links between the file location on your PC and how it is represented within the library) and a high level CD ripper that allows you to transfer music from your CD collection to a 320mhz MP3. Music is transferred from the PC using the USB 2.0 connecter included in the bundle (it's worth noting this is also how the Zen's battery is charged) and, whilst not as quick as that of I-Tunes is relatively sufficient. The update software has also ironed out some of the early bugs in the Zen - a common occurrence where the play-list setting was on shuffle and the exact same song would follow after being played has since been eradicated. The uploading between PC and player also seems much quicker after updating.
Additionally, there are other features that make the Zen X-Fi a fairly useful little pocket companion. The ability to listen to FM radio is welcome, as is a memory card slot to allow for additional storage space than the 8GB provided. Very handy! Videos and photos can also be imported, although a camera rather than an MP3 player would better utilised for such a function. Indeed, it does try to emulate the all-in-one thing that the I-pod Touch has attempted to incorporate, but the Zen X-Fi is at its best when it is doing what it knows best - playing high quality music at a perfectly blistering racket so you don't have to listen to random conversations on the bus!
In this age of quality audio being sacrificed for portability and convenience of downloadability, the Zen X-Fi is perfect for those that aspire to quality over quantity. The 8GB version is light on space (although 2000 tunes should be relatively sufficient for most) and lacks the sophisticated design elements of the I-pod, but more than makes up for it in its technical aspects. The X-Fi's audio quality simply kicks arse. If you want a high definition audio experience whilst on the move, then there's little better out there. And the real bonus? It's not made by either Microsoft or Apple, so you can consider yourself a moral crusader for the forces of good if you do decide to purchase. I'm guessing that's how Linus Torvalds or Tim Berners-Lee must feel every single day...
Overall - Technically, one of the most impressive MP3 players I've ever owned. That it never fails to be in my pocket when I leave my front door is telling. But then, I am a music snob and I don't really need more than 2,000 tracks to have at hand at any one time. If you need more music than sense, couldn't care less about audio quality, require an aesthetically appealing player to go with your style and a simple menu system and control function, the Zen X-Fi might not be for you, especially at just under £100.
my daughter has the IPod I will have to mention this to her - lyn x
thereddragon 27.03.2009 00:41
Sounds like a good little device, though I still always tend to prefer the good old iPod. Great review, as always!
VanDrake 26.03.2009 19:17
I like the review very much...but as an audiophile I would appreciate (as im sure others would as well) a few detailed specs on the product. (estimated battery life, screen resolution, storage capacity etc) to along with your great impressions. I think it would help round out your review :)
but a great job it must be said. look forward to more!