Owners of Creative's Zen player, you'll want to take note if you've ever thought, "Goodness, how I wish my charming Zen had Wi-Fi, and how I wish my crappy MP3s sounded a little less repulsive."
Creative's new Zen X-Fi is the latest player in the Zen line-up, basically taking the 7.8-rated Creative Zen and injecting it with wireless capabilities and sound 'improving' technology -- the eponymous X-Fi.
The 8GB version doesn't include wireless capabilities, and isn't that compelling a choice over a higher-capacity Zen. But the 16GB and 32GB do, and that's what makes these players different to almost every player currently on the market. It's also the one we've got in-house.
Firstly we want to offer a hand-shaking to Creative. We're fed up of the emphasis on gigabytes and cost over sound quality -- practically every player these days come with abysmal earphones, measuring their capacities in terms of how many 128Kbps WMA files you can store. And iTunes, with its 128Kbps AAC files, is just as guilty when compared to the 1,411Kbps of uncompressed CD audio.
So well done, Creative. This is a player sold not only with supposedly decent earphones, but technology that promotes sound quality as one of its biggest features.
Now, in practice, the sound-isolating earphones supplied are certainly a step or two greater than what you'll get with iPods, Sansas, other Creatives and iRivers. They're not up to what we'd call a decent entry-level for sound-quality enthusiasts, but they're noticeably better than most 'bundlebuds'. Only Sony's beats the Zen X-Fi here.
The integrated X-Fi technology also makes a difference to sound quality, but it's even more noticeable through better earphones. It offers two levels of X-Finess -- 'on', which brings up the mid-range and high-end a touch, and makes vocals a little more realistic; and 'max', which raises volume and boosts overall loudness.
It's effective, and the 'on' option is probably most favourable. But it still won't make a crappy MP3 sound close to a CD, and neither will the bundled earphones, proving once more that top-notch encoding and investment in good earphones are the best way to ensure top-quality audio.
With that in mind, stick 256Kbps AAC files on the Zen X-Fi with a good pair of earphones, and we're once more reminded that Creative prizes sound quality over cheap shoddiness. Like the Zen, the Zen X-Fi is a terrific-sounding player that even streamed our podcasts over a home network, with great ease of use and a superb screen to boot.
Our full written and video reviews are just around the corner, so check them out for our run-down of all the wireless features, X-Fi usefulness and all the rest. It's on sale now from £99. -Nate Lanxon