Media streaming has come to some sort of saturation point recently, with easy-to-use (but flawed) devices such as the Apple TV getting their share of publicity. Forget the media centre PC as the gateway to streaming and portable media -- the iPod has proven itself far more popular. Enter Creative's Xdock and receiver combo to deliver your tunes to wherever you may be.
The Xdock as submitted is actually two products: the Xdock itself (AU$299.95), which is an iPod dock; and the Xmod Wireless (AU$149.95), which can be used with this or the Xmod external soundcard (due in December for AU$159.95).
Piano black may be the new brushed aluminium -- but it's also a damn sight cheaper. And we've seen it used in everything from phones to MP3 players to televisions. Considering the newer iPods also comes in shiny coal nowadays it made sense for Creative to coat their Xdock media streamer in it too.
Both units feature a large aluminium volume knob, and external transport controls. The unit is lit by a cool blue glow, which is de rigueur at the moment, but it's actually quite subtle.
The dock comes with extra adaptors for using all dockable iPods, but for some reason they're white instead of black. However, your iPod will cover the dock anyway so the colour isn't an issue.
Unlike the Apple TV, the Xdock has decided to Keep It Simple Stupid! No lofty ambitions of creating the Next Big Thing here, just an iPod dock and music streamer you can use anywhere in the house. While the base unit will let you connect the attendant iPod to a television via S-Video or composite, the receiver has an analog audio output only.
One of the biggest selling points of this, and other products in Creative's X-Fi range, is its X-Fi Crystalizer which boasts that it can make your compressed MP3 collection sound better than the CD version. Like DVD players that can upscale to HD, the Xdock upsamples signals to 24-bit. By comparison, the 25-year-old CD is only 16-bit. Unfortunately the video output will let you view videos only -- you can't control the iPod via an onscreen menu (OSD).
For audio you get a 3.5mm input to connect a PC or non-dockable MP3 player and a combined optical/line-out connector.
To pair the Xmod Wireless and Xdock is fairly straightforward, if a little "old-school": you press a paperclip or pen into the recessed "Connect" button and both volume rings light up in blue when paired. Once connected, you can use any unit to control the iPod (without the aid of a menu of course).
The remote is simple but easy to use -- our only gripe is that due to the lack of an OSD you need to be able to see the iPod's screen if you want to navigate menus. Which usually means you're within arm's length of the iPod anyway. There are also functions on the remote that aren't replicated on the unit -- such as the X-Fi Crystalizer control, so don't lose it.
There were two elements of the Xdock and receiver that we were most interested in testing: its range and sound quality. By not including video, Creative has saved the bandwidth for audio, and we were surprised by the results.
No matter how large your house, we've found that Creative have been quite conservative with their range estimations of 30m. We were able to use the receivers up to 40m apart without any dropouts or loss of quality, and within a line of sight that went up to 50m. Depending on the amount of wireless noise in your area, you should have similar results.
Sound quality was also a plus of this set-up, and to this end the X-Fi Crystalizer works quite well. It's essentially a sophisticated equaliser and can add oomph to poor quality sound sources -- such as the onboard AC'97 audio from PCs. Even the decent sound from an iPod can be improved with this setting. Activating the Crystalizer on Bad Religion's New Maps of Hell brought further urgency to Greg Graffin's voice and brute force to the guitars -- the sound gains presence. Without activating the Crystalizer the sound is the same as you'll get out of the iPod.
If you're looking for an easy to use streaming media solution this does what it's supposed to very well. Of course, it's also the same price as the Apple TV for both units, which docks it some points. But unlike that solution you don't need a computer, and so is even perfect for use at work or while on holiday. But if you don't need the wireless capability, this is simply a very expensive iPod dock.