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Creative's recently announced Xmod made it into my cube this week, and I have to say, I like what I hear. This palm-size, slick-looking device is designed to improve the quality of MP3s and other compressed audio, as well as audio CDs. Creative even goes as far as saying this $79 external sound card (which also works with MP3 players) will produce a "cleaner, richer sound that surpasses the original audio CD." While I don't blame skeptics (after all, I was skeptical), I can say that I'd rather use this product for listening to audio than not. However, I'd love to see this enhancement built right into an MP3 player since it cannot be used on the move.
The Xmod is a 4.5x1.8-inch white plastic rectangle with curved edges and corners, and it features a fat 1.25-inch diameter metallic knob used mainly for adjusting volume (push down on it to mute or select). It's powered by USB, and it defaults as your sound card once it's plugged into a computer--no driver is required. The device is compatible with both Mac OS X (10.3.4 and higher) and Windows XP.
The Xmod's rubber feet keep it in place on your desktop (where the attractive unit fits right in). On the side opposite the USB port is the headphone jack. Basically, the device takes source audio and, in real time, applies Creative's X-Fi (Xtreme Fidelity) technology to the audio, and the results are pretty substantial.
Creative has lifted the X-Fi features related to music from its SoundBlaster cards and packed them into the Xmod. The features, CMSS 3D and the Crystalizer, each have their own switches and are user-tweakable, though they both default at 50 percent. At the heart of the technology are algorithms that upconvert (or as Creative says, "restores") music to 24-bit surround audio (audio CDs are 16-bit).
The CMSS 3D adds a nice surround effect to audio, and it works particularly well with movies. Sound is less hollow or tubular than some surround DSP effects I've heard, though it isn't ideal for all content. It works well with some music, too, and it's especially noticeable using headphones, where an instrument coming strictly from one channel is nicely meshed with the other. The device is compatible with files that are encoded in multiple surround channels. Creative emphasizes that the surround effect does not utilize reverbs, unlike many other surround technologies. While the effect is effective, it's the aptly named Crystalizer that gives the Xmod its street cred.
MP3s do sound better
The Crystalizer upconverts music to 24-bit audio and fills in the missing gaps in lower and higher frequencies. There is no interpolating going on--instead, Creative sound engineers have come up with a secret formula that identifies certain instruments (such as cymbals or kick drum) and fills in the data that was originally trashed during compression. The more I use it, the more I realize it's doing more than just boosting frequencies. Bass is more punchy and prominent, and highs are crisp and alive but without jacking up levels. Listening to various electronica, ripped vinyl, live acoustic performances--anything with sound waves--I sensed underneath the enhanced lows and highs, an energy that just made my music sound nicer. And extraneous hiss is minimal at worst.
Of course, I compared some MP3s to their CD counterparts and though I can't vouch for the sound being better than a CD, I did prefer the aforementioned energy of the Crystalized MP3. Audio CDs sounded punchier with the Crystalizer on as well.
Both effects can be adjusted (in three levels) by tapping on the unit's upper right corner, where there's a button nested underneath the panel. When the appropriate light turns on, you twist the volume knob to get to your setting, which is indicated by the frequency of flashing lights.
Since it's an external device, the Xmod is particularly useful with a laptop. Controlling your computer's system-level volume using the metal knob is nice, too. It can also be used with any audio device by way of the line-in port, next to the headphone jack, though you'll have to use an AC adapter via the USB port (not included). A line-level output is located next to the USB port. While the Crystalizer works just as well for an MP3 player (I used it on an iPod), it's not as practical since it forces you to be stationary. We'd love to see the technology built right into an MP3 player someday (that is, a Creative Zen featuring X-Fi). Various players from Cowon (BBE effects) and SRS Wow-powered players already exist, and they too enhance sound--just not the way the Xmod does.
The Xmod package includes Creative earbuds, a USB cable, a soft case, and a user's manual.
Overall, I'm impressed with the Xmod, and at $79, it's worth checking out--even with all the PR marketing hoopla surrounding this technology. I don't like that it limits your "Crystalized" audio to the nearest power outlet or computer, but I think Creative's X-Fi technology will make it into portable devices soon.