|YaK:: WebLog #535 Topic : 2007-05-21 02.31.22 matt : hardware review : Creative Labs X-Mod
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I am one of these people who can't stand the crappiness of MP3s. People are always incredulous that I (or anyone else) can tell the difference between a 128kbps (or even 192kbps) MP3 and a CD. One of Geoff's co-workers was so incredulous he made us a "test" CD, and then scoffed when we were actually able to tell the difference.
Despite my lack of satisfaction with MP3 audio quality, I am addicted to Pandora . I have eclectic musical tastes that usually throw recommendation engines into a tailspin, but Pandora nails it most of the time. I have bought so many new CDs because of all the new bands that Pandora has introduced me to. I love Pandora, but MP3 quality irritates me? What's a guy to do?
I read about Creative Labs' Xmod in an article about their controversial advertising, which claims "better than CD quality". Still, I was intruiged -- this is exactly the kind of product I've been wanting for years. The Xmod has some amazing DSP technology that upscales the 48khz/16-bit audio running through it to 96khz/24-bit and applies algorithms to fill in the missing pieces. Certain sounds, like hi-hats, cymbal crashes, female vocals, and snare drums are affected the most by MP3 compression. The Xmod restores the missing pieces of those sounds, in high definition audio. (It also operates on CD audio or whatever else you run through it, which sounds great, but it's not nearly as giant of a leap.)
The Xmod also has the capability to apply another, separate filter that simulates surround sound using the headphones. Unlike other products that have similar aims, the Xmod does not seem to involve phase shifting. (Phase shifting can leave distinctive weird sounds, so I'm glad they figured something else out.) I was sure I wouldn't use this feature much, but now I almost never turn it off. It's really amazing, and I only turn it off for rap and hip-hop because it makes the vocals sound weird and there's just not enough instrumentation to warrant it.
You can adjust the intensity of either effect in a strange way that is difficult to describe. The top half the Xmod is a button, but not really a button. Even when I turn them both up to the max, and there is only a few times that the enhancement of the snare or hi-hat sound is distracting from the rest of the song. Turning down the intensity of the effects don't help much for the 2 songs out of 100s I've had the problem with, so it hasn't been too much of an issue so far. I find having the upscaling enhancement (or "Crystalizer", as they call it) at one level below maximum and the surround enhancements at maximum is optimal for my ears.
My only other complaint is that for something that is for high definition audio, they could've used some better DAC and ADC chips. I doubt anyone without really expensive headphones or speakers will be able to tell the difference, but since audiophiles is seemingly who this product is directed at, I dunno what they're playing at.
I highly recommend this product to just about everyone. Once you have it for a day switching the enhancements off and on and hearing the difference, it'll be like listening to music on your crappy laptop speakers versus your nice headphones or ear-buds. If they build this technology (with better quality DAC and ADC chips) into their next MP3 player, I'll probably buy it in a heartbeat.
My desire is that one of these online music stores will differentiate themselves by offering high-def songs. Even if they just take an approach like DTS did with their 96/24 encoding, where there is a secondary stream of 24-bit audio with the upper and lower frequencies not covered by the base stream. I'd have to hear it, but I bet it would be a nice compromise. Upping a lossy compression bitrate without DRM isn't going to get me to buy from online stores, nevermind paying more for a song. But, if I could get a (pseudo-)high definition version of a song that doesn't have an SACD or DVD Audio release, that is something I *would* pay extra for.
In the meantime, buy an Xmod, like me :)
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