Portable Media Players Guide

Creative Zen X-Fi 16GB review

First Looks: Creative Zen X-Fi 16GB

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When 320kbps is not Enough

When 320kbps is not Enough

If you are an opera buff, chances are you might have encoded a couple of classical tracks in the popular MP3 format and uploaded them onto your portable media player. You might have also realized that some of them sound flat and dull, even when encoded at a high bitrate of 320kbps. If that is the case, then Creative's newly launched Zen X-Fi, boasting X-Fi audio technology, is something you might want to check out.

X-Fi Does What?

If you are unfamiliar with Creative's products, you might be scratching your head wondering what on earth is X-Fi. To understand X-Fi, it is first necessary to understand what happens when an audio track is compressed into a lossy format like MP3.

Since MP3 is a form of lossy data compression, certain parts of the track which are deemed unnecessary are removed so as to achieve a smaller file size. Normally, the parts removed are from the less audible frequency ranges. What X-Fi does then, is to restore these lost parts. The end result is more pronounced highs and lows and this can be appreciated in tracks with heavy use of cymbals, shakers and bass instruments.

However, that is just one facet of X-Fi - the "Crystalizer" mode. Another feature is its "Expand" mode, which magically moves the sound from your head phones away from your ears and to the front, thereby creating a more realistic depth of field, making music sound more natural. On a side note, we do like to point out that such 3D positioning features are pretty common on the PC, but rarely seen on portable music players.

The Sound of Perfection

Testing the X-Fi's "Crystalizer" mode on a variety of tracks, we found it a substantial improvement to our listening experience. This mode can be best experienced on slower tracks. Listening to Ben Fold's Five's "Still Fighting It", we found the pianos notes to be deeper, fuller and the cymbals to be crisper and more resounding. It definitely sounded better.

However, on faster tracks such as Jon Petrucci's "Glasgow Kiss", the benefits of the "Crystalizer" mode became less clear. Although the bass was deeper and fuller, other sounds such as the cymbals and snare drums became tweaked to an extent where it sounded rather distorted. Fortunately, this distortion was slight and only those with the keenest of ears would be able to tell.

Final Thoughts

All in all, we were impressed with the Zen X-Fi. For such a compact portable media player, its audio quality is impeccable and truly class-leading. X-Fi technology is a real gem. Also, we were surprised at how feature-packed it is. Apart from playing MP3s (and the requisite FM tuner), it will also play videos, show photos, stream content and chat with your friends via its integrated messaging client.

Hence, you might expect the Zen X-Fi to command a premium price, but on the contrary, it is extremely competitively priced. For S$399.90, you'll get 32GB of storage (good for 8000 songs), a pair of quality in-ear earphones (worth S$79 on their own), and if you are lucky enough to get your hands on the limited Red Cliff edition, an extra armband and a pair of tickets to the Red Cliff movie.

With so much going for the Zen X-Fi, this might just be what Creative needs to turn its ailing fortunes around.