Review: Creative xMod

A couple of weeks ago, I received a new audio enhancement product from Creative Technologies called the xMod. The ‘X’ in its name comes from “X-Fi”, or eXtreme Fidelity, Creative’s version of ‘high fidelity’ (which is a term that obviously doesn’t sound radical or daring enough). X-Fi is a digital sound processing technology that first appeared in their PC prosumer-level soundcards over a year ago. The xMod signifies the technology’s first attempt at breaking into the living room/consumer electronics space. Well, sorta.

You see, the xMod CAN connect to your hi-fi and home entertainment systems, and it can connect to your TV-based game consoles, MP3 players, and so on, but it doesn’t make it easy. It is first and foremost an external USB sound device for your computer (PCs and Macs both, a first for Creative). In order to use it as a passthrough device for any other line-in/line-out supporting audio device, you will need to purchase a power adapter and an audio cable that do not come in the package. At a list price of SGD$138, that feels like a bit of a raw deal. Especially when the box contains a pair of Creative earbuds that most people will ignore.

So, on to the sound. If you haven’t already noticed, I unboxed and started on it with a slightly negative bias, so it was an uphill battle for the xMod from the start. The packaging was a nice surprise though – marked by a clean black and white box design that shows a willingness somewhere in the corporate machine to discard their awful trademark colors of blue and yellow. My review unit came with marketing materials that make a whole lot of outlandish claims. My advice to you will be to avoid all brochures and posters with “facts” about X-Fi and the xMod. Just hear one for yourself, and pay no attention to bar graphs and probably-paid-for-quotes to the effect that X-Fi is the second coming of Jesus. Who else but Jesus could accomplish the water-to-wine miracle of restoring damaged MP3 audio to an experiential level that SURPASSES the original studio recording from which the CDs and MP3 files were made?

Creative’s attempts to shoot themselves in the foot aside, the product is impressive. It combines relative consumer-friendly ease of use with a solid, tangible audio benefit.

The X-Fi effect comes in two parts. First, a feature they call the 24-bit Crystalizer. When turned on, this enhances the high and low-end audio peaks and troughs while leaving the midrange untouched. This means that most instruments are made more vivid, intense, and bassy, while human vocals remain the same. 24-bit? Okay, the original audio is upsampled and all processing is done at the 24-bit level. That’s all. The brochure will try to convince you that it finally equals a 24-bit studio recording, but you can lock it in the basement and sell the house.

The second part is called CMSS-3D. Part of the fun of owning an xMod is making up meanings for this mysterious acronym. Is it the Creative Master Sound System? A warning that the xMod Cannot Make Surround Sound? Or perhaps an exercise in circular redundancy in product naming and brand-building: Creative Makes Singaporean Stuff. Whatever. It works like most stereo widening effects such as SRS’s WOW, Q-Sound, and the Spatializer. Except it comes in two forms, one for 2-speaker setups, and one for headphones. Both are equally impressive, and because the xMod is an external module (aha! it all makes sense now!), your CPU cycles shouldn’t be used up on audio processing.

It is, to my knowledge, the only external spatialization product on the market today for enhancing your computer’s audio. I’ve used many software plugins that purport to do the same, from OSS-3D on the Mac platform to DFX for Winamp on a Windows PC. None of them provide results on par with the Creative xMod. Those competitors require set up, tweaking, and often produce clipping and distortion when the wrong settings are used. The xMod puts no such complications in your way. The effect is customizable, but it’s as easy as turning a knob and deciding how far apart you want your virtual speakers. It handles all the audio processing very well, never distorting music once in all the time I’ve been using it (at the default setting).

Most of my testing has been done on a 2.1 JBL computer speaker system connected to my iBook. Regular recorded music sounds more robust (and that’s not just from the volume boost that the CMSS-3D seems to create) and the stereo separation makes the tiny speakers seem larger than they are. Try this test: stare at your speakers and visualize the sound coming from there. Your brain should be able to make the link. Now turn the xMod on. You will quite literally be able to see the sound start to come from behind and around the speakers, which will no longer seem to have anything to do with the sound. Yes? Or maybe I’m just a synesthete.

While everything from contemporary (stereo recorded) jazz to pop music sounds good, it is in the playback of live recordings that the xMod shines. The ambience creation and active treble/bass enhancement characteristics of X-Fi do a lot to make you feel like you’re in the crowd. Audience chatter is reproduced around you, while the music remains in front. Instruments play from all over the stage, distinct and separate. Any attempt to turn the xMod off halfway just reaffirms how pleasant the experience is, and how you probably can’t live without one from now on.

Sure, you might take the hundred or so dollars and put them towards a better speaker fund, or you might buy a software plugin, or spend time tuning EQ presets to each song, but the xMod’s set-and-forget style of audio enhancement is very attractive; makes it ideal for the largest number of non-audiophile consumers, and actually possesses the ability to coax already good speakers into reproducing a better ‘live’ sound experience. I, for one, am keeping mine.

DIY Quad Stacker

A couple of weeks back, I started ordering double-double-cheeseburgers at Burger King. I called it the Quad Cheeseburger, with its variants the Mushroom Swiss Quattro and Turkey Bacon Bezerker. It’s not as expensive as you might think. Add $1 for every patty. Every single time, the kitchen assistant would come out from the back and confirm that I wanted four patties in a single burger. I’d say yes, and they’d look at me like a criminal or a very fat man (is there any difference?) I’m training up for a quad Whopper.

This is what it typically looks like, without doubling the cheese:

Quad Cheeseburger

This is what it looks like when you’re halfway through:

Inside the Quad

It’s beef quad-tastic.

I just thought I’d google “quad cheeseburger” and guess what? Well, this should surprise no one, but I’m way ahead of the curve again and Burger King USA put out a similar PERMANENT menu item called the Quad Stacker back in July. It has 4 beef patties, 4 slices of cheese, and 8 strips of bacon. All at a low and very reasonable 1000 calories!! Yeah you think that’s a lot, but a plate of Char Kway Tiao will do you for 800 or so. And not even taste as good!

Here’s some info on the Quad Stacker. And here.

This is what they want you to think it looks like:

And this is what it looks like:

bkquadstacker

Hey who says someone in the bidness can’t give you some truth now and then?

Free Image Hosting at allyoucanupload.com
I got this off of the latest Borders email newsletter. What a freaking load of new-age cosmic energy male apologistic crap. Be sure to go meet Jerry and tell him what you think of his lame pickup game, obviously designed to get sympathetic women into an inspired, and naked, state of entrancement. Daily. Constantly.

Pop Music’s history in 4 chords

I’ve been planning to write about how music in games are more important to the experience than we give them credit for, but that will have to wait.

I’ve just found this video of an Australian guy playing the same 4 chords over and over on a Roland keyboard, and weaving together an impressive medley of recent pop hits (with a few classics thrown in), singing a line or two from each, while his hands never stop playing the same thing. Not that they perfectly match what the actual songs were, but it’s easy to see how you can sing any number of pleasant melodies over that progression. An unpleasant reminder that no matter what you do, there are always formulas.

Edit: Love where this came from: The 2006 Sydney University Arts Revue: ‘The Complete History of Everything That Ever Happened Ever. On Ice. On Fire.’

4:54:29 PM david: http://www.sitex.com.sg/2006/
4:54:58 PM brandon: think there’ll be a wii counter
4:55:07 PM brandon: there was a ds lite one last year long before it came out
4:55:14 PM brandon: i went and played with one
4:55:43 PM david: Let the Gaming segment transform the way you think about games. No longer just limited to bulky consoles and expensive performance computers, gaming today can come to you in many forms with each offering a different level of entertainment and enjoyment to temporarily relieve your mind from conventional worldly issues.
4:55:57 PM brandon: WTFFFFF
4:56:01 PM david: LOL
4:56:29 PM brandon: i have unconventional worldly issues!
4:56:38 PM david: We know mobile entertainment is BIG and so to meet that huge multimedia appetite you have, we have carefully assembled a galleria of nothing but the latest in MP3 and MP4 gadgetry just for you
4:56:46 PM brandon: HAHAHAHAHA
4:56:48 PM david: man that game one is just gold seriously.
4:56:54 PM brandon: MP3 and MP4 gadgetry!
4:57:23 PM david: yeah wtf
4:57:30 PM david: Simply walk down the isles of Photo Imaging booths and start discovering tips and tricks you never knew about videography and photography that will soon propel you to the next level of creativity.
4:57:38 PM david: must employ this guy
4:58:00 PM brandon: can’t propel me soon enough!!
4:58:04 PM david: i think he kop from some cult religion’s webpage
4:58:05 PM david: Propel your imagination into the stratosphere as learn about the amazing software and hardware behind the creation of your favorite anime and manga.
4:58:11 PM david: another use of propel, same page
4:58:30 PM brandon: man i am so pumped for sitex now
4:58:35 PM david: http://www.sitex.com.sg/2006/highlights.shtml
4:58:41 PM david: just read it. man. its all gold.

More Wii goodness: How the Wii Was Born [ars technica]

I missed this a few days ago, but it’s a nice primer to the most interesting of the 3 new consoles which will be out in the US in a few days. I don’t think we’ll be seeing it in Singapore till after January, but fingers crossed. Is anybody out there considering importing a Japanese edition? Will they be region-locked?

Going on rather-deserved vacation

I’ll be in Japan on a company holiday from this Thursday till next Monday. It is in some ways the promised land for most of my friends, however this opportunity has caught me at a bad time. I am too busy with work to even properly pack, let alone do enough research to ensure a meaningful and productive visit. So I am not counting on having a complete experience. My goals are to eat well, take a lot of pictures, and make the most of not having an agenda.

I will be staying in the Shinjuku district, and that may be as far as I get with the list of must-see neighborhoods. Maybe I will make it down to the place where the loligoth girls hang out over the weekend, but that’s it. The rest of my time, if I follow my more experienced and Tokyo-oriented colleagues, will likely be spent off the tourist path. But that’s ok. I’ve got to leave some things unseen for when the rest of the aforementioned find time for a pilgrimage.

*

I unboxed my Horizon Kompakt this evening after about a half-year of sitting on my shelf, waiting for the small possibility of it selling itself to some passerby. It’s quite awesome, and demands the most complicated loading procedure I’ve ever seen a 35mm film camera involve. I’m going to go out tomorrow and shoot off a roll for the sheer heck of it. And then it’s off to Tokyo to capture what should be some incredible peoplescapes. Look out, salarymen! Beware, schoolgirls! Look busy, fishmongers!

For Sale: Sony T30 Digital Camera


And while I’m blogging again, here’s something I was supposed to mention a month ago.

I have a Sony DSC-T30 (T30) for sale. It’s maybe three and a half months old and in perfect condition with a good, solid screen protector put on. It comes with a 1GB Memory Stick Pro Duo card (Sony brand), the original box and everything else, along with a Sony carrying case I bought for it.

Tech specs:
– 7.2 megapixel CCD (3072 x 2304).
– 3x optical zoom.
– Continuous video recording (640 x 480) in MPEG-4 format, with zooming.
– Mechanical/Optical Image Stabilization (Sony Super Steadyshot).
– Very pretty.
– High sensitivity up to ISO1000.
– Sliding lens cover.
– Ultra closeup macro mode (1cm).
– OMG IT’S BEAUTIFUL!
– f3.5/f4.3 min aperture.
– Very long battery life (440 shots CIPA rated).
– Exposure bracketing mode.
– You can’t stop looking at it.
– Only 169g in weight.
– That’s less than most phones.
– What, are you certain?
– Which phone are you using?
– You must be kidding.
– I’d get a real phone if I were you.

Recommended Retail Price: SGD$799

My Awesome, Loss-Leading, Faith-in-Humanity-Restoring, Sanitarium-Official-Visit-Inspiring, One-Time-One-Piece-Only sale price: SGD$599

Write me an email or leave a comment if you’re interested. Singapore buyers preferred because the post office is ohhhhhh soooooooo farrrrrr away from me.

iWoz is out!

I bought Steve Wozniak’s autobiography, iWoz (or I, Woz), last night from Borders at the exorbitant price of SGD$34 dollars. Please be smarter than I was and buy it off Amazon from the link above. USD$14! Even with postage, it’ll be significantly cheaper. And you’ll be helping me recoup some of my losses. Thanks.

I haven’t started reading it yet because I’m still halfway through iCon, the book on Steve Jobs’ second coming. Although I’ve just learnt about the existence of a book actually titled The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, which I’ll undoubtedly have to read now.