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.

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