For serious testing, however, I switched to my reference headphones – a pair of Grado SR325’s and, feeling a touch contrary, I kicked off my listening tests with the Gypsy Kings and their live recording of the track, ”Quiero Saber”. It’s a largely acoustic track with lots of Spanish guitar and a typically difficult-to-recreate live ambience. I immediately noticed that the X-Fi has excellent clarity at the top end, which helped to recreate the atmosphere of the live venue, but had a tendency to sound flat elsewhere in the sound spectrum, which led to a bit of a clattery, clashy sound.
This effect was magnified when I moved on to classical and then to more complex material. Loading up some metal and H.I.M.’s popular ”And Love Said No”, and it’s clear that the X-Fi lacks the oomph and smoothness that the iRiver Lplayer has, with vocals and electric guitars sounding a little shouty. Turning the bass boost on helps to butter things up a bit, but this also casts a bit of a veil over the sound, masking some of the all-important details. Creative’s much-touted X-Fi sound enhancements don’t do much either: X-Fi Crystalizer enhances the top end but compresses the sound elsewhere; X-Fi Expand has the effect of putting the music into a padded cell and making you listen from the outside.
It’s not awful sound quality by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just a little disappointing given the price of the player and the calibre of Creative’s other digital music players. Moreover, it places the X-Fi just below both iPod’s nano and iRiver’s Lplayer for me in terms of overall quality.
Despite this, though, the X-Fi remains a highly impressive player. It’s absolutely crammed with features – some useful, some not – has good storage capacity and its memory expandability allows it to challenge even some hard disk-based players. Sound quality is good, if not outstanding.
But whether it can be viewed as a good deal or not depends entirely on whether you already have a pair of decent noise isolation headphones or not. If you haven’t invested yet (shame on you!) it’s a decent package; if you already own a pair of Sennheisers or Shures, however, £150 for a 16GB player (even one with so many features) looks a little overpriced.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 7