Over the past two years, “right idea, wrong price” iPod accessories have become far more common, resulting in numerous offerings that we like but wouldn’t buy until their prices fell. The latest such accessory is Creative’s long-named Xdock X-Fi Dock for iPod with Wireless Streaming ($200), a really nice-looking and fairly smart accessory that we’d be inclined to highly recommend to most of our readers right away if only it was more affordable. This review—brief, because Xdock doesn’t fully support the latest iPod models—also covers the X-Fi Wireless Receiver ($100), which can be purchased as an accessory for the Xdock, as explained further below.
iPod owners and Creative alike are well aware that simple audio and video docks can be had for $29 or $39, depending on the iPod model, so it’s a given that the Xdock needs to more than they do to justify the $200 asking price. The list starts small, then gets bigger: in addition to a top-mounted Universal iPod Dock, it includes a really nice Griffin Powermate-style illuminated metal volume knob, an auto-switching optical and audio audio output, an Infrared remote control, a digital signal processor, and a 2.4GHz wireless transmitter. There are also S-Video and composite video out ports, useful only to color 4G and 5G iPod users, not iPod classic or nano (video) owners, a USB port, a line-in port, and a headphone-out port. You get optical audio and S-Video cables in the box, too.
Xdock’s key selling points are the digital signal processor, 2.4GHz wireless transmitter, and, arguably, the optical audio output. iPod accessory fans will note that few iPod docks have included optical outputs because the iPod doesn’t typically output an optical-ready audio signal. Rather than just tossing the port onto the dock for the fun of it, Creative takes a different approach: it uses the processor to optionally massage (“Crystallize”) the iPod’s audio signal into what it claims to be “better than CD” quality sound, supposedly restoring detail lost in the MP3 or AAC compression process. It also can optionally create artificial 3-D surround sound from stereo iPod tracks (CMSS-3D), placing voices at center stage while instruments appear to be off to the sides, separated in space. Then it sends out the signal—processed or unprocessed—to speakers connected with wires, or to ones connected wirelessly with an X-Fi Wireless Receiver.
Audiophiles quickly pooh-poohed the idea that X-Fi could post-process iPod music and restore its original CD-quality lustre, and we were obviously skeptical ourselves. So we tried a simple test: we ripped some music at 96kbps and 128kbps, then compared the way the tracks sounded with X-Fi’s Crystalizer on, the way they sounded with Crystallizing off, and the way they sounded in lossless quality. On a positive note, Xdock certainly improved the way the compressed files sounded. But it didn’t magically transform our 96kbps MP3s into better-than-CD quality songs.
Converting CD songs into lossy formats necessarily results in certain details being lost, though the MP3 and AAC formats were designed—and well—to make such lost details as imperceptible as possible, preserving more of the original song at higher bitrates. At 128kbps in AAC or 160kbps in MP3, a properly-encoded song should be a challenge to tell from the CD original with virtually any pair of typical earphones. But if you listen carefully enough, or with great earphones, you’ll hear a little less high treble and low bass, as well as blooming—a little fuzz around the edge of some instruments as they become audible—and through speakers, you’ll note that the audio is sometimes flatter and less three-dimensional than it started on the CD, with less separation of instruments.
With the Crystalizer feature on, Xdock tries to fix this. It adds a little extra edge to both the treble and bass, and from what we could tell, slightly smoothes out some of the fuzz in a compressed file’s midrange. The effect is like blotting a dab of bleach on a stained white shirt—it won’t totally remove the blemish, but if used properly, the solution can reduce what’s wrong. However, if used improperly, it could even make the spot slightly brighter than the rest of the shirt. That added brightness is why Creative claims that X-Fi delivers better than CD quality sound: compare the Crystallized low-bitrate track to the CD original, and it will sound at least as lively, just like turning an equalizer on in iTunes. Of course, if you turn the Crystalizer on the original lossless track, you’ll also hear similar boosts. You’ll have to decide whether this type of sound processing is worthy of a rear optical audio port or not; reasonable people may disagree, but we’d readily say that to most ears, Xdock’s sound with Crystalizer on will be more pleasing than the flat, unequalized output from even Apple’s standard iPod dock.
The Xdock’s faux surround sound feature, CMSS-3D, acts as a filter for songs, attempting to move vocals and instruments to different parts of a virtual soundstage. As with other similar technologies, its results depend on what you feed it: when we used remastered, already surround-encoded Beatles tracks from the Love album, the Xdock sometimes flattened tracks rather than improving them, and it added very apparent mid-treble echo to the vocals of Gabrielle’s rendition of Walk On By. But older, less aggressively surround-mastered tracks, such as Kool and the Gang’s Ladies Night, suddenly acquired greater three-dimensionality, albeit often at the cost of slightly overaggressive treble; the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want lost body but gained apparent clarity and separation. Notably, unlike the Xdock, which can be connected with the optical output to a multi-channel receiver and speaker setup, the X-Fi Wireless Receiver doesn’t have optical (or video) output; it has RCA- and minijack-style rear stereo outputs, plus a variable-level headphone port on the front. It also lacks multi-channel DTS decoding, a feature included in the Xdock base despite the fact that very few iPod audio tracks include DTS-encoded content.
Xdock’s other major feature, 2.4GHz audio broadcasting to a separate receiver, is the potential doozy for users who have been looking for an iPod-ready, wireless whole-home audio solution. Again, there’s good news and bad news here: the feature’s built in to Xdock and works better than we had expected, delivering clean sound to speakers set up with an X-Fi Wireless Receiver when they’re within roughly 60 of the 100 promised feet away from the Xdock base; past 60 feet, you’ll likely notice some interference. Better yet, multiple receivers can be added to the Xdock system, and you don’t have to worry about setting them up: the process is basically plug-and-play effortless, unless you want to assign the receivers to four zones for remote activation and deactivation from the main Xdock; otherwise, Xdock broadcasts to all of them at once. Both the dock and receiver come with Infrared remote controls that enable you to control the iPod, turn repeat and shuffle features on or off, adjust volume, and even activate or deactivate both the Crystalizer and CMSS-3D features. The remotes work just as promised, and though they’re not as powerful as a single RF remote for the whole system would have been, there’s something to be said for having one remote per room of the system rather than having to carry one remote everywhere you go.
The major problem here is the pricing. Creative apparently felt that it was wiser to release one version of Xdock with built-in wireless functionality rather than releasing a version without it. Consequently, iIf you’re not buying Xdock for its wireless feature, you’re going to be paying $200 for a dock that—without further assistance—does little more than adding modest digital signal processing effects and a more sophisticated remote control to what Apple offers in its iPod AV Connection Kit for $99. Alternately, if you are buying Xdock for the wireless feature, you’re going to have to spend another $100 for the Wireless Receiver to take advantage of it. That puts you at $300 for the wireless system without buying any speakers, or $200 for a dock with wireless potential but no means of execution. Considering that several companies are offering complete wireless speaker systems for $300-$350, Creative’s numbers are just a bit too high.
There’s also the fact that, unlike Apple’s Universal Docks, Xdock’s video-out features don’t work with current-generation iPods and iPod nanos. There’s an S-Video out, and a composite video out port, but the new nano and classic iPods won’t turn their TV Out feature on when docked in Xdock. Only the now-discontinued color 4G and 5G iPods can use these outputs, unless Apple changes the nano and classic firmware. Our general rule is that more expensive docks need to at least match Apple’s in performance, and thanks to the new iPod firmware, Xdock falls a step behind in video.
Overall, though post-processing of compressed digital audio files hasn’t been a winning differentiator for past iPod dock makers, Creative’s X-Fi Crystalizer does more good than harm to the music it touches—we were more impressed by the feature than we’d expected we would be. The company’s decision to couple the Crystalizer with easy to use, clean-sounding wireless audio broadcasting makes the Xdock and X-Fi Wireless Receiver combination a good option for those who are looking for a wireless whole-home audio solution, and willing to spend the cash to get it—the reason for our aggregate B rating. That said, Xdock would have rated lower if considered in isolation, as its appeal is more limited if you’re not planning to use its wireless capabilities, or hope to use it with the newest iPod models. More aggressive pricing with full support for today’s iPods could only improve Xdock’s appeal.