I wasn’t sure if this thing worked at first.

I used to be a stereo expert.  I could HEAR the difference!

I remember after passing the bar exam, to reward myself I was finally going to buy a tape deck.  I went to Federated and A-B’d the Aiwa and the Nakamichi 582.  Even though the Aiwa was a grand, and more expensive, I was leaning towards it.  Because rumor was that whatever you recorded on a Nakamichi ONLY sounded good on a Nakamichi.  This turned out to be true.  I know, because I purchased (and still own!) that Nakamichi 582, which generated tones, which was the most fully adjustable deck extant, essentially a studio level cassette deck.  I had to buy it when we recorded the half speed master of "Crime Of The Century" on both decks and I heard that screaming guitar on "Bloody Well Right" on the Nak.  It was indistinguishable from the original.

I don’t know exactly when stereo died.  Maybe when every Japanese company known to man flooded the market with cheap all-in-ones, that didn’t DESERVE the appellation "stereo".  Then again, maybe it was the cassette itself, duplicated at many times its playback speed on shitty stock, it sounded terrible.  Who needed a good system to hear them?  It’s like owning a Ferrari in a third world country.  And then came the overhyped, less than perfect CD and the death of vinyl, and sound quality suddenly became irrelevant.

But now it’s even worse.  Because we listen to FACSIMILES of CDs.  Known as MP3s.  Compressed to shit.  But no one seems to care.

Now a stereo is the cheap speakers you purchase for bupkes with your Dell.  Or those tiny speakers you plug your iPod into.  Stereo shops are now home theatre emporiums.  I remember when my Sansui amp died and I went to Sound Center on Wilshire and told them I wanted a two channel NAD.  The salesman was incredulous.  You want STEREO?

And what shocked me about that amplifier was that it came without a phono preamp.  I had to lay down over a hundred bucks for that piece of gear.  But when I dropped the needle, it blew my mind!

But I don’t play much vinyl anymore.  It’s too much of a pain in the ass.  I just want to sit in front of my Mac and listen to my iTunes.  Through my Cambridge SoundWorks speakers.

They cost all of $150.  A fortune for the hoi polloi, almost nothing to a stereo freak like me.  And I’ve had them over six years.  I used to want to upgrade all the time.  Now, what’s the point?

And I’ve got these $1000 Italian jobs this dude sent me that I plan to hook up if I ever get the right cables, but time has been of the essence, and, really, I’m satisfied with the sound I’ve got.  Mediocre speakers for mediocre music.

But going through a bunch of equipment today, I came across this Xmod, which some Creative employee I met in Vancouver sent my way.

I don’t want to install any software, I don’t want to fuck up my system.  But the instructions said you just plug it into a USB port.

So I did this, and selected the Xmod in System Preferences…but I didn’t hear a fucking thing.

One thing I love about Apple products is you don’t have to read the instructions.  I don’t want to read the instructions.  Good products should be instantly usable.

Well, I had to crack the booklet.  And I found out that what I considered to be the button, they did not.  But even when I followed every word, I heard nothing.  So now I had to read the booklet from cover to cover.  All for this bullshit product I didn’t really want anyway.

Well, it turns out you plug the Xmod into a USB port, which I’d done, on the keyboard of my Mac, but if you’ve got external speakers, you’ve got to plug them DIRECTLY INTO THE Xmod.

So I went into the rat’s nest, unplugged the speaker cable, pushed it into the Xmod and VOILA, sound!

But I didn’t hear a difference.  Not a fucking thing.

I was expecting to be blown away, to be REVOLUTIONIZED!

I went back to the instructions.  I dialed the logarithm up and down.  To say the difference was noticeable would be charitable.

How could they sell a product that didn’t work?

Well, maybe they weren’t selling any.  I went on the Web to do research.

Cnet gave the Xmod a great review.  And the comments were…ECSTATIC!

Then again, these people bought the product.  Amazing how people will love what they purchase.

So I started fucking with different material.  And when I pulled up James McMurtry’s "We Can’t Make It Here" (the acoustic version), it was like he was right in front of me, he was much CLOSER and CLEARER than ever before.

So I did more Web research.  And everybody was raving about this product.  And it cracked me up, because the difference seemed SO subtle.  I decided to shuffle my tracks as I worked, to give it time.

And then I heard Patty Griffin’s "Long Ride Home".  It sounded like…MUSIC!  MP3s never sound like music.

And then, since only quiet stuff had resonated, I pulled up "Back In Black".  And the drums, and bass…they were more defined.

And I kept turning the effect on and off.  And the level changed ever so slightly, so it was hard to compare.  I mean there WAS a difference, but…

And then I noticed something, as the afternoon wore on, my ears had relaxed, everything coming out of my speakers penetrated!  I started thinking of going to the record store on Friday afternoons, and coming out and firing up the vinyl.  And then I heard Pablo Cruise’s "A Place In The Sun".

You see this song was featured in a movie I loved.  It doesn’t wholly hold up, but "An Unmarried Woman" made a big impression on me when I saw it in Westwood when it came out.  Mazursky digs deep.  And Jill Clayburgh was three-dimensional.  And Alan Bates!  And after her husband is gone, Jill comes back to the apartment and her daughter is blasting "A Place In The Sun".  And you get the sensation of horribleness being shrugged off, being BLOWTORCHED OFF!  You see "A Place In The Sun" is about joy, in this case REKINDLED JOY!  We all need to find our place in the sun.  And when you hear this record, you’re inspired to LOOK, you just feel so GOOD!

I don’t understand how people can want big rigs to listen to TV, but don’t care about what their music sounds like.  When you’re closer to the truth, what the record truly sounds like, when it’s warm instead of brittle, there’s an elation, a feeling that life’s worth living.

So, should you drop $60-$75 for an Xmod?

I don’t know.  Like I said, I got mine for free.  And my speakers only cost $150.

I guess you’ve got to ask yourself, does 10% make a difference?  Actually, the longer I listen, the bigger the difference appears.  It’s between sound and music.

Creative ain’t McIntosh.  Their claims about restoring stuff that wasn’t there to begin with…they’re hard to swallow.  And maybe some audiophile can explain why this product sucks, why it fucks up the music.  But it sounds pretty good to me.

Creative Xmod

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