CD Players

Microsoft Zune 80GB Portable Music Player

ARTICLE INDEX



The Sound

 

Being involved with hi-fi home audio equipment, with exposure to higher-end sound, makes sound quality a high priority for me. I realize the weakness in some equipment, and the varied environments in which a portable is used, means an equalizer can be a desirable feature. While most hi-fi types frown on equalization due to processing artifacts like phase errors, I am a bit more receptive. Sometimes phase errors are more than offset when an environment you are in has big problems you can't address. Where am I going with this? Well, the Zune 80 GB is the first digital player I have owned without an EQ of any type. Not even a chintzy bass boost function. A far cry from the five band parametric EQ of my Rio Karma or even the five band user controlled EQ of my Creative Zen Vision: M. On both those devices I was a habitual EQ user to compensate for a distinct lack of bass.

Do I miss an EQ? Not at all. Basically the Zune 80 GB absolutely trounces both the Rio Karma and Zen Vision: M in sound quality. Both of those are regularly mentioned as one of the top choices in the PMP arena for sound quality. So what gives? Microsoft has stated that in addition to the errors that can crop up when EQ is used, it eats up a lot of processing power, meaning less battery life. The solution was a focus on the best quality sound without resorting to an EQ.

Normally I would chalk this up to the usual PR drivel, but in this case the proof is in the results. My former players sound absolutely collapsed compared with the wide soundstage thrown by the Zune. What I thought was an artifact of using earphones (Shure E4s), the "in your head" sound, was gone, replaced by a natural large soundstage with distinct separation of all instruments. The sound is very balanced, and the bass is stronger than other players I have used without an EQ. Basically, it sounds just right, right out of the box.

For some reason, many users like a heavy emphasis on bass, and if that is the case, you may be disappointed. Not because it is lacking (it is better than others without an EQ), but because there is no option currently to dial it up.

Is it completely perfect? Not quite. Just as with every single hard drive based player I have used, I can hear the drive spin when the player is paused or during a very quiet passage. Many people will state they can't hear it, and with most headsets, you can't. But using extremely efficient IEMs with a good seal (no background noise to cover it up), it is clearly audible through the headphone out. Not a deal breaker at all for me, just part of the usual thing with hard drive based players, but the sound quality in all other areas is amazing.

Video

zune-80-pmp-figure-5.jpg

To be honest, my reason to start looking beyond my 30 GB Creative Zen Vision: M was two-fold. First, I just needed more drive space. While 30 GB seems like it should be sufficient, I have the vast majority of my music at 256 and 320 kbps, meaning I don't get a lot of mileage out of the space I have. Secondly, at least as important to me was video playback. While the Zen could play back video, the screen was only 2.5". The Zune 80 GB sports a 3.2" screen, not far off from the iPod Touch's 3.5" screen. This make a huge difference in the watchability of video content.

The screen is bright, has fairly accurate color reproduction, and huge viewing angles. One potential issue is that while the screen size has increased, the resolution remains at 320X240. This makes pixel structure more noticeable, especially when holding the Zune close to your eyes. However, video looks great at normal viewing distances. It is a compromise resolution, so it looks fine for most uses, while increasing the battery life, and keeping costs down. In addition, it is a very common resolution for many video podcasts and other devices, ensuring compatibility.

The Zune 80 GB supports audio video output through the headphone jack, using a standard composite splitter cable. You can buy the official branded product or grab one off eBay for under $5. If you want to up the ante, the Zune 80 GB supports component video out using the separate dock. That's right, full DVD resolution, progressive scan component out (see below for supported formats). You can sort higher quality high resolution video that will play back at 320X240 on the Zune screen, or up to DVD resolution, interlaced, over the inexpensive composite cable, or progressive over the components from the dock. In addition, everything normally on the screen is output on your external display, including the interface. This is one area the Zune has an unequivocal leg up on any of the iPods. If you really want to get fancy, you could put a Zune 80 GB in a dock and feed your display, leave wireless on, and have updated content delivered from your PC.

Codec Support

What good is a PMP if it can't play the files you have? Codec support is an important aspect of these players in my opinion. So what does the Zune support?

Audio Codec Native (Hardware) support:
WMA:, up to 320kbps variable bit-rate (VBR) or constant bit-rate (CBR), up to 48 kHz, WMA-pro to 384 kbps, and WMA lossless.

AAC: (mp4, .m4a, m4b, .mov) , CBR and VBR to 320 kbps and 48 kHz. FairPlay Digital Rights Management (DRM) is NOT supported for AAC.

MP3: VBR and CBR up to 320kbps and 48 kHz.

Video Codec Native (Hardware) support:
WMV, main and simple profile, VBR and CBR up to 3.0 Mbps peak, up to 720 X 480 resolution at 30 frames a second or 720 X 576 at 25 frames per second.

Mpeg 4 (mp4, m4v) part 2, simple profile up to 2.5 Mbps peak, up to 720 X 480 resolution at 30 frames a second or 720 X 576 at 25 frames per second.

H.264 baseline profile up to 2.5 Mbps peak up to 720 X 480 resolution at 30 frames per second or 720 X 576 at 25 frames per second.

Files which are transcoded at time of sync (software support): WMV-HD, H.264 HD, .mov video, DVR-MS. I have also noticed H.264 when not in the .m4v container will transcode prior to sync.

While that is quite the laundry list, there are two notable open source codecs which are missing: FLAC and Ogg Vorbis. While Ogg Vorbis is a fairly niche format, with plenty of competition from mp3, wma, and aac, FLAC is one of the most common methods to store lossless audio. With 80 GB storage and stellar sound quality, Microsoft should add support for this format. While they have their own WMA-lossless supported for obvious reasons, I believe the draw of this player with FLAC support would outweigh any slight impact on pushing a proprietary format.

Conclusions

This was one of the easiest reviews I have ever written. The pros and cons of the Zune 80 GB are very cut and dry: large glass screen, large 80 GB storage, stellar interface, amazing sound quality, integrated podcast subscriptions, wifi, video output, all big positives. The overly simple Zune software for your PC is a necessary aspect to allow for the new features. The lack of a "real" on/off control, no EQ, and no delete on the fly, keep it from perfection. That said, the Zune 80 GB has almost the perfect balance for me, and this player is very highly recommended (as long as you own a PC connected to the Internet).

As a side note, Microsoft has shown very good support, with two updates to the firmware during the first month, and continuing to support the 30 GB model by adding many of the new features seen on the 80 GB version. This gives the buyer confidence they won't be left in the dust when the next model arrives.