Confessions of an Audiophile #1 - playing with the ZuneHD

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is yet another new piece here I'm introducing on my blog. My long passion for audio has had much of an effect on my tech lifestyle over the years, influencing my decisions over the gadgets I have, what really is worth buying, and most importantly, the difference between a great device versus utter junk. My recent experience playing with a ZuneHD once again reignited the true audiophile in me, compelling me to share my first impressions of this latest mobile gadget.

PROS: Excellent physical design, idiot-proof UI, size, weight, content access/control, brilliant screen, exceptional video playback

CONS: Where's the manual?, what equalizer?, no bluetooth, no case


The release of the ZuneHD was met with huge anticipation from many portable audio fans, especially those turned off by the offerings from Apple, yet seeking a comparable playback device with high end features, performance and significant "ooh-factor". Does the ZuneHD fulfill the wishes of these folks, satisfy the needs of a modern multimedia device, and deliver the features audiophiles crave? Let's take a look!

Microsoft paid particular attention to the packaging of the device. The box is small, black, thick and lifts off to show the ZuneHD up front in your face, concealing below in more elegant black packaging the sync/charge cable, headphones and setup sheet. It gives you the feeling of opening up an expensive, small, luxury item, and makes you wonder what awaits when you power it on.

The instructions require you to download and install Zune software on your PC. Unfortunately, that's as far as the single-sheet instructions will get you. There is no detailed manual for the ZuneHD, no disc with a PDF manual, and not even a manual for download online from the Zune website. Granted, the operation of the device is straightforward, but Microsoft would do a service to get a manual out that explains features in detail with screen shots - I should not have to "buy one" just to see what it is ultimately capable of.

Copying files to the ZuneHD is an easy 2 step process. First you select folders on your PC where the Zune software "looks" for files with the relevant extensions. Once found, you then sync these files over to the ZuneHD device. You can search and sync by artist, song, album as well as create custom playlists. One thing the ZuneHD doesn't do is preserve existing folders, meaning if you already have a bunch of songs grouped in a folder, the Zune software will ignore this and group the material by artist/album. This frequently got me songs with "unknown album" tags and created a mess in the main window placing all the songs in one giant collection.

While creating custom playlists ad-hoc preserves folders in a way, the fact that Zune still relies on meta tags for grouping can be a pain, especially when it puts the WRONG tag on an item. I have plenty of rare CD's from Europe for example that Windows Media Player fails to recognize and tag properly, and that trait continues with the Zune software. Then again, if time is on your hands, you will be the diligent audiophile and manually tag your stuff that gets screwed up after initial ripping.

Syncing happens fairly quick, although full-length movies do take 2-3 minutes to move over. The fun part comes when it's time to listen. Control is done easily by touch screen, flicking up and down to navigate through the menus and files on your device. I admit I've always preferred buttons, but the touch controls on the ZuneHD work so well and perfectly it's difficult to make them not respond or not do what you want.

That said, the screen does attract fingerprints, but they come off extremely easily. The metal casing feels truly solid in the hand and the entire unit is very light, not to mention thin. This is one device that will get lost in your pocket so easily, save for that headphone cord.

How does video playback go? 2mbit WMV video at 720x480 is as good as the original source DVD - fluid, crisp and beautiful to watch on the OLED screen. Color reproduction is excellent and faithful to the original. Given the size of the screen and the resolution, playing back 1080p/720p would be a novelty at best. Fortunately, you can comfortably store anywhere from 8 to 10 full-length movies at 480p (16GB), opening opportunities for a pocket movie jukebox. Leave your fat DVD wallet behind!


Unfortunately, that's where the listening fun ends. Headphones almost always require an equalizer in order to bring out their best sound, the same way speakers would be tuned in a home audio or car environment. I was totally shocked to find that the ZuneHD has no equalizer controls at all. Only a handful of predefined options that have an unknown curve applied to change the sound slightly. No sliders, no bass/treble, no bass boost, not even a measly tone control.

That essentially relegated the ZuneHD a huge audio disappointment, since even despite it's many other tricks, reproducing audio is (and should be) a basic feature - omitting an equalizer to shape the sound output for whatever headphones leaves the output audio at a quality level that is sub-par at worst, and only normal at best.

At $240 out the door (16GB model), and with my high-end $140 headphones, I expect better than normal sound! Call me harsh if you want - I'm an audiophile.

Using a reference source, I did check the audio coming out of the ZuneHD with Cool Edit Pro's spectrum analyzer, and the device does fulfill the 20Hz-20kHz frequency response. With a good pair of headphones you can expect to hear that full spectrum, but the lack of an equalizer will result in a completely flat sound. When hooking up to other audio equipment, such as a car head unit, flat sound is fine, since the head unit equalizer will take care of the sound shaping. But with headphones, flat sound is a big evil.

To the non-audio-gifted, sound without an equalizer is like food without seasoning - plain and tasteless. The same way salt and pepper bring out the flavor in food, an equalizer brings out the frequencies of the audio spectrum, enhancing the music you hear. This is especially important with mainstream (read: cheap) headphones that may need improving in the frequency response in order to provide a satisfactory listening experience. But this is also very significant with expensive high-end headphones, allowing them to perform at their peak level and faithfully reproduce the enhanced sound curve which a graphic equalizer can deliver.

Could I get by without an equalizer? Sure I could - if we were taking about a sub-$100 device! But at this price point I don't think I should have to make that kind of sacrifice in audio fidelity. On a digital device an equalizer becomes part of the software, and on a quality digital audio device an equalizer would be standard fare. My JVC head unit has a 7-band equalizer with at least a dozen presets and 3 fully programmable settings. My tape walkman from 20 years ago had a four-band equalizer, while my home audio setup from that same period included a 14-band unit with a spectrum analyzer. Granted, it's easier today to just throw on a handful of one-click presets, but considering that Windows Media Player has had this functionality for at least the last 8 years, I'm simply astounded that a device like the ZuneHD would lack this critical audio feature.

Another serious omission is the lack of a bluetooth radio stack for wireless audio streaming. Think about it for a minute, how many after-market (and factory) car audio systems come with iPod integration today? Great if you own Apple, yeah, but no help to your ZuneHD. Bluetooth streaming in the car IS the iPod killer. Do you really want to listen to your CD music at FM quality? I know I don't. Hard-wiring your audio cable to get your tunes across is not an option everybody can do on their car, but bluetooth streaming is becoming a popular and easy solution to add considering the wide adoption rate. Given the target market of the ZuneHD, omitting a modern feature that's supposed to simplify connection and extend it's use seems like a backward step on the part of the ZuneHD's creators.

I'm also partial to a slip case at $240, since damaging the touch screen will more than likely brick your device.


As a sucker for quality audio, I simply cannot excuse the ZuneHD for omitting a functional graphic equalizer. Who, if not the serious listener, is Microsoft aiming this product at? A device in this class should come standard with 7-band adjustment and customizable presets along with a Bass Boost control. As great as the ZuneHD functions and appeals to the masses, it's inability to meet audiophile's discerning needs and output audio beyond vanilla quality renders this device a sorry failure. Microsoft should really have known better and incorporated more features of Windows Media Player in the ZuneHD. This really is too bad, considering how impressive the video side of the device performs.

I'm afraid to say I'm taking this one back.

Now if I were Microsoft (or for that matter, one of their rivals), I would look to improve on the ZuneHD by adding considerably more audio control options. This includes a full-use 7-band equalizer, similar to my JVC car unit, a bass boost feature to help cheaper headphones perform, and add a surround mode to enhance the sound when listening with high-end cans. At this price, I would also make bluetooth standard. Finally, I would like to see Microsoft bump up the capacity on the ZuneHD - a 64GB model would make movie storage a lot more comfortable.

I also wouldn't mind seeing a 4 inch model with a 800x480 OLED screen.

For the average Joe who isn't fussy about sound (or fussy yet), the Zune HD makes a very nice device. But audiophiles used to tinkering with their sound should seriously look for an alternative high-end product.


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