I received a neat gift for Christmas from my dear old dad: a 120gb Microsoft Zune. This gift was especially welcome because A) I emphatically loathe Apple, the iPod, and its associated "We've got you now, motherfucker" captive format and B) my mp3 player is an old 4gb Samsung which doesn't quite do justice to my 600gb of music. Yeah, the collection has its own hard drive.
Everything about the Zune seemed awesome. The software is amazing (especially the way it gets album info automatically and synthesizes tracks from different sources into a single album, which is really useful if most of your collection is stolen/bootlegged). The interface on the hardware is intuitive and simple to navigate. It plays almost any format. I didn't have to sign up for anything or buy my music from the hardware manufacturer in a format that would only work with its products. And its capacity is large enough to fit a lot of my favorites without having to be constantly shuffling tracks on and off the player.
After getting it set up I gave it a test run and discovered that it sounds like shit. This is unsurprising, as music played without an EQ usually sounds awful (try it on your Winamp player or car stereo if you don't understand the difference). I assumed that a few minutes of shuffling through the available EQ pre-sets or, failing that, fiddling with the bass/treble controls would make it sound good to my ears.
I hope you are seated. For $250, Microsoft's 120gb most-advanced-ever portable multimedia device does not have EQ pre-sets. It does not have an EQ at all. It does not even have primitive bass/treble controls like one would find on a $9.99 car stereo or a Walkman cassette tape deck from the Reagan years. It has no sound settings of any kind. It has an on/off button. Those are your options: on and off.
Incredulous, I called Microsoft to make sure that Ed was not the problem, overlooking simple controls that are right in front of my face. Nope. There aren't any. They removed them when they discovered that most people weren't using them. Well, most people are retards and most people listen to Top 40 Country. Why take away the options for the rest of us?
The one-and-only sound from the Zune will sound awesome to you if you usually listen to Ruben Studdard albums and/or FM radio. It provides the same overly-compressed, no bass/no treble wall of midrange sludge that one gets on the local Top 40 station. If your idea of listening to music involves unnaturally loud vocals sorta coming through one channel and, somewhere off in the distance under a 20 foot layer of foam insulation, some musical instruments sorta coming through the other channel then the Zune will thrill you. If you like the allegedly cutting highs of Jimmy Page's guitar to be indistinguishable from what is supposed to be the thump of John Bonham's bass drum, the Zune is for you. If you don't like being able to hear individual instruments and like a band to sound like a big blob of indistinct noise, run out and get yourself a Zune post-haste.
Yes, I suppose it is the buyer's fault for not learning this information prior to purchase, but asking if a $250 mp3 player has a fucking bass/treble control is a little like asking if that new Mercedes comes with tires. A rational consumer could expect to take those things for granted. Microsoft really nailed the Zune in every other area – the software, the ease-of-use, the format friendliness, and so on. It only falls short in sound quality. For a device the purpose of which is to play music, though, that's problematic, somewhat akin to "Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"