At the time, these products were nearly unique in the marketplace. Since then, however, the number of choices have multiplied. Pop over to Crutchfield.com and you’ll find no fewer than nine head units capable of playing CD’s full of MP3s. Clearly, the market has expanded rapidly. (See my review of one such unit from Aiwa.)
But Xeenon hasn’t exactly sat still in the meantime, and I recently received a sample of their latest work: a device called MPire. In what’s becoming typical Xeenon fashion, they’ve once again brought something fairly unique to the table, this time in the form of video.
Shuttle II and then some
The MPire has a lot in common with the MP Shuttle II, and many of the features and issues are similar. If you are unfamiliar with the Shuttle II, you may want to read my review of that product.
I’ll briefly summarize the idea behind both the Shuttle II and the MPire. The units come with two drive bays and a caddy that fits in the bays. One of the bays is pre-installed in the main unit, the the other is user-installed into a computer. Then, the user installs a (separately purchased) hard drive into the caddy. The caddy and bays enable the drive to be easily switched between the computer and the MP3 player, allowing files to be added and deleted in a convenient manner.
Although there are many similarities between the Shuttle II and the MPire, there are also some glaring differences, and the most obvious one is external appearance. The Shuttle II’s black, plastic/metal casing has given way to a bright, all-metal case for the MPire. Indeed, the only externally visible plastic you’ll find on the main unit is the drive caddy.
Another improvement involves the remote control. Although the number of buttons and their function is basically the same, the layout has changed and the entire remote has been redesigned. The result is a piece that not only looks much better, but has much improved button feel and feedback, as well.
The MPire also features some improvements that are supposed to eventually make their way into the Shuttle IInamely, support for drives up to 137 GB, as well as a playlist function. The advantage of the former is obvious, and I’ll explain the latter feature soon.
Seeing is believing
The biggest improvement of all, however, is one that isn’t immediately obvious unless one looks at the ports on the back of the unit. There’s a subtle but important addition: video ports.
Speaking of the ports, let’s take a look at the back of this thing. Going from left to right, you can see a power connector and the connector for the remote control, which we’ll look at shortly. Next up are dual audio and video connectors; the existence of dual connectors obviously gives you additional flexibility, in case you want to route the video or audio to more than one location. The blue wire coming out the back is a remote wire like those found on many aftermarket head units; it allows separate amplifiers to have their power controlled by the MPire.
The video feature allows for two important functions. First, the video port will act as an expanded version of the remote control’s display, for navigating the files and folders on the hard drive. Second, it will allow the user to play back MPEG files as well as the DAT files from VideoCD’s.
I’m not terribly familiar with VideoCDs, but my understanding is that the format approximates VHS quality, but in a disc format. It is a completely different format than DVD. Unfortunately, VideoCDs are virtually unheard of here, so I was unable to obtain one for testing. The VideoCD feature will probably be much more popular in Asia, as I understand that VideoCDs have enjoyed much more success there.
Installation of the MPire is very similar to the Shuttle. Obviously, you’ll need some sort of video display if you want to take advantage of the MPire’s video capabilities, but this isn’t required. The MPire will work just fine as a Shuttle II-style MP3 player, with the display in the remote being used to navigate the files and folders.
Like the Shuttle II, the MPire comes with two foam rubber strips with adhesive on both sides. One side is secured to the bottom of the MPire, and the other is secured to the floor of the trunk. The foam rubber strips act as shock absorbers to keep the unit from bouncing around too violently.
Once the MPire is secured, it’s just a matter of running the necessary cables to it and hooking them up. As you might expect, the complexity of the process depends on your individual vehicle and how clean you want your install to be.
Of course, the MPire’s manual points out that the MPire can also be used in the home, and Xeenon informs me they are working on a wireless remote control to help facilitate home use. Since I’m not fortunate enough to be able to afford a video display for my vehicle, I tested the MPire in my living room, using the TV as the display. I should note that the MPire doesn’t come with a power adapter for home use; one must be purchased separately. If you do decide to purchase such an adapter, make sure it is capable of handling the power requirements of the MPire (around 3-4A).
You’ll also have to install the hard drive bay into your computer, so you can put MP3s and MPEG’s onto the hard drive. The process is identical to that of the Shuttle II, so it includes the Shuttle II’s caveats. If you’re not familiar with what those are, I’d suggest looking at this page of my Shuttle II review.
Video killed the radio star?
The first thing I wanted to do was check out the spiffy new video features. I’d loaded my hard drive with several MPEG video files to test things out.
As it happens, though, the first thing I saw on my TV was the nifty navigator screen shown below. Compare it to the display on the remote, and you’ll see that the video version displays more file/folder entries, even keeping them fairly large so they’re easy to read. I should also point out that the actual display looks better than the picture; I didn’t have the hardware necessary to capture the image directly, so I had to use a digicam to shoot a picture of it.
MPEG files (and VideoCD files, as well, I would assume) show up just like MP3s, except a small film logo appears in place of the musical notes. I tried playing back several different MPEG files, some low-quality and some very high-quality. The MPire came through with flying colors, playing all the files without any audio or video stuttering. I was duly impressed with the quality of the video. The high-quality videos played back with a very sharp picture, even on my 32″ TV. Given the much smaller screens typically present in automobiles, the MPire should do a great job when it comes to video playback.
To ensure that things pick up where they left off, the MPire features a resume mode for video files. Stop the player before powering it off, and if you power up and press the play button first, the video will pick up right where it left off. Use any other key to cancel the resume.
The audio performance was good, but perhaps not as good as I’d expect in a $900 component. To test audio playback, I converted some MP3s to WAV files and burned them to a disc, then put it in my DVD player. The same MP3s went on the MPire, and I began A/B testing. The DVD player is a three-year-old, mid-level Toshiba, nothing special, yet it had consistently better highs, and a much better defined soundstage. Depending upon both how much you care about audio quality and how noisy your vehicle is, this may not matter to you.
Some may argue that it’s unfair to compare a car audio component with a home audio component. Normally I might agree, but this is one pricey car audio component, and given the price tag, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold it to a higher standard.
Although the foam rubber mounts make it unlikely that a physical shock would interrupt playback, the MPire comes with a six-megabyte buffer that Xeenon claims will cache up to six minutes of MP3 playback or thirty seconds of MPEG playback. Obviously, those times depend on the quality of the source file, but it’s good to have such a large buffer on-board.
Man the controls!
So how does one access all this multimedia fun? By way of the wired remote I mentioned earlier. The oval “Xeenon” at the top is actually the power button; also near the top is a recessed contrast dial on the side of the remote. The rest of the action happens below the backlit LCD display. In case the picture is difficult to read, going left to right, the buttons are up track and down track, up folder and down folder, pause and function, and a final button that doubles as play and stop. As I mentioned earlier, the buttons have much better tactile feedback, and the recesses between the three leftmost sets of buttons make it easier to find the button you’re looking for without actually looking at the remote. It’s a definite improvement from the Shuttle II’s “two rows of four” approach.
As with the Shuttle II, multiple partitions are supported, and the user can easily skip between them by holding down the folder up or folder down key. The track up/down keys can be used as well, since the partitions, folders, and tracks are basically arranged into a single, long list. The folder keys simply provide a way to skip between folders or partitions, making navigation much quicker.
A quick note about Xeenon’s products, from the Shuttle I through the MPire: Folders are supported, but only at a single level, so while multiple levels are readable, they might not appear as you would expect. Here’s an explanation of the problem that I’ve ripped out of my Shuttle I review.
Rather than giving you the ability to step in and out of multiple sub-folders, the Shuttle treats them more as bookmarks. The folder up/folder down keys will move you from folder to folder, but probably not the way you expect. Multiple levels of sub-folders aren’t really treated differently than all sub-folders being off the root. Here’s an example: Let’s say I have a U2 subfolder and a Sting subfolder. Inside the U2 subfolder I have “Unforgettable Fire”, “Joshua Tree”, and “Achtung Baby”. Inside the Sting subfolder I have “Dream of the Blue Turtles”, “Nothing Like the Sun” and “The Soul Cages”. You would expect to first choose between the U2 and Sting subfolders, then “step into” the U2 subfolder, choose between UF, JT and AB, then be presented with the tracks for whichever folder you choose. The Shuttle treats it like this: U2, Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, Sting, Dream of the Blue Turtles, Nothing Like the Sun, Soul Cages.
With me on that? Good.
Some time with the Aiwa CDC-MP3 has really made me appreciate the multi-line display on Xeenon’s remotes. It’s a lot nicer to be able to see what track you’re skipping to before it starts playing; it makes finding that song you just have to hear so much easier. I’ve looked at the current crop of MP3 head units, and none of them seem to have figured out that the best way to handle something as open-ended as an MP3 player is to just stick a big multi-line matrix display on the face and be done with it. The MPire already has it nailed.
Another thing the MPire gives you is a lot of versatility in how you listen to your music. The thing comes with no fewer than seven repeat modes. They are: All (repeats everything on the drive), Drv (repeats an entire partition), Dir (repeats the current folder), All Ran (random plays the whole drive), Drv Ran (random plays the partition) and Dir Ran (random plays the current folder). Whether you feel like listening to a whole album in its original order or skipping madly between all the music on the drive, the MPire has got it covered.
There’s also a new playlist feature. This lets you define what Xeenon calls a favorite drive, which is a list of songs chosen by the user that can be skipped to at any time. To choose files, you simply stop the player, scroll to the song you want, and press the pause key. The MPire puts a checkmark beside that file, and it’s now on the favorite drive. Repeat the procedure to uncheck the file and remove it from the favorite drive.
To move from the full list to the favorite drive list, just hold down the track up or track down key while the player is stopped. You can then listen to the songs either in the order they were added to the favorite drive or in random order. Conveniently, you can delete songs from the favorite drive list from either the main list or the favorite drive list. Imagine trying to clear the favorite drive list by unchecking everything in the main list, and you see the importance of this feature.
Impressions and conclusions
First of all, let me say that the MPire does what it sets out to do, and does it well. If you are interested in a product that can play not only MP3s but MPEGs and VideoCDs, and if you’re willing to pay a substantial price tag, this is likely the product for you.
I suspect, however, that the number of people who are interested in the video features is fairly low, at least in the American market. VideoCDs aren’t at all popular here, and while MPEG is more widely used, movies aren’t commercially available in MPEG format. This would typically leave users converting video to MPEG themselves, which is a much less attractive prospect than a car-based VHS or DVD player.
Finally, one thing looms over all these features, and that is the price. When I reviewed the Shuttle II, it was priced at $405. The MPire’s estimated price for the U.S. market is $899, over double the cost of the Shuttle II. Obviously the video playback ability is worth something, even in the U.S. where content is scarce. But is the video playback worth an additional $494 over the cost of the Shuttle II?
And so, in the end, the high price and limited application of its premier feature affect my rating of the MPire more than any other factors. If I felt the MPire offered a better value, I’d probably add at least a couple of points to the rating, but I just can’t get around the price tag. It comes to this: Are you willing to pay $899 for the MPire, then drop additional money for a hard drive and video display, for the ability to play not only MP3s but MPEG video in your car? If so, the line forms here. I doubt you’ll have to take a number.