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Friday, 30 January 2004

Creative Muvo2 4GB Review [lurks]

When it comes to MP3 players, I like to think that I know a thing or two - on the basis that I've reviewed countless numbers in a professional capacity and I've personally used just as many, stretching all the way back to the first Diamond Rio with it's whopping 32MB and serial connection which took about half an hour to fill it up.
Back in blog 459 I mentioned what I considered to be the finest solid-state MP3 player on the market and I'm still under that impression now. The I-Bead is one of the niftiest technological devices I've ever had the pleasure of using. Yet in the wider MP3 circles, it isn't perfect. 256MB doesn't last long, the battery isn't changeable (which I give Apple ceaseless shit for) and being a USB 1.1 device, it takes a little while to load up despite the anaemic storage.
Creative's Muvo2 hard drive players are based on Hitachi's new 1' hard drives, the same tech you find in compact flash microdrives, which Hitachi inherited off IBM along with the desktop drive business. The latest version of the Muvo2 has the latest Hitachi drive, the 4GB microdrive. So for your money you get a damn small MP3 player, somewhere between the size of a solid state player and a hard drive player.
Specs wise, 4GB of storage, MP3, WAV and WMA compatibility, USB 2.0 connection and a user changeable battery which is the same as the Zen jukeboxs which costs £29. 14-hours of playback (improved from the 10-hours of the 1.5GB unit) claimed and a 98dB SNR and headphone output level of 30mW.
That's the overview, now to the subjective stuff. Firstly, the physical side. I like the form factor, it's ideal for a top shirt pocket although with no headphone remote available (yet), it's rather a lot more inconvenient to pause and skip tracks than the I-Bead. but the same goes for any MP3 player that you put into your pocket. The built-quality is all plastic and not a particularly robust or solid looking plastic either. This is lame given the cost of the thing but this is Creative all over. They've never understood the value of aesthetics and I wouldn't expect them to soon.
The Muvo2 isn't ugly but it's not going to win any awards. The sort of fake-metal shiny plastic thumb cursor thing is particularly nasty. All of the connectors are unceremoniously exposed on the top. A reasonably little case is provided with a hip clip, which you could use if you were a rampant randy bender that thought you looked good attaching things to your belt line (Muz). The USB 2.0 connector is the standard mini USB connector and so any USB host-to-mini lead will work.
The Muvo2 is a little heavier than it looks but it's easily pulled out of a pocket by the headphone lead. The provided headphones are competent but no more. They have a certain boomy bass which many people will be surprised by and probably like but I don't find them as faithful as the I-Bead's superb headphones. They're also oversized and don't fit in the ears properly and easily fall out. Prime candidates for getting replaced by decent headphones.
The good news is the headphone output is absolutely blinding. The 30 solid milliwatts drives even high-impedance hi-fi headphones quite happily, in fact about the best level I've seen from any portable music device so far. Swiftly onto the sound quality. Cor, it's a bit good. I mean really good. Playing digital black WAV with the volume ramped up still yielded zero audible noise even on enclosed hi-fi headphones. That's blinding, no mistake. Not even a hint of noise from a DC-to-DC converter which is so often present on portable audio.
So here's a key point, I have to say that so far this is the best audio quality I've heard out of a portable device yet. Lowest noise, best output into a variety of drivers and highest fidelity. The latter may in part be due to whatever decoder ware is running on the Muvo2. Whatever it is, it's beyond reproach.
Onto practical matters, being as the Muvo2 a USB 2.0 device, you might not expect it to get charged by just jacking it in. Yet it does, actually. USB doesn't deliver much power so it charges at a snails pace and you have to software 'eject' the device to get it to charge. However Creative provide a standard wall-wart PSU which will charge the Muvo2 elsewhere and hell of a lot more rapidly.
You plug in USB and the Muvo2 just automatically turns up as a USB mass storage device. This is an approach mostly favored by solid-state players. Due to the length of time hard drive players would take to catalog vast amounts of content, those tend to use 3rd party software which also updates a stored database of tracks. The 4GB Muvo2 is the largest capacity device to be just a straight mass storage device which I have seen. Even when fully loaded up, the music scan time which happens the first time you power on the unit on batteries after having loaded up the HD, isn't very long at all.
It seems the Muvo2 just scans the hard drive structure and reads MP3/WMA details only when playing that actual track, which is the smart thing in my view. It does mean that playing material on it is accomplished by either using forwards/backwards or a 'browser' function in the menu which enables you to select directories and what have you. This is purely a matter of what you prefer but I have always preferred this system and so I find it a complete winner.
The interesting thing is that you'd really not know there was a hard drive in it. Sometimes there's a bit of a delay on skipping songs but there's no noticeable vibration or noise that I can detect with my ear up to it. Very interesting. It seems to deal with shakes and jars just fine as well.
USB 2.0 shovel speed? I had big problems on a VIA-based Athlon rig and had to update the 4-in-1 drivers before the unit would shovel without disconnecting and seizing up. I blame VIA for that, they've always been shit. With latest drivers it worked OK and I clocked it at just under 2MB/s. Moving the unit home to a proper Intel rig, obviously I need not monkey with drivers and the speed clocked at 3.6MB/s on my home made random music shovelling script. Nice! Versus the 500-odd K/s of the I-Bead, it's particularly nice.
What about the player controls? They're very simple. Up and down changes volume. Left and right goes forwards and backwards. Tapping the sort of multi-function on/off button, brings up the menu where you can find a bunch of settings and which hitting 'browse' and navigating directories is dead easy. It's easier to drive than the I-Bead but the I-Bead is a bit... eclectic in that regard you might say. I will say this though, I could drive the I-Bead with gloves on (a handy feature in the depths of winter) but no chance with the Muvo2 due to the slight action on the cursor pad to use the functions.
Oh and the carry case completely covers the controls so you wont be using that and fast forwarding past a track you don't feel in the mood for. You wont even be able to mute it. Clearly the remote needs to hurry along because right now it's something of an inconvenience.
In the final analysis, in pure specifications terms - the Muvo2 is the best I've seen at what it does. Yet it doesn't do some things which many will find useful such as an integrated FM radio and voice recording. Both of which really ought to be in the device, given it's a heck of a lot bigger than an I-Bead they can hardly cry foul on space. Something must be said of the cost too. It's available for around £240 from Dabs and given Apple have announced the iPod mini at £199, I would say that the Muvo2 ought to drop in price. Probably Apple are subsidizing the iPod to loss-lead the iTunes service but Creative will still need an answer for that price.
I'll be a bit happier when I've got a remote, assuming that Creative come good and release the thing. Also I'm going to have to hunt out some lightweight 'sports' style headphones with a proper head band. The in-ears just don't do this sort of audio quality justice.
Yet for all that, I'd have no hesitation in recommending the Muvo2. I don't believe the iPod mini will be a better device, because it wont just be a mass storage device and neither will it have a changeable battery - in my view both are major pluses in the Muvo2's favor.


  1. I have owned one of these for a few weeks now and love it, it sounds great and it'll even drive a pair of sennheiser 590s surprisingly well. As far as earbuds, I am quite tempted to get some of those ones from shure, but the price combined with my tendency to kill headphones is scaring me off them.
    I don't know if my useage is unusual or not, but I am comfortably getting about 16 hours between charges so no complaints there even without the option of changing the battery.
    My only real complaint about the player so far is to do with the size of the controls and screen, both of them could do with being a fair bit bigger to be ideal.
    A couple of points to do with your review, supposedly the existing remote for the zen will work with the muvo^2, so that is worth looking into. Also, there are a few hd-based players that show up as a usb msd e.g. the ihp series from iriver.

  2. I sold my Creative Zen (used in hotels etc ) and my i-bead (used in gym) to get the Muvo2 4gb since I reckoned it could do both. I was right - I'm really pleased with it - as Lurks says the aound quality is amazing....

  3. I took delivery of the Nomad Jukebox FM Wired Remote thing, which is compatible with the Muvo2 although they keep that pretty quiet. The radio and stuff didn't work until I flashed the Muvo firmware up, now it does. It's quite good actually. It's a chunky remote but it's got an LCD display on it so you can read the MP3 tags and navigate stuff, tune FM, select presets and do the usual volume and navigation stuff. It's only about 30 notes or so from Creative's website and I think it's an essential upgrade. Although... A 4GB Muvo2 with decent headphones and the wired remote is getting pretty expensive.

  4. That's slightly odd, it works with their newest player and some older ones but not the newest zens. As far as them keeping it a secret, I wonder if they didn't expect to get the firmware for it sorted out as quickly as they did, they do admit that remote is for the muvo2 on their site now.
    How well does the radio and recording on it actually work then anyway?

  5. Radio seems OK. Not done any recording. The length of the combine cables is annoying now, I think I'm going to do a butcher job.