Microsoft killed the Zune, but Zune-heads are still here

It was bizarre to personal a Zune in 2005. It’s even weirder to personal a Zune in 2021 — not to mention 16 of them. And but, 27-year-old Conner Woods proudly reveals off his lineup on a kitchen desk. They arrive in all completely different colours, shapes, and sizes, and every may be recognized by that telltale black plastic D-pad just under the display. He owns your complete scope of the transient Zune lineup — from the svelte Zune 4 to the chunky Zune HD — and among the many microscopic neighborhood of people that nonetheless adore Microsoft’s much-derided MP3 participant, no assortment of useless tech may presumably be extra enviable.

Woods picked up his Zune foraging behavior in the course of the pandemic, whereas he was furloughed from his job working safety at Greatest Purchase. “I taught myself to solder, started shopping for up useless Zunes, and repairing and flipping them for a revenue,” he says. “Sooner or later I ran throughout some uncommon ones and couldn’t carry myself to half with them.”

He counts a very uncommon mannequin bearing the Halo 3 emblem and one other with the Gears of Battle seal, however to completely perceive the depths of Woods’ obsession, you have to look previous the devices and into the good past. Click on via his put up on the r/Zune subreddit, and wander into his veritable shrine of forgotten Zune detritus. Woods owns a number of Zune-stamped touring instances and boombox docks. He has a Zune-branded stress ball in addition to a Zune tinderbox, full with matches which are dyed within the model’s customary burnt orange and fiery purple. My private favourite: a Rubik’s dice that, when solved, reveals the Zune’s polyhedral insignia on the entire white squares, as if to say the reply to considered one of historical past’s most vexing logic puzzles is, eternally, Zune.

Microsoft spent a lot of the 2000s just a few steps behind Apple. The rival firm was perennially slightly bit cooler, sleeker, and extra tasteful than the endemic squareness of the Gates property. Typically, the Zune was thought-about the final word instance of that failure. The product was solely practical, certain, however for causes that stay troublesome to articulate — the online game insignias, the outsized trackpad, their baffling bulkiness — it was additionally about one million occasions much less stylish than the iPod. (That very same inscrutable drawback flags Bing, Cortana, the ill-fated Home windows Cellphone, and so forth.)

However right this moment, nearly a decade after Microsoft terminated the model, there’s a small bastion of diehards who’re nonetheless loving and listening to their Zunes. In case you discuss to them, they’ll let you know that these MP3 gamers are the perfect items of {hardware} to ever run a Home windows working system. Preserving the Zune legacy has simply turn out to be one other a part of the interest.

Various Zunes from Conner Woods’s collection

Varied Zunes from Conner Woods’ assortment.
Picture by Conner Woods

r/Zune has about 4,500 subscribers, and it stands as the one salon left on the web for individuals who are pumping life into Microsoft’s most memorable underdog. Within the golden days, says Woods, the nation had many different vigorous boards like “ZuneBoards” and “Zunited.” There was completely no information for Zune-heads since 2011 when Microsoft firmly introduced that it was shifting on from the MP3 sector indefinitely. And so, a lot of the posts on the subreddit radiate with a robust wistful ennui in lieu of any firmware updates on the horizon. “My present assortment,” writes one poster, laying out their four Zunes on a chessboard, Electrical Gentle Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” cued up on the one within the center.

Others administer modifications on their Zunes that push the {hardware} nicely previous what it was able to in 2006; like retrofitting an imaginary future the place the Zune was not solely nonetheless round however dominant. “Began this mission in late Could, and it’s lastly completed,” says Woods, in a different post, saying that he had efficiently added a 128GB SSD to a humble Zune motherboard. Another person flaunts the wireless charging adapter they added to an ancient Zune 30. Spend sufficient time on r/Zune, and also you’ll start to imagine that something is feasible.

However most frequently, the denizens right here merely need to categorical to their worldwide comrades that additionally they haven’t given up on Zune. “It’s secure to say that lots of people are right here for nostalgia,” says John, a 26-year previous from San Diego who advised me he was first seduced by the Zune in center college. It’s unusual to contemplate that an deserted boutique suite of audio {hardware} is able to making younger males emotional, however then once more, I suppose we’re solely simply now discovering how the private expertise increase has impacted our psyche. “Picked up this magnificence for $25. I’m pumped!” writes one poster, connected to a photo of a prehistoric Zune sitting calmly subsequent to a whirring Xbox One S. “Just a bit Zune porn,” provides one other, who’s using the hardware’s built-in radio signal to tune into KPBS. “Attempting to not let the flame die out.”

One frequent contributor to the discussion board, 27-year-old Erick Leach, jogs my memory that, in its heyday, the Zune got here geared up with a reasonably sturdy social media appendage: Zune house owners may ship songs to one another wirelessly and unlock Xbox Dwell-like achievements for the music they listened to — each novel options within the mid-2000s. The model by no means managed to muster the cultural ubiquity of the iPod (Apple tried its personal failed social community, Ping, across the similar time), however with that emphasis on neighborhood, maybe it was inevitable for the Zune to ultimately mount a cult-like fandom. That’s Leach’s concept, a minimum of. He all the time felt like there was an enormous nation of Zune-heads on the market who he would absolutely meet sometime. “That by no means ended up occurring because the Zune died out. However it was great to search out the subreddit and see the identical ardour for the Zune,” he says.

Leach believes the Zune has aged higher than individuals would possibly suppose. He calls it the best-sounding music participant he’s ever used, and he stays in awe of the way it decoded a wide range of completely different sound codecs. “Artist tabs within the system itself included artist data, images, suggestions, a sturdy music retailer, and free music for Zune Social customers,” continues Leach. “It was a tool for music lovers who simply love music. Merely and successfully.”

That’s one of many wrinkles you are inclined to study after spending time with the Zune Crew, most of them are lifelong audiophiles — the kind of people that get spiritual about phrases like “lossless” and “FLAC.” What’s extra, Woods makes the case that the Zune predicted your complete trendy music trade as we all know it. The Zune Market provided a real streaming subscription — lengthy earlier than that grew to become the dominant approach individuals consumed music — which by no means caught on. “Individuals favored proudly owning their music again then. A paywall for music entry appeared odd to individuals,” he says. “Zunes have been forward of their time.”

That, in fact, is the connective tissue of r/Zune. As a lot as its citizenship adores its cherished failed {hardware}, they congregate on these boards largely to attach with others who’ve fallen, hopelessly and indefinitely, below the Zune’s baffling enchantment. Woods tells me that solidarity amongst Zuners has by no means been stronger. He finds much more thrills on this unusual afterlife, because the years have eroded away everybody apart from the zealots. “I really feel much less alone now than I ever did as a Zune person,” finishes Woods. “I really feel extra concerned now than I ever did previously, and I really feel that I’ve much more to contribute now as a ‘seasoned veteran.’”

He can scour the earth in quest of each final scrap of Zune memorabilia with the boldness that there can be an viewers keen to upvote his efforts indefinitely. He can strap an absurdly enormous SSD on the motherboard, guaranteeing that it’ll by no means get replaced. He can put up a Zune-stamped coaster, rescued from the deep recesses of the Microsoft trash pile, and belief that his mates will deal with the invention just like the Holy Grail. The Zune was mocked, lampooned, and chased out of the market with its tail between its legs. However it by no means actually died, not with followers like these.

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