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A visit from the Zune squad

Microsoft may have killed off its flagship MP3 player nearly a decade ago, but these fans are keeping their enthusiasm alive

It was weird to own a Zune in 2005. It is even weirder to own a Zune in 2021 — let alone 16 of them. And yet, 27-year-old Conner Woods proudly shows off his lineup on a kitchen table. They come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes, and each can be identified by that telltale black plastic D-pad just below the screen. He owns the entire scope of the brief Zune lineup — from the svelte Zune 4 to the chunky Zune HD — and among the microscopic community of people who still adore Microsoft’s much-derided MP3 player, no collection of dead tech could possibly be more enviable.

Woods picked up his Zune foraging habit during the pandemic, while he was furloughed from his job working security at Best Buy. “I taught myself to solder, began buying up dead Zunes, and repairing and flipping them for a profit,” he says. “At some point I ran across some rare ones and couldn’t bring myself to part with them.”

He counts a particularly rare model bearing the Halo 3 logo and another with the Gears of War seal, but to fully understand the depths of Woods’ obsession, you need to look past the gadgets and into the great beyond. Click through his post on the r/Zune subreddit, and wander into his veritable shrine of forgotten Zune detritus. Woods owns multiple Zune-stamped traveling cases and boombox docks. He has a Zune-branded stress ball as well as a Zune tinderbox, complete with matches that are dyed in the brand’s customary burnt orange and fiery purple. My personal favorite: a Rubik’s cube that, when solved, reveals the Zune’s polyhedral insignia on all of the white squares, as if to say the answer to one of history’s most vexing logic puzzles is, eternally, Zune.

Microsoft spent most of the 2000s a few steps behind Apple. The rival company was perennially a little bit cooler, sleeker, and more tasteful than the endemic squareness of the Gates estate. Often, the Zune was considered the ultimate example of that failure. The product was entirely functional, sure, but for reasons that remain difficult to articulate — the video game insignias, the oversized trackpad, their baffling bulkiness — it was also about a million times less chic than the iPod. (That same inscrutable problem flags Bing, Cortana, the ill-fated Windows Phone, etc.)

But today, almost a decade after Microsoft terminated the brand, there is a small bastion of diehards who are still loving and listening to their Zunes. If you talk to them, they’ll tell you that these MP3 players are the best pieces of hardware to ever run a Windows operating system. Preserving the Zune legacy has just become another part of the hobby.

Various Zunes from Conner Woods’s collection
Various Zunes from Conner Woods’s collection
Various Zunes from Conner Woods’ collection.
Photo by Conner Woods

r/Zune has about 4,500 subscribers, and it stands as the only salon left on the internet for those who are pumping life into Microsoft’s most memorable underdog. In the golden days, says Woods, the nation had many other lively forums like “ZuneBoards” and “Zunited.” There has been absolutely no news for Zune-heads since 2011 when Microsoft firmly announced that it was moving on from the MP3 sector indefinitely. And so, most of the posts on the subreddit radiate with a strong wistful ennui in lieu of any firmware updates on the horizon. “My current collection,” writes one poster, laying out their four Zunes on a chessboard, Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” cued up on the one in the middle.

Others administer modifications on their Zunes that push the hardware well past what it was capable of in 2006; like retrofitting an imaginary future where the Zune was not only still around but dominant. “Started this project in late May, and it’s finally finished,” says Woods, in a different post, announcing that he had successfully added a 128GB SSD to a humble Zune motherboard. Someone else flaunts the wireless charging adapter they added to an ancient Zune 30. Spend enough time on r/Zune, and you’ll begin to believe that anything is possible.

But most often, the denizens here simply want to express to their worldwide comrades that they also haven’t given up on Zune. “It’s safe to say that a lot of people are here for nostalgia,” says John, a 26-year old from San Diego who told me he was first seduced by the Zune in middle school. It’s strange to consider that an abandoned boutique suite of audio hardware is capable of making young men emotional, but then again, I suppose we are only just now discovering how the personal technology boom has impacted our psyche. “Picked up this beauty for $25. I’m pumped!” writes one poster, attached to a photo of a prehistoric Zune sitting calmly next to a whirring Xbox One S. “Just a little Zune porn,” adds another, who’s using the hardware’s built-in radio signal to tune into KPBS. “Trying to not let the flame die out.”

One frequent contributor to the forum, 27-year-old Erick Leach, reminds me that, in its heyday, the Zune came equipped with a fairly robust social media appendage: Zune owners could send songs to each other wirelessly and unlock Xbox Live-like achievements for the music they listened to — both novel features in the mid-2000s. The brand never managed to muster the cultural ubiquity of the iPod (Apple attempted its own failed social network, Ping, around the same time), but with that emphasis on community, perhaps it was inevitable for the Zune to eventually mount a cult-like fandom. That’s Leach’s theory, at least. He always felt like there was a massive nation of Zune-heads out there who he would surely meet someday. “That never ended up happening as the Zune died out. But it was wonderful to find the subreddit and see the same passion for the Zune,” he says.

Leach believes the Zune has aged better than people might think. He calls it the best-sounding music player he’s ever used, and he remains in awe of how it decoded a variety of different sound formats. “Artist tabs in the device itself included artist information, photos, recommendations, a robust music store, and free music for Zune Social users,” continues Leach. “It was a device for music lovers who just love music. Simply and effectively.”

That’s one of the wrinkles you tend to learn after spending time with the Zune Crew, most of them are lifelong audiophiles — the sort of people who get religious about terms like “lossless” and “FLAC.” What’s more, Woods makes the case that the Zune predicted the entire modern music industry as we know it. The Zune Marketplace offered a genuine streaming subscription — long before that became the dominant way people consumed music — which never caught on. “People liked owning their music back then. A paywall for music access seemed odd to people,” he says. “Zunes were ahead of their time.”

That, of course, is the connective tissue of r/Zune. As much as its citizenship adores its cherished failed hardware, they congregate on these forums mostly to connect with others who’ve fallen, hopelessly and indefinitely, under the Zune’s baffling enchantment. Woods tells me that solidarity among Zuners has never been stronger. He finds even more thrills in this strange afterlife, as the years have eroded away everyone except for the zealots. “I feel less alone now than I ever did as a Zune user,” finishes Woods. “I feel more involved now than I ever did in the past, and I feel that I have a lot more to contribute now as a ‘seasoned veteran.’”

He can scour the earth in search of every last scrap of Zune memorabilia with the confidence that there will be an audience willing to upvote his efforts indefinitely. He can strap an absurdly huge SSD on the motherboard, ensuring that it will never be replaced. He can post a Zune-stamped coaster, rescued from the deep recesses of the Microsoft trash pile, and trust that his friends will treat the discovery like the Holy Grail. The Zune was mocked, lampooned, and chased out of the market with its tail between its legs. But it never truly died, not with fans like these.

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