For as long as I can remember Creative Labs have been producing PC based audio products to a very high standard.
In fact, my very first soundcard was a Sound Blaster. And not just any old one, it was the Live. Well, the 'Live Value' to be precise. In truth, I could not muster the ingots at the time to spring for the full product.
But I had just a big enough lick of the ice-cream to ignite my interest in 'surround sound and EAX or environmental audio'. The latter being what attracted all the excitement around the Sound Blaster Live and what has allowed its continuing excellent form right up until now.
Which leads me not so elegantly into the X-Fi Zen style media player I'm looking at today. It's the 8GB model and boasts many features for its delicate stature.
Package and Contents
The Package and Contents
Now that we know what we are dealing with, let's take a closer look at the package and contents and see what's included.
The package design of the Zen style is what I would call, minimalist without a doubt. It consists of a small shaded grey box that could easily be confused for something more like a CD box set.
A truly unusual choice of packaging for something that (let's face it) is pretty sexy in its own right, and yet you would have no real idea of this until said grey box is cracked ajar.
All that aside, though, the box is well labeled, laid out and tells you everything you need to know.
Inside we found a plastic molded bubble containing the Zen Style player along with a quick start guide and warranty information.
Lastly included is the provided USB cable, which allows 'docking' and charging of the device simultaneously.
This is another software free product, of which I am quite fond of due to the obvious intrinsic simplicity of such a thing.
Right then, time for tech specs.
Speaking technically, let's start by looking at some specifications.
Capacity: 8GB / 16GB / 32GB
Size: 83.6mm x 48.7mm x 11.7mm
LCD: 2.4" 262k Color TFT LCD, 320 x 240 pixels
Up to 4,000 WMAs/ 266hrs (Approx. 4mins per song at 64kbps WMA)
Up to 2,000 MP3/ 133hrs (Approx. 4mins per song at 128kbps MP3)
X-Fi Audio Enhancement: Crystallizer / Expand effects
Video / Audio Out: PAL / NTSC (via A/V cable sold separately)
RSS: Displays RSS content feeds offline (Sync via PC/Laptop connected to the internet)
Power Charging: Yes (via PC-USB or ZEN USB Power Adapter (sold separately))
Video Playback Formats3: WMV9, MPEG4-SP3, DivX3 4/5 and XviD3
Up to 640 x 480 video size
Audio Playback Formats: MP3, WMA (DRM9), WAV (IMA-ADPCM) Audible4, AAC4, FLAC4.
Photo Formats Supported: JPEG, BMP (TIFF, GIF, PNG to be converted with bundled software)
Battery: Built-in Li-ion battery
FM Radio: Built-in FM Radio with 32 preset stations
EQ Settings: 8 presets and 5-band custom EQ
Organizer: Clock, Alarm, Calendar, Task, and Contacts
Album Art: Yes
Voice Recording: Yes
Built-in speaker: Yes
Connectivity: USB 2.0
Quite an impressive spec list, but I would expect nothing less from Creative who is famed for giving the user a heap of cool extras to play with.
Like other portables out there at the moment, the Zen Style comes in 8, 16 and 32GB models. For testing I received the 8GB model, which is certainly more than ample to firstly understand the beast I'm dealing with and also to store a behemoth of your favorite music.
I would be inclined to think that the larger models are aimed at people wanting to also carry their video and picture stores with them on the go.
The screen is quite small if I'm being honest, coming in at 2.4" with 262k colors and also being a TFT LCD. The resolution is 320 x 240 pixels.
The weight is another great feature coming in at feather light 56g, which is a thing of beauty once you have the Zen in your pocket and realize how heavy other portables can be.
Battery life is given as 25hrs continuous audio playback and 5hrs video playback.
Next we have the X-Fi crystallizer and expanding effects which have been carried over from previous success with the X-Fi PCI based chipset.
Most audio and video formats are supported as you can see, which is an important feature itself and I think Creative took this into consideration when designing the Zen Style.
There is, however, still more. The last two really important features are the FM radio and the EQ with eight built in presets and a five-band custom EQ.
Connectivity is universal thanks to USB 2.0. Of which, I could think of no better alternative.
Setup and Installation
Taking into consideration the fact that the Zen Style is a portable media player, which uses no software to do its thing, I feel things are going to be brief here for all the right reasons.
The Zen Style is really simple to get up and running. In fact, I had it running and docked with a piece of my favorite music on it within a couple of minutes.
The supplied USB cable is great for docking to a keyboard and by the looks of the very short length of it (about 4.5" all up) was designed with such a notion in mind.
When it comes to actually dropping your music/video/picture content onto the Zen Style, it's simply a matter of dragging and dumping onto the open file folder on the desktop.
It's as easy as I could possibly imagine such a task being and I had absolutely no issue with it; great job Creative.
There are a number of different backgrounds and images as well as a couple of demo videos to show off some new products, but also a great idea to have the player ship with them.
There is also a date and time to be set for those who need to be constantly updated of such things.
These are my favorite type of device because it's so hard to argue with plug and play compatibility. Plus, to be sure, there will be nobody who buys one of these and fails to bring life to it within minutes or even seconds.
Taking into consideration the fact that we are dealing with a portable media player, it seems logical that there will be a few key areas of performance that all media players must do well in.
Today I am once again employing my 'floating format' testing criteria that is sensitive to the differing needs of individual products. And, as such, changes progressively to meet those needs are on a case by case basis.
The first of which in no particular order is the players ability to communicate several key pieces of information to the user via the built in screen. In this case it is a 2.4" TFT LCD; more than capable of handling the task.
The built in screen is both bright and colorful in all viewing conditions and communicates a sense of style and quality to the viewer (user) when being held in hand.
The brightness is adjustable, but comes already set at 100%, so I would assume that most users would be making that adjustment in order to save battery life rather than improve on the factory setting.
Creative Labs provides a specification of 262k colors, but I must be hasty to add that it seems like much more when held in hand and being used.
Honestly (and Creative will like this), I cannot tell the difference between the colour provided on the Zen Style and a 16-bit desktop. This is probably due to the small size of the screen. But what can I say? It works tremendously well.
The demo images provided by Creative are probably 'cherry picked' but they look amazing without a doubt.
Ok, time to load up some big uncompressed 10.2MP images and see what this screen can do.
Once I had dumped some images onto the Zen Style I rebooted the device and proceeded to take a closer look.
The results were very impressive I must say, once we take into consideration the fact that this is not a highly 'spec'd' LCD and only has a small palette of colour to use in order to build the image.
The only issue I found was the time it took to load the images I had dumped onto the device. I'm thinking perhaps the fact that I did not compress them and dumped a full size 'raw' image onto the Zen Style for testing had something to do with that. And also, the device had to process down the data to be viewable on screen, which ended up taking the extra time.
However, I will add that no such delay was experienced with the Creative test images loaded on the device, only my very large images.
Before we move onto video testing, I'll add here that I felt the menu was fantastic and very well implemented into the device with a speedy learning curve needed to be passed in order to be proficient at accessing all of the features.
Performance Testing - Cont.
Performance Testing - Continued
Going into testing of the Zen Style's ability to play video files, I was expecting a 'there about's' level of performance. However, what I found was again impressive with Creative's demo videos playing back very smoothly with a good solid contrast ratio and a decent amount of sharp focused clarity on what was being presented.
So, what we have here then, is a very capable little screen indeed.
The resolution seems to grow magically as the transition between desktop and photo album gets made, as is also the case when watching a video file.
The contrast ratio is very good, as are the blacks, which are deep and fixed. Overall sharpness is fine, with good almost noiseless reproduction of the steel cables on the famous 'San Francisco' suspension bridge (see above). Which is a good test, and may be the reason such an image would find itself factory pre-loaded.
Playback of music files is one of the most important jobs the Zen Style will be tasked with. But don't think Creative came to the battle without weapons.
That armory comes dressed as 'X-Fi' and consists of an algorithm called a Crystallizer and another called Expander.
The first restores the dynamics of compressed digital music by analyzing the file in real time and acting to identify particular low and high frequency regions which may have suffered a data loss during compression.
These regions then get restored to their (partial) former glory (it's not better than an original CD) and all is well once again in the world of sound.
I say its not better than the original because, well, it's not. However, the Crystallizer does an absolutely marvelous job at exactly what it sets out to do which is make your compressed music sound a serious deal better than it currently does.
I'll say straight up now that I feel (and have felt for some time) that the X-Fi Crystallizer is equal to or better than ANY algorithm I have used over the years.
Let me tell you why.
The difference between the Crystallizer and a standard EQ preset is that the aforementioned does so much more than simply boost the bass and treble an amount.
You see, it's in the way that the Crystallizer actually makes a real time analysis of the scene (file) and decides where the restoration needs to be applied in order to rejuvenate the squashed music into something closer to what came on the original disc.
If I may digress for a moment, I tested the X-Fi chipset way back on what I felt was a very impressive PCI soundcard some two years ago or there abouts. Back then I could not believe what a difference this algorithm made to my digital music collection. I was very impressed, and back then before ASUS went all 'audiophile' on us this was the bees proverbial and the chipset to have by a light-year.
Moving back to present day now and I cannot state how happy I am to see this technology being moved across onto portable devices.
I urge all music lovers too test one of the 'Zen' siblings from Creative before buying any other media player. And yes, it sounds much nicer than the Apple portables. You heard it here.
Performance Testing - Cont.
Performance Testing - Continued
That's not all, though, because part of the restoration suit included an Expander, which works much like you might fathom such a thing would. Basically, it takes the left and right channels and moves them out more to the left and right. Or a better way might be to say that the soundstage gets widened.
In all seriousness, though, the Expander works well with the Crystallizer as part of a formidable arsenal of dynamic restoration tools given to us, the listener to make our music whole again.
Great job on that one, Creative!
Now, that's the meat and potatoes of what's inside the Zen Style.
There is, of course though other key areas of performance a media player must have. And the Zen Style delivers with much more to found by digging a little bit deeper into this featherweight media player.
Before that, though, let me make mention of the provided headphones which include a built in antenna for FM radio listening.
Depending on where you are listening from will decide how strong the FM radio signal is. Overall, though, it's better to have an FM radio make it in then get thrown out.
Second to last, there is a built in organizer and date/time facility which is handy and can be synced with the right Windows desktop software.
Lastly is the system subheading in the menu, which allows for control of many different features of the Zen Style from one handy place, the most important of which is the audio configuration settings, which is also where the EQ is stored. Although I found the EQ was almost not needed when the X-Fi crystallizer was enabled.
During my evaluation of the Zen Style I found performance in key areas such as visual performance with the built in TFT LCD to be quite impressive to say the least. I also discovered the actual playback of the Zen Style during my testing of digital music scored very well with my ears; only boosted by what is arguably the devices most impressive feature, the X-Fi processing facility.
Creative Labs have a strong pedigree with the Zen family. A good user base has already been established with several very well thought out products both currently available and also on the horizon no doubt.
My first foray into the Zen way of life was a positive one with the Zen Style featured today showing all the hallmarks of a veteran in its field.
As you may have guessed, there is not much to fault here, but there really should not be because Zen has been around for some time now with years to iron out issues, which is what Creative has done to great success.
One of the most compelling reasons someone might buy one of these, I suspect, is for the tried and tested level of audio bliss we have come to expect from Creative since the first Sound Blaster Live.
And now with the X-Fi processing technology going portable, the masses will surely be appeased.
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