So how does the Zen fare when it comes to audio quality? It doesn't make a good start, with disappointingly restricted file format support. Despite the fact that the player supports non-DRM AAC on top of the usual WMA and MP3 formats, there's no support lossless codecs or OGG Vorbis.
The lack of audiophile options is a disappointment, not merely from a features point of view, but because the Zen is a good enough player in terms of its output to take full advantage of the increased quality. To test it, I hooked up my high-end Grado SR325i reference headphones - if these can't reveal the weaknesses in a source nothing will - and discovered that the Zen is a highly capable player.
The first thing to point out is that it doesn't have the loudest volume output in the world. It's fine if you listen with in-ear noise isolation headphones, but some people just don't get on with sticking things in their ears and it won't drive larger headphones to the same levels as, say, the Trekstor Vibez player I reviewed a couple of months back.
However, this was soon forgotten as I started to listen to a few sample tracks. Creative players have always been pretty good-sounding machines and the Zen continues this tradition. In back-to-back tests against the Trekstor Vibez, which I'm using as my reference player at the moment, I found the Zen to be just as good, but in different ways. Listening to a spot of dinner jazz from Swedish songstress Lisa Ekdahl, the Zen doesn't quite have the same open airiness of the Vibez. But the rest of the sound spectrum is cleaner and just a little bit smoother, with plucked double bass notes in the background more satisfying to the ear.
This strength comes to the fore when listening to something a little less civilised. Biffy Clyro's Puzzle is a current favourite of mine and the Ayrshire outfit's brand of unorthodox guitar rock comes off with an energy, vigour and punch on the Zen that many other players lack. Its dynamism and clean, tight bass is simply excellent and a notch in front of even the excellent Trekstor Vibez.