And I suppose I have to admit, begrudgingly, if you like the idea of exercising to music but can’t face doing so with a pair of sweat-soaked earbuds stuck in your lugs, it might hold some appeal. But I do believe that Creative has missed a trick here. The Stone Plus would make a handy radio/MP3 alarm clock, for instance, but despite the fact the Plus has both clock and stopwatch facilities there’s no way of setting it to wake you up.
It’s a shame about this unfulfilled potential, but fortunately that doesn’t mean the Plus is a poor player. In fact it has seen other improvements, of which the best is its build quality. One of the problems I had with the original Zen Stone Plus was its shoddy, cheap, plasticky finish; it looked and felt every inch the budget player it was. This time around the Plus is far better put-together. And it has to be with competition from the likes of SanDisk’s Sansa Clip and Apple’s Shuffle offering such fantastic looks and features.
The black version I was supplied with for review had a smooth, slightly sparkly matte-black finish that both looked and felt luxurious – about as luxurious as a sub-£50 MP3 player is ever likely to get. And in a nod to the intense competition from the aforementioned rivals, the Plus now comes with a clip-equipped silicone rubber skin – with a hole at the rear, of course, to let that speaker breathe.
And there are plenty of other features stuffed into the Plus’ tiny frame: there’s an FM tuner and stopwatch, as mentioned earlier, plus an external microphone. Battery life is also a respectable 20 hours, while music file format support caters for the most popular formats – MP3, WMA and AAC – though Ogg Vorbis isn’t included. I like the fact that connection is still made via mini-USB, not a proprietary one or the annoyingly fiddly micro-USB standard, despite the Plus’ diminutive dimensions.
Sound quality, with headphones connected, is Creative’s usual excellent blend of power, punch and dynamics. The Zen Stone Plus puts many other more expensive MP3 players to shame with the way it sounds. Hook up even an expensive set of cans to this diminutive player and you won’t be disappointed.
It’s certainly better in this respect than the Sansa Clip, but in back-to-back tests the difference was smaller than I had expected. Kicking off with a little of Newton Faulkner’s brand of acoustic guitar rock and it’s clear that the Creative is the more subtle, smooth and detailed of the players; there’s a real clean edge to the plucked guitar strings, and the music just sounds lighter. Sibilants aren’t as harsh as they are with the Clip and the Creative is, as a result, a touch easier to listen to.