The menu allows you to access, via Settings, the Xtra's EAX facility, Creative's audio manipulation system. In addition to providing a simple, four-band "advanced" equaliser, EAX also allows you to adjust a song's playback speed without changing the pitch. So vocalists don't sound like mice or cows, depending on whether you up the speed or reduce it. There's also a handy sound level maintenance setting, which amplifies quiet sections and tones down loud parts to give a more even overall volume. It's a good feature if you listen to classical works, saving you from turning up the volume during the quiet passages and then frantically turning it down again when the orchestra suddenly gives it some welly.
Of less use - though it's a lot of fun to play with - are the 'environmental' settings, which essentially combine pre-set equaliser settings with more or less echo. The idea is that you can listen to The Offspring thrashing away in your garage, your bathroom, stadium, a cathedral or one of seven other locations. Maybe it works if you've got a 7.1 system, but on a pair of earphones, the effect is less impressive. But it does at least provide a way to personalise the sound.
And the sound isn't at all bad. Creative's own earphones aren't as crisp as our iPod reference set, with a heavier, more wooden bass. But they yield a louder sound, making them more suitable for listening on the move. Creative has also thrown in a rather nice belt-clip holster. The device supports playlists, including a single on-the-fly "selected music" list. There's also a need track finder that allows you to perform a basic alphabetic search against album title, track name, genre, etc.
Zens have always been larger than iPods, but the Xtra is the smallest yet, coming in at 11.3 x 7.6 x 2.2cm and weighing 224g. The 40GB iPod is a lighter 176g and a more compact 10.4 x 6.1 x 1.9cm, but the Xtra is by no means bulky and smaller than most of personal stereos I carted around in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Zen Xtra beats the iPod hands down on price per gigabyte: $6.67 to $12.48 for the top-end models; $7.5 to $13.3 for the mid-range version; and $9 to $19.93 for the low-end players. That, more than anything else, is what makes the Creative machine worthy of consideration.
That said, Mac users, of course, have little choice to go for the Apple player, and even Windows users who favour the iTunes Music Store's AAC audio format are not catered for by Creative. Just as the iPod provides no Windows Media support, of course.
I have to admit, I like my first-generation iPod better, for its looks, its size, the user interface and the sound quality, but you can't argue with those price/storage figures. If you feel good looks don't justify a lower music capacity and a higher price, the Zen Xtra has a lot of appeal - even if it's no looker. ®
|Creative Jukebox Zen Xtra|
|Pros||— High capacity
— Low cost
— Removable battery
|Cons||— Unimpressive battery life
— No Mac support
|Price||60GB: $400/££349 - 40GB: $300 - 30GB: $270/£270|
|More info||The Zen Xtra web site|