Review: Creative Zen Sleek Portable Music Player

The Creative Zen Sleek ($220 street), an industrial-looking 20GB MP3 player encased in silver-colored brushed aluminum, is roughly the size of a fourth-generation 20GB iPod but has a slightly wider screen.

As with the Zen Micro, you control it with a touch strip surrounded by five clearly labeled buttons. Sound quality is very good, the interface is reasonably easy to use, the player is compatible with online subscription and download services, and you get a few handy extras.

Assuming you can find the player for a decent price, don't use a Mac and aren't into looking at tiny photos, it's worth a look.

The design — which reminds us somewhat of the Dell DJ series — certainly alleviates worries of scratching or fragility.

The silver-and-white color combination isn't our favorite, and we're not sure how sleek the Sleek is, but at 2.3 by 4.0 by 0.7 inches, it does fit nicely in the palm of your hand. The buttons, located just beneath the 2-inch monochrome LCD (backlit with blue LEDs), are arranged in Creative's signature layout — very simple and uncluttered.

The Now Playing screen is remarkably similar to that of the iPod, offering info about the track and play mode rather than nitty-gritty details about the file, such as bit rate, file type, and the like.

This keeps it clean and nonthreatening for newbies, but you can still use the contextual menu button to access finer details about the file. You can also configure the main menu to include only the items you wish to see, and in the order you want.

The Sleek is fairly easy to use, and its intuitiveness rivals the iPod's. You use the touch strip to move up or down in lists, tapping the center to select items.

We like that you can adjust the sensitivity of the strip, which is a bit over-responsive at the default settings and can take some getting used to. And we really love the ability to search for tracks by keyword or letter, though the touch strip does make browsing large collections easy enough.

There are some helpful contextual menus, but as with the iPod, you have to go back to the main menu to access the equalizer settings while you're playing music, which is a little annoying. And occasionally there's a lag when you access something that's not already in the memory buffer, select a track to play, or skip tracks.

Plugging the Sleek into our PC (running Microsoft Windows XP) and syncing it — including playlist files — using Windows Media Player 10 was simple. We were also able to load the player using Windows Explorer and Napster.

You can sync with your Microsoft Outlook contacts and calendars, but you have to install the included Creative Sync Manager utility. Not that it's hard to use, but we'd like to be able to sync without needing another piece of software.

Features and Performance

Formats supported include MP3, WAV, WMA and protected WMA (compatible with online music subscription and download services). We put our favorite test tracks on the Sleek and fired it up with the included earbuds.

Sadly, the earbuds are just plain terrible and turned our music to mud; we strongly suggest getting some decent headphones.

But even when we plugged in our $40 Sennheiser PX-100 headphones, which are quite transparent, the highs didn't pop quite as much as they should.

Bass response, on the other hand, is very good, all the way down to the bottom of the audible spectrum.

On our formal lab tests, the Sleek frequency-response curve was mostly flat, with the usual gentle dropoff at the bottom end. When we swapped out the included earbuds for our high-end Etymotic ER-4P earphones, however, the higher impedance caused a sharper drop in bass response. The moral of the story: Upgrade your headphones, but don't go crazy.

We didn't measure any significant harmonic distortion until maximum volume, which is pretty impressive. The Bass Boost feature does cause significant harmonic distortion, though, as do nearly all of the EQ presets (except Jazz).

To give the bass a subtle boost, you'll be fine if you bump up the bass slider two notches. Any more than that and you'll start getting significant harmonic distortion.

Playback time from the nonremovable rechargeable battery, tested using a real-world mix of MP3 files encoded at 128 Kbps to 320 Kbps, was 13 hours — below average for this type of player.

The Sleek can record voice (via the built-in microphone) in WAV format, but at only at a pretty low 16 kHz. FM recording is slightly better, at 22 kHz.

You can't set the microphone sensitivity, so you're pretty much limited to seeing how funny your voice sounds when it's recorded. And bootlegging your favorite band is out of the question.

You'll encounter a few seconds of lag time before recording starts, and depending on your recording's length, processing and saving the file when you're done can take even longer. Our voice recordings were clear enough to be intelligible even from 20 feet away, so this is a decent choice for recording class lectures.

The FM tuner performed reasonably well on New York City streets, and setting presets (you can have up to 32) is a snap. In addition to giving presets numbers, you can name them anything you want, which is a unique feature.

Creative has included a few other useful extras, such as facilities for setting bookmarks in files, for creating and deleting multiple playlists, and for deleting files from the player.

We really like the ability to create and name your own playlists, and it's fairly easy to do: Just highlight a track, tap the touch strip, choose Add To Selected, and repeat for all the tracks you want. Then go to the Now Playing screen, tap the touch strip to see the list of Selected Tracks, and press the contextual menu button.

When you choose Save As Playlist, you use the touch strip to select characters for the name. There's also a DJ feature that auto-generates playlists such as Rarely Heard, Album of the Day and Most Popular.

The Zen Sleek uses a proprietary docking connector for the USB cable, and oddly, the charger has a cable attached to it that plugs into the base of the dock connector on the USB cable. In effect, you need both cables to charge the device from a wall socket. (Of course, the player can also charge via USB.)

We're not sure why Creative didn't just put a USB port in the wall plug so you could plug the cable directly into it.

Luckily, the travel pouch is (just barely) big enough to fit the player, charger, and USB cable (with some work). But that also means the pouch is too bulky to be a good everyday carrying case for the player.

We think the Sleek is just about worth the $219.99 we plunked down for it from the Amazon Electronics Store (though it lists for a hefty $269.99 on Creative's Web site).

Its extra features aren't particularly special, but this is a solid, sturdy digital audio player, and it's compatible with WMA-based online music services.

We look forward to seeing the forthcoming Zen Sleek Photo, which will add a color OLED screen—and probably a few bucks to the price.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.