Zen Touch Playback Problems

For the past couple of months, I’ve been getting good use out of my Creative Zen Touch 20GB MP3 player. I’ve copied over about 20 of my CDs but use it mostly for podcasts during my commute. Overall I’m quite happy with the device, but have noticed a problem with certain podcast files which would play back at the wrong speed — usually 1/2 or 1/4 speed.

Searching the web I didn’t find any similar problems reported, so I sent a detailed explanation to Creative technical support. Their responsiveness was okay, basically responding overnight to each of my queries. The tech support responses went like this:

  • “Download the latest device firmware” (which, coincidentally, had been released that same day). This didn’t fix the problem, but at least I have the latest software now.
  • “MP3 was probably ripped from a copyrighted CD”. Huh? This one makes no sense, and in this case it was a downloaded MP3.
  • “Our player can only support bitrate of 40kbps and above”. Aha! That’s the missing piece.

I did some experimenting and found that it’s not the bitrate but rather the sample rate that’s limited here on the low end. Two of the podcasts I had trouble with had sample rates of 11kHz and 12kHz. I used LAME to re-sample at various rates and found that 16kHz works fine. The filesizes are slightly larger, but they plan fine on the device. (I should note that these original files play fine on WMP, iTunes, and Winamp. They probably work correctly on an iPod as well but I need to ask someone to test.)

Now I’m going to modify my Bloglines enclosure download script to re-sample any files where sample rate < 16kHz. (Update 2004-12-15: Script now updated to work around this Creative bug.)

I closed with Creative by requesting that they forward this issue to the development team for future consideration. Perhaps someday this will be fixed. I can see how the problem would happen from the development side; they’re aren’t too many audio MP3s at such a low sample rate, but for podcasters trying to minimize download times, these low rates are essential.

My favorite piece of the exchange with tech support:

Creative: Since other MP3 files play properly in the player, then the problem could be with the audio file.
Me: Since other MP3 players play this audio file correctly, the problem could be with the Zen Touch.

For those interested, here are some files I had trouble playing on the device:

Update 2006-01-17: I just discovered that Creative finally released a firmware upgrade to support the PlaysForSure format (Yahoo! Music, Rhapsody, etc.). This firmware update may also help these playback problems, but I haven’t tried it yet: [http://us.creative.com/support/downloads/][http://us.creative.com/support/downloads/].