Sony has often been described as a company with a split personality. On the one hand, they have one of the most respected consumer electronics divisions in the world with more innovations under their belt than you can count. On the other hand, they are a multimedia powerhouse with investments that cover the gamut from music to movies and almost everything in between.
These two sides of the Sony corporate machine have sometimes led to head-scratching decisions in their consumer electronics portfolio, with none more confusing than their past forays into the personal media player space. Their earliest models were hobbled by a deadly one-two punch of terrible software and no direct support for MP3 files. This was a result of the music publishing arm of the company dictating product design to the consumer electronics group out of a fear that marketing MP3-capable players would be encouraging the piracy of their own copyrighted material. It took years for the company to realize the short-sightedness of these decisions, giving their competitors a massive head-start in the digital music space. If you own a device by Creative, SanDisk, Apple, Samsung or other manufacturer, it’s likely because Sony wasn’t there to offer you something better.
Though their industrial design was always good, it wasn’t great and certainly no match for Apple’s brilliant iPod. So while Sony may have made portable (and personal) music players a part of our culture, it was Apple that brought it into the 21st century and has dominated the space ever since.
I think that’s about to change.
I recently got my hands on Sony’s latest Walkman, the NWZ-S736F. I know – the name is awful. Sony – if you’re listening – take pity on your customers who don’t want to remember a series of letters and numbers. Take a page out of Apple’s playbook and give your Walkman models a friendlier naming convention.
The NWZ-S736F is the one of Sony’s new S-series of Walkman players which launched recently along with new B and E-series models. The S-series is their top of the line, with more features than the B and E models and the most obvious competitor to the iPod Nano and Microsoft’s Zune.
Awkward naming aside, this digital media player is one of the best I’ve ever listened to and has a feature set so compelling it should get a lot of Apple faithful giving some serious thought to switching their allegiance.
Physical form factor
Sony has clearly been studying Apple’s choices for the iPod Nano and followed suit. The result is a thin, light unit which favours compactness over expandability. Much like the iPod, the battery is sealed inside the case and there is no option to expand the memory with removable flash cards.
Sony has opted for an intuitive set of push buttons, instead of the touch-sensitive controls that feature so prominently on both the iPod and Zune. The main 4-way control is complemented by a smaller ‘Back’ and ‘Option’ buttons on the front of the player, with a volume rocker and ‘Hold’ switch on the side. While I’ve always admired Apple for being able to pack so many options into such a simple control pad, there’s a lot to be said for having individual controls for things like volume level. When trying to operate the S-series without seeing it – say when it’s in your pocket – it’s a much easier task than with the iPod.
Having an Option button is kind of like having two mouse buttons instead of one. It gives the Walkman the ability to offer contextual choices from the current activity without the need to back up through a series of menus. When playing a song, you’re one click away from accessing the equalizer, the surround settings or album art display modes.
The screen has the same basic specs as the Nano and Zune: a 2-inch diagonal display running at 320×240 resolution. It’s a beautiful display which to my eye appeared more vibrant than other displays of the same specs.
The S-series is capable of playing back MP3, WMA, WMA DRM audio files (yes this means it’s compatible with services like Napster, Rhapsody, PureTracks and other online music services) and perhaps most importantly, AAC (non-DRM only) which means that if you’ve been ripping all of your CDs in iTunes using the AAC format, your music will play just fine on the Walkman.
On the video side of things, the unit can handle MPEG 4, M4V, WMV, WMV with DRM (Digital Rights Management) and H.264/AVC file formats, the latter of which is the preferred format for the iPod.
While the unit supports up to 30 frames per second, and the quality of playback is very smooth, the screen size will mean only the most die-hard movie junkies will want to watch an entire movie on the S-series. For casual music videos or the occasional TV show, the Walkman is perfect. Although it doesn’t have the new iPod Nano’s sophisticated accelerometer for changing landscape/portrait viewing modes on the fly, you can choose this yourself via a menu option.
Of course no portable media player these days would be complete without the ability to run JPEG photo slideshows, which the Walkman can do quite well.
Currently, Sony doesn’t offer a way to get video, audio or photos to play on a TV or other external device. However there’s good reason to think that will change soon, since the Walkman comes with its own proprietary dock connector, just like the iPod and Zune. The unit comes packaged with a dock adapter similar to the ones provided by Apple which clearly means we’ll be seeing a slew of Sony AV systems built with the Walkman in mind.
Sound quality is probably the most subjective area in any comparison of media players. Since the sound you hear is a combination of the player, the song and the earphones, you need to get as close to an ‘apples to apples’ scenario as possible.
To do this, I took a standard set of Apple earbuds and compared the sound quality between the Walkman S-series and my first gen iPod Nano, using the same track – an AAC song ripped from a CD at 128 kbps. The difference was immediately noticeable. The Walkman gave a richer, fuller sound than the iPod. The iPod’s sound was harsh by comparison, lacking much of the warmth that the Walkman delivered.
The Walkman’s sound got even better when I used the provided noise-cancelling (NC) and sound-isolating earbuds. I haven’t had good luck with sound-isolating buds in the past. Their tendency to rely on a snug ear-canal fit to stay in your ears usually means they feel like you’ve got your pinkie finger wedged in there. Sony’s take sound-isolation is to fuse the ear-canal portion with a standard earbud shape.
The result is an earbud that looks very ugly, but fits beautifully. Unlike other noise-cancelling headphones like the famous Bose QC3, which work independently of the player they are attached to, Sony has built the noise cancelling circuitry into the Walkman itself.
That means there’s no need for an external control unit that would make the earbud wires heavier and more awkward, which you see on similar units from Shure and others. All of the NC features are controlled from the Walkman’s user interface, including the ability to vary the amount of noise cancelling from none to full in several increments.
I work in a fairly noisy open-office environment where I typically have a fan running constantly to compensate for the building’s poor temperature control. When I put the Sony buds in and turn the NC circuit on, the noise from my fan is almost completely eliminated. I imagine it does a similarly good job with airplane engine noise too. Wearing these earbuds is like stepping into your own private listening room, an effect that can usually only be achieved with a decent set of over-the-ear headphones.
Unfortunately there is a compromise that has been made in order to get such tight integration between earbuds and the Walkman’s noise-cancelling circuit: you can’t plug these earbuds into any other device. While the Walkman’s audio port is able to accept any conventional mini-plug headphone jacks, the jack on the supplied earbuds is proprietary. At the base of the jack is an extra contact that juts out about 2 mm. This contact is presumably how the earbuds relay the ambient noise back to the noise-cancellation circuitry inside the Walkman. But this contact means the plug won’t fit in any other device.
Sony’s solution for people who want to take advantage of the Walkman’s noise-cancelling features from another audio source, is to include a special cable which has Sony’s "WM-PORT" connector on one end, and a standard mini-jack plug on the other.
Once connected to another audio source (say a laptop) you can listen with the noise-cancelling circuit engaged. Interestingly, it won’t pass through the external audio if noise-cancelling is disengaged.
The Walkman also offers an extensive array of sound modification options. The EQ has five preset options as well as two "custom" options which users can tweak to their personal preference by altering 5 frequencies and 1 "clear bass" modifier. There are also 7 VPT Surround modes including a Karaoke setting which drops the vocals portion of the soundtrack way back so that it sounds like the singer is at the back of large hall, without a mic. Best of all, you can hear the effect of the EQ and surround options before committing to them.
If battery life matters, the Sony delivers. Even people who love the iPod will reluctantly admit that it continues to disappoint when it comes to battery life. The 4th generation iPod claims that it can provide up to 24 hours of continuous music playback on a single charge. For the Walkman, it’s up to 40 hours. That’s a pretty significant difference, especially when you consider that both units take the same amount of time to charge (3 hours for a full charge, 1.5 hours for 80%).
The S-series Walkman includes:
- An FM radio with automatic presets for the strongest stations
- A recording function that lets you plug the unit into any audio source to create your own MP3 files without the need of a PC
- A separate directory structure for podcasts so you can keep them out of your shuffle-all playlists
- Customizable interface components including Themes and Wallpapers
- An innovative custom playlist feature called SensMe Channels. This feature is similar to Apple’s new Genius function and the Zune’s "Picks" feature, but Sony’s version is much more appealing to people who don’t want to spend time creating their own playlists. The SensMe function evaluates all of the songs on the Walkman and then groups them into 9 "moods" such as Extreme, Classical, Electronic, Acoustic, Lounge, Pop Ballad, Upbeat, Relax and Energetic. It does this through an algorithm that assesses each song based on its tempo, rhythm and other factors. While not perfect, the software does a good job at creating playlists that more or less match the described mood. Another cool aspect to this feature is that once you’ve set the time on the Walkman’s internal clock, the SensMe function creates on-the-fly playlists by time of day. While I was dubious as to the software’s chances of predicting what I wanted to listen to with my morning coffee, I was pleasantly surprised. The unit appears to find upbeat but not crazy-fast music for your morning, then gives you a mix of music throughout the daytime and then tries to chill you out a little in the evening when most people would be starting their commute home.
- An "add to wish list" option: when playing a song from your collection, an "add to wish list" option appears when you click the option button. Choose it and the unit will tell you the song has been added to your wish list. But nowhere could I find a way to access this list later. Moreover, I don’t understand why you would want to add items to a wish list that you already own. This feature would make more sense if, like on the Zune, the FM radio was equipped with RDBS and you could add radio songs to a list, but sadly this is not the case. Supposedly this feature is intended for the US market where Sony has an agreement with the Rhapsody online music service, but Canadians will just have to wait I suppose.
- A "Time Machine" shuffle mode which looks at all the songs in your collection by year published, and then randomly chooses one of these years. The Walkman then plays back all of the songs from that year. It’s a cool feature which should show you at a glance which year (or years) has been most influential on your current taste in music. Mine was 1987. I know… I’m showing my age.
Sony has done a great job improving all aspects of the software that is used to access the Walkman from your PC. Now, instead of having just the one option (Sony’s much-derided Jukebox software) you have 4:
- For people who have never managed digital music before, Sony included a decent program that can do all the usual ripping, transferring and burning of songs that you might need.
- For those who already use Windows Media Player, the Walkman will show up as a device in the WMP interface and you can sync to it as you would any other media player.
- If you simply want to drag and drop your music and other files from your existing PC file folders, the included Content Transfer software gives you a convenient way to do that.
- Lastly, if you are already married to iTunes for managing your library, you can stick with it. The Content Transfer software lets you drag and drop your music directly from the iTunes library interface to the Walkman. This is especially handy if you have a lot of AAC files, since these won’t appear in Windows Media Player. I’m not aware of any other media player (other than the iPod) which plays as nicely with iTunes as the Walkman.
The Sony S-series Walkman is an audiophile’s dream. The superb sound quality paired with Sony’s Noise Cancelling earbuds and NC circuitry is unparalleled at this price point. The interface is easy and pleasing with many features not found on comparable players. iPod + iTunes aficionados don’t need to part with their favoured software to work with the Walkman.
- 4 or 8GB capacities – already small by current media player standards – which are non-expandable with removable flash media
- Earbuds which some may find uncomfortable despite a choice of silicone ear pieces and the inability to use those earbuds on any other audio device
- Current lack of 3rd party accessories
- No games, which may be frustrating if you play them a lot on your iPod or Zune
In the one week I’ve spent with the unit, I have listened to more of my music than I have with other devices, and the amazing earbuds have allowed me to hear previously unnoticed nuances in some of the tracks. Of all the media players I have tested, the Walkman is the one I would choose to buy.
The Sony NWZ-S736F is currently only available from SonyStyle.ca in 4GB capacity for $149.99. The 8GB capacity should be available later this year.
For an alternative point of view, see CNET’s review of the S-series Walkman: