Monday, December 1, 2008

Sony Walkman NWZ-S639 16GB review



Introduction

The NWZ-S639F is the 16GB version of Sony's new Walkman S630 series, similar to the S730 series but cheaper because it lacks the noise cancelling function. This isn't their flagship Walkman, that belongs to the Bluetooth equipped Walkman A820 series. Having said that, the S630 offers tremendous value for money. The S639 for example costs only £87.99 at Amazon UK. On the other hand Apple's iPod Nano 4G costs £134 for the 16GB version. You don't need to be a genius to see which offers more for your money. This review also applies to the Walkman S638 (8GB version) and the Walkman S738/S739 (the difference being the S730 series contains noise-cancelling headphones and brushed metal case).

Design

Compared to the Walkman A818, the S639 is similarly well built. The S630's aluminium case has a smoother finish than the A818's matte finish or the S730's brushed metal finish. The red version here is almost pink in colour depending on lighting, which I don't really mind if truth be told. Unlike the A810's chrome surrounds, the S630 is surrounded with black plastic giving the player a better grip than it would might have been. The 3.5mm headphone socket is again sensibly placed on the bottom next to the WM-Port, great for fans of jeans and pockets. At 46g, it is also 10g lighter than the A818. I personally prefer the look of the A810 and A820 series, but to each his/her own. Having said that the S630 is well designed, offering extreme good function in a competent form factor.

Controls



Sharing the same UI and same basic control layout, the S630 is very easy to use and I didn't have to relearn anything. The front of the S630 features a layout similar to a mobile phone. Due to the design of the controls, some has quipped that it bears semblance to the classic 'Mickey Mouse' look, which I do not disagree. The buttons are a bit softer and recessed than those found on the A810, which are raised. I personally found the A810 to be more intuitive for 'blind' control. Even the volume control on the S630 is harder to feel for. On the upside accidental button presses is less likely, and I am finding myself less reliant on the 'hold' switch. Overall the S630's buttons offers reasonable tactile feedback, which is better than any 'touch-based' controls can ever hope to offer.

Bundles

Like the A810 series, Sony is wise to bundle the S630 series with better than average earphones. The Sony EX082 (the same one that was bundled with A810 series) is sort of a hybrid between an canal headphone and a normal earphone. The sound on these are great, though they do not seal nor isolate near as well as proper canalphones. Also included is a USB cable and 3 months free trial of Napster To Go, a music subscription service that I am going to guess most won't be bothered with. Still it is rather nice to have a trial to something that is longer than two weeks.

Features

Like any old DAP, the S630 is primarily a music player first. It does have other features that may prove useful to people who care. People who often find themselves bored with their own music collection will be pleased to find a FM radio here. This is also the first drag and drop Walkman to support Podcast (fancy word for pre-recorded amateur radio by bloggers) as well as wallpaper and themes. A competent video player is also present which increased the file support of those featured on the A810 series to include WMV files (including DRM files). The video player is compatible with BBC's iPlayer, which I will touch in a separate post one day. An auto-playlist generator in the form of SenseMe is available which generates playlists that is suitable for the time of the day.

Video Playback



First and foremost, the S630 is not designed with primary video playback in mind. If video playback is what you are seeking foremost, a separate device like the Archos or Sony PSP would be better suited. Like the A810, the S630 is capable of playing files encoded in 320x240 resolution using h.264 (Mpeg4-AVC) video format. It can also play WMV9 files, including those coated in DRM. Video playback is smooth and the vibrant LCD display makes watching videos easy on the eye. Options are readily available to the user who wishes to switch the display orientation. Personally I would prefer not to watch videos on the S630 as the screen is rather smallish. It is great for showing off a couple of music videos or maybe a 20 minute Futurama episode, but for anything longer I highly recommend a PSP or the new Nokia N97 instead.

Transferring Content

It is amazing how far Sony has opened up when it comes to their newest and greatest Walkman. Transferring content is a doodle. The player is MTP compliant, meaning you can just plug-in and immediately start dragging and dropping content into their appropriate folder. No proprietary and bloated nonsense like Sonic Stage or iTunes to worry about. For those who prefer some form of music management software, the S630 supports a hold host of applications including Windows Media Player, Sony Media Manager, iTunes and my personal favourite, MediaMonkey. Linux geeks will also be pleased to find that the S630 will show up as a UMS device.

Audio



The Walkman supports basic audio codecs such as MP3 up to 320kbps (as well as those encoded in VBR) and WMA. Lossless fans will be disappointed by the lack FLAC, WMA Lossless or even ATRAC3 Lossless. Gapless is also sorely missing, which in the case of this blogger, is more of an irritant than something crucial. The only way to play full CD quality music (including gapless) is through Linear PCM, hardly the sort of thing you may want to do on a device with only 16GB of space. A couple of sound effects are present for those who likes to tinker around including the 5-band equalisers (four presets and two user definable), VTP Surround setting (which I advice to ignore), DSEE (this is only useful for low bitrate files), Clear Stereo (only useful if you use the bundled EX082 headphones) and Dynamic Normalizer (do turn this on).

SenseMe

Disappointingly the S630 still lacks an on-the-go playlist editor, which is a crying shame in this day and age. Instead Sony has decided to introduced a feature dubbed SenseMe which analysis the music library and register the tracks into ten preset playlist categories - Pop Ballad, Relax, Extreme, Energetic, Classical, Electronic, Acoustic, Daytime and Lounge. No doubt some may accuse Sony of stealing this technology from a certain fruit company, but this nifty feature is actually a veteran function in Sony Ericsson's Walkman phones. Analysing takes some time and it took more than two hours for the Walkman to sort out 2000+ tracks I uploaded. Probably best to leave it to do its business over night.

I found SenseMe to be pretty accurate, with the odd niggles here and there that is probably best placed in another category. The classical playlist was spookily very accurate with mainly tracks by Bear McCreary, Joe Hisaishi, Vanessa-Mae, Hiromi Haneda (piano) and even 'Intro' from Muse's H.A.A.R.P. live album making the list. Not sure what is so classical about Cradle of Filth's 'Darkness Incarnate' though...

Sound Quality



Out of the box, the S639 is one of the best sounding DAP on the market. This is because of the bundled EX082 headphones which surpasses many (if not all) usual bundled headphones. You are going to have to spend at least £20-30 to gain an improvement. As for the S630 itself, the lack of hiss even on sensitive phones makes it an improvement over the A810 series. Apart from that the S630 is very impressive sound quality wise, surpassing even the A810 in my opinion. Sound stage is wide. Without EQ, the sound isn't as neutral as one might hope. Like the A810, the highs and lows are slightly more defined. Bass is tight, precise and clean at least on my CX 95. Put is simply, the S630 is the best flash based Walkman yet, if judging purely form the perspective of sound quality. Shame that you can't buy a line-out cable for it yet.

Battery

I've had the S639 for a couple of days now and have used it for roughly 12 hours. Only one battery bar is missing so far, though I am ware that this isn't an accurate way of measuring battery life. Still it is impressive that I've yet to find myself in a situation where I require to charge it.

A quick note on increasing battery life. Sony's quote of 40+ hours audio playback is impressive, but you will only ever reach that level of impressiveness if you turn off the all those sound effects settings. Bitrates also affect battery life, where the higher the bitrate the more power is needed to decode them. Finding the balanced between achieving acceptable battery life and sound quality is something different people will have to do for themselves.

Conclusion

Sony has a lot to prove in a market where they once had a monopoly of. The A810 series was a step in the right direction and the S630 series further proves their commitment. Despite the fair assessment, there are a couple of areas Sony should improve on. For one they ought to implement gapless support (or at least cross fade) for lossy playback, as well as supporting at least one lossless codec. Hell even if it means opening up Atrac3 Lossless. They should also really look into introducing flash based Walkmans with replaceable batteries. Remember those chewing gum Sony batteries? Well I do.

Overall, the S630 series is an amazing portable Digital Audio Player that offers great sound quality for very little of your money. At £86, there really isn't any excuse not to buy the 16GB Walkman S639 really.

+ Amazing sound quality
+ Great built quality
+ BBC iPlayer support
+ Exceptional battery life
+ Quick navigation and UI
- No gapless
- No lossless
- None replaceable battery

9/10

Last updated 19 Dec 08

The NWZ-S639 16GB is available for £87.99 at Amazon UK. An international shipping friendly option is available from Advanced MP3 Player with no-VAT.

Firmware update:

Sony has issued a firmware update for the S638/S639 DAP. This small utility takes about 3 minutes to update and as far as I know does not format the content of player (well, it didn't on mine). Firmware 1.11 fixes a bug that sometimes (very rarely) causes a random freeze/reset on the player.

20 comments:

Jasmine said...

This Sony Walkman phone is lovely. I like good sound quality phones.

QUIK! said...

LOL @ Jasmine!

Anyway, good review on this nifty little one. I have no doubt that these babies churn out great sound quality, and for that price and capacity, surely it's a bargain. Was really tempted to get one, but I already have my faithful and long serving NW-HD3, and A815 (in addition to S203 for gym).

What frustrates me now is why isn't Sony coming up with larger capacity HD-Walkmans? Damn it, hit us up with a 160GB Walkman please!

Jon said...

I doubt they ever will. But if they do, I want an updated HD1/3 with colour screen, drag & drop, lossless and 160GB.

Jasmine's blog is rather lovely, so I'll forgive her.

Anonymous said...

You convinced me. I'll be getting a S639 for my wife. Unfortunately my daughters will probably want the iPods and at the price they will only be getting the 8GB model!

sdkudrgn88 said...

Couldn't post a trackback, so:

http://mp3playerdecision.wordpress.com/2008/12/17/sony-s639f-reviews/

[...]From jon's weblog:[...]

Anyway, thanks for the info!

Anonymous said...

>Linux geeks will also be pleased to find that the S630 will show up as a UMS device.
No they won't, cause it doesn't.

Jon said...

Not sure what you mean. It doesn't support UMS or shows up as UMS on Linux? I don't have a Linux PC right here now, but will test it later.

What I do know is that the Walkman S630 series can be forced into UMS mode, so in theory they should work on any Linux.

http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v467/jonchoo/S639UMSC.jpg

Jon said...

For Windows XP users who wishes to change the Walkman's default MTP connection to UMS:

Control Panel -> System -> Hardware -> Device Manager

Find the Walkman on the device manager then choose 'Update driver'. Select 'no, not this time', then install from a list (advanced). Choose 'Don't search', then you will be presented with a list where you can choose between MTP and USB Mass Storage device.

stealthbanana said...

As a 'Linux Geek', I got one of these, works flawlessly as mass storage, or (after hacking the config files) as an MPT device under amarok. set album art with a click. I tried it on windows and found the experience painful. For video, look for an app called blacklight3 (ubuntu ppa), or use avidemux to convert.

Jon said...

Thanks for confirming. I need to get my Linux partition all set up once I get a new harddrive.

Aidyn said...

Jon, thank you very much for the review. I'm going to buy an S739 (which, according to you, only differs from 639 in the finish and the bundled ear phones) from amazon.co.uk for my birthday, which will be later this month! Will you please drop me a line on aidyn67@gmail.com in case you (or any of your blog readers) have any suggestions or would like to talk me out of buying it? Thanks in advance.

Aidyn said...

Jon and others, what about the charger? I understand it's not in the package, and, once bought, it's supposed to be charged via USB. Is it so, and if it is, how much time does it take for the player to charge via USB?

Jon said...

First time round I would guess about 3 hours. After that it depends on how much often you recharge. I charge it about once a week when I upload new music or refresh my playlist. Takes about an hour or two to recharge.

Alternatively, you can always purchase on of those universal USB chargers like this Sony one, which allows you to charge anything that accepts USB charging:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B000FNUPRK?tag=joncswebl-21&camp=2902&creative=19466&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=B000FNUPRK&adid=0S0RQJWESM62JV9PENDG&

Anonymous said...

does anybody know how to use the wishlist thing or what its 4 it driving me nuts no1 seems to no email me if you do at beckoqnl@tiscali.co.uk thanks :)

Sameer said...

I live in India,how can i buy it?
amazon link doesn't work for me...

Anonymous said...

Good review.

Unfortunately, I'm very disappointed with Sony in that the company REFUSES to create their own media software. Who uses WMV anyway?

I like to see album art with my files. Also, I'm VERY Playlist oriented since I RARELY use folders to play music except for audiobooks!

I have TONS of Compilations but the Content Transfer software is nothing but pure Garbage!

The compilation playlists will NOT transfer over but the songs in the playlist will BUT under each Artist's name! WTHeck?!

Sony could never make media software for their SE phones, too, as I've owned some!

BTW.. bought and returned the NWZ-E435 (Americas whereas Europe gets NWZ-E440, same model, diff. model number). E for entry-series is Garbage!

I'll continue with my iPod Nano until the mp3 companies make good hardware AND media software instead of opting to use WMV!

At least iTunes is F-R-E-E and, despite what many people think, it's pretty darn good with file editing and playlists!

Jon said...

Couple of things.

Sony has their own media software in the form of SonicStage. Unfortunately the Western market seems to have an extreme dislike for it, hence Sony dropping it over here. SonicStage has improved a lot over the years but the bad impression has stayed. It now only works with their Japanese NW models, as it is a requirement for transferring ATRAC files.

Album art is supported, though the JPEG files has to be embedded within the music files (ID3 tag). It is now an industry standard, and the use of embedded image for album art is supported not only by Sony, but also Creative, iRiver, Cowon, Nokia and Samsung.

As for Windows Media Player, it isn't a necessity to use it. You can drag and drop your files (no need to use the content transfer software either), or you can use other softwares like the excellent MediaMonkey, Songbird of Foobar. Playlist can be created with those software and sync with the player.

E-series is indeed garbage. Get the S, A or X-series and you won't be disappointed, at least SQ wise.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

The player itself is Decent but it really comes down to the software!
Content Transfer just S*CKS!

Other than that, who cares about drag n drop when there's no playlist or album art tagging present?!

Here's a work around for Compilation playlists and album art tagging:
1. Create a folder and drop all files into it
2. Use WMV or any other media software to create playlist
3. Either sync it to player or use Content Transfer and drag n drop playlist into player
4. The player WILL recognize the Compilation playlist AND it will create a copy of that Compilation folder on the player without having separate folders sorted out by various artists!
5. It's a PAIN IN THE A** when you UPDATE the compilation file but that's the ONLY method available since SONY REFUSES to create media software for its mp3 players (& SE PHONES)!
6. Use the same media software used for compilation playlist creation to tag album art to files
7. You can either highlight a file or a bunch of them (if same album), then right click for Properties and look for album art section
8. Add or drag n drop album art into those files then SAVE!

Content Transfer program DOES work with iTunes v8.2 so using iTunes playlists is great!

You just can NOT use iTunes to transfer over your Compilation Playlists because 1) playlist will NOT show up on mp3 player's Playlist section and 2) the files will be spread out all over the place, categorized into each artist's folders! WHAT A PAIN IN THE A**!

Sony does make good hardware but it KILLS itself every time because it can NOT create media software to support their devices!! It's historical TRUE!

Jon said...

The only software I had to install/use is Media Monkey, and I already have that installed anyway. All I do is send the files to the Walkman and everything gets sent, album art and all. Most people (at least those I know) have correct the album art tags (even those bought through Amazon MP3), so all they do is drag and drop and everything gets tranferred.

I do not understand why it is a pain in the ass?

As for playlist, what I normally do is right click on a file that has already been transferred and select 'create playlist'. Name it. Then drag that playlist to the playlist folder. Right click it and click properties, and go to 'References'. Then I drag and drop every track I already have on my Walkman to the box. A bit tedious, but no more so than creating a playlist on most music management softwares.

I understand that those who has grown used to iTunes may be frustrated by the lack of PC-Walkman integration that the iPod ecosystem has, but many who buys these current Walkmans are those who wishes to escape such integration and the requirement for proprietary media software. To us it is a plus having iTunes far away from our system.

Also Sony does have a media software for their Walkmans. But many people in the west hated it, and bundling it with western-bound Walkmans is now seen as PR disaster. SonicStage is now only available for Japanese Walkmans.

dsi r4 said...

The Sony S-Series Walkman is nicely designed and has a high-quality feel; it offers a load of cool extras such as integrated noise-canceling, an FM tuner, podcast support, and a smart playlist creator.