Monday, December 1, 2008
Sony Walkman NWZ-S639 16GB review
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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...
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.
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.
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
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.
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.