Friday, May 1, 2009
Sony Walkman NWZ-S739 16GB review
This is a review of Sony's Walkman NWZ-S739F digital audio player. If the text appears similar, it is because it borrows heavily from my review of the S639. Both are exactly the same bar a few minor difference, namely the S730 series is only available in brushed metal black casing (in the UK) and comes bundled with an active noise cancelling (ANC) intra aural headphone.
The S739 is the 16GB version of Sony's new Walkman S730 series, similar to the S630 series but slightly more expensive because it has built-in noise cancelling function. This isn't their flagship Walkman, that now belongs to the OLED touchscreen Walkman X1000 series, due out this month, and already out in Japan. Despite that, the S739 offers tremendous value for money, costing an impossible £99 at Amazon UK (the 8GB version is available from Amazon.com for US$104). On the other hand Apple's iPod Nano 4G costs £138 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 S738 (8GB version) and the Walkman S630 series (but you may as well read my review of the S639 here).
Compared to the Walkman A818 and S639, the S739 is similarly well built. The S730's aluminium case has a brushed metal finish in comparison to the A818's matte finish and the S630's smooth finish. Only the black version is available in the UK, which is a shame as I would rather have a red brushed metal version.
Unlike the A810's chrome surrounds, the S730 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. The ANC switch is also located here. At 46g, it is also 10g lighter than the A818 and has the same weight as the S630. I personally prefer the look of the A810 and A820 series, but to each his/her own. Having said that the S730 is well designed, offering extreme good function in a competent form factor.
Sharing the same UI and same basic control layout, the S730 is very easy to use and I didn't have to relearn anything. The front of the S730 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. Compared to my S630, the buttons are a bit more raised, similar to those found on the A810. Either way, I personally found the A810 to be more intuitive for 'blind' control. Even the volume control on the S730 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 S730's buttons offers reasonable tactile feedback, which is better than any 'touch-based' controls can ever hope to offer.
Like the S630 series, Sony bundles the S730 series with better than average earphones. The headphones bundled here is a hybrid in-ear headphone similar to the EX85 between an canal headphone and a normal earbud. The difference here compared to the EX082 bundled with the S630 is that these phones contains a built-in microphone that captures the surrounding ambient sound. The S730's active noise cancelling engine then analyses the waveform of the noise, and generate a reversed waveform tha cancels out the noise. With this, you not only have a stock headphone that works pretty good at cancelling out background noise, but also offers excellent sound quality (in comparison to the majority of bundled headphones).
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 S730 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 their previous Walkman series to include WMV files (including DRM files). The video player is compatible with BBC's iPlayer. 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 S730 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 S630, the S730 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 S730 as the screen is rather small. 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 (due out in summer) 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 S730 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 S730 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 and Dynamic Normalizer (do turn this on).
Disappointingly the S730 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 though...
Out of the box, the S739 is one of the best sounding DAP on the market. This is because of the bundled ANC headphones which surpasses many (if not all) usual bundled headphones. You are going to have to spend at least £20-30 to gain some form of improvement, and even then it would only be slightly. As for the S730 itself, the lack of hiss even on sensitive phones makes it an improvement over the old A810 and A820 series. Apart from that the S730 is very impressive sound quality wise, surpassing even the venerable A810 in my opinion. Sound stage is also pretty 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 here is tight, precise and clean, on both my CX 95 and IE 8, wonderful if you love the warm Sony sound signature. Put is simply, the S730 is the best flash based Walkman yet, if judging purely form the perspective of sound quality, at least until we know more about the X1060. Shame that you can't buy a line-out cable for it yet, so portable amps fans will have to make do with headphone-out.
I've had the S639 for a couple of months and the S739 for a couple of days and the battery life is just amazing. They can easily go last a week with moderate use. I myself use it for a couple of hours a day and only need to charge it once a week.
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. Turning on ANC will also affect the battery life.
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 S730 and 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 S730 series is an amazing portable Digital Audio Player that offers great sound quality for very little of your money. At around £99, there is absolutely no excuse not to buy the 16GB Walkman S739 really, unless you want more space, in which case I suggest waiting for the X1060 OLED touchscreen Walkman.
+ Amazing sound quality
+ Great built quality
+ Good ANC bundled headphones
+ BBC iPlayer support
+ Ridiculous good value
+ Exceptional battery life
+ Drag and drop
+ Quick navigation and UI
- No gapless
- Bundled ANC headphones only work on Walkman models that support it
- No lossless
- Accessories a bit hard to come by
- None replaceable battery
- No 32GB models just yet
Sony has issued a firmware update for the S730 series. 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.
The S739 is available from both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com