Friday, May 1, 2009

Sony Walkman NWZ-S739 16GB review



Introduction

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).

Design

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.

Controls



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.

Bundles

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.

Features

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.

Video Playback

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.

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 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.

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 and Dynamic Normalizer (do turn this on).

SenseMe



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...

Sound Quality

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.

Battery



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.

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 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

9/10

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

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great review. i'm going to get this

paybee said...

Anyone knows any good case for this?

Val said...

Is there much hissing with this player?

I've had my hands on the A829 and there was quite a bti of hissing with CX300s and Custom 2s.

Quite a bit less with the supplied IEMs though.

Jon said...

I understand that the A829 hisses as much as the A818 (which I once had). The S639/S739 however doesn't hiss at all. Perhaps a bit if I turn up the volume above 20, but nothing audible with my IE 8 and CX 95.

Rob's blog said...

I was going to post a comment saying how hideously uncomfortable the noise canceling earbuds are, and how poor they sound, but I've just worked out how to get the best out of them. You need to wear them so the cable goes up, over and around the back of the ear, presto, a full sound and effective noise exclusion.
Maybe this is why you don't see these Walkmans in the local shops?

Anonymous said...

hey..would like to know how long can ur battery last?

mine after playing for a total of 6.5hours for 3days, the battery has gone down to 2 bars. Is this normal?

Jon said...

Roughly about that. It stays at 2 bars far longer than it stays at 3 though. Also, the battery depends on the average bitrate your music files are encoded at. The higher the quality of the music, the more power it is needed to play them.

Jon said...

I just remembered that the Sony has 4 bars of battery. Did you go from 4-bars to 2-bars within six hours? If so that is rather quick. As before having high bitrate files as well as turning on the audio enchancements (EQ, DSEE, VTP etc.) will eat up the battery quicker.

Anonymous said...

i've reformatted my s739 in the common setting itself & i found that after uploading songs into the player (through drag & drop), my RELEASE YEAR shows all UNKNOWN. do u have this problem after reformatting? how to fix this problem?

Jon said...

We've discussed this before in a forum, where we found that the S639/S739 does have problem recognising the year tag if it is drag and dropped. Files transfered via MTP with something like WMP or Media Monkey usually results in readable year tag.

Anonymous said...

Oh ok. Is it possible to open a folder using WMP in the player when transferring the files? Sorry, a noob here with WMP.

Jon said...

Not entirely sure what you meant by that. You can always open a folder with Explorer, and use WMP to transfer.

nihei said...

Hey, great review!

I got a little confused on something you said.
"Disappointingly the S730 still lacks an on-the-go playlist editor..."

Let's say I'd like to listen to songs 1, 2, 5, 6, 8 and 9 from some album.
Did you mean that I'm not able to pick these songs? Instead I would have to listen to the whole album?

Thanks in advance =)

Jon said...

Yes, or manually skip them.

Playlists can only be created on a PC. It is unfortunate.

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

You mentioned that this shows up as a UMS device on Linux. Either you're wrong and it doesn't, or when it does, it's completely useless. I CANNOT find any music files on the player after drag-and-dropping them into every folder on the player, including "music". The music files are all mp3 files. How do you get the player to recognize the music on it when you drag and drop directly onto it?

Jon said...

If it is recognised as UMS and you've had managed to drag and drop into it, then it should recognise the files you have installed into it inside the /Music folder. UMS is just the method of getting stuff into it. Once there are on the flash drive, the Walkman should rebuild the library after disconnecting. Are the files MP3/WMA/AAC-LC?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, they are all MP3. The Walkman just doesn't seem to want to rebuild the library. I have 2 guesses: the version I have is actually Japanese and maybe (for whatever stupid reason) the Japanese Walkman doesn't like American computers, OR on the Japanese version Sony has somehow managed to make sure that the device ONLY works with their software. I have also tried using other media management programs, and they have failed. The second explanation wouldn't surprise me. Here in Japan, Windows holds has such a stranglehold on the OS market that not even Apple could compete. iPods have just started to come onto the scene here. Honestly I just bought this because my iPod died and the Walkman was the only other player sold in the electronics shops in this town.

Jon said...

Ah, is your Walkman NW or NWZ? NW requires SonicStage to transfer music over. It is stupid and backwards, but that is Sony Japan for you... I reckon the UMS mode allows you to store data (including MP3) in it, but would not allow you to playback the files tranferred that way.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon, I have two questions regarding the s739.

1. the s739 can never seem to play any mp4 videos, whenever I download them and upload into the s739. Do I need to convert them further or something?

2. It seems that the only UK retailer that sells the s739, is amazon.co.uk. I tried to google this product, and except the occastional ebay listings, no other major electronic retailers sells this, why?

Jon said...

1. It will only playback 320x240 files. More specifically, it will only play MPEG4 files (in AVC as well) encoded with simple profile level 1.3. Download PSP Video 9 and try using that to convert. The default 'Fw 1.50+ MPEG4 320x240 768kbps' setting should produce files readable by the S739.

2. AMP3 and Play.com used to sell the S730 series as well. I also believe the S730 series is in the process of being discontinued. Sony traditionally announces the new S-series in September (just next month!).

Anonymous said...

why would Sony discontinue the better s739, rather than the s639? if they announce a new s serie walkman in september, when will it actually reach the market?

Jon said...

No idea, you would have to ask Sony about that. :)

The S639 and S739 is virtually the same, but the S739 has active noise cancelling support - which while it works fine, I would not recommend people to use in place of passive isolation.

Anonymous said...

Yep, that solves it, the player is only NW, not NWZ. I may attempt to return it and see if they have an NWZ. Thanks for the help!

Anonymous said...

Could you recommend a pair of good quality, long lasting pair of in ear-headphones? I've heard mixed reviews for sennheisers and high price sony ones. I want long lasting over sound quality. All the ones I've used are the 10 pounds budget ones, that disfunction in about 6 months.

Jon said...

I am using Sennheiser's IE 8, which is brilliantly constructed and has a two year warranty as standard. The cable is tough, yet soft and isn't microphonics. More importantly, it is replaceable. At £180, it is pretty expensive. If you are willing to spend that much, I suggest also trying out the top-tier headphones like the Westone 3, Shure SE530, Audio Technica CK100 etc, if possible.

My partner's CX 300, which is now over two years old, is still working fine, which is surprising as I find the cable fragile and thin. Obviously canalphones will only last as long as you treat them carefully.

If you are on low budget, I suggest getting the Super.fi 3. It is reasonbly priced, and the cable is replaceable. Just make sure you like the sound first as they sound different to Sennheisers and Sonys.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Is it proven to be a bad idea to wrap the cables of earphones around the mp3 player, when not in use?

Anonymous said...

Also, do you recommend sony's
MRDE500 or the bose in ear headphones? are these not just as good as the IE 8in terms of durability?

Jon said...

I personally wouldn't suggest wrapping the cables around the player, particularly very small players like the S739, but I've been guilty of that in the past.

Having never used the 500 or Bose I also can't comment on them durability wise, but the IE 8 is by far one of the most durable canalphones on the market. It would be right to assume that it would wipe the floor clean when it comes to ruggedness as well as sound quality.

I suggest joining head-fi.org and read some of the posts there (make sure to use the search button - they can get very testy there).

BTW, most headphones can easily be recabled with a soldering iron and some spare parts from Maplin. They tend to fail in two areas - the cable itself and the 3.5mm jack, and a recable can fix those.

Anonymous said...

Do you wrap your IE 8 around your mp3 player then? if so, how long has it been since you've bought them?

I'm also a fan of our NHS, definately do not want privatisation

Jon said...

I've had mine since January. If the IE 8 is over your budget, the cheaper IE 6 and IE 7 may also interest you. The IE 6 is said to have more bass, while the IE 7 is more neutral. Both has the same type of cable as the IE 8, but are none replaceable.

Anonymous said...

Does the outer coating of the IE 7 really play a key role in resisting breakage of the wire at the jack part of the cable?

How is the IE 8 better than the IE 7?

Jon said...

The IE 7's cable is coated with kevlar, which is one of the strongest composite material available.

The IE 7 is said to have a more natural bass. The IE 8 has adjustable dial that allows the listener to change the bass quantity. It also comes with replaceable cable.

Anonymous said...

How much are the replacement cables for the IE 8?

If one of the speakers on the earphone break rather than the jack, then would that be replacable?

Jon said...

No idea about that as I've never need to replace them. They are still in warranty.

Seriously though, they are very tough. As long as you do not abuse them, I can see them lasting quite some time.

BTW, do you have a budget in mind?

Anonymous said...

Hello. If you're having problems with valid music files not showing up in the library, try clearing out a couple. If you don't have enough free space (say, 25mb or so), it will be unable to build the library and fail to display anything (even though the files are indeed there). I've just dealt with this issue on my wifes walkman.

Anonymous said...

hey they article says u cant buy an adapter for a line out but mine came with a cable that connects from where u charge and on the other end is just a normal 3.5mm plug. is this to bypass the headphone amp so i can use it with a portable amp if i decide to get one? cause i really want to but im not sure if thats what its for but i cant really imagine what else youd use it for..

Jon said...

That's an audio input cable that allows you to use the S730 as a noise cancelling system for other audio devices. Example, if you are flying you listen to the airplane's radio while enjoying ANC courtesy of the Walkman.

There's a line-out cable on eBay, but from what I read the Walkman does not offer true line-out unless there is power. The only way to get true line-out, AFAIK, is through Sony's official car charger/cable.

Anonymous said...

Is the sony x1060's sound quality a lot better than the s739? or just only slightly?

what about the battery of life of x1060? is it considerably shorter?

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon, great review. I bought the S739's but am having issues with the playback order. I listen to audio books and the 1 I have loded at the moment is out of sequence. The order is D01.1-14, D01.2-14, D01.3-14 and so on, all the way to D13.14-14. Regardless of how I orde the playlist in WMP11 the player arranges it into D01.1-14, D02.1-14, D03.1-14. You can see how this would make listening to an audio book very difficult. Any advise you can give is greatly appreciated. Thanks

Jon said...

Thanks for the comment.

Unfortunately I do not listen to audio books, so you can imagine that I was puzzled by all the numbers in your comment.

Sorry if I can't be of more help. I did write a tutorial on creating platlists on the Walkman which I hope will help. WMP11 isn't something I use a lot.

http://jonchoo.blogspot.com/2009/09/tutorial-creating-playlists-on-sony.html

Anonymous said...

Great review. I got this for my birthday and it is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Nice review, but I've read somewhere that the s639 sounds better than the s739?? were you able to compare them both side by side? Thanks.

Jon said...

Thanks for the comment! They both sound identical. I know as I once owned both. :)

Anonymous said...

I have had this player for a while, it's great BUT the headphones are starting to get a bit tatty, with kinks and covering peeling off the cable. As the noise cancelling works through the earphone mics, it would be redundant if I swapped to different earphones. I'm struglling to find a replacement pair, any ideas? Cheers.

Jon said...

You will have to contact Sony CS to get one as they are not retail. To be honest, I suggest don't bother. Get a good IEM. You will get better SQ than the stock Sony, and good isolation if worn properly with Comply foams.

http://www.complyfoam.com/

I've always prefered passive isolation to active noise cancelling.