Saturday, May 16, 2009
Sony Walkman X-Series 32GB NWZ-X1060 review
The NWZ-X1060B is the 32GB version of Sony's new Walkman X-series. This is now Sony's premier and flagship Walkman, with a price tag to match. It is also a first of many for Sony's Walkman heritage, being the first to ship with a full coloured OLED screen (the MZ-RH1 Minidisc, NW-A1000, NW-A3000 and various small Walkmans had OLED screens as well), S-master class-D digital amp, touchscreen, WiFi and digital ANC. Priced at £289.99 retail (US$399 for the X1061B version), it isn't particularly cheap, but you will be able to get it cheaper online (£229 to be exact at Amazon UK). We will see if it is worth stumping up for.
Like (almost) all Sony products, the X-series is well build. The glossy glass front and back plates is susceptible to picking up fingerprints, but isn't too bad. The side has a faux granite texture to it and improves the grip by quite a bit. Despite the 'dandruff' appearance in promotional pictures, it is actually quite nice in real life. The design bears some resemblance to Sony's Clie TH55 PMP/PDA of yore with its large touchscreen panel on the front and some hardware controls on the top. It is also surprisingly small. I was surprised to find it just a bit thicker than my S639/S739 and has almost the same footprint. At 98g, it is fairly hefty which lends weight to its solid feel.
In order to compliment the set of hardware buttons, Sony has moved the 3.5mm headphone-out socket to the top. This makes sense as Sony expects most users to leave their X-series in their pocket with the top controls easily accessible. On the side you will find the usual volume controls, reset hold and the ANC switch. The bottom contains the WM-Port USB connector. The back has a rather large hold switch, which you can set to only disable the touchscreen if you like. Finally the front houses a large HOME button at the bottom of the screen. The HOME button acts as the power on, power off as well as a shortcut for the user to easily jump back to the home screen.
The X-series features a 3-inch OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) resolution of 432x240 and 262k colour support. This isn't Sony's first OLED PMP (that honours belongs to the Clie VZ90 released way back in 2004), nor their first Walkman with one, but it is their first mainstream touchscreen Walkman with a full colour OLED display.The advantage of using OLED is its power requirement, or lack of. OLED works without backlight due to the way its pixels gives off light when electrical current flows through the panel. This negates the need of bulky and power hungry backlight.
Because of the way OLED pixels directly emit light, they show a greater range of colour saturation, higher contrast and has a quicker refresh rate. Even when viewed at a 90 degree angle, the OLED display on the X-series remains equally as stunning as when viewed from the front. Black remains true black, unlike that of a normal LCD display (even one equipped with LED backlight). They also have a faster response time than a standard LCD screen, ideal for watching video, though on the X-series this is a wasted opportunity (more on this later).
Update: The OLED screen here works well under sunlight, provided the backlight setting is set to maximum.
The X-series shares the same basic UI as their none-touchscreen Walkmans, but with some changes to the control layout to suit the more touchscreen approach. When you first turn it on you will be greated with the fimiliar grid layout. The touchscreen here is a capacitive one, meaning you do not have to use a stylus. It is both a blessing and irritation at the same time (I always prefer the accuracy of a stylus, but that is just a personal preference). Because of the lack of front buttons, blind control is no longer a possibility (duh).
The touchscreen interface is actually rather nice. There are some gimmicks, but clever stuff too. You tap an icon, item etc. in order to select/launch it, and you can drag your finger up and down to scroll through a list. Flicking through the list will allow for faster scrolling. When you listen to a music, the UI shows the name of the track being played, artist and album it is from. The large cover art is displayed in the middle. Four shortcuts of various functionalities are available on the bottom. These allows quick access to your library, YouTube and Yahoo! search and audio-related settings.
Tapping the album art will cause a set of on-screen controls to appear. If you flick on the album art, you will be able to scroll through a 3D slide of album arts, where you can select another album to listen to. It is a bit of a gimmick, but fun way to browsing through the library. Traditonalists will also be happy to find that folder browsing is available, in addition to the hierachy interface pionereed by Creative years ago.
Sony is well known for bundling good sets of headphones with their Walkmans. The headphone bundled here is similar to the one bundled with the S730 series. This is a hybrid canal earbud that is designed to work with Sony's noise cancelling system. The X-series's digital active noise cancelling engine 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 (but not perfect) at cancelling out background noise, but also offers excellent sound quality (in comparison to the majority of bundled headphones). You can even use the supplied audio input cable and airplane stereo adapter, coupled with the X-series as a middle man, to listen to an airplane's audio system.
Sony markets the X-series as primarily a music player first and that is how I am going to see it. Everything else is just frills. A FM radio is available here, though the reception isn't the greatest (maybe it is just where I live as I always have problem with gaining radio reception here). Podcast (fancy word for pre-recorded amateur radio by bloggers), as well as wallpaper support is available. A competent video player is also present, but it only has support for 320x240 resolution files despite the obvious higher resolution screen. This reminds me of the PSP when it first came out when Sony restricted MemoryStick playback to 320x240 files. A very simple and disappointing NetFront web browser can be used to surf mobile friendly websites via WiFi. Finally a surprisingly decent YouTube application allows for quick music video viewings.
Sadly, the auto-playlist generator in the form of SenseMe, previously seen in Sony Ericsson phones and the S630/S730 series, is missing. I have no idea why Sony decided to excise this neat feature as I have grown to love it. Hopefully Sony will see fit to reinstate the feature with a firmware update.
The US versions, X1061 and X1051, will also be bundled with the Slacker radio app. Due to outdated copyright rules and stuff, the Slacker service is not available in this country. A darn shame really.
First and foremost, the X-series 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 their other Walkmans, the X-series is capable of playing files encoded in 320x240 resolution using h.264 (Mpeg4-AVC) video format, as well as WMV9 files encoded in either 320x240 (main profile) or 480x270 (simple profile) at a maximum of 30fps. Video playback is smooth and the OLED display will highlight any flaws you may find in a badly encoded file. The X-series would make a great video device, if the option for high-resolution playback is available. As is I still prefer using my PSP as a portable video player (bigger screen and all).
It is amazing how far Sony has opened up when it comes to their newest and greatest Walkman. Transferring content is a doodle, if a bit slow. The player is MTP compliant, meaning you can just plug-in and immediately start dragging and dropping content into their appropriate folder (up to eight level deep). No proprietary and bloated nonsense like SonicStage or iTunes to worry about. For those who prefer some form of music management software, the X-series supports a hold host of applications including Windows Media Player, Sony Media Manager, iTunes and my personal favourite, MediaMonkey.
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. 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, and great as ever), VTP Surround setting (which I advice to ignore), DSEE (this is only useful for low bitrate files), Clear Stereo and Dynamic Normalizer.
Out of the box, the X-series 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 will need to set aside at least £30 to gain some form of improvement, and even then it would only be slightly.
Now, the most important bit: how it sounds with a high quality headphone (in this case the reference headphone I used here would be my Sennheiser IE 8). The X-series has a very very slight hiss compared to the S630/S730 series. It isn't as much as my old A818, but it is there. I have no problem with it as it isn't audible during playback.
Without EQ, the sound isn't as neutral as one might prefer. Despite using a digital amp, the sound signature is pleasantly warm, just like how Sony tends to sound. With my S730, I can comfortably listen at a volume setting of 14/30 in outdoors, where as with the X-series I have the volume at 11/30. In quiet areas my volume setting is 3/30. They sound very aggressive, and yet smooth when playing back more laid back genres like jazz and ambient music.
Compared to my S730, the bass here is tighter and cleaner. It is also very powerful. Even with dynamic normalizer turned off, it is very loud. It seems to have a bit more dynamics and clearer cleaner sound overall with top notch clarity. A very musical device indeed, one that has a greater instrumental seperation in comparison to my other Walkman. Fans of portable amps will be sad to find that there isn't a line-out cable available, yet.
Like their previous flash-based Walkman, the EQ is very effective. I know some audiophiles may scoff at the use of EQ, but whatever the EQ here does not distort the sound at all. Bass head will be pleased to find that the Clear Bass setting is ever present (3 notches). Two user customisable EQ slots are available, in addition to the presets. Clear Stereo is designed to work with the bundled headphones, but there is a difference with my IE 8 when enabled. I can't decide whether I prefer it enabled or disabled, so I leave it turned off. DSEE on the other hand works by aiming to improve the overall sound quality of low bitrate music files, and there is a noticeable improvement on badly ripped tracks. Disable it if you have good rips.
Overall, the sound quality here is an improvement over the S630/S730. It isn't a massive improvement, but that isn't surprising considering the headphone-out quality of the aforementioned models. Sony has already set the bar very high from their previous models that surpassing them is already an achievement. Still, it is noticeably better overall.
The X-series comes with a WiFi 802.11b/g module allowing and supports up to 50m range. I had no problem using it in my bedroom despite our (still not broken) wireless router sitting two walls away. It supports all the usual security protocols, including WPA2. You can also edit the proxy server and port number manually.
The NetFront web browser is sadly disappointing. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise considering that the X-series isn't running on an uber operating system, but I expected a bit better. If you are expecting a desktop like web experience like you can obtain using NetFront for Windows Mobile, you will be sadly disappointed. Rendering is slow and there is absolutely no support for text only rendering, like you get with their WinMob version. Three rendering modes is available, including NetFront's Just-Fit and Smart-Fit modes. These two modes work very well on their Windows Mobile application, but not here. Even stupider is the requirement to type in "http://" first. My advice to those seeking an X-series for web browsing: don't bother. Pick up a HTC Touch HD or Nokia 5800 instead.
The X-series also has built-in support for YouTube. The integration is pretty good. Just fire up the application and a list of videos will appear, where you can tap to a video to watch it or search. Videos can be searched through featured videos, most viewed, related videos and through a keyword search. You will also be able to filter the videos through regions/countries and timeframe. When you watch a video, you can bring up or dismiss the control buttons by tapping the screen (just like how you would control the music playback program).
Sony quotes a battery life of 33 hours for audio playback. Based on my previous experience with their other Walkmans, I have no reason to doubt that estimate. Note that to achieve that level fo battery life, you will need to turn off all sound effects (which you ought to anyway). Bitrates also affect battery life, as is the use of different codecs (AAC-LC files at the same bitrate will use more power). The same applies to playing videos. Finding the balanced between achieving acceptable battery life and sound quality is something different people will have to do for themselves. Turning off ANC and WiFi will also help.
The X-series if one of a slew of device that Sony has released in order to gain back the market share that they once dominated. I am not quite convinced that the X-series have what it takes. It does excel in the most important area: sound quality. Sadly mainstream consumers do not really care about audio anymore. They want a good browser, eye candy, video games and 3D effects in their DAP. The market is saturated with plenty of such devices. With the X-series Sony do have the necessary ingredients to succed, but the execution can be poor in some areas, while great in others.
One thing I can't understand is the lack of SenseMe playlist generator, or the lack of on-the-go playlist. These are features that can be easily implemented and require no hardware add-ons. They also ought to finally start thinking of implementing 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 to the public... (a note here: the Japanese version designated NW-X1060/X1050, does have support for Atrac3 Lossless)
The 16GB S639/S739 still represents amazing good value for money for around £100 of your hard earned money, and I am not sure if it is worth paying an extra £100 for the 16GB X1050 especially if you do not need the other features. (edit: Amazon UK has cut the price of the 16GB X1050 to £179.99, which is a bargain). At £249.9 (edit, now £229.99) via Amazon UK, the 32GB X1060 is actually cheaper than some of their competitors like the Cowon S9 and iPod Touch, and it comes with a better set of headphones. The S9, despite the lack of WiFi, will likely appeal more towards power users and the Touch, while not being equipped with an OLED screen, does have access to third party applications and a huge array of accessories.
Despite all that, the X-series is still quite the player. It is a fantastic digital audio player and if you have no qualms paying for it you will not have any regrets, especially you like the Sony sound. Overall the X-series is a great hardware and offers fantastic sound, only let down by slightly poor software implementation. Regardless, it is the best sounding Walkman available (and possibly the best unamped DAP) and if you value sound quality over everything else, you will not be disappointed.
+ Fantastic sound quality
+ Fantastic OLED screen
+ Amazing build quality
+ Good ANC bundled headphones
+ Good battery life
+ Drag and drop, oh yes
+ Quick navigation and UI
+ Good YouTube integration
+ Good value (at Amazon UK)
- No gapless for MP3/AAC/WMA files
- No compressed lossless playback (in NWZ versions)
- Some functionalities not brought over from the A/S-series
- Piss poor web browser
- Accessories a bit hard to come by
- None replaceable battery
The X-series is available for pre-orders from Amazon UK and Amazon.com. US customers can also get the X-series now via Advanced MP3 Player.
Update (27/11): As you may have known (if you read the review above), the browser on the X-Series is piss poor. Sso it may come as a relief to many to know that Sony and Access has finally listened to user complains and release a new firmware update, with a new version of NetFront that supposedly improves displaying and navigation. As usual with all firmware updates, make sure you back up your content first and that your battery is fully charged.