Finally, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't mention that the Walkman Z includes an FM radio. You'll need to plug in your headphones to use it (since the headphone cable is used as an antenna), but once you're connected you can scan through the old-fashioned airwaves with ease.
For the Walkman Z, Sony uses a customized version of Android 2.3.3 (aka Gingerbread). Just like any top-tier Android phone, the Walkman Z's Android experience includes all-important apps such as Android Market, Gmail, Maps, Google Books, Latitude, Navigation (powered by the built-in GPS), Google Places, Google Talk, and You Tube. More specifically, the Android Market offers all of Google's digital wares, including apps, music, books, and videos.
Sony also includes a handful of its own high-quality apps. For example, Sony's own Music Player app exists alongside Android's less-evolved Music app (not to be confused with the excellent Google Music app, which is optional to install). Sony also has its own spin on a Video Player app, Photo Viewer, and Wi-Fi scanner. Completely unique apps, such as programmable gesture control, FM radio, DLNA setup, and Music Unlimited subscription music service, also come installed.
The timing, unfortunately, is horrible. As we tread into 2012, consumer expectations are already turning to Android 4.0 (aka Ice Cream Sandwich). There are successful Gingerbread-based products like thethat rise above the clamor of Android 4.0--the Fire being helped along by its low price, dramatically customized interface, and unique ecosystem. But for the price you're paying here for a premium Android media player, and on the cusp of Android 4.0's arrival, the investment feels poorly timed.
The Sony Walkman Z sounds amazing. I would go so far as to say that it's the best-sounding portable music player money can buy, in terms of the out-of-the-box experience. I won't argue that any decent MP3 player dressed up with an external headphone amp and some high-grade cans can't sound as good or better, but let's not fall down the bottomless pit of audiophile arguments.
The foundation of the Walkman's audio prowess is the pair of high-performance in-ear headphones that comes included, along with three differently sized fittings. Like most Sony headphones, these offer beefy lows without overwhelming the mix, along with ample clarity at the high end.
Unfortunately, another quality these share with many Sony earphones is that they're about as delicate as butterfly wings. The precious connection where the headphone cable meets the earpiece begs for abuse like a turkey wishbone. That said, after a week's worth of listening and daily backpack storage, these headphones look no worse for wear (though the thin cable does tend to tangle more than most). Still, I would hold onto that warranty. If your headphones were to suffer an untimely demise it would severely diminish the amount of smugness you'd be capable of feeling around iPod owners.
There's more to the Walkman's audio superiority than just great headphones. The settings menu on Sony's Music Player app reads like a futuristic arsenal of sonic weaponry. Options for VPT, DSEE, xLOUD, Clear Phase, and more will have audio nerds joyously whiling away the afternoon dialing in the perfect sound. The included graphic EQ alone is enough to put the Walkman Z ahead of the pack.
Video performance, as I mentioned earlier, has some highs and lows. The no-gap screen technology offers deep blacks and vivid colors, but the overall resolution could be better. Video format support is downright anemic, but at least there's the Android Video store there to offer an easy way to purchase or rent content.
In terms of battery life, Sony rates the Walkman Z at 20 hours of audio playback (Bluetooth off) or 5 hours of video playback. Not to beat a dead horse, but the iPod Touch, at nearly half the thickness, clocks in at over 40 hours of music playback and 7 hours of video.
Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results.
|Video battery life (in hours)||Audio battery life (in hours)|
|Sony Walkman Z||6.3||23.9|
The Sony Walkman Z offers a premium portable audio experience at a time when most have willingly sacrificed audio quality for the convenience of using their smartphone as their primary music device.
But in spite of Sony's poor timing, the audio-nerd romantic in me would gladly champion a product like this, if it weren't for all its shortcomings. Its design, features, battery life, and price are all out of step with where the competition is, and where things are headed.
Editor's note: This review was updated with CNET Labs' battery test results.