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Glittering like a sacred jewel, the NW-E507 is a 1GB flash-based MP3 player capable of storing around 700 songs -- that's approximately 45 albums.
Because it's flash based, there are no moving parts inside. In the event that you smash the player against a hard surface, there's no chance of corrupting your music. It's also impossible to make the player skip -- believe us, we tried (see 'Performance'). Although the differences between a hard-disk player and a flash player have more impact on the size and battery life, it's reassuring to know it will keep playing through an earthquake.
Sony's players are unique in their support of ATRAC, an encoding method that compresses your songs to an unbelievably tiny size. There is some controversy over how much this degrades the quality of the recording, but most people will be won over by the longer battery life this codec affords. The NW-E507 also supports WMA and MP3 files, so there's no need to worry about transferring your current collection.
The NW-E507 will work with some online stores -- most notably, Sony's Connect -- but, as with all non-Apple players, it won't work with the iTunes Music Store. The NW-E507 won't play any lossless audio formats either. You have to use the bundled encoding software to translate audio files into a format the player can understand.
Decked out in gold or silver livery, the NW-E507 is royalty's MP3 player of choice. While the graphic designer or musician carries an iPod, the Arabian Prince or Maharaja will only be seen with a Sony player. This thing glitters like a polished bar dipped in translucent plastic, then buffed to near-death.
The NW-E507 defied our every effort to bend or buckle its casing. This is one tough little MP3 player. We've seen sports-oriented players that were more susceptible to bumps or scratches. It's the nuclear fallout shelter of flash-players: nothing could dent it, short of taking it to a country where firearms are legal and shooting it.
Like all other MP3 player makers, Sony can't just poach Apple's clickwheel interface, so it's left with something slightly inferior. In the case of the NW-E507, the approach is at least ingenious. What looks like the cap on a small bottle of whiskey pulls out to allow you to scroll through albums and tracks -- more on that later.
The headphones bundled with the NW-E507 are excellent, as is typical for Sony equipment. Perhaps their greatest allure is that they're not white. It's often said that white headphones alert muggers to your expensive iPod. But since everyone in the Western world has an iPod, your mere existence makes you a likely candidate for violent robbery. No, the reason we like the Sony's black ear-buds is simply an aesthetic one: we're growing tired of little white headphones.
Around the same size as a pack of chewing gum, but heavier than the iPod Shuffle and slightly plumper, the NW-E507 fits neatly into a pocket without any conspicuous 'here's my bullion' bulge. Headphones plug into the top of the player, and the USB cable into the base. The USB port has a rubber cover that looks like it'll survive a good few years before it snaps off.
The NW-E507 will play MP3s and WMA files that have been transferred via Sonic Stage, Sony's proprietary encoding software. It's disappointing, given how attractive the player is, that the Sonic Stage interface has been so poorly designed. It's a world apart from Apple's excellent iTunes. Not only does it take ages for tracks to transfer, but also there's little visual feedback that this is happening at all. It's clumsy and slow.
Tracks are navigated and selected using a retractable collar and jog-wheel that shifts between albums on its first click outwards, and tracks on its second. It's a novel mechanism that takes some getting used to. However, it's extremely easy to use after a few minutes, and you'll delight in watching friends fail to get it when they first try.
The player's volume can be changed by pressing the two buttons either side of the jog-wheel. It seems like Sony has packed a lot of intricate controls into a very small space. This could have been a disastrous move, but the designers have managed to keep everything just the right side of overwhelming.
We found the Sony could store approximately 700 random songs. The NW-E507's screen is clear, but in bright sunlight you might find the glare from the glossy gold casing makes it impossible to read. Joggers and other sporty types won't be spending much time looking at the display, though.
When you switch the player on, the screen appears as if by magic in the middle of the Sony's large gold fascia. It's a seamless effect and wowed everyone we showed it to. There's something extremely futuristic about the design and it wouldn't look out of place in The Matrix or Minority Report.
As well as playing MP3s, the Sony receives FM radio, using the headphone lead as an extended aerial. Reception on the player is as good as we'd expect from a device of this size. If you're in a basement or thick-walled environment, you won't hear much but static.
MP3 players only respect one form of testing, and that's the downhill mountain biking challenge. Until you've fallen off a bike while catching 3m of air with the player in your pocket, how can you be sure it's any good? The answer is: you can't.
We took the NW-E507 to a downhill run in Guildford and gave it all we had down steep runs leading into sharp banked turns and a jump. Falling off and smashing our faces into the ground seemed to have no effect whatsoever on playback. Occasionally the headphones fell out of our ears, but once enough blood had built up, they essentially glued themselves in.
Battery life on the Sony is an astonishing 50 hours, which absolutely trounces the iPod. We couldn't stay awake long enough to check Sony's battery-life claims, but suffice to say we didn't recharge it a single time during a whole week of testing.
In our informal tests, sound quality on the Sony was comparable to the iPod. We ran both players through flat-response studio monitors to compare the sound and found the Sony and iPod equally vibrant on tracks like Wild World by Cat Stevens. Auditioning heavier material, the differences were even more negligible: Heart Shaped Box by Nirvana sounded tight and controlled on both players. Although the Sony was noticeably quieter than the iPod, this is not an issue when a powerful hi-fi amplifer is thrown into the mix.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide