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If you long to block out the rest of the world like a teenager that's a bit too fond of My Chemical Romance, then this music player from Sony might do the trick. It's the first flash-based model to feature built-in noise-cancellation technology, which promises to stop the racket from the outside world intruding on your tunes.
At £80, it certainly isn't one of the cheapest players around, especially as it only comes with 1GB of memory, but it does promise to match the innovative noise-cancellation feature with exceptional battery life and pristine sound quality.
Despite these plus points, however, the Sony NW-S703F never really manages to establish itself as anything other than a pretty average product. The player's fiddly controls mean that we could never feel completely comfortable with it, and despite some useful recent improvements, Sony's SonicStage software still remains way behind the likes of iTunes or even Windows Media Player in terms of usability and reliability.
The NW-S703F is about the same size as a pack of chewing gum, and although our model was decked out in black, it is also available in pink and violet. Despite its diminutive dimensions it actually feels quite heavy when you hold it in your hand, but far from this being a negative, it just reinforces the fact that it feels remarkably solid and well built.
You can forget about scroll wheels or buttons for navigation here. Instead, Sony has chosen a rocker wheel that you flick back and forwards to make selections. That's simple enough, but things start to get a bit complicated when you need to change the play mode. To skip tracks, you need to push the wheel inwards first, and to move through the albums stored in the memory, you pull it out towards the edge. It's all rather fiddly to use -- after a while you find yourself wishing that Sony's engineers hadn't tried to be so clever and instead just gone with something simple like a four-way directional pad.
At least the player has a screen, unlike the iPod Shuffle. It's a colour OLED display and, although it's very small, there's just enough room to show three lines of text along with a tiny thumbnail of album art. While it's bright and easy to read, the colours look slightly washed out -- a problem that's common to most devices that use OLED displays.
You can fit around 250 songs in MP3 format on the 1GB of memory, and it will also play both Sony's own ATRAC format and WMA files. If, however, you want to buy tracks online, you're limited to Sony's own Connect music store -- the NW-S703F can't play DRM-protected WMA tracks.
To get music on to the player, you have to use Sony's SonicStage software. This has had a number of facelifts over the years, but it is still so cumbersome to use that transferring tracks with it feels like trying to tie your shoelaces while wearing oven mitts. The Connect music store is integrated into SonicStage, and while it has a large library of two million tracks available for download, it's nowhere near as user-friendly as iTunes.
When you're bored of listening to your own tracks, you can always switch to the onboard FM tuner. This has generally good reception and allows you to program up to 30 preset stations.
Although the noise cancelling doesn't cut out every single bit of background noise, it does significantly cut down on the racket going on outside of the earbuds. For example, on a noisy Tube journey in central London with the noise cancelling turned off, we were still able to hear the rattle of the train with the volume at around the halfway mark. When we switched on the noise cancellation, however, the background noise was almost completely inaudible. Let's face it -- anything that makes a Tube journey more bearable has got to be worth its weight in gold.
One note of caution: the noise-cancelling system is reliant on tiny microphones mounted on the outer edge of the earbuds that come with the player, so if you try using a different set of cans, the noise-cancelling feature simply won't work.
If there are two things that Sony's music players have always excelled at, they are battery life and sound quality -- this model certainly doesn't let the side down.
Like a maths teacher caught up in explaining the intricacies of algebra, it just keeps on going, and going, and going. Sony quotes a battery life of 50 hours, and while ours didn't stretch quite that far it still managed a stellar 43 hours of playback. It means, for example, that most people will be able to use it everyday for their commute and only have to charge it at the weekend.
Sound quality was equally impressive. The likes of Bloc Party's Weekend in the City album manage to sound suitably spiky without ever becoming a mess of midrange frequencies. When we cranked up the bassboost setting, the bottom end from The Good, The Bad and the Queen's dubbier workouts really rattled the cranium.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield