Touch-screen MP3 players are all the rage, so it was only a matter of time before Sony hopped on the bandwagon. As it turns out, it was more time than we all anticipated. The company's X-Series Walkman was announced at CES 2009 and was expected to hit shelves in mid-June, but the player didn't go on sale until early July. The good news is that the final product is every bit as impressive as the preproduction model that CNET got to play with back in May. The X-Series Walkman offers a high-quality design with a gorgeous screen, a fun and innovative interface, and a plethora of cool features--just be prepared to pay for it accordingly. The player is priced the same as the iPod Touch, with the 16GB going for $299 and the 32GB listing for $100 more.
Sony did not skimp on the construction of the X-Series Walkman, which is modeled after a geode with its glossy face and back plates wrapped in a glittering textured edge. The player is made of sturdy metal and has a weighty quality that makes it feel as expensive as the price tag insists. It's not as slim as the iPod Touch, measuring 3.8 inches by 2.1 inches by 0.4 inch, but it's still quite pocket-friendly, and the 3-inch OLED display is nothing to scoff at. Our one complaint is that the shiny surface is extremely smudge-prone and nearly impossible to keep clean given the touch screen interface.
Of course, the fingerprints are easy to ignore thanks to the fact that Sony went above and beyond with the interface, which is the best touch-screen utilization next to the iPod Touch. In fact, it's the only other touch screen we've come across that's actually fun to use. It has the "bounce back" effect when you are quickly scrolling through a long list, and a rather cool and unusual tilted scrolling effect for video and album art that's hard to explain in print--best to check out our First Look video for that. But perhaps best of all, you don't even need to use the touch screen for playback controls. The Walkman has tactile play/pause and track shuttle buttons on the top side, as well as a dedicated volume rocker on the right edge, meaning blind (in-pocket) navigation is a possibility with this player. That's truly a rarity in a touch-screen device. Another cool physical characteristic: the giant hold switch on the back.
In general, navigating the X-Series is a simple task. All of the main functions are laid out as icons on the top screen, where you are free to set any photo as wallpaper for personalization purposes. Delving into the music menu takes you to a list of songs, artists, albums, genres, or playlists, depending on where you left off. A soft key that appears at the bottom of all music screens allows you to choose between the various subnavs for music, including a folder browser option. Album art is always front and center, and you can choose to view by cover art only for a more visual experience.
Indeed, album art is the most prominent item displayed on the playback screen, which also features soft keys for playing, pausing, and skipping tracks. Or if the old-fashioned way of switching songs doesn't appeal to you, you can tap and hold on the album art and then use tilt-and-scroll to visually select another track. The playback screen also offers up track, artist, and album name; a battery meter and clock; and soft keys for pulling up a contextual menu, stepping back through menus, and connecting to the Web for song-related content (more on this later).
Even getting content onto the X-Series Walkman is an easy and enjoyable process, something that could not be said of Walkmans of years prior. Sony includes its excellent, superlight Content Transfer app. It allows for simple drag and drop of media files directly from your desktop or from within iTunes. You may also choose to use a jukebox such as Windows Media Player or Rhapsody. Although the X-Series will mount as a UMS device for use with a Mac or Linux machine, the app is made only for Windows.
Perhaps the most interesting feature offered by the X-Series Walkman is the onboard Slacker app, which lets you get all the free music you want on-the-fly. And unlike with the Apple iPod Touch, you won't need a constant Wi-Fi connection to have access to it. While the X-Series does include a wireless antenna for hopping on to hot spots, the Slacker app only needs access to the network when refreshing station content. Each time you refresh, music is cached to the Walkman so that you can listen to it wherever you are, regardless of Internet access. (In other words, it functions in exactly the same way as on the BlackBerry.)
The beauty here is threefold. First, the music is completely free, though you will have to tolerate a few audio ads and skip limits (you can do away with these by signing up for Slacker Radio Plus for $3.99 per month). Also, you don't have to spend countless hours creating custom playlists, and when you get sick of your library on shuffle, you can simply choose from the wide variety of genre- and decade-based stations in the Slacker rotation. Finally, you don't need to connect to a computer to get brand-new music on your MP3 player, although it is worth mentioning that you must hook up the Walkman initially in order to customize which stations you want to live on the device. Setting up the sync is a painless process, but it does require that you create an account and input a device ID. In addition to the Slacker content, the player supports transferred songs in MP3, WMA (subscription included), AAC, and WAV format.
Of course, the X-Series Walkman doesn't stop with music--the 3-inch, capacitive touch display lends itself well to photos and video. The player supports JPEG images, which you can navigate through with a swipe of your finger. For video, there's an integrated YouTube app that lets you can access free content anywhere you are connected to Wi-Fi. The player also supports purchased video from Amazon Video On Demand and any other online store that uses protected WMV. In addition, you get native playback of AVC (H.264/AVC), WMV, and MPEG-4. Plus, Sony has updated its superbly agile Content Transfer app, purportedly adding automatic transcode for videos, although we found in testing that AVI and MOV files would not run through the software and be transferred to the Walkman.
The X-Series Walkman also offers a few more Wi-Fi-related features worth noting. The first is an integrated Web browser, though it must be said that the iPod Touch has the Walkman beat here. It's nice that Sony thought to include one at all, but it's quite basic, and the virtual keypad is alphanumeric, which makes entering Web sites and search terms a bit tedious. I'm superkeen on the wireless podcast updating feature, though. You can even subscribe to podcasts on the go, and the Walkman offers excellent support of podcasts transferred directly from iTunes (with passive bookmarking and on-the-fly delete capability). Also, the player has a "Related Links" function on the music playback screen that takes you directly to a YouTube video search for the artist/song or a Yahoo general search.
As for the nitty-gritty features, the X-Series Walkman has them in spades. There's integrated noise canceling, which is built to work with the included MDR-NC020 EX headphones. Sony even includes a pass-through cable so that you may use the feature with in-flight audio systems (the package even includes a dual-pronged airplane adapter for use on older jets). The player also offers an onboard FM tuner with autoscan and more than 25 presets as well as a five-band EQ including two custom settings and DSNe sound enhancement.
There's no denying the Sony X-Series Walkman is a player with a premium price tag; luckily, the player serves up performance worthy of its luxury device standing. Foremost, audio quality is excellent, even through the packaged earbuds, which themselves are much higher in quality than those included with nearly any other MP3 player (the Touch among them). Still, we couldn't help but swap in our favorite pair of 'phones (the MDR-NC020EX are not the most comfortable). For the majority of testing, we used a pair of Klipsch S4 earphones, which offered significantly more powerful bass than the MDRs.
As mentioned, the X-Series offers a plethora of sound enhancement options for those who want to tweak audio to their liking, but we found that listening to the player with the flat EQ and no enhancements provided the best experience. Music sounds exceptionally rich and warm, with mellow mids that are complemented perfectly by the sparkling highs. Dredg's "I Don't Know" was particularly melodic, with a deep, underlying low-end offset by buttery male vocals and crisp hi-hats. On the whole, the clarity and definition is undeniably remarkable, and the Walkman's balanced response lends well to all types of music, making it an excellent choice for all types of listeners. Sound quality is at least comparable--if not slightly superior--to the S-Series Walkman, likely due to Sony's inclusion of the S-Master digital amplifier. Perhaps another side effect is that the X-Series can get exceptionally loud, which will likely please those who want to hook up the player to speakers and use it as their main music source.
The X-Series is also no slouch when it comes to photo and video quality, thanks largely to its gorgeous displays. Pictures are crystal clear with defined edges and no pixelation or blurring, and both photos and videos offer excellent color saturation. Videos are extremely sharp--you can even see the rippling of water and waving of grass leaves. The 3-inch screen is a bit too small to enjoy lengthy viewing, but the stellar quality certainly helps in terms of eye strain. For its part, the FM tuner offered good reception, though it wasn't the cleanest we've come across. The rated battery life of 33 hours for audio and 9 for video is fantastic, and we expect CNET Labs will at least come close to these numbers in testing (check back soon for those results).
In the final analysis, the Sony X-Series Walkman is an otherwise phenomenal device that is crippled somewhat by its high price tag. Although we'd like to see the price drop by about $50, we can't begrudge Sony for pricing the player to match the iPod Touch. After all, the latter doesn't include high-quality earbuds and built-in noise canceling, nor does it match the Walkman in terms of its Slacker capabilities. For audio fanatics who want a luxury device with all the bells and whistles, the X-Series is an excellent choice.