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Sony X-Series Walkman review: Sony X-Series Walkman

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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.

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