Sony is working hard to reestablish itself as a leader--or at least a competitor--in the portable music market. First, it added native MP3 support to its players, starting with the NW-S23 S2 Sports Network Walkman series. Next came the übersleek E400 series, followed by lower prices across the board--an effort to compete more aggressively with Apple's iPods. Now, with the arrival of the Walkman Bean NW-E300 series, Sony tackles the iPod Shuffle head-on with hip design, lots more features, amazing battery life, and an affordable price. Sony also wisely banished the awkward, off-putting word Network from the product's branding. Unfortunately, these positive moves can't overcome the player's poor controls, awkward interface, hiss-filled playback, and steadfast reliance on Sony's weak SonicStage software.
The 512MB NW-E305 comes in Coconut White and Tropical Ice Blue, while the 1GB NW-E307 comes in Black Licorice and, especially for the girls, Cotton Candy Pink. Sony has already lowered prices since announcing the Beans in August; you'll pay $119.95 and $149.95 for the 512MB and 1GB versions, respectively.
It'll come as little surprise that the Bean is shaped like, well, a bean--specifically, a kidney bean, with rounded edges and a slight bend in the middle. Although we applaud Sony's attempt at innovative design, there's nothing particularly practical about a bean-shaped audio player. If anything, the device is harder to hold and manipulate than it should be. It is adorable, though.
The Sony Bean has a small but very bright one-line OLED screen, a five-way D-pad controller, and three buttons, two of which are maddeningly stiff and shallow. A sliding plastic cover reveals a retractable, pop-out USB connector. That's handy, but the cover itself is a problem. When you close it all the way, it engages the player's Hold mode. To disable Hold, you have to nudge the cover back a notch, at which point it wobbles loosely and easily pops open again.
Although the screen gives the Sony Walkman Bean an immediate edge over the iPod Shuffle, its tiny size limits its value. Song navigation is fairly straightforward: press the up or down arrow on the D-pad to scroll through your playlist. But it takes considerable effort to figure out the complicated one-line menu system. Sony's kooky terminology doesn't help. For example, an option called Sound has three settings: Off, 1, and 2. You'll need lots of luck figuring out what any of that means without consulting the electronic manual.
The Sony Bean's other key advantage over the iPod Shuffle is its FM tuner, which allows for both manual and automatic preset selection (up to 30 presets total). You can't record radio, however, and again the controls make for somewhat awkward operation.
The Sony NW-E300 series supports direct playback of MP3, WAV, and ATRAC3 audio files; Sony's Connect music store uses the last of those. The player also supports unprotected WMA files--as long as they're first wrung through SonicStage for ATRAC3 conversion. Obviously we'd prefer protected-WMA support, which would permit access to a wide range of online stores. But to be fair, the iPod Shuffle has a similar limitation. The difference is in the software: Apple's iTunes is a robust, appealing music manager/store interface, while Sony's SonicStage remains a slow, clunky, relatively limited application. It took more than five minutes to import our 10GB collection of MP3s, which is an unusually long time. And SonicStage is just generally unintuitive to use, with a design that smacks of midgrade shareware. The exception is the nicely presented Connect music store, which you can sample thanks to a coupon that Sony includes with the Bean for five free tracks.
Ultimately, any audio player must be judged by its sound quality. Note to Sony: Loud doesn't equal good. Although the Bean can play really loud (concerned listeners should enable its volume-limiting feature), it suffers from noticeable background hiss. Our sample MP3 and Connect ATRAC3 tracks sounded quite good overall, especially when we ditched Sony's bass-deficient white earbuds, but the hiss was distracting, notably in quieter tunes. Thankfully, FM radio suffered no such problem, and reception was excellent.
In CNET Labs' tests, the Sony Bean transferred files at a disappointing 0.61MB per second. Even deleting songs from the device seemed to take forever: nearly three minutes to remove just two dozen songs. However, the player more than redeemed itself with its incredible battery life of a bit less than 47 hours. That's not quite the 50 hours Sony promises, but it's outstanding all the same.