Now that most of Sony's portable audio devices actually play MP3s, they're finding a place among the top-rated players on CNET. It's no surprise, really; Sony has a history of creating well-designed portables with fantastic battery lives. The latest flash player from the company, the Sony NW-E400 series (and its FM-tuning counterpart, the NW-E500 series), is no exception. The device, which is available as the 1GB NW-E407 for $180 or as the 512MB NW-E405 for $130, features a hot body that can provide tunes for hours on end. For our review, we got our hands on a solid-feeling (1.6 ounces) Sony NW-E407 Network Walkman, which has a black front; the NW-E405 is dark blue. Both models have silver accents. If held with the headphone jack facing up, the lighter-size device (3.3 by 1.0 by 0.4 inches) looks like a miniature flask due to its unique control placement. At the bottom end, the well-concealed USB port sits alone. The playback controls reside on the other end, where you'll find a circular knob that clicks in and out for the hold function and the Navigation mode and twists to browse through tracks and menu items. The volume buttons rest on this same end, on either side of the knob. Just below the knob is the tactile play/pause key. On the face of the player are two tiny buttons marked Display and Search/Menu, while the repeat/sound key resides on the backside. It's an elegant, original, and futuristic design that takes some getting used to.
Aside from its unique shape, what contributes most to the NW-E407's streamlined look is its bright OELD and the thick, clear plastic that coats the face of the player, giving it a perpetual shine. Because the background color of the OELD screen matches the body color of the player, the screen appears to be invisible, and the bright blue text seems to glow from within the player. This definitely looks cool, but it also seems to make the display easier to read.
Because of the NW-E407's unique multifunctional controller, navigation can take some getting used to. Music is conveniently organized by album, artist, and group (folder), but once you're on the playback screen, how you navigate through these depends on which position the knob is in. When the knob is pulled all the way out, twisting it skips between groups; in the middle position, it navigates through tracks. When the dial is pushed flush with the player, the hold function is activated. This isn't particularly intuitive, but you get accustomed to it. The Sony NW-E407 isn't teeming with features, but it has a few worth mentioning. Notably, Sony claims a "superquick battery charge" that will give you 3 hours of battery life after just 3 minutes of charging. Cursory testing verified this claim, making the NW-E407 a great choice for people who constantly find themselves pressed for time. The player also lets you choose between several display modes: two playback screens with different arrangements of ID3-tag info; one with three dials for elapsed time, remaining time, and volume level; one with a large time-and-date graphic; and our favorite, an animated bubble display. Unfortunately, the bubbles don't act as a screensaver but rather provide something fun to look at. The player doesn't have traditional EQ settings but instead provides two sound modes where you can adjust the bass and the treble. Using these makes a noticeable difference, but a five-band user EQ would be a welcome addition. If you need FM radio, check out the NW-E500 series.
In order to get songs onto the NW-E407, you must use Sony's SonicStage software, which is included on a disc (drag-and-drop transfer is possible for data files only). Installing and setting up SonicStage is an easy process, though importing all of your audio into the program can be time-consuming; it took 25 minutes to import roughly 10GB of music. SonicStage will recognize and play regular WMA files, but it doesn't support protected WMA. However, it will import all WMAs, then just not play the protected files, which is a bit of a pain. In fact, the NW-E407 won't play any WMAs, though if you try to transfer files without DRM protection, SonicStage will convert them to ATRAC3 for playback on the device. If you purchase tunes from WMA-providing online stores such as and , Sony's MP3 players aren't for you. There's no legal way to get DRM-protected WMAs onto these devices. Instead, the NW-E407 and other Sony players support protected ATRAC3 songs purchased from the company's music store.
Thankfully, playlists are easy to create within SonicStage, and the NW-E407 will recognize them when you transfer them over. On the device, playlists are designated as Groups and called out with a little folder icon. The order in which you arrange the tracks is also recognized, which is great news for those of us who put a lot of time into making playlists just right. The same rule applies to albums: songs play in the correct order rather than alphabetically. Remember that ultrafast charging that Sony brags about? Well, you're not going to need to use it very often. The Sony NW-E407 lasted a staggering 44.4 hours in our tests, coming decently close to Sony's own claim of 50 hours. Unfortunately, the player fared just the opposite in CNET Labs' transfer tests, porting over songs at a dawdling 0.6MB per second. But overall, the NW-E407 is a fantastic performer; music even sounded decent through the uncomfortable plastic earbuds Sony includes with the player, though we'd recommend using a different pair. When we tested the unit with our Shure E4c headphones, the sound improved considerably. Tunes were rich and full, with clear highs and lows and no noticeable background hiss whatsoever. Bass response was more than adequate, but a pair of full-size 'phones would be preferable to really experience the low end. As for volume, let's just say this: if you're one of those people who like to pump music up to ear-damaging levels, you'll be more than satisfied with the NW-E407. Like most Sony players, this thing cranks.