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Sony had a major success with the launch of the S-Series Walkman in the fall of 2008. The company stepped up with a sleek and compact device that offered a bounty of useful features along with stellar sound quality and fantastic battery life. As might be expected, when it came time for a second-gen model, we waited with bated breath, expecting something equally impressive or perhaps even somewhat improved. Unfortunately, the exhalation of said breath has emerged as a disappointed sigh. Although the second-generation S-Series Walkman still offers top-notch audio and excellent rated battery life, Sony has hobbled the player by crippling its feature set. The upshot is that this was done in the name of rock-bottom pricing, which makes the S-Series one of the cheapest flash players on the market: you can pick up an 8GB model for $110 and a 16GB for just $130. This--combined with its excellent sound quality and battery life--is the player's saving grace.
Design and interface
For better or for worse, the second-gen S-Series Walkman is noticeably larger than its predecessor. The nice thing about this is it allows for a larger, more video-friendly screen, and the 2.4-inch QVGA LCD is every bit as crisp, colorful, and bright as before. The bigger chassis also allows for a pair of integrated external speakers that flank both sides of the display and pass through to ports on the back of the device for more air flow (something that generally equates to better sound quality). Of course, this means that the new S-Series is not quite as pocket-friendly as the previous iteration, measuring nearly 4 inches long and 2 inches across, though it is only a fraction thicker at 0.4 inch. Also, because of the speaker placement, the player strongly resembles a cell phone, a fact that may or may not deter some users.
Below the screen, Sony has built in its typical circular control pad: a standard four-way directional button surrounding a central play/pause key. This is flanked by two additional buttons--back (home) and option (power)--which are arranged in such a way that one can't help but picture Mickey Mouse. Still, the Disneyesque look doesn't hinder the navigation of the device, which is a breeze. A grid of icons for the main functions makes up the top menu, while the music submenu is handily divided into artist, album, genre, and so on. Playlists, however, are only accessible through a separate, dedicated section, which is a bit odd though not really a navigational hindrance. Unfortunately, the S-Series still does not offer an on-the-go playlist option.
Although the second-gen S-Series Walkman appears to be constructed out of a material similar to what was used for its predecessor, it has a more plastic-y feel that makes it seem a bit cheaper. However, it offers the same shiny, metallic topcoat--in a choice of red, pink, violet, or black--and the player still retains a somewhat sleek and sexy look. We also appreciate that Sony held onto the dedicated volume rocker on the left spine. Here, you'll also find two switches: one for locking the controls (hold) and another for toggling between speaker and headphone modes. The standard headphone jack along with Sony's proprietary USB port live on the bottom edge.
It would stand to reason that the second-gen S-Series Walkman is probably a few features short of its predecessor, namely because the entry price is significantly lower. We expected, for example, that this player would probably do away with the integrated noise-canceling functionality and the upgraded packaged headphones--both of those extras represent a cost to the company. What is baffling, however, is the fact that Sony also eliminated core interface-based features such as distinguished podcast support and the smart playlist creator, SensMe Channels. Podcasts are now lumped in with the general music catalog and thus have no bookmarking feature and will playback on shuffle--a glaring annoyance. You also won't find Rhapsody DNA integration, which, while a less surprising omission, is no less disappointing.
These deficiencies certainly mar the S-Series legacy, but the player still includes a fair amount of features for the price. You get support for MP3, secure WMA, AAC, and Linear PCM (Sony's version of WAV) audio as well as JPEG photo, but again a disappointment here: you can no longer set your own photos as wallpaper. There's also video playback for AVC, MPEG-4, and WMV, though this is crippled by the fact that the player is very particular about the size, frame rate, and container of video files. However, we do appreciate the support for videos purchased and rented from Amazon Video On Demand.
The S-Series Walkman also offers a built-in FM tuner with autoscanner and up to 30 preset slots as well as a recording feature. And there's a pinhole mic on the bottom of the unit for taking voice notes, for which you can choose from three quality settings. The external speakers afford a final bonus: you can use the Walkman as an alarm clock and wake up to the radio or a track of your choosing.
Performance to the rescue
Considering how much Sony managed to strip down the S-Series Walkman in its second iteration, it was with some trepidation that we approached the performance of the device. Luckily, it's going to take more than a severe price cut to infringe upon Sony's long history of stellar sound quality and long battery lives. The only area that isn't particularly stunning is the speaker playback, which is rather unsurprisingly tinny and anemic. It's clear and fairly loud, though, so it gets the job done, and the battery life of 17 hours for audio and 5 hours for video is more than decent.
Naturally, when you listen to the S-Series Walkman through a good set of headphones (the Klipsch Image S4, in our case), the sound quality enjoys a dramatic improvement. Music sounds rich, warm, and defined across genres, with sparkly highs and buttery mids. Bass is punchy and encompassing without being overpowering--it's just the amount of low-end oomph we crave. The best part is that the device provides excellent audio across a full gamut of genres, which means it would make a great "everyman's" MP3 player. (And there are plenty of EQ settings to toy with, though no SRS Wow settings here.) Plus, the rated battery life of 42 hours for audio and 6.5 hours for video is nothing to scoff at, and we expect to match or beat those numbers in our CNET Labs testing (check back soon for final scores on that).
Similarly, photos and videos look fantastic on the bright screen, with excellent color saturation, crisp edges, and little-to-no visible pixelation (depending on the original quality of the files). Viewing angles are also great, though you probably wouldn't want to share for long with such a tiny screen. Finally, FM reception is well above average, and our test voice recordings came through very clear with little hiss.
The Sony S-Series Walkman offers excellent audio playback, a long battery life, a nice screen, a simple interface, and some decent extras for little money--it's obviously a great value. Indeed, it's easy to recommend this player to budget-minded people who are looking for an introduction to the Walkman line. But those who have experienced the previous generation S-Series will be very disappointed by the successor to the line. Although the new version is much cheaper, it represents a diluted version of its former self. In this case, newer definitely does not mean better.