Sony Walkman NW-S705F
Sony is one of few companies capable of competing with--and occasionally surpassing--Apple's design sensibilities and attention to detail. Truth be told, the NW-S705F is a sexier player than the iPod Nano with similar dimensions (3 inches wide, 1 inch tall, with a thickness that varies from 0.25 inch to 0.5 inch) The metal along the edges of the player adds an luxurious-feeling heft and also helps prevent wear and tear. While the tiny menu buttons are a bit too discreet for our liking, they work well and are unobtrusive. Play, pause, and volume controls are all located on the same four-way rocker on the front of the NW-S705F; and track, skip, and scan functions are controlled by an interesting spring-loaded shuttle wheel located below the headphone jack. The shuttle wheel can be used in two modes: one that skips between songs and another that skips between albums.
The Sony NW-S705F's unique screen doesn't fare quite as well. The OLED three-line display measures exactly 0.25 inch high and 1 inch wide, and although it displays tiny versions of full-color album art in playback mode, text appears in a thin, white font probably best for younger eyes. The screen brightness is not adjustable and appears somewhat muted, as though it were being viewed through sunglasses.
The earphones included with the NW-S705F sound quite good and come with three pairs of differently sized sleeves to ensure a comfortable fit. Though the earphone itself looks like a standard earbud with a wart growing from one side, it looks stylish and modern once it's in your ear. Beyond providing excellent sound and passive noise isolation, the included earphones are also a necessary component for Sony's active noise-cancellation feature (see the Features section for details).
The headline feature on the NW-S705F is its active noise-cancellation. Until recently, active noise-cancellation technology was reserved solely for large, over-ear headphones (such as the Bose Quiet Comfort series) capable of concealing the necessary circuitry. Active noise-canceling circuitry is still too large to fit inside something as small as an earbud, so manufacturers must either place the circuitry in a breakout box (as with the JVC HA-NCX77 earphones) or place the circuitry with the body of the MP3 player. Sony chose the latter option with the NW-S705F and did a remarkable job.
The NW-S705F's noise-cancellation feature is broken into two parts--the player, which handles all the signal processing; and the earphones, which have small microphones built into the outside of each earpiece to monitor external noise. While the two-part design delivers great results (Sony has not published specific decibel reduction levels), the Achilles heel of the NW-S705F is the possibility of losing or damaging the proprietary earphones. Any standard set of headphones can be used with the NW-S705F, but the active noise-canceling feature will work only with the supplied earphones. When noise-cancellation is unimportant--or worse, dangerous--the feature can be switched off on the player's main menu. We also noticed that noise-cancellation is active while music is playing but shuts off while music is stopped. If you want to use the NW-S705F strictly for blocking out noise, you will still need to turn on some music, though you can set the volume all the way down.
The NW-S705F offers native playback of unprotected MP3, WMA, and AAC files. Of course, the only DRM-protected songs that the NW-S705F is capable of playing are ATRAC files purchased from Sony's own Connect Music store. DRM-protected songs such as those purchased from iTunes or rented from subscription music services won't play on this puppy. All audio files must be transferred to the NW-S705F using Sony's much-maligned, PC-only SonicStage software. Although the NW-S705F is recognized as a USB storage drive on both Mac and PC, Sony (not surprisingly) uses a proprietary method for storing and organizing music on the player, preventing any kind of drag-and-drop music transfers.
Sony left voice and audio recording off the NW-S705F, although you can purchase an optional cradle for $49 that will allow you to directly record audio through a minijack input. The player does include an FM radio tuner with a very simple-to-use interface for scanning and saving presets. The settings menu gives you access to all kinds of options for five-band EQ (including a custom setting), automatic volume control, 3D sound enhancement, noise-cancellation control, and display customization.
One of our favorite NW-S705F features is the Intelligent Shuffle control, which creates shuffled playlists tied to a common theme--such as the year the song was released, or a common genre. There's also a Sports Shuffle feature that creates a unique playlist that will stop playing after a predetermined duration--say, a 20-minute jog.
We also love the Jacket Search menu option, which displays a selection of full-color album art that you can scroll through horizontally (like a miniature version of the iTunes' Cover Flow view). When an album is highlighted, the NW-S705F plays a preview of the music. Then just press the play button to start the album in full.
Paired with its excellent earphones, the Sony NW-S705F cranked out stellar sound quality right out of the box. Activating the noise-reduction feature does introduce some white noise into the signal, but this is common with all active noise-canceling headphones and a welcome trade-off for the relative quiet it provides. Sony rates the NW-S705F battery life at 50 hours of playback time (40 hours with noise-canceling on). Our CNET Labs verified this and found the Sony NW-S705F was capable of around 53 hours of MP3 playback--42 hours with noise-canceling activated. The player also uses a quick-charge technique that draws more power over USB for a dramatically faster charge (minutes, not hours).