By combining an excellent MP3 player and active noise-canceling earphones in an affordable one-two punch, Sony's latest NWZ-S710F Walkman MP3 player series takes a new approach to creating an ideal portable listening experience. Offered in 4GB ($149) and 8GB ($199) capacities, the Sony NWZ-S710F series is a phenomenal value for those looking to carve out a quiet moment in their daily life for experiencing great music.
The Sony NWZ-S710F has a lightweight all-plastic body with a rounded feel that's comfortable in the hand and pocket. Although its 0.5-inch depth feels chunky compared with the iPod Nano, the Walkman's 1.7-inch width, 3-inch height, and 1.8-inch color screen are clearly designed to give Apple a run for its money. The Sony NWZ-S710F's navigation pad offers intuitive and responsive four-way control, with a raised metallic play/pause button at its center and two rice-grain-size Back and Option keys in the upper corners. On the top of the Sony NWZ-S710F you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack and a slider switch that activates a built-in noise-cancellation feature. There's not much to see on the sides of the Sony NWZ-S710F except a small button hold switch on the top left edge, a volume rocker switch on the top right, and a proprietary USB 2.0 port on the bottom.
The high-quality earphones bundled with the NWZ-S710F series come with three pairs of silicone sleeves in different sizes to ensure a comfortable fit. Whether intentional or not, the additional noise-cancellation technology packed into Sony's headphones creates a thicker cable that we found less prone to tangles than Sony's typically delicate offerings.
The headline feature on the NWZ-S710F is its active noise-cancellation. Like its ATRAC-era predecessor, the NW-S700F series, the NWZ-S710F'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 NWZ-S710F is the possibility of losing or damaging the proprietary earphones. Any standard set of headphones can be used with the NWZ-S710F, but its active noise-canceling feature will work only with the supplied earphones.
After getting comfortable with the operation of the NWZ-S710F's noise-canceling technology, the rest of the NWZ-S710F's features are identical to those found on last year's NWZ-A610 Walkman. The Walkman includes a well-organized music player which supports MP3, WMA, WAV, AAC, and the protected WMA format used by subscription music services such as Napster or Rhapsody. The NWZ-S710F's video player includes an automatic bookmarking feature and is compatible with MPEG-4 and H.264 video formats sized at a strict 320x240 resolution. The FM radio and JPEG photo viewer found on the NWZ-S710F are nothing special, but both are easy to use and add value to the device.
Paired with its excellent in-ear headphones, the Sony NWZ-S710F cranked out wonderful 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. If you plan on using the noise-cancellation feature outdoors, it's worth noting that the microphones embedded in the Sony NWZ-S710F's earphones are prone to picking up wind noise.
Feature-tweakers and sonic malcontents will revel in the amount of sound-enhancement options available on the NWZ-S710F, including a user-definable five-band EQ, Clear Bass boost, Clear Stereo processing, DSEE high-frequency restoration, virtual surround, and dynamic normalization. Using the Sony NWZ-S710F in our office, the noise-cancellation feature silenced the drone of nearby computers and air conditioners and provided a pristine backdrop for Nick Drake's "Which Will," allowing details such as the squeak of fingers against the guitar's fretboard to jump out of the mix. On the subway, the Sony NWZ-S710F admirably defended our ears, reducing outside noise at least as much as our Shure SE310 sound-isolating earphones and restoring the rich bass frequencies we usually surrender during the commute.
We experienced no problems getting the included headphones to fit comfortably, but if you're going to bite the bullet on the NWZ-S710F Walkman, we recommend buying from a retailer that will let you return the player if the earphones feel awkward. Finding a comfortable pair of headphones can be difficult for many of us, and unfortunately, if the noise-canceling headphones bundled with the NWZ-S710F don't jive with your ears, you'll be missing out on one of the product's most valuable features.
Sony rates the battery life of the NWZ-S710F Walkman at 33 hours of audio playback and 8 hours of video, presumably with the noise-cancellation feature switched off. We'll update this review with our CNET Labs battery results once testing is complete.
Sony makes no claims of Mac compatibility with the NWZ-S710F series, but we're happy to report the player had no problem receiving files from our in-house MacBook. Ejecting the Walkman from a Mac isn't easy (it reconnects instantly), however, the player can be safely removed after shutting the computer down.
These days, MP3 players come loaded with features such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, stopwatches, datebooks, video games, movie players, and even GPS navigation. On most days, however, our MP3 player's first feature is still its best, providing us a musical break from the stress or mundaneness of our lives. By integrating active noise-canceling headphones with the NWZ-S710F, Sony has not only created one of the best values in portable audio, the company has also shown a way to evolve the MP3 player concept without turning it into a smartphone.