A top media player from Sony but not necessarily its best value. (October 5th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Sony
Price: $150 (4GB), $180 (8GB)
- Attractive, well-built design.
- Simple but powerful interface in most areas.
- Outstanding battery life for music and video.
- Relatively good earbuds.
- Platform-independent; many apps, OSes work in some form.
- Podcast and SensMe are valuable new features.
- FM radio with more features than competitors.
- Still no fast scroll; same old Walkman interface.
- Noise canceling produces audible hiss and not always effective.
- Too expensive for the features versus the S630. - SensMe takes awhile to sync and is sometimes inaccurate.
After years of insisting on little-used proprietary formats and software, Sony has recently been mending its ways: the company's latest Walkman players have virtually become champions of cross-platform standards (including the Mac), beautiful design and the no-fuss interface. The S730 promises to be an evolution of an already solid formula, especially with its active noise cancelation feature, but it remains to be seen how well the S730 stacks up against the veteran iPod nano and Microsoft's latest Zune software.
design and control
Like it or not, Apple through its success with the iPod dictated the rules of the game for mid-range portable media players: these devices must be attractive and thin while still being at least reasonably easy to use.
The S730 (as well as the S630 and E430 below it) checks off these criteria fairly quickly and more effectively than the A820 it may well replace, though not perfectly. Sony's new design is the first to feel genuinely thin rather than just thin enough. It also clearly borrows from the Sony Ericsson playbook in looking and feeling well-built while using low-cost material: what appears to be brushed metal is actually plastic, but the Walkman never exhibits the hollow or loosely-assembled feel you would associate with the material. It's not quite as reassuring as the real aluminum of the iPod nano, but it's slightly more upscale than the boxy and somewhat simple-looking (if durable) Zune.
Actual controls are a subtle but welcome refresh of the A820 line. The directional pad now has much wider targets that are easier to navigate than the wafer-thin borders from the old model; the "back" and "option" buttons are likewise easier to hit casually than the slivers that were used before. Side-mounted volume controls are still present and still welcome, though there are times when the finer-grained control of the iPod's click wheel would be appreciated to adjust volume in finer steps than possible with a rocker switch.
Any problems with the layout are now more inherent quirks of Sony's original design choices than any particular mistakes with its most recent choices. Unlike the iPod's wheel or the Zune's hybrid click/touch pad, there's no quick way to scroll through a large song list other than by holding down a directional key. Sony has had to resort to software tricks to make song selection manageable, and one gets the distinct impression that any truly large-capacity Walkman would need a control overhaul. What makes the Walkman so simple and pleasant to use for a typical library could quickly become frustrating with a large collection.
There's also the minor but at times slightly irritating nature of the hold switch. Like earlier Walkman models, it sits on the middle of the player's side and isn't especially intuitive with the full-hand grip many are likely to use when they hold the device in their hands. Moving it closer to the top corner would be an easy and more logical move.
Sony has been one of the few large-scale companies selling in the West to promote active noise cancelation as a feature, and it's treated as the centerpiece with the S730; flick a switch and most of the ambient sound should, in theory, disappear. The in-box bundle comes with a helpful adapter to use the Walkman as a noise canceling system for passenger airplane audio and could well make this Walkman the de facto player of choice for some travelers.
In real-world use, it's not quite the on/off effect implied by the sales pitch. Although unwanted sounds do filter out substantially when noise cancelation is on -- a potential lifesaver on an airplane or on a busy street -- a surprising amount still filters through, such as (muffled) car engines. This can be helpful for listeners who still want to clearly hear a greeting from a friend or who don't pay attention at traffic lights; it doesn't lend itself to an audiophile-grade experience, however.
More worrisome is its introduction of a faint and constant background hiss. That sound tends to be masked by most common music, but it becomes all too evident with quiet music or spoken-word audio. Flicking the cancelation off immediately kills the hiss but also brings back all the background noise one had hoped to avoid. Simply put, this particular player isn't well-suited to regular ambient, classical or podcast listeners.
The in-ear buds themselves are a decided step up from usual pack-in models, though they have their own catches. They aren't quite in-canal but fit far more snugly and reliably than the over-the-ear alternatives of the E430 and most other players. As a result of this and just the nature of an in-ear design, they produce far clearer sound and register some of the high- and low-end frequencies that often go missing when there's no seal made between the buds and the ear entrance. Some of the detail is still lost at either end compared to more serious earphones, but to get these plus the noise canceling for a reasonable premium (about $60 as of this review) may be worth the trade-off, even if the cancelation is completely unimportant to some.
Using higher-end earphones that more accurately reflect the sound, such as Shure's E2Cs, reveals a fairly warm quality to the actual audio chipset inside. Compared to an iPod touch, the S730's default settings are skewed more towards bass but still bring out a large amount of high-end detail without sounding too shrill. Sensitive ears will very likely notice the difference between audio compression rates.
Perhaps the real dilemma for the S730 is the sense of lock-in that comes from Sony's particular approach to noise reduction. While the earphone jack supports virtually any listening device, using the noise cancelation requires the pre-supplied earbuds. It's one of Sony's few remaining proprietary efforts. Dedicated listeners would be better off opting for the reduction-free but otherwise equivalent S630 and putting the $30 difference towards in-canal earbuds like those from Etymotic, Shure or V-Moda -- many of which do a better job of blocking outside sound than the circuitry in this player.
Very little has changed in the core software for the Walkman, which is at once a curse and a blessing. Sony's interface presents options in an uncomplicated way and makes jumping back to the current song easier than on most devices, which often insist on navigating back up and then down the menu system. While the "option" menu potentially buries useful features away from view, it also lets Sony fit many more features than would be possible if it had to push all information into one screen's visible space. The build-in FM radio is particularly well-suited to this and gets more options than the Zune's fairly basic tuner. The most annoyance is that Sony asks users to manually rotate videos, which at least gives users more control than some of its rivals.
A new addition is podcast support, which works more effectively than on most non-Apple players. Any tracks properly tagged as podcasts are isolated from the main library and are also bookmarkable regardless of the format, letting a listener pick up where the podcast last left off.
What drags the S730 down is precisely that lack of change. Apple and Microsoft both found ways to display large album art without losing track information; Sony's player currently insists on showing relatively unimportant information such as the genre and release year for music in large, plain text while leaving the album cover a postage stamp.
As mentioned earlier, the company also does little to help browsing a large catalog of music. Instead of changing the sensitivity of the directional pad, Sony simply sorts albums and songs into alphabetical groups. That works for album browsing but falls flat for picking an individual song in a playlist. It only works so well and is really a stopgap solution rather than a permanent fix.
One step towards this is the addition of SensMe Channels. In what's certainly an unintended coincidence, Sony has developed its own auto-recommendation system for music in the same vein as Apple's Genius playlists and (to a lesser extent) Microsoft's Channels: the addition groups songs with similar pacing or style together to create similarly-themed playlists. In Sony's case, SensMe hangs its criteria on moods. An energetic playlist is often fast-paced; a playlist to relax is slow and quiet.
It's quick to use and is arguably easier in some respects than either Genius or Channels. They behave more like radio stations and are automatically selectable and switchable from a central SensMe menu. By contrast, the iPod nano's system requires finding an interesting song and basing a new playlist around it; the Zune system only truly works with a monthly Zune Pass subscription and is dependent on a weekly rotation chosen by DJs rather than the user.
Sony's implementation is still rough around the edges, however. Since it bases its choices on the actual sound qualities of the tracks themselves, any content loaded on to the player first needs to be scanned before it can be used -- a process that takes several minutes the first time a substantial collection appears on the player and must be repeated every time new songs are added to the mix. Moreover, SensMe periodically adds clearly inappropriate tracks and fills out certain channels regardless of whether some or any of the content actually fits the description. It wasn't uncommon to have a dance track land in the classical channel or to have a high-energy channel carry tracks that only have a fast beat in short segments.
Thankfully, Sony is keeping to its recent policy of remaining mostly platform-agnostic. The company understandably favors Windows but doesn't attempt to lock Walkman owners into running any one particular program to sync media with the device. Windows Media Player is the company's preferred choice and what was used here for the Windows side of testing, but WinAmp and a number of other programs will also find the S730 and offer to load content themselves. Only Windows Media is supported for protected songs, but this includes most subscriptions.
Importantly, the player mounts as removable storage in just about any operating system, including Mac OS X, and will recognize any playable formats of files dragged into clearly labeled folders. Copying an album to the music folder will automatically grab the tags from each song without having to search the player itself. Virtually the only pain is that the Walkman insists on re-mounting itself on Mac systems even when it's told to eject, though there was never trouble just disconnecting it from the USB port after the initial eject command.
Podcasts and non-standard syncs are handled brilliantly by Sony without having to create its own software. Understanding that some users will be running iTunes, the company includes a basic Windows utility known as Content Transfer that handles drag-and-drop loading of valid content not just from the hard drive but also from Apple's jukebox. It not only recognizes music but specifically filters podcasts into their dedicated section on the player without any direct intervention. Users can't sync things back to the PC, such as play counts or bookmarked positions in podcasts, but it's an elegant alternative for owners who like the manual control of drag-and-drop without the hassle.
Ever since Sony made its full leap into digital-only portable media players in 2006, the company has widely been regarded as tops in its class for battery life, and the S730 only serves to reinforce that opinion. At a rated 40 hours of battery life for music, the tiny Walkman has a full 16 hours more of playback than the iPod nano's official time and even extends past the 36 hours of a big player such as the 120GB iPod classic.
This actually proves problematic for testing purposes -- in a good way -- though the claims appear accurate in preliminary testing. It took nearly eight hours of playback, even with noise canceling turned on, to bring the device to showing less than a full gauge; we've also tried leaving the player inactive for a day and saw no noticeable change in the amount of battery remaining where many players quickly "bleed" as their smaller charges and wasted power often chew away at the usable time. Combine this with a maximum 10 hours of video and it's hard not to see the appeal of an S730 for a cross-ocean flight or weekend camping trip where a charger might not be an option.
The S730 comes across as the culmination of a long, hard road for Sony. In the space of a few years, the company has gone from forcing ATRAC and SonicStage on customers in awkward devices (including MiniDisc players) to recognizing that its customers simply want a player that supports the formats and software they use, controls well, and looks good in the process. The S730 accomplishes this better than any Walkman before it, even the A820 series, and simply can't be matched for sheer longevity.
New features like discrete podcasts and SensMe Channels won't be enough to tempt existing Walkman owners, but they make a more compelling case for the S730 over other non-iPod or non-Zune players that often lack these features. Anyone leaning towards Sony's particular implementation of automatic playlists should definitely regard the device as a front-runner.
Even so, it's apparent that this culmination should be a turning point rather than an absolute peak, and Sony may well be aware of this fact. While it may also be due to the company's desire to keep the A820 as its high-end 16GB player, the conscious decision to limit the S730 series to a maximum 8GB of storage in a field of 16GB iPod nanos and Zunes could well be attributed to the inability of the current Walkman interface to scale much past current capacities. A 16GB player holds about 4,000 songs without changing settings, or roughly 400 albums; navigating the entire song list or a large playlist quickly becomes daunting without the hardware or software for fast scrolling.
There's also the question of whether the S730 is actually Sony's best Walkman for most users. While it packs some of the best out-of-the-box earphones yet, a player with the same 4GB of storage as the test unit costs just $90 versus the $150 of the S730; an S630 with similar-quality earbuds but 8GB of storage matches the S730's price. Given the limited usefulness of the noise canceling, those who don't absolutely need the feature would be better off either claiming the extra space or pocketing the savings. This is Sony's best media player for features, but not necessarily in sheer value.