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.
noise cancelation, earbuds and audio quality
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.