Sony is beginning to stamp its authority on flash-based MP3 players with this very classy offering. Along with design, what makes this unit so special is its built-in noise-cancelling technology. The design of the hardware and user interface are hard to fault, save for the inability to rotate the display to your comfort. The Walkman is extremely customisable, boasting lots of features and a superb battery life.
Sony's new Walkman effort is sheer elegance. The unit's shiny and reflective veneer is well complemented by a classy user interface fronted by a colour OLED display which unfortunately, is faint under sunlight.
Despite the cramped dimensions, the three-line display is very well-utilised for toggling between tracks and albums and includes some space for album art. Users can turn the rotating dial to navigate the menu and swap between track and album view by sliding the dial along a horizontal axis.
At 87.2 x 27.4 x 16.8mm with a sturdy 47g frame, the Walkman is fairly petite but pretty heavy when compared with MP3 players of the same build. For a good comparison, the older NW-E005 at 25g is almost half the weight of the NW-S705F. The buttons are well-laid-out except for the inaccessible Play Mode/Sound button on the rear.
The 13.5mm diameter earbuds share some of the design aesthetics of the higher-end Sony MDR-EX90LP. What's different is that microphones are built into the earphones to monitor ambient noise. Sony has possibly scored a first by building noise-cancelling technology into the MP3 player.
Previously, noise-cancelling solutions were the domain of headphone manufacturers, with resulting bulky processor units integrated inside the headphones. By hiding the processors within the MP3 player itself, it's definitely more elegant and unobtrusive.
The unique selling point of the NW-S705F is its noise-cancelling ability. In tests conducted in public transport environments, low-end noise like train rumbles were noticeably muted, though typical of consumer noise-cancelling technology, mid- to higher-end noise still comes through. Sony compensates for this by letting the user take control of the microphone's sensitivity. This helps to create a more tailored noise cancelling for different sonic environments. At press time, it's the first consumer grade product we have come across to have such an option.
The NW-S705F's noise-cancelling technology works by using the embedded microphones on the earbuds to monitor ambient noise level and send an inverse sound signal to cancel it.
Most of the player features are accessed via holding the Home button on the side of the MP3 player. This opens up options such as FM radio, playlists, shuffle playback, search, noise-cancelling activation and record arranged on a horizontal axis.
Shuffle playback is apparently a strong suit for the NW-S705F. The Time Machine shuffle picks and plays songs published in a random year and the Artist Link shuffle connects songs based on data from Gracenote's CDDB. Do note that songs have to be Artist Link-tagged in SonicStage before the option appears in the NW-S705F.
Carrying on the athletic theme from the NW-S200 series, the Sports Shuffle sets a specified playback time limit adjustable in 1-minute increments of up to 99 minutes. Unfortunately for runners, songs can be drawn only from the main library and not from a preset playlist.
Interestingly enough, the player does not need to go through a PC to transfer music onboard. An optional 3.5mm analog jack allows for recording from other devices like MD players/laptops directly to the player. The sound source output level can be adjusted via a switch on the jack (two levels). Recoding can be set to be sound-activated.
There is support for ATRAC, MP3, AAC, WMA and Linear-PCM formats. SonicStage CP is included for content management, though we'd like to gripe yet again that we would have preferred to be given the option to drag-and-drop songs directly via Windows Explorer.
The NW-S705F produced resonant bass, but the mids and highs were not crisp though they were adequate. When noise-canceling was activated, audio quality was not compromised. In fact, it was barely distinguishable from the normal mode.
When recording audio through the 3.5mm analog jack, we were satisfied with the overall quality. However, we did experience some teething problems initially when the left channel was barely audible. But subsequent recordings ran without problem.
The transfer rate through SonicStage was fairly consistent at 1.08MB to 1.19MB per second. However, the speed was rather slow when compared with other flash memory MP3 players.
FM autoscan results at our test location in the heart of the Central Business District were outstanding. The NW-S705F scored every station within the local FM spectrum.
Audio tweakers would be pleased. Instead of one user-defined five-band equaliser, the NW-S705F comes with two as well as four selectable virtual soundstages. Sony also touts a Clear Stereo technology that "enables individual left and right digital processing of the sound" from which we didn't hear much of a difference.
Sony claims a rated battery life of 47 hours which is a fairly impressive figure that should last an entire plane trip to London or LA.