The NWZ-S730 series is available in two capacities: a $229 8GB version (known as the S738) and a $289 16GB version (the NWZ-S739). Each one looks very similar to the previous model in Sony's MP3 line-up, the NWZ-A728. The main difference is in the buttons under the display — the tiny rectangular Back and Option keys on the A728 have thankfully been replaced by larger, more finger-friendly circles. It's the same story with the navigation button, which is circular instead of square. The only downside to the redesign is that you may need to train your thumb to get out of scrollwheel mode.
The S730 range shares its screen specs with the new iPod Nanos: both have a 2-inch (5.1-centimetre), 320x240-pixel, portrait-oriented display. Unlike the Apple player, the S738 is not equipped with an accelerometer, but you can easily flip videos and pictures to landscape mode by pressing the Option button during playback. Left-handers will be pleased to note that there are two horizontal orientations to choose from.
On the right of the S738 are dedicated volume buttons — always a winner — and a hold switch. The bottom of the player houses a noise-cancelling switch, a proprietary port for USB connection and the headphone socket. Dimension-wise the S738 is the slimmest Walkman yet at 7.5 millimetres thick. That's 1.3 millimetres fatter than the Nano, for the sticklers out there.
The big feature of the S730 range is that each device has built-in noise-cancelling — not built into the headphones, but lurking in the circuitry of the player itself. Sony claims that activating the function reduces up to 75 per cent of the surrounding noise, which is a bonus for train commuters and frequent flyers.
The S730 series supports MP3, WMA, protected WMA, WAV and AAC audio formats. The inclusion of AAC widens the options for online music purchases — as well as being able to buy from WMA services like LoadIt and BigPond Music, you can buy iTunes Plus songs from the iTunes Store. The protected AAC files that make up the bulk of the iTunes catalogue are still incompatible though.
SensMe, a music analyser last seen on Sony Ericsson's Walkman phones, categorises your songs according to mood and BPM, allowing you quick access to playlists full of similar-sounding tunes. A similar feature known as Genius has recently been introduced to the iPod line-up.
If you dig tinkering with settings and customising your player to within an inch of its life, you'll be satisfied with the S738. The list of options in the audio settings menu is truly impressive, incorporating preset and custom equalisers, virtual surround, a dynamic normaliser, DSEE sound enhancement and a clear stereo setting. Add all these to the noise cancellation and you've got a smorgasbord of choices for optimising your music library. It's a similar story with the other settings: you can choose from 10 menu themes or set any image as the wallpaper.
First things first: the S738 sounds fantastic. Even without any of the whiz-bang options or noise-cancelling activated, music is full-bodied and vibrant. Flick the noise-cancel switch and the surrounding hubbub will be quelled, but in its place comes a subtle fuzzing sound that some will find annoying. This is not particular to the player, it's the hallmark of active noise-cancellation. Most people quickly get used to the sensation, but a small percentage of the population are driven batty by the subtle hiss.
SensMe is fun to play with, and the categorisation of your songs by mood and time of day is handy for accessing suitable playlists on the go, but the feature is not as precise or flexible as Genius. You can't, for instance, build an instant playlist around one song because you're limited to pre-determined groupings of your tunes.
We found the ring of navigation buttons surrounding the play/pause key a little puny for our thumbs, and not quite as user-friendly as a scrollwheel. Still, it's a better mode of navigation than the slow-going touch-sensitive buttons you'll find on the Samsung T10 and S3.
Finding your way around the menus of the S738 is dead easy. Everything is laid out neatly and logically, and you don't have to delve into layers and layers of menus to find what you're looking for. Crucially, there is also no lag when viewing photo slideshows or watching videos.
The S730 series is a stellar release from Sony, and the players are well-positioned to compete with the iPod Nano. Though they cost more than the equivalent capacity Nanos, they should draw buyers' attention with their plentiful customisation options, built-in FM radio and — the main drawcard — in-built noise cancellation. This last feature should appeal to audiophiles who have been disappointed by the sound quality on Apple's devices.