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A new toy for working out? Taking a look at the Sony Cord-Free Walkman

Posted May 14 2010 11:51pm

In case you are wondering, Almost Fit is NOT turning into a product review site – But I had the opportunity to take a look at one of the new cord-free MP3 players from Sony, and thought readers who listen to music while exercising might find my impressions helpful. But before I go further, here’s the legal bit:

Disclosure: This post is not a paid review or endorsement, but Sony did send me the product to get my thoughts. I am in no way affiliated with Sony and have received no compensation for my impressions. And also, the legal bit makes me feel weird, like going to the principal’s office for something I actually DID do this time, but it turns out it wasn’t as bad as I thought. OK I feel slightly better.

sony cord-free mp3 player Several weeks ago I received a note from Melissa, a Community Ambassador for Sony letting me know about a product line that they are promoting: the Sony W series cord-free mp3 players. I receive a fair number of these notes and offers to review products, but to be honest I rarely give them a second thought. In general I don’t do product reviews, mostly because 9 times out of 10 the offer is for packaged/processed foods that I already know how I feel on principle, so I don’t think it would really be fair. (The other exception has been cookbooks which I do review on occasion.)

This product on the other hand, since I’m not eating it :) , seemed like something I could check out – and the words “cord-free” piqued my interest. Plus I’m kind of a gadget junkie, though I usually take forever to buy them. (Note to Apple : I will gladly write up a review of the iPad or one of the new Macbook Pros if you want to send one to me. No, seriously.)

To provide a little context, lately when I run I use my iPhone with some 3rd party ear buds to listen to music or my ever growing list of podcasts. As many readers know, I am also an active iPhoneography enthusiast , so I generally have my phone (a.k.a. camera/ipod/everything-I-need-in-one-gadget) with me wherever I go. So, my iPhone with headphones is my primary source of comparison, though I am a product of the 80’s Walkman generation, so I have a long history with portable music. In addition, I am also an amateur musician with a home recording studio, so I do use studio-grade headphones for music production – which means I’d like to think I have a reasonable ear for audio quality.

Overall, for readers of Almost Fit I think this product has value as a good workout tool, and as you will see in the review I LOVE not having to deal with headphone wires. The ear buds that I usually use with my iPhone are great both sound and comfort-wise, but I am continually fighting with them pulling during exercise routines. I also find it tough to do things like take photos with my phone along the way, or use exercise tracking applications (of which I’m a fan) while listening to music on my phone. So a separate device makes sense to me in some cases. That said, this device is not without it’s flaws.

With that, here’s the review.

The Product

Sony W Series Walkman MP3 Player (2GB model NWZ-W252)

Suggested Retail: $60

A few features: Holds approximately 470 songs (rough estimate), and is water resistant. The highlights on the packaging include “Up to 11 hours of music playback”, “3 minute charge for 90 minutes of playback” and 2GB of storage (though the fine print says it’s actually less).

Pros

Overall there are a lot of things to like about this device. Here are the biggest positives:

  • The sound quality is pretty good if you use the correct ear bud size. The player comes with 3 sets of ear buds (small/med/large), and is set up with the medium size by default.  I tried all three, and noticed a big difference in sound quality by switching ear bud sizes to find the one that fit me best. Specifically, the sound had a lot more low end when I had the right size. With the wrong size, the sound was definitely “tinny”, lacking bass. I don’t see an option for adjusting the sound quality (an equalizer), but overall the preconfigured balance was as good or better than my iPhone/headphones setup.
  • The headphones stay firmly in place. I wondered about this when I first received the product, primarily because it feels a tad heavy in your hand for something that your ears are essentially going to hold up. Surprisingly, the weight didn’t bother me when I wore it, and the ear buds stayed firmly in place even while running, wearing it around the house doing yard work, etc. The flexible tension wire that connects the two sides seems to counter balance the weight, and I found it easily as comfortable as just earbuds with wires.
  • Having no wires should be the law. Not having to deal with wires is really, really nice. I loved it, and this feature alone probably overshadows just about everything else. If you listen to headphones while working out, you know it can be a pain to have to manage the wires. Not in this case – no wires here. It’s awesome to be wire-free. Did I mention I really like the cord-free idea? :)
  • The controls are easy to use. I found the jog lever very intuitive and responsive, and the volume buttons easily accessible. I also liked the “Zappin” function that lets you hear snippets of songs so that you can navigate to the track you’re looking for, though truth be told I used this much less than I expected.
  • The power on/off mechanism is “neat”. The player is equipped with a magnet that holds the right and left earpieces together. When the two sides are put together, the player powers down. When you separate the earpieces, it powers up. While I like this/it feels pretty cool, it also means you need to have a separate case to keep the sides together in a gym bag or purse. Not a big deal, but it is one more thing to keep track of and in my case, possibly lose. having a little rubberized lock/connector that is built into the device would solve the problem.
  • The media storage size is acceptable, though a little less than advertised. Specifically, the fine print points out that the 2GB includes 16% of the drive that is reserved for operations (meaning you lose 16% of your drive space, which isn’t trivial to me). Although I find this acceptable for a workout device, for a general purpose MP3 player i find the size pretty lacking relative to a device like my phone. Suggestion: Instead of wasting space with the nifty voice notifications, just give me more room for more songs.
  • No trouble in the rain. Living in Oregon, this is a factor. So far I haven’t had any trouble.
  • Charges quickly, and lasts for approximately 11 hours. I didn’t notice any battery issues, and the 3-minute charge for 90 minutes of playback is a cool feature (and works).

Cons

While I generally liked it, there were a few things that really bugged me.

  • Installations instructions are terrible, and incorrect: One of the things that is not immediately obvious is that you have to install software from the device onto your computer. I can live with that; however, the installation instructions were completely incorrect. Step 1: the installation path is incorrect. Step 2: I had to manually copy the folder over to get it to work, which I only tried because I work in the software industry and it’s a pretty common defect. Step 3:  wrong folder. Step 4: I declined the automatic content transfer (I wanted to control this manually), but I had no instructions on what to do if I chose this option. Step 5: I had to reboot my PC to make the Content Transfer app recognize it’s own device (it kept telling me that the device was not connected, even after reconnecting, closing and reopening the app, etc. etc.).This bothers me personally because I write software documentation at my day job, and this was so far off that it was unusable. I eventually figured it out after trying a reboot as a last resort, but I kept thinking to myself that if I didn’t routinely do this sort of thing for work, it would be insanely frustrating to figure out.
  • Not a fan of having to install yet another desktop program on my PC just to use an mp3 player. From a computer perspective this device is little more than a thumb drive with some controls built into it. Given that I have to sacrifice 16% of the memory in the device already to onboard instructions, I don’t want to have to install an application on my desktop just to use it.
  • Slow media transfer: I did find the time involved to move media onto the device to be painfully long. With 1.48GB free (so it’s clearly not a space problem), I added a single album via iTunes – 15 songs from a single CD – and it took over 18 minutes to add. I tried it again with a different playlist, and similar results. That seems really long to me. I tried it manually as well (outside of iTunes), and it seemed nearly the same (did not time it this time, but I was able to walk away from the computer, go check the mail, make some toast, check email, etc., and it still wait for it to finish a single album transfer). My computer did have a browser open, but it wasn’t taxing the resources of the system. I’m not sure what is up with that. By contrast, to add music to my phone, multiple albums, usually takes less than a minute or two.
  • The package should answer the most important question: How many songs does it hold? When I’ve mentioned this review to friends, the first question that comes up, always, is “So how many songs does it hold?” Although I don’t think it’s purposefully withheld, it feels a bit disingenuous somehow to not disclose this info on the packaging (as if it has something to hide). They have room for a “Napster” icon, but can’t put “holds [this many] songs”?
  • It should be simpler to charge: I didn’t much care for having to open up the rubber protector and insert the USB connector to charge the device; for whatever reason this seemed a little more involved than just setting my phone on a cradle to charge (by contrast). I would much prefer a cradle or a more simple connection for charging. This one is a little ambiguous, but I’d prefer to set this on a pad on my desk and have it charge from the pad, which I’ve seen for some of the newer devices.
  • Nitpick: For safety, the ear buds were a little “too” insulated from external sounds: This is a tough one, because I really do like the sound quality. However, because they fit tightly inside my ear, I found that I couldn’t hear much else even when the device was at low volume. I am not an industrial designer, but the best of both worlds would be to be able to get good sound quality while being able to pick up important ambient noise, like cars approaching. I know this is kind of the holy grail of earphones, but I’m thinking of noise reduction headphones that are able to accomplish this – technology that is literally more than a decade old. In a sense, the ear buds are a little “too good” – but it may be an unwinnable situation; not really sure. All I know is I was somewhat uncomfortable running on the street with this, versus not having that problem with my other ear buds.

Conclusion

Overall I like this device, and will continue to use it for running. I think for a general purpose MP3 player it still will not replace my phone or a larger iPod, but compared to a wired device like the iPod Nano which I would put in the same class, for workouts I’d take this one and ditch the wires in a heartbeat. I think the media storage is pretty small, but it is the same as the entry level Nano and in the same price bracket. Visually this looks a lot like a phone earpiece, so I wasn’t self-conscious about how it looked; it felt pretty natural.

Thanks for reading Almost Fit. Hopefully you didn’t find the review too terribly obnoxious. Comments are welcome.

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