Sony Walkman NWZ-X1050 MP3 player review

4 out of 5
£215

For

Sound quality, screen, build quality

Against

Web browsing doesn't really impress, noise cancellation might not suit everyone, price

Looking at what the X series Walkman has on offer, it is difficult to not think about the iPod touch: Wi-Fi, web browsing and access to YouTube particularly bring these things to mind.

But though of as an iPod touch competitor it sets off at a disadvantage: it has a smaller screen, so many of the fun things about Apple's pocket entertainment centre don't apply here: you don't have iTunes, it doesn't offer the same sort of options for customisation through the App Store and you don't have the same screen space to make it all work.

The X series Walkman (16GB) has an RRP at the same level as the 16GB iPod touch (£214), but can be picked up for quite a bit less online. So setting those comparisons aside, what does the NWZ-X1050 offer us?

The design is interesting. Measuring 97.4 x 52.5 x 10.5mm and weighing 98g, it is easily pocketable. Rather than opting for glossy plastics or polished metals, the X series looks as though it has been carved out of the earth: rough textured sides give way to a smooth front and back with plenty of subtle sparkle.

If you like minimalist, it probably won't be for you, but there is definitely something eye-catching about the player, for the right or wrong reasons. Minimalists might also be disappointed by the number of buttons that the touchscreen device seems to need.

You have a front Home button and around the sides you have a slider for "noise cancellation" below the volume rocker. On the top you have small play/pause and forward and back buttons, whilst on the back is a "hold" slider.

The arrangements of these buttons makes things pretty simple to use. The Home button is in a logical place, but given the overall size of the device, we'd have preferred larger buttons to control play back. The Hold slider is good and it is easy enough to slip it on and off in your pocket, but finding the buttons to skip track is a little more tricky.

Some might argue that all this control should really be taking place through the 3-inch, 432 x 240, OLED display. It is a capacitive touchscreen and is very nice to use. The screen is responsive to the touch and we found no problems with unresponsive icons or anything else.

The menus, however, can be a little convoluted as you find yourself staring at perhaps too many options. Jump into the options when playing a track and you suddenly have six options relating to playback, most of which relate to the audio processing technologies that Sony have included. It is nice to have options, but it looks like overkill.

But the screen itself being OLED is glorious to look at, except in bright sunlight where it is pretty useless. The resolution isn't the highest, but given the reasonably small dimensions it is adequate for what you throw at it: the menus look good, text is sharp enough and video playback is well suited. OLED brings with it great contrast too, so it always looks like a quality device you are using, and at this price it should.

Browsing your music (MP3, WMA, AAC, Linear PCM) is easy, with fast scrolling on the screen, as well as the option to just flick through album art a la Cover Flow. You can also press and hold across the top of the search lists (Album, Artist, Genre etc) and scroll sideways through an alphabetical list. It's a bit hit and miss, but we never found any problems finding our music.

Video (WMV9, MPEG4, AVC H.264) too is well handled, with thumbnails showing you what you have available and playback nice and smooth without any added artefacts that sometimes seems to blight small players. You also get photo viewing, letting you swipe through your photo collection.

Then we get to YouTube and web browsing, which need you to be connected to a Wi-Fi network. The YouTube interface is relatively easy to navigate, allowing searching by keyword to find your favourites, so if your fetish is Girls Aloud videos, you'll be watching in a flash.

Web browsing, on the other hand, seems a strange addition. Sure, you can head online, but the with the limited space it may well be of limited use, given the amount of zooming and scrolling you'll end up doing. Text entry for navigation is a little tedious, but there is a predictive element, so it isn't too bad, but not a patch on the iPod touch.

But there is something that really impresses with the X series Walkman: sound quality. Sony have packed in a number of technologies (as mentioned) that will digitally enhance your music, aiming to get the most from your collection. It seems to work too.

We found that all tracks had great definition. It is a touch on the bassy side, but that said, the bass doesn't wipe out detail. In fact, we detected subtle details in the music that are lost on an iPod, which is praise indeed.

The audio is supported by a better-than-average headphone offering bundled in the box. The headphones are of the in-ear variety, but are specially paired with the X series, as they support the noise-cancelling technologies on-board (more on which later).

With a choice of rubbers, getting the perfect fit shouldn't be too hard and they also have the added benefit – if you get a good fit – of blocking out background noise. The sound quality really comes out when you switch in good quality headphones where the Walkman really shines. Which leads us neatly on to noise cancellation.

The noise-cancelling technologies onboard the X1050 use microphones on the reverse side of the earbuds to feed in information to cut out environmental noise. It is a feature that Sony has highlighted with the player, but it is something of a double-edged sword.

It means you are dependent on the supplied headphones. If you do swap them out for your own headphones, you won't be able to use the noise-cancellation. That might not bother you, however, as we found a perfect-fitting pair of in-ear headphones did a pretty good job of cutting out background noise anyway.

The noise cancellation has various settings, with modes for bus/train, airplane and office claiming to alter the setting for those particular modes. You can also set the level of cancellation you want, which reveals a flaw in the technology.

Set it to the highest noise-cancellation level and you might find you can't bear to use it. We found that the changes in pressure across the ears was nauseating, so we had to turn it down. This will differ from person to person and depend on how sensitive your ears are to such things, but for some it will mean that using noise-cancellation is not a pleasant experience.

There is an FM radio which will allow you to assign presets, but no station names unfortunately. Still, a welcomed addition for commuters.

PC users will be able to use Windows Media Player to manage their Walkman, however Mac users will be left to manually drag and drop files into the right folders. The battery life is fairly impressive however, with 33 hours of music or 9 hours of video playback.

Verdict

We were really impressed with the quality of the music and the great screen and overall design impresses. The bundled headphones too are welcomed, but can be bettered.

YouTube is a fun distraction but web browsing is something of a non-starter and we aren't sold on the noise cancelling. We'd have liked more defined buttons on the top to make in-pocket control a little better.

But overall, the audio quality speaks for itself. If this is the most important thing to you, then it is worth checking out the NWZ-X1050. If it is all-round entertainment you crave, you're better off with the iPod touch.