Sony had a major success with the launch of the S-series Walkman NWZ-S639F in 2008. The company stepped up its game with a sleek and compact device that offered loads of useful features along with stellar sound quality and fantastic battery life. As might be expected, when the time came for a second-generation model, we waited with bated breath, expecting something equally impressive or perhaps even better.
Unfortunately, said breath has emerged as a disappointed sigh. Although the second-generation S-series Walkman models still offer top-notch audio and excellent battery life, Sony has hobbled the players by crippling their feature set. This appears to have been done to lower the price. In the US, the 16GB NWZ-S545 (reviewed here) and 8GB NWZ-S544 are two of the cheapest flash-based players on the market. Although we don't have UK prices yet, we expect a similar price cut to be implemented here. We'll update the review as soon as we know the actual prices.
For better or worse, the NWZ-S545 is noticeably larger than its predecessor. The benefit of this is that it allows for a larger, more video-friendly screen, and the 61mm (2.4-inch) QVGA LCD is just as crisp, colourful and bright as before. The bigger chassis also allows for a pair of integrated external speakers that flank both sides of the display and pass through to ports on the back of the device for more air flow -- something that generally equates to better sound quality.
The downside of the increased size is that the NWZ-S545 isn't quite as pocket-friendly as the NWZ-S639F, measuring about 51mm wide by 102mm tall, although it's only a fraction thicker, at 10mm. Also, because of the speaker placement, the player strongly resembles a mobile phone -- something that may deter some users.
Below the screen, Sony has built in its typical circular control pad: a standard four-way directional button surrounding a central play/pause key. This is flanked by two additional buttons -- 'back' (home) and 'option' (power) -- that are arranged in such a way that one can't help but picture Mickey Mouse. Still, the Disney-esque appearance of the controls doesn't hinder the navigation of the device -- it's a breeze.
A grid of icons for the main functions makes up the top menu, while the music sub-menu is handily divided into artist, album, genre and so on. Playlists, however, are only accessible through a separate, dedicated section, which is rather odd but not really a navigational hindrance. Unfortunately, the NWZ-S545 still doesn't offer an on-the-go playlist option.
Although the NWZ-S545 appears to be constructed out of a material similar to that used on its predecessor, it has a more plasticky feel that makes it seem cheaper. It offers the same shiny, metallic topcoat -- in a choice of red, pink, violet or black -- and the player retains a fairly sleek and sexy look. We're glad that Sony has retained the dedicated volume rocker on the left spine. You'll also find two other switches: one for locking the controls and another for toggling between speaker and headphone modes. The standard headphone jack, along with Sony's proprietary USB port, live on the bottom edge.
It would stand to reason that the NWZ-S545 lacks a few of its predecessor's features, because the entry price should be significantly lower. We expected, for example, that this player would probably do away with the integrated noise-cancelling functionality and the upgraded packaged headphones -- both of those represent extra cost to the company.