What's baffling, however, is the fact that Sony has also eliminated core interface-based features such as distinguished podcast support and the smart playlist creator, SensMe Channels. Podcasts are now lumped in with the general music catalogue, and thus have no bookmarking feature and will playback on shuffle -- a glaring annoyance.
These deficiencies certainly mar the S-series legacy, but the player still includes a fair amount of features for the price. You get support for MP3, secure WMA, AAC and Linear PCM (Sony's version of WAV) audio files, as well as JPEG photo files. Another disappointment, however, is that you can no longer set your own photos as wallpaper. There's also support for playback of AVC, MPEG-4 and WMV video files, although this is crippled by the fact that the player is very particular about the size, frame rate and container of video files.
The NWZ-S545 offers a built-in FM tuner with an auto-scanner and up to 30 preset slots, as well as a recording feature. There's also a pinhole mic on the bottom of the unit for taking voice notes, for which you can choose from three quality settings. The external speakers afford a final bonus: you can use the Walkman as an alarm clock and wake up to the radio or a track of your choice.
Performance to the rescue
Considering how much Sony has managed to strip down the S-series Walkman in its second iteration, it was with some trepidation that we approached the performance of the device. Fortunately, it seems it's going to take more than a price cut to ruin Sony's long history of offering stellar sound quality and long battery life. The only area that isn't particularly stunning is the speaker playback, which is, unsurprisingly, tinny and anaemic. It's clear and fairly loud, though, so it gets the job done, and the rated battery life of 42 hours for audio and 6.5 hours for video is nothing to scoff at.
Naturally, when you listen to the NWZ-S545 through a good set of headphones (the Klipsch Image S4, in our case), the sound quality enjoys a dramatic improvement. Music sounds rich, warm and defined across genres, with sparkly highs and buttery mids. Bass is punchy and encompassing without being overpowering -- it's just the amount of low-end oomph we crave. The best part is that the device provides excellent audio across the full range of genres. There are also plenty of EQ settings to toy with, although there are no SRS Wow settings.
Similarly, photos and videos look fantastic on the bright screen, with excellent colour saturation, crisp edges and little to no visible pixellation, depending on the original quality of the files. Viewing angles are also great, although you probably wouldn't want to share for long with such a tiny screen. Finally, FM reception is well above average, and our test voice recordings came through very clearly, with little hiss.
Sony's S-series Walkman NWZ-S545 offers excellent audio playback, long battery life, a good screen, a simple interface and some decent extras for what we expect to be a significantly lower price than its predecessor. As a result, it's easy to recommend this player to budget-minded people who are looking for an introduction to the Walkman line. But those who have experienced the previous-generation S-series Walkman NWZ-S639F will be very disappointed by its successor. Although the new version should be cheaper, it represents a diluted version of its former self. In this case, newer definitely doesn't mean better.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet