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.
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