You need to have a Max Mosley-style tolerance for punishment to take on Apple's iPod touch. Pretty much every company that's tried has been the recipient of a serious whipping. But, when you're the company that invented the Walkman, it must be impossible to resist having a go. It has to be said that the 16GB Sony Walkman NWZ-X1050 and 32GB NWZ-X1060 look pretty good, as they not only have an OLED screen but also boast video playback, Wi-Fi and an FM tuner.
The NWZ-X1050 (reviewed here) is available for around £190, while the NWZ-X1060 costs around £250.
The NWZ-X1050 is a relatively small device -- it's only around three quarters of the size of the touch. The design doesn't look quite as classy as that of some of the other music players we've seen and Sony's made some odd design decisions. For example, the sides of the device have a sort of rough granite feel. While this makes the player easy to grip in your hand, it's not exactly easy on the eye.
The OLED touchscreen is much more visually appealing, however. Although it only has a resolution of 432x240 pixels, because of its relatively small text, graphics and videos look very sharp. It's also offers excellent contrast, so blacks are really black and colours look much more vivid than on rival players. Like the iPhone's display, the screen uses capacitive technology, so it's also very responsive to touch.
Although Sony has added hardware buttons on the top and side of the player, making the NWZ-X1050 easy to control when it's in your pocket, the player's user interface also makes good use of touch control. For example, you can browse through your music library by flicking through album art via a Cover Flow-style 3D view.
Also, when you're using the player to watch video, it will automatically create thumbnails of sections of the video. You can then quickly skip to specific parts of the video by gliding your finger across the thumbnails. Video playback is limited to MPEG-4, H.264 and WMV video formats at resolutions of up to 320x240 pixels only, but playback is smooth and videos generally look quite sharp on the screen.
The two key factors that really make this player stand out are its on-board noise-cancelling technology and the general high quality of its audio playback. The noise cancelling only works with the supplied earphones. These have small microphones built into the outer edge of each earpiece that monitor external audio and feed it back to the player so that the noise cancelling can work its magic. You can choose from three different modes -- 'bus/train', 'airplane' and 'office' -- with each tweaking the algorithm for the best response to that particular noise profile. The results are very good, competently suppressing much of the rumble and rattle of a London Tube journey. You can get similar results using a good pair of noise-isolating earphones, though.
The supplied earphones actually sound pretty good and can handle a sizeable helping of bass without descending into a sea of distortion. Its only when you swap them for a higher-end pair with larger drivers, however, that you'll really hear this player sing out. Used with a good pair of AKG headphones, the player does a sterling job of handling not just the low end, but also the mids and highs too. Form the aggressive funk of Gil-Scott Heron's Lady Day and John Coltrane to the crunch of Megadeth's In My Darkest Hour and everything in between, it really does produce remarkably warm, yet refreshingly crisp and detailed, audio that's a cut above that of rival players.