After its native MP3 support, the first thing that stands out about the NW-E105 is the fact that it's priced to compete squarely with Apple's iPod Shuffle. This is an uncharacteristic move for Sony--the company's audio players are usually priced on the high side; for example, its 20GB NW-HD1 originally sported a $400 tag, but it's now $300. Perhaps more surprising, however, is that the NW-E105 includes a decent sampling of features. You can browse through songs or through folders labeled by album, and there are several playback options from which to choose: repeat all, repeat single, shuffle all repeat, repeat group, and shuffle group repeat. Within the menu, you can select whether you want the track info or time elapsed shown on the LCD. You can also turn the alert on or off (this is a loud beep when you switch tracks; we recommend "off"), choose to have the backlight always off, set the date and time--which pops up on screen when you hold down the menu button--and activate AVLS. This last feature is Sony's Automatic Volume Limiter System, which limits the max volume to prevent "auditory disturbance." Normally, we would doubt the usefulness of such a feature, but when we turned the NW-E105 all the way up--or almost all the way--we understood; this thing gets loud.
The Sony NW-E105 may not be as beautiful or as slim as the iPod Shuffle, but it's no heifer either. Measuring 2.2 inches in diameter and weighing just 1.6 ounces, the player slips easily into any pocket and makes a perfect workout companion (a $15 armband is due from Sony soon). From the front, the NW-E105 is a simple circle, but flip it over and you'll notice the back has a hump where the battery rests; it then tapers to a scant 0.2 inch at the top and bottom edges. Though slightly odd-looking at first, this design fits quite comfortably in the hand. Flanking the relatively small, two-line LCD is a unique rocking faceplate with integrated play/pause and fast-forward/rewind controls. On the left edge of the player is a volume rocker, while on the right edge sits a a covered mini-USB port as well as a switch that toggles between hold, song navigation, and folder navigation. The menu and playback function buttons are sunken into the rear of the player and, as such, can be somewhat difficult to activate. If there's one complaint we have about the NW-E105's design, it's that the plastic casing feels cheap, but the player still seems as if it could withstand some minor abuse.
In order to get songs onto the NW-E105, you must use Sony's SonicStage software, which is included on a disc. Unfortunately, while drag-and-drop is possible for data files, you can't do this for music. Installing and setting up SonicStage is an easy process, though importing all of your audio into the program can be time-consuming; it took 25 minutes to import roughly 10GB of music. SonicStage will recognize and play regular WMA files, but it doesn't support protected WMA. However, it will import all WMAs, then just not play the protected files, which is a bit of a pain. In fact, the NW-E105 won't play any WMAs, though if you try to transfer files without DRM protection, SonicStage will convert them to ATRAC3 for playback on the device. If you purchase tunes from WMA-providing online stores such as Napster and Wal-Mart Music Downloads, Sony's MP3 players aren't for you. There's no legal way to get DRM-protected WMAs onto these devices. Instead, the NW-E105 and other Sony players support protected ATRAC3 songs purchased from the company's Connect music store.
The NW-E105 turned out to be an impressive performer in most of our tests. Despite a below-average signal-to-noise ratio that Sony lists simply as "80dB or more," the player boasted good, crisp sound quality with clear highs and lows, as well as plenty of bass. Thanks to a rather cheap plastic design, the included earbuds were uncomfortable, but they delivered the goods. And while the NW-E105 fell way short of its rated 70-hour battery life, it still blew away most other players in this category. CNET Labs was able to squeeze out about 35.6 hours of juice. The one area that Sony could improve on is transfer speed; we averaged a ridiculously slow 0.59MB per second over USB 2.0.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.