As usual, Sony did some incredible design work on the tiny, silver NW-MS11's hardware. Measuring 1.44 by 3.25 by 0.56 inches and weighing a mere 2.4 ounces, this 128MB player is one of the smallest available. The LCD is located on the side of the unit--a novel approach that allows for an uncluttered look, despite the player's small size. We particularly liked the NW-MS11's neon-blue backlight with striking, lighter-blue characters. A USB port, the Memory Stick slot, and a compartment for the rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride battery are each hidden behind their own little doors. All hinges and buttons seem solidly designed despite their minuscule size. Decent-sounding earbuds, a carrying case, and a cordless AC adapter complete the bundle. Although the padded carrying case will protect the player from moderately rough treatment, you'll need to remove the unit in order to operate it--a bit of a nuisance.
The player includes the typical features, with a couple of minor frills: shuffle and repeat modes, an automatic volume-limiting system to protect your ears, a nifty spectral analyzer, and a date/time function. You also get the option to view the menu in Japanese or English.
The OpenMG Jukebox software works fine for ripping CDs to Sony's proprietary ATRAC3 format, organizing tunes, and even stripping the vocals out of songs so that you can karaoke at your computer. But in typical Sony-software style, there is a problem with the file-transfer process. To move a song to the NW-MS11, it must be checked out, then later checked back in before you can change the music on the device. This is annoying, but there's an even worse quirk: you can't check a song back in if the file isn't in the same location that it used to be. This will be a problem if you're constantly rearranging your music collection on your computer. You can play unprotected MP3s downloaded from the Internet, but you'll first have to spend extra time and use more disk space to convert them to the ATRAC3 format. Additionally, MP3 and WMA fans should take note that ATRAC3 degrades sound quality slightly.
Like most other flash-based MP3 players, the NW-MS11 connects to your computer via USB. But since the OpenMG software converts files before they get sent to the player, transfer time is slower than it should be (more on that later).
The NW-MS11, which has two powerful bass-boost levels, sounded great when we played tunes through our test headphones. Sony claims a signal-to-noise ratio of only 80dB, but to our ears, it's better than that; 80dB should sound a bit hissy, and the NW-MS11 doesn't.
This player's rectangular nickel-metal-hydride battery gets its charge from the cordless AC adapter or via the USB connection. It takes about 90 minutes to charge the battery, after which it will power the player for 10 hours, which is slightly below average, especially for a Sony product.
We moved 56.23MB of MP3 audio to the player in 15.25 minutes, which translates to an abysmal file-transfer speed of 0.06MB per second--about one-third as fast as other MP3 players that use USB. Granted, these files had to be transcoded from MP3 to ATRAC3, but as far as we're concerned, that conversion counts as part of the transfer time. There are no two ways about it: MP3s take too long to convert and transfer.
If you're using songs from only your CDs, the slickly designed and reliable NW-MS11 could be tempting, even at its high price of $300 (list). But if you like downloaded tunes or already have your music collection encoded into MP3, this player is more trouble than it's worth.