There's more than one way to make a wireless MP3 player, and building it directly into a set of headphones may seem like the easy way out, but it gets the job done. Plus, there are none of those audio-fidelity issues you might run into with technologies such as RF and Bluetooth, which is probably why Sony elected to take this route with its new W-Series Walkman. This 2GB MP3 player is built into a set of impressively small earbud-style headphones and sports a palatable price tag of just $69.
We've got to give props to Sony for the design of the W-Series Walkman, which is available in a choice of two colors (black or pink). Two rectangular audio modules--measuring roughly 2-inches long by 0.8-inch wide and 0.4-inch deep--attach to one another via a flexible, twisting neckband. It's the smallest all-in-one MP3 player/headphone we've ever seen, and it's impressively lightweight, as well (1.3 ounces). Of course, with any such device made specifically for active pursuits, a secure fit is a chief concern. Luckily, the W-Series Walkman is up for the task: we tested the player walking, jogging, and doing jumping jacks and found it quite capable of staying in place during all of these activities. Still, comfort is somewhat of a concern--the fact that the earbuds are integrated will no doubt cause issues for some, despite Sony's inclusion of three sizes of silicone eartips.
As might be expected, the W-Series Walkman's interface is rather untraditional. Naturally, there's no screen--it would be rather difficult to view one on a device that's attached to your ears anyway. Music plays straight through in alphanumeric order by default, or you can activate the shuffle switch on the inside of the right earpiece to randomize playback. The bottom edge of the right module contains the remainder of the controls: a volume rocker and a jog dial. Swiping the dial forward or backward serves to cycle through tracks.
The W-Series Walkman is predictably light on extras, but Sony does integrate a few unique and useful features. The first is something called Zappin, which lets you browse through tracks by ear by playing a snippet of the chorus of each song. You can choose between long (10 seconds) and short (4 seconds) settings for this mode, and if you come across a song you want to hear, a press of the jog button will start it from the beginning. The player also offers a quick-charge feature that will give you 90 minutes of playback from a 3-minute charge--particularly handy for a fitness-friendly player. And the package includes a sticky-bottomed stand/docking station for charging the device and transferring songs (done via standard Mini-USB). Finally, each earpiece is magnetized and when you stick them together, the player automatically powers down.
Unsurprisingly, the W-Series Walkman is an audio-only device; it can play back MP3, AAC (unprotected only), and WMA (subscription included) files. Although a playlist section showed up under the player when we connected it to our PC, there is no indication by Sony that the device can support anything resembling a playlist. This would be a welcome feature, considering the sporty applications. Another gym-friendly extra that would have been nice is an FM tuner, though we can certainly understand excluding one in such a compact device. The small size of the player also excuses the rather unimpressive 12-hour rated battery life, which CNET Labs beat by just about 25 minutes in testing.
But as for the straight-up digital-audio playback, overall audio quality will depend at least somewhat on how the headphones fit. The deeper the earbuds go and the better the seal, the deeper the bass response will be. For our part, we had to hold them in to really hear what the W-Series could offer on the low-end--and what it offers is more than adequate. Regardless of fit, you can expect clear-sounding audio with no distortion or background hiss. Also, the earbuds aren't the best at blocking outside noise, but this is a good thing if you're going to be jogging outdoors. The player's volume gets plenty loud, though, if you want to drown out the hum of gym equipment.