What Hi Fi Sound and Vision Tue, 4 Nov 2008, 1:00pm

Sony NWZ-S639F

Tested at £100
80100
4

The best of the rest – though we doubt that will satisfy Sony

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For

  • Slim and solid
  • bright, detailed screen
  • poised sound
  • Napster freebies included

Against

  • Not the drive or detail of some rivals

Sony's a company long used to getting its own way, and the fact that its numerous attempts to sew up the ‘portable music device' market have all foundered on the rocks of Apple's ubiquity have undoubtedly rankled.

Still, Sony's frustration is to the benefit of we consumers, as the Japanese leviathan has come increasingly close to toppling Apple from its perch with a series of progressively more impressive players.

The NWZ-S639F is the latest machine designed to break the American's stranglehold on the world's affections.

It's a tidy and well though-out design, as you'd expect from Sony, and while it's not the best-looking MP3 player you ever saw, its weight and solidity is reassuring.

Specification is good: the NWZ-S639F is packing FM reception, supports a good number of different file types and uses a regular mini-USB for data transfer and charging (as distinct from Sony's darker days, when its machines all used bespoke software and bespoke connections).

And you currently get three months' free access to Napster to Go, with more than six million songs free to download, as well as support for the BBC's iPlayer.

The screen is a trifle small for watching video, but it's bright and detailed.

Natural timing, agreeable weight
An MP3 player with an inadequate specification is doomed, of course, but not as doomed as the MP3 player that doesn't sound good.

And the Sony reveals itself to be as tantalisingly close to Apple as it ever was, yet somehow unable to make up the distance, whether using the supplied headphones (not bad sound, but uncomfortable) or after-market jobs.

Iron and Wine's mournful reading of The Postal Service's Such Great Heights is balanced and composed, with natural timing and a broad, explicit soundstage.

There's agreeable weight to low frequencies and a nicely judged treble, with the vocal nicely distinct while being integrated smoothly into the two.

Switch to the original recording, however, and the Sony's relative lack of detail and drive becomes apparent. It doesn't have quite the stomach for a fight as the very best around, and can lack a little drama and excitement as a result.

In our First Test of this machine, we called it “the best non-Apple ultra-portable we've seen” and that's still the case. Trouble is, we've heard the iPod nano – and we prefer it.