Monday, March 17, 2014

Sony NWZ-S639F (NWZS639F) 16 GB Digital Media Player - Better Sound Than Contemporary iPods

I have been using an iPod Nano for a while but wandered whether a better-sounding MP3 player was available. Yes, the Nano even supports lossless audio formats, but I have heard that at least some other makers produce MP3 players that have better sound quality (regardless of the headphones used). Additionally, I wanted a player that was easy to use, had relatively high capacity, long playback time on a battery charge, could be copied files directly to (without the need for iTunes software). A compact size and low price were also preferred.

I discovered that I could get the Sony NWZ-S639F for $90 (pus tax) online. Sony MP3 players are known for their good sound quality, which is better than the iPods'. At the same time, this model was supposed to be stylish and provide good specs: 16GB of memory, 50-hour playback time, music as well as video and photo playback, 2-inch LCD screen and even FM radio. All this in an aluminum case the size of an iPod Nano. And, as I have to mention again, for much less money.

I ordered the S639 along with a silicone case and a screen protector for $3, which, together with tax, came to slightly over $100 (free shipping was nice too). The same deal might be available through this site; either below this review or on the "Compare Prices" tab.

As a side note, the price and feature set of MP3 players keep improving. It is now difficult to characterize newer devices as simply "MP3" players, since they do much more. Since the beginning of my MP3-player phase, I went through quite a few MP3 players, from the lame, but functional Philips HDD077 to excellent iPods of different generations, including Nano models. I still like the iPods, but it cannot be denied that they have their shortcomings, including relatively high price, the lack of WMA support and more.

Since I reside in CA, I have received the player and the silicone case 2 days after ordering them.

What is Sony NWZ-S639F 16GB Digital Media Player? 

The Sony Digital Walkman NWZ-S639F is a portable 16GB Digital Media Player and video/photo viewer, FM radio and a portable drive. The player has a 2-inch LCD display with LED backlight (240x320 QVGA).

The player comes with 16 GB of built-in memory and a Li-Ion battery that ca last up to 50 hours in audio playback mode. It comes with Sony MDR-EX082 headphones (3 different sizes of silicone ear buds are supplied), USB cable, software and manuals.

The player is stylish and features an aluminum case, intuitive control layout, separate volume control buttons and "hold" switch. The music can be copied to the player directly over USB with no need to install any software. The same applies to files of any kind when you use this PMP as a flash drive. You can also use it with Windows Media Player 10 or 11.

The player plays MP3 at 64-320 Kbps and WMA. It also plays lossless WAV (linear PCM), AAC-LC, MPEG4, M4V, JPEG and FM radio.

The interface is USB 2.0 High speed.

Advantages Over iPod Nano 

While being similar in size to the iPod Nano, this digital Walkman is quite different. Aside from the improved sound quality and battery life, which will be described below, it dispenses with a superfluous camera of questionable quality and some semi-useful Nano gimmicks and concentrates on the basics of performance and usability.

Like the iPods, the S639 uses a proprietary connector. But the music transfer to the player does not require special software: you just connect it using the supplied USB cable and copy MP3/WMA/JPEG/etc. files over. Recall that iPods require iTunes software. The supplied CD has Windows Media Player 11, which I already had installed on my laptop. I used it for ripping CDs, some in MP3, some in WMA and some in lossless WAV format and synching to the device. One advantage is the ability to get album and track info from the Internet automatically, including album art. Another is ability to add album art by copy/paste.

The album art appear when you select albums or play tracks on the Walkman, which is pretty cool. Another cool feature is video playback and the device comes preloaded with a few video clips. But sinc I mostly care about music playback, this is of little relevance to me.

The player also plays MP3. WMA (which is a file format iPods do not like, but I sometimes do), WAAV and AAC audio formats.

Ease of Use

Although it lacks the iPods' wheel, the use is intuitive and the controls are solid. The hardware volume control is very handy as well. The colors are vibrant and the screen is bright. I would say the player is as easy to use as virtually any iPod.


I have to mention I was prejudiced against Sony before I started using this player. My experience with Sony's products has not always been top-notch. Unreliability and being overhyped and overpriced were experienced by me firsthand. I still use some of them (example: a Digital8 camcorder), but try to avoid them when I can. This player is different though.

The first thing I noticed after starting to listen to this Walkman (with the same headphones that I usually employ) is that the player sounds excellent, noticeably better than any iPod I have used and better than other MP3 players I used. Even without using its enhancement modes, playing the same material on it as on my iPod Nano (both with equalizers off) I noticed that the sound was more transparent, rich-sounding and clear.

Then, there are sound enhancement modes that actually improve sound. Usually, digital sound processing makes sound different, not better and sometimes worse. This Sony has 4 enhancements (Clear Audio technologies) that actually make low-bitrate music sound better. One of them (Dynamic Normalizer) improves recordings that have poor dynamic range and frequency response combination.

Disclaimer: for an apples-to-apples comparison, I used my usual headphones of choice: Koss KSC-75 with both the Nano and the S639F. This Sony's sound is very detailed, has well-defined bass, mids and treble and the instrument separation is excellent (if you use the highest bit rate possible or, better yet, lossless WAV).

In addition to my Koss KSC-75, I used Sennheiser HD202, Creative EP-640, Zune Premium headphones as well as the supplied headphones (Sony MDR-EX82). The supplied headphones are surprisingly excellent, which is apparent even before the burn-in. They are much better than the ones usually supplied with other MP3 players. I will write a separate review of the supplied headphones shortly (note: the review of Sony MDR-EX082 is now posted here).

I listened to rock, pop and classical music (mostly latter, in lossless linear PCM format). Ernest Bloch's music sounded transparent, detailed and the instrument separation was excellent. Aram Khachaturian's  Violin Concerto in D minor conducted by Aaron Rosand sounded excellent, dynamic and open.

The only slight issue I had was a minor warm coloration, which was barely noticeable. Even with it, the Sony produced the best sound of any digital music player I have used. And you the very good supplied headphones make it a out-of-the-box instant winner in terms of sound quality.

The two custom presets of graphical equalizer allowed me to customize the sound to match the frequency response of different headphones easily, virtualy transforming some of them from semi-decent to very good. The slightly hollow, slightly honky sound of Sennheiser HD202 was virtually cured in this manner, letting the HD 202 reveal its detailed sound and bass capability.

The player can play pretty loud, even with aftermarket headphones.

The radio reception is very good (the headphones have to be connected since the cord serves as an antenna, so you cannot use it as a radio through its built-in speakers with no wires attached) and the sound is also good. The radio station/frequency display is very legible and uses large lettering.


The large 2-inch screen is very sharp, colorful and is informative. The icons are good-looking. The photos look very good (surprisingly for the resolution) and the backlight is bright. The video playback, but with a 2-inch screen I don't expect to watch movies on it.


Another advantage over the iPod is the ability to navigate the directory structure directly. I frequently struggle to find any given song in my iPod Nano's memory because the search is only possible by genre, artist, album, etc. Some of my MP3s have no ID3 tags, some have them in a very non-English language, which does not help.

The Sony lets you find the song you want to play in its directory tree simply by navigating it. Or you can navigate by Artist, Genre, year, etc. There is even a feature that organizes your music by beats per minute.


The battery lasts up to 50 hours, depending on the screen usage, volume and functions used and can be fully charged in 3 hours. Awesome!


The player is compact and rather light, but feels solid. It has a stylish black aluminum body with controls requiring reasonable amount of force to operate.

USB Speed 

The player has USB 2.0 High-speed interface, which is fast..

Pros: Excellent sound, great included headphones, useful sound enhancements, 50-hour battery, 16 GB, great LCD
Cons: No lossless WMA (but lossless WAV)


With sound quality better than most MP3 players, including iPods and low price, large screen, 16-GB capacity and the battery that lasts up to 50 hours in a compact package, the Sony S639F is an excellent choice. It even comes with excellent headphones. I highly recommend it.

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