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What really counts in this class is audio performance, and here the news is - typically for Sony - good. Admittedly, the results with the bundled earphones are more solid than spectacular; you get a lot of clarity and detail in the sound, but at the expense of body and warmth, and while fiddling with the five preset and two custom EQ settings helps round out the tone, you can't expect miracles.
Poppier material, like the Timbaland remix of OneRepublic's Apologize, is best served because all the layers of sound come through so precisely. Give the E436F something heavier or cluttered to work with, like the remastered version of Led Zep's Achilles' Last Stand, and the performance is fine, but hardly stellar.
Give the E436F some decent headphones to work with and it's a different story. Plugging in the Denon earphones I use for reference and the hoary old Led Zeppelin track kicks off, the bass surging forwards, the guitar cutting through the mix with incredible power and clarity and the drum fills practically exploding in my poor lug'oles. The slightly more fragile, stripped back arrangement of Bon Iver's Re: Stacks come off equally well, with every little touch and nuance in the acoustic guitar and falsetto vocals captured.
Fans of classical music have few causes for complaint. The delicate piano of Bach's Goldberg Variations is handled with a real finesse, giving you room to appreciate the pianist's individual phrasing, while Tasmin Little's 1998 recording of Arvo Pärt's Summa sounds every bit as lovely and melancholy as it should do, each instrument clearly discernible yet merging into one rich sound. I'm not sure I'd put the E436F up there with the best players from iRiver or Cowon, but it's not all that far off.
Of course, those players can boast something the Sony can't: support for file formats beyond MP3, AAC and WMA, including lossless formats like APE and FLAC. For this reason, the more obsessive audiophile will probably want to look in their direction - not least because the 4GB capacity of the E436F won't stretch so far with the more exotic formats.
I suspect that the E436F's intended audience won't be so troubled, and what they will appreciate more is the incredible battery life. Sony quotes a colossal 45 hours of playback time, and having watched the E436F cruise through a day of pretty solid use with barely a dent in the battery gauge, I've no reason to believe that's not the case.
Throw in a decent and easy to set-up FM radio and a nice little clock display function and the Sony is an appealing compact player at a very reasonable price, and a worthy rival to the new iPod Nano.
Counting against it, the 4GB capacity is a bit disappointing and the design isn't as drop dead gorgeous as the Nano, but in its favour the E436F is significantly cheaper - in fact the £60-odd price point puts it in direct competition with players from many less well-known brands. Of these, iRiver's Lplayer probably has the edge on audio quality, format support and value, but otherwise it's a close run thing. If great battery life and a solid build are more important factors, the Sony is an excellent buy.
Not the most exciting, stylish or innovative player on the block, but a strong performer that's built to go the distance, with battery life to match.
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