However, there’s one aspect of the Q1 experience that takes some getting used to, and that’s the controls. There’s a sort of raised diamond-shaped area below the screen that acts as a touch-sensitive D-pad and selector, along with back and menu buttons above it. In theory it works in a similar way to the almost identical layout on the current Walkmans, but in practice the diamond pad is a little unpredictable. At times, particularly while on crowded public transport, you’ll end up pressing the back button when you mean to go left, pressing up when you mean to go right, pressing options when you want to go up, and so on.
Annoyingly, this happens a lot when you’re playing the columns clone, turning one of the best built-in games I’ve encountered on a PMP into a bit of a nightmare. As with most oddball control systems it’s something you do learn to work around, but while the touch controls help the Q1 achieve its cool look, you can’t help wishing for something a little more prosaic that works more effectively.
And here’s another area where the Q1 falls down. Why, oh why, do reputable manufacturers like Samsung still produce supposedly premium quality MP3 players then bung a useless pair of earbuds in the box? Were you to judge the Q1 on the sound output from the supplied earpieces you would not come away impressed. The sound is clear but lightweight; there’s some bass, but no body, a reasonably wide soundstage, but no definition of instruments. Buy a Q1 and use the supplied buds and you really might as well have bought a cheaper, inferior player.
Plug in something better, like the Denon canalphones I use for reference, and it’s a very different story. The sound isn’t as aggressively punchy as the output from the Sony NWZ-639F but it has a fantastic roundness of tone to compensate. Listen to Justin Timberlake’s ”LoveStoned” and the Sony has the edge for bass and definition, but there’s something very warm and coherent about the way the Samsung delivers the track, and there’s still detail to spare.
Play Radiohead’s ”All I Need” and the low bass notes and drifting feedback seems to envelope you in a mildly unnerving blanket of sound, only giving way to the higher, bell-like tones and thumped piano chords that come through later as the drums pick up. The Sony still has the edge on clarity at the messy end section of the song, but there’s really not much in it.
The Samsung’s tone also works well for other musical genres. The clear piano and warm vocals of the Tony Bennet/Bill Evans album sound particularly good, with the Q1 capturing the intimate, small venue tone and the exquisite chord-work that characterises Evans’ playing. The performance with Wagner’s ”Tristan and Isolde” is equally impressive. Where lesser players veer between clumping every instrument in the string section together or resolving them as an overly strident racket, the Samsung holds onto the rich textures while still giving the instruments room to breathe.
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The ”Prelude to Act 3”, less overwhelming than the ”Act 1” prelude, sounds as glorious as its going to get without a headphone amplifier and a good set of proper, full-sized ‘phones. Again, you could say that the Walkman’s output is slightly stronger on the dynamics, but the Samsung has a slightly more coherent overall tone.