- Review Price: £229.99
At last we have our hands on it: Sony’s mighty flagship touch-screen Walkman, the one that was going to push Apple’s iPod touch around in the playground then leave assorted other players crying for their mummies. It’s fair to say that few players of recent years have been so anticipated – and it’s also fair to say that few players so anticipated have been met with such a mixed response. Whatever you might have read elsewhere, the X1060 is an excellent player, and one that only a cloth-eared simpleton could describe as an all-out disappointment. The bad news is that it’s not excellent in the way some of you might have hoped. While it trumps Apple’s effort in several key areas, it’s not quite the market-leading, all-singing, all-dancing PMP that many of us hoped it would turn out to be.
Personally speaking, my doubts started creeping in as soon as I pulled the X1060 out of the box. From the front it’s a very cool, compact unit dominated by a gorgeous 3in OLED screen. Face on, it’s about a centimetre smaller than the iPod touch in both directions, and at 10.5mm it’s around the same thickness. Bar the ridged metallic semi-circular Home button at the bottom, the front is a single sheet of glass and the styling is typical Sony: understated, elegant and smart. Unfortunately, someone on the design team decided that this was all a bit dull, and so the sides have been treated with some weird, mottled grey crocodile skin/granite effect, while the back seems to have borrowed its finish from a B&Q kitchen worktop. It’s not a disaster, but it leaves a slightly odd first impression.
Still, there’s no doubt that the company that practically invented personal audio knows how to build very usable, robust mobile hardware. While I’d probably want a case to protect the screen – and the same goes for any touch-screen PMP – the X1060 feels ridiculously solid. The front and back surfaces are prone to collecting fingerprints, but – again – you can say the same about the Cowon S9, Samsung YP-P2 or iPod touch. The headphone socket can be found sensibly placed on the top edge, along with some useful and accessible playback buttons. The right side, meanwhile, holds a volume rocker and a switch for the X1060’s built-in noise reduction facility (more on this later). On the back, you’ll also find a useful hold switch, which is very handy if you want to shove your Walkman in your trouser pocket but don’t want to find you’re inadvertently pausing or changing tracks as you move about.
Now, some people might question the point of physical controls on a touch-screen player, but to my mind they’re very, very handy when you need to pause or change volume in a hurry without getting the device out of a pocket. In some boroughs of London, that’s practically a survival skill. I can’t say I’m quite so chuffed with the proprietary USB connector, but that now seems to be standard issue for a player of this class.
There’s better news to come. A worrying number of touch-screen PMPs have failed in the usability stakes, either due to unresponsive screens or poor GUI design. The X1060 effortlessly succeeds on both counts. There’s no pointless prodding or repetitive swiping here; touch or tap the screen and it reacts. The GUI, meanwhile, is really an evolution of the one you’ll find on existing Walkmans, and while that means it doesn’t go big on multi-touch gesture recognition or eye-catching animations, it’s simple to follow, easy to navigate and very, very functional. Don’t get me wrong; the GUI isn’t devoid of cool and useful features. The X1060 still makes appropriate use of sweeping gestures used to, say, scroll horizontally through a selection of photos or vertically through a list of artists or albums, and Sony has also implemented its own variation of CoverFlow. Just tap the album art while a track is playing and you can flit from album to album in a parade of 3D covers that neatly alters direction according to your movements. It’s not exactly original, but it still looks good. I’m also a big fan of the yellow glow that surrounds buttons and options as you press them. It’s good feedback, and for some reason makes me think of runes and spells in Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter – in a good way, of course.
Some of the additional functions, like the FM radio, have travelled almost directly from the higher-end E and S series Walkmans, but the introduction of W-iFi into the X1060 – doubtless to match the iPod touch feature for feature and spec for spec – has opened up a few new options. The YouTube player has its irritations – it could be easier to find and navigate content – but it works smoothly and does the job. You can also now download, play and subscribe to podcasts from within the podcast app. The big disappointments are, however, the lack of email and the quality of the Web browser.
The first is a non-issue for some people, but I’ve found the iPod touch a handy little email platform for when my PC is switched off or I’m doing other things, and the Sony doesn’t offer the same functionality. The second might be just as unimportant to you, but when a product offers web browsing as a major selling point, that browsing experience had better be good. With the X1060 it’s ghastly. The browser feels slow, it does a bad job of handling complex sites (like this one), search facilities are poor, entering text using a less than brilliantly implemented T9 system is incredibly long-winded and you actually have to type http:// in front of Web addresses before they work. It’s one step up from the built-in browsers supplied on most mobile phones, but in comparison to Safari on the iPod touch, it’s a disaster. Sony desperately needs to fix its browser. Now!
However, we now come to the X1060’s strong suits. First, the screen really is excellent. At 3in it’s a half-inch smaller than the display on the iPod touch, and the resolution (432 x 240) isn’t actually as high. However, to counter this the screen is superbly bright, colours are extremely vivid and clarity is plain top notch. It’s a great screen for viewing or sharing photos, and an even better one for watching video content. It’s hard to know which player I’d rather watch a movie on – the touch has size on its side and is sharp and vibrant enough for me – but the Sony is certainly one of a handful of PMPs where I could imagine watching a whole blockbuster, and it’s superb sound and pocket friendly size make it a great ultra-mobile cinema device. Of course, coming from Sony you can’t expect format support to be that comprehensive, but MPEG-4, H.264 and WMV files are all handled without any major issues. What’s more, the X1060 also plays iPlayer downloads, and while trying this out I discovered something else. When the X1060 imports video files it automatically chapter marks sections where it finds a natural gap, allowing you to flick between ‘chapters’, DVD style, using another neat, CoverFlow style menu.
Now for the really good news. I’m tempted to stick my neck out, right here and right now, and say that the X1060 is the best sounding PMP I have ever heard, surpassing even the Cowon S9 and D2+. It’s certainly the best sounding player I’ve heard out of the box, thanks mostly to the excellent bundled headphones. With their 13.5mm drivers the EX earphones provided are in a different league to the buds you’ll find bundled with the S9 or iPod touch, and the sound they dish out is warm, slightly bass heavy but surprisingly detailed. I tried out a range of material from The Kings of Leon through Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde to The Hold Steady, Justin Timberlake and Mastodon, and while I’ve heard all sound better with more expensive headphones and canalphones, I don’t think there’s any compelling reason to upgrade unless you’re going to spend £60 or more.
In fact, I can think of one good reason not to; with the bundled EX headphones connected you can use the X1060’s built-in noise reduction processing. You can switch between train, plane and office modes, and the effect is actually pretty convincing, doing a very effective job of drowning out traffic noise on a long walk into town – to an extent that was probably not all that good for safety. Again, you will get better results from a more expensive pair of active noise cancelling ‘phones or a really good pair of isolating canal phones, but given this is all in the one price, it’s another win for Sony.
All that said, it’s only when you hook up some more high-end cans that you really get a sense what the X1060 is made of. I suspect the superlative sound quality really comes down to two things: intelligent processing and high-class digital amplification. There are three processing options you can switch in and out. One, the Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, is designed to restore high-frequency information lost during compression and – like similar technologies from BBE, Samsung and Philips – seems to create a fuller, more dynamic output. The other two, Clear Bass and Clear Stereo, have a less marked effect, but seem to do exactly what you might expect. Combine these with some fine DAC circuitry and what Sony claims is a derivative of its S-Master amplification tech – as used in the manufacturer’s audio and home cinema equipment – and the sound quality of the X1060 is set on course for the stars.
It all works. Even with a pair of mid-range Denon AC551 earphones plugged in there’s a noticeable distinction between the X Series and the iPod touch. The sound is warmer, there’s more detail at the top and in the mid-range, and the bass is crisper and more authoritative. Driving a pair of Grado SR125s the X1060 is nothing short of stunning. The soundstage and imaging is more impressive than I think I’ve heard from any unamplified PMP, and music is really punchy, rich and detailed. There you go thinking that Justice’s DVNO rocks on an iPod touch, when the Sony strolls around and kicks sand in the Apple player’s face, creating a noise so vibrant and exuberant that it takes all my self control not to bounce up and down at my desk. The piano in Wading Through, from Terence Blanchard’s Hurricane Katrina requiem, A Tale of God’s Will, sounds fantastically natural and lifelike, but as the percussion gets louder and the double bass, strings and wind instruments come forward, there’s no sense that the X1060 is struggling to maintain mid-range clarity or resolve high-end detail. The warm acoustic and electric guitars, drums and piano in Ray LaMontagne’s Let it be Me, from Gossip in the Grain, positively sparkle, but it’s the vocal that amazes. Again, it has a certain degree of presence and body from the iPod touch, but the X1060 is simply streets ahead when it comes to tone and definition. Basically, to hear the X1060 is to love it.
Here’s something else to love. Battery life is rated at 33 hours for music and 9 hours for video. For audio that puts it slightly behind the iPod touch, but to counter that you get an extra three hours of video – useful on a long-distance train or long-haul flight.
Is all that enough for a recommendation? It depends. If you just want a great sounding PMP, then the 16GB S639F is £60 to £70 less expensive than the 32GB X1060’s stablemate, the 16GB X1050, and while I don’t have both for a direct comparison, I’d say it’s not a huge step backwards in terms of audio quality. The 16GB and 32GB iPod touches, meanwhile, are both more expensive than their X-Series equivalents, but you get the benefits of a much better browser, a more glamorous user interface and – and let’s not underestimate the importance of this – access to all the games and apps on the app store. Meanwhile, Samsung’s YP-P3 undercuts the Walkman on price, with a comparable screen, comparable video quality and marginally inferior but still very fine sound. Sure, it doesn’t have Wi-Fi, but when the Sony browser is so poor, how much does that matter to you anyway? What’s more, while the X1060 supports MP3, WMA and AAC, Sony still hasn’t embraced FLAC or OGG, so many audiophiles might still opt for a Cowon D2+ or S9 PMP instead.
In a way, the iPod touch comparisons haven’t done Sony any favours. As a touch beater, the X1060 is a damp squib, let down by the Web browser and the lack of additional apps. Where the touch feels more and more like a general purpose handheld computer, the Sony feels like a jumped-up PMP. However, when you actually get down to it, the X1060 is a bloody great jumped up PMP, and now prices are stabilising, reasonable value. Were I spending £180 to £230 on a new player I’d certainly shortlist it, if only for that awesome audio quality. Just be aware that it’s not the be all and end all of PMPs, and you’ll probably agree.
Not the touch beater some of us wished for, but an excellent touchscreen PMP boasting what might just be the best sound quality of any player in its class. Mildly disappointing, but warmly recommended.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 9