Dig a little deeper, however, and the S639F has some pretty interesting tricks to try out. The headline one is SensMe. This analyses the music on your Walkman and sorts the music into 11 themed channels based on the tempo, the rhythm and the overall ‘mood’ of the music. This takes time (just under 30 minutes for 472 tracks in my case) but the results are worth it.
You can flick from Energetic (currently playing The Hold Steady’s ”You can Make Him Like You”) to Pop Ballad (now it’s ”Nocturn” from Kate Bush’s Aerial) to Relax (blimey, ”Stairway to Heaven?”) in seconds. Sure, as you can tell it doesn’t always get it right, but it’s a bit like having someone make up playlists for you to fit the mood you’re in. You get the surprise factor of a shuffle mode without having too many weird tracks creeping in to spoil the vibe.
On top of this, there’s Intelligent Shuffle, which mixes a regular Shuffle function with a Time Machine shuffle that picks a year, any year, and blasts you with tracks from it. I can’t see many people using these too often, though sometimes Time Machine gets the nostalgia factor spot on. Oh, 1997… I remember it like it was yesterday….
Screen-wise, the S639F seems similar if not identical to the E series model, with a bright, beautifully crisp 2in 320×240 display. The good news is that video performance is better, with the high-end Walkman playing back the trailer for ”The Transporter 3” and last night’s ”Top Gear” with plenty of detail and nary a stutter. I still wouldn’t want to watch a whole programme on a screen this small, but this is about as good as video playback on a very compact player gets.
Interestingly, Sony is currently preloading the S639F with a selection of video content, as if to prove it. I could personally do without videos of The Ting Tings and Sandi Thom, but if such things float your boat, I guess it’s a nice little extra.
Now for the important bit. The E435F was a strong sounding player. The S639F is even better. It helps that Sony actually bundles the player with a decent pair of noise isolating earbuds, the MDR-EX082s, which deliver a meaty but clearly defined soundstage with a nice, tight bass. With the default EQ settings the combination is strongest on poppier material. ”LoveStoned” from Justin Timberlake’s FutureLove/SexSounds sounds just fantastic, with every beat and click of the rhythm track slapping you around the ears while layers of vocal, synth and clean guitar give them a decent workout.
That said, the S639F is no slouch in other areas. If you want the funky grunge sound of the third Audioslave album, Revelations, then the Sony can push out warm, crunchy rhythm guitar and wailed vocals with style. If you want the stripped back guitar and falsetto vocals of Bon Iver’s ”Blindslided”, then the Sony gives them room to breathe and reveal little sonic details that some lesser players tend to miss. Perhaps the headphones don’t have the subtlety or range to do full justice to the prelude from Wagner’s ”Tristan and Isolde”, but the output certainly isn’t awful. If you’d heard an iPod with stock headphones attempting the same challenge, you’d find there’s really no comparison.