It’s that time of year again; the time when Sony takes a look at their MP3 player line up, decide it’s time for an update, and run a computer application that randomly adds and removes some features and then releases the result as a new player.
The S540 is a Sony player, which means the same menus, format support, video support, screen resolution etc etc as the previous models. New in this model is integrated stereo speakers, FM and voice recording and a couple of more tweaks. Read on to see how it hods up.
- Quick Look
- Capacities: 8GB, 16GB
- Screen: 2.4” QVGA 240×320 LCD
- Size: 49.3 x 99.3 x 10.2mm
- Weight: 68g
- Supported Audio: MP3, WMA, AAC-LC, Linear PCM
- Supported Video: MPEG-4, h.264, WMV (DRM) @ 320×240
- Battery Life: 42 hours music, 6.5 hours video
- Transfer Modes: MTP
- User Interface: Tactile
- Sound enhancements: Clear bass, Clear Stereo, Equalizer, Dynamic Normalizer
- Other Features: FM Radio, FM and voice recording, speakers, alarm, sleep timer
In the box
The S540 comes with standard bad quality headphones instead of the premium EX-82 that previous top-of-the-line models have shipped with. It also comes with a USB cable, dock adapter and video stand. Software and manuals are on the player itself.
The design of Sony Walkman players have gradually become better over the last few years with the very sexy and sleek S630 as one of the slimmest players on the market and the older A820 as one of my personal favorites with regards to design. The new S540 however seem to have taken a turn for the worst in almost every way.
The basic design of the S540 is a rectangle with the top and bottom being rounded compared to rounded corners on previous models. The chassis is plastic with speaker grills made of metal and a hard plastic part covering the screen. The back is dented in the middle (aka bulging on either side) due to the speakers sitting to either side on the back (when the player is held on the side/landscape mode). The shape when held on the side really reminds me of the first PSP, which had both rounded sides and bulging parts on the back to form a grip-like shape. Every time I hold the S540 I get the feeling I’m holding a tiny portable gaming device.
The speakers means that the player is also significantly thicker than older models, closer to the thickness of the original S610 and very far from the extremely thin S630. This makes the device feel a bit less fragile, but it also makes it feel a lot more generic and un-Sony than I like.
The front of the player has the navigation buttons, which is shaped – and there’s no getting around this – like Mickey Mouse’s head. It’s so alike that every time I put the player on pause I feel bad for picking Mickey’s nose. On top of the weird arrangement of the buttons, the buttons are also very annoying to use compared to older Sony models. The D-pad is made of metal, large and very flat, which sounds good but is actually very hard to use because it’s so flush with the casing and the middle button that you don’t really get a good feeling of where you are on the D-pad, causing repeated mistakes where you either press the wrong direction on the D-pad or confuse the D-pad and the play/pause button. The Sony A820 which had a very narrow but clearly defined square D-pad was a hundred times easier to use since you always knew when it was the D-pad you were touching. The D-pad on this device however doesn’t even have anything marking it with the exception of some arrow indentations which you can’t feel with your finger. This is probably the player I’ve used with tactile buttons that has the least chance of being used blindly in a pocket, bordering on being as annoying to operate as touchpad players like the Samsung Q1.
The top and bottom of the front also have metal speaker grills which doesn’t really seem to contain speakers directly, just pass through the air from the speakers that point out the back through the plastic grills back there. The speaker grills is a love/hate thing where you might hate the look or you might love it. Personally it reminds me of a microphon
e, one of the old metal ones you see in old movies.
The bottom of the player has the proprietary Sony connector for connecting to a PC or a dock, the 3.5mm headphone port, the microphone hole and a lanyard hoop. The left side of the player is all clean, but the right side hosts the hold switch, volume buttons and a switch to switch between speaker and headphone output. The latter is somewhat of a weird choice considering they could just have made the switching automatic, but it does have its reasons which I’ll get back to later.
Lastly the back of the player which has the two before-mentioned speaker grills, a recessed reset button and a couple of holes for inserting the tiny stand that comes with it. Thinking back to the nice clip-on stand that came with the A820, I’m rather disappointed with the one that comes with this player as it looks more like a spare piece of plastic from the packaging (or a Klingon toothpick) than a piece that actually belongs to the player. Overall the design of the player isn’t what I’d hoped to see from Sony.
Ironically, the S545 lacks several features that the S630 had, which might be an indication that it’s the smaller brother, but who knows with Sony model numbering. While the letter and second number in the model number remains true to the old Sony system (S referring to the «specialized» series or something and and the number 4 referring to generation 4), they’ve redone the capacity numbers (the last number) so that 16GB is now «5» instead of «9» as was the case on the last generation. Whether the fact this is 5xx instead of 6xx is an indication there’s a better equipped S640 coming is anyone’s guess. Either way, the model name of the NWZ-S545 can be explained as something along the lines of «new walkman europe/US edition-specialized series type 5 generation 4 player with 16GB». I’m not saying they should name the player «Bob» next time, but you don’t have to adopt the naming scheme from registry numbers of Starfleet ships from Star Trek (which ironically are much less complicated).
Leaving the headache-inducing model numbers to die a silent death for now, there are as I said a LOT of features missing from the S540 that the S630 had. Being a podcast geek like no other the first thing I noticed was the lack of a podcast section anywhere on the player, a feature introduced (and apparently killed) with the S630. While not perfect back then, I would certainly rather have it than not have it at all. The S540 also lacks the SensMe feature that the S630 boosted, which was essentially a playlist-creator that made playlists based on «moods» (aka matching songs to predefined beat patterns). Intelligent shuffle has also been dropped as well as the ability to change the color theme of the device. Basically, every single feature introduced in the S630 has been removed in the S540 and Sony seem to pretend they never happened, as if the SensMe feature set was nothing but a hippie period that Sony would like to forget.
One feature they did keep from older players was the radio. In the S630 review I noted the lack of a recording feature for the radio, which is now in place on the S540 as one of the new features. It’s able to record in 160kbps MP3 which is a very good and balanced (size/quality) bitrate and format to record to. The headphone cord works as the antenna and this is where the switch to toggle between headphones and speakers come in; without it, you wouldn’t have been able to listen to the radio through the speakers, as you wouldn’t get a usable signal. The radio has decent reception and awesome sound quality, which combined with the recording feature and the speakers bring it from being a nifty add-on to one of the better radios in the MP3 player universe. Still missing timed radio recordings like the Cowon D2 has, but I doubt that many people use that feature anyways.
To fit with the FM recording/speakers theme Sony also decided to put in a voice recorder in the S545. It records to the same bitrates as the FM recorder, but since it uses a rather poor mic it doesn’t sound all that good. Even at close range it’s not anything to write home about, and while the speakers add some usefulness to the concept it’s hardly even a gimmick.
The S630 like its predecessors use the same format as iPods – h.264. it only supports resolutions up to 320×240 (which is the screen resolution) so it doesn’t play back all iPod formatted material. It also supports WMV with the same restrictions, which is what the bundled program converts to. You have the standard zoom and video orientation settings that all Sony players have, which is something at least. The biggest problem with the video playback is actually the screen, which is somewhat poor. The viewing angle is very bad, so you have to have it at just the right angle to get everything to display correctly. If you hold the player in landscape mode to watch videos, you actually have to tilt the right side of the player towards you slightly to get it to display properly or the contrast will be all messed up.
The reason that the S540 is noticeably thicker than it should be, and that it looks like a microphone, it the speakers. Yes, plural. There are two speakers located on the back, which in theory gives you stereo sound although they’re so close I doubt you’ll notice the effect. The speakers are unfortunately just as tinny and bad sounding as most other speakers that size and I couldn’t stand listening to them at full volume at all. I don’t expect there to be bass, but I do have devices with similar sized speakers that doesn’t sound like a car alarm, so it’s a matter of poor choice for quality parts and not just a limit in the technology itself.
Writing a description of Sony menus feels like being stuck in a time loop as the menus more or less haven’t changed since the S610. You have the standard blue/black background with white icons that you’ve always had on Sony players, and they’re just arranged a bit different to reflect what features are on the player. You have icons for music, videos and photos as well as playlists and a somewhat random dedicated «shuffle all» icon.You also have icons for settings, FM radio, voice recording and «now playing».
The S540 like its older siblings has an instant on feature that basically means if you turn it off and then back on within a certain amount of time (a day or so), it will just wake up from sleep immediately instead of having to turn all the way on. It will then continue whatever it was doing (music, radio etc). For browsing there are also no changes from other Sony players, and you have the standard list of ID3 tags to browse by (artist/album/year etc) and also an option to browse by folders. Browsing through the lists that appear is done with the same old browsing method where up/down moves you through the list while left/right skips to the next letter in the alphabet for some easier browsing.
One thing I did notice with browsing music was that with a lot of songs on the player, it sometimes slows down to a crawl if you try to browse large lists while music is playing. With 600 songs on the device, browsing all songs using the alphabet skip feature is more or less impossible because it will lag a lot in updating the screen after you press the buttons. Not good and very annoying.
The player itself is pretty straight forward in use, nothing too fancy. The now playing screen shows the album art and some info, and pressing the option button while on this screen brings up a menu where you can choose among things like album art browsing, detailed information about the song, equalizer settings and play mode settings. New to the S540 is a wishlist feature accessible from this menu. I frankly have no idea what this does as the manual only states «adds the song to the wish list
to purchase it on the service corresponded software». There isn’t a music store in the bundled software, and why would you add your own music to a list of music to buy anyways?
Also new to the player is an alarm and sleep timer. The sleep timer lets you set a countdown for turning the player off, while the alarm will turn it back on. Coupled with the speaker this might work to some degree, but I have a feeling a lot of people would sleep through the sound this thing is able to produce. Still a great addition.
If you want to change any other settings than the ones accessible form the music option screen (or the corresponding menus for radio, video etc) you have to exit to the main menu and go into the dedicated settings section. Why on earth Sony would split the settings as randomly as they have (for instance, half the music enhancement features can only be accessed from the main menu settings section while the rest can be accessed from the «now playing» screen directly) I don’t know, but they’ve done it for years and apparently have no plans to change this.
When it comes to videos, a lot of people have complained about previous Sony players not being able to sort videos in any way. Music videos, TV shows or movies would all be garbled up in one giant list of files sorted by date transferred. This is also the case with the S540 and will continue to annoy people including myself. It seems somewhat odd to have a player capable of playing decent-ish quality video, make the effort to include zoom and orientation settings, but then completely skip past having any way of organizing the videos. No matter how many folders you create and try to organize your videos, it will all be listed in a single list.
With photos you can actually organize them in folders, but to make up for that useful feature Sony decided it should ignore root folder structure and looks for pictures everywhere, not only in the photo folder. This might not seem like an issue, unless you have album art as separate files or have any video files that use separate thumbnail files (such as the ones already on the player when you buy it). These will show up under photos, making it very annoying to separate what’s a 200 picture family photo folder and what’s a 1 photo thumbnail folder containing Britney Spears’ latest album picture. Sure they are named, but this little annoyance can quickly create a very long list of «photo» folders, which is a hassle to skim through to find the one that actually has photos.
The player is MTP which means any newer Windows computer (preferably with a recent version of Windows Media Player installed) will be able to do things like transfer files and create playlists without actually using any software. Like older generation Sony players it will probably unofficially revert to UMS if used on Linux/MacOS, however I have not tested this. The Sony Content Transfer software that comes with the device however will give you a very small pop up window when you plug in the player where you can drag files onto it and it will transfer them for you. If you drag a video that’s not supported it will ask you if you want it converted to a supported format (WMV) and it will then do so. The result of this conversion is a poor quality file, so I would urge anyone who want to watch videos to use some better software that encodes to h264 and not WMV at unknown bitrates.
One of the reasons people keep buying Sony players despite them not changing that much from year to year is that they sound good. Very good. The S540 is no exception and it has the same good sound quality you’d expect from a Sony player. On top of that it has some sound enhancement features that might add to the equalizer experience a little if you’re into that sort of things, like ClearBass which is the Sony (inferior) copy of BBE mach3bass that Cowon licenses.
One of the hardest thing about reviewing Sony players is to try to make each review stand on it’s own instead of being a continuing story from the last X amount of players they released. With the same menus, features (to some extent), sound quality, format support etc it’s sometimes hard to be enthusiastic of a player update as small as some of the Sony ones. The S540 is a nice player, it has lost some features and gained others but remains «just another Sony Walkman». My personal favorite Sony player is still the A820, and considering some of the flaws in the S540 (useless buttons, thicker than needed etc) I’d rather be sitting here with that right now. Still, if you want a Sony player and find the feature set of the S540 to be the one best suited your needs it will serve you well, just don’t let the fact it’s the newest model fool you – it’s not that much different from the older ones.
- Battery Life
- Sound Quality
- FM recording
- Alarm and sleep timer
- Buttons are close to useless
- Speakers very tinny
- Not that much of an upgrade
- Looks like Mickey Mouse
- Slow at times