Review: Sony X Series Walkman

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Before the Zune HD and what is assumed to be the third-generation iPod touch are released to the touchscreen DAP/PMP-adoring public this month, let's take one last look at Sony's X Series Walkman before it's completely overshadowed and forgotten. The company's WiFi-enabled flagship player, which features an OLED touchscreen and built-in digital noise cancellation, received more positive attention when it was locked under glass at CES 2009 than after it was released in mid-June, so to say that the X Series has not been a mainstream success is quite the understatement.

But just because the masses haven't embraced it doesn't mean the player isn't any good. In fact, during the past few weeks that I've been using it, the device has become my favorite daily-use DAP because of its stellar sound quality and simple interface.

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Since time is of the essence, I've decided to deviate from my standard review format and lay out what I consider to be the best and worst reasons to buy the X Series Walkman instead (full specs here).

Best Reasons to Buy the Sony X Series Walkman

Sound quality. The number one reason to consider the X Series is its sound quality. According to my Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 Pro canalphones and my ears, this is definitely one of the best-sounding media players on the market right now. I say this based on lossy codecs and the default sound setting with all EQs and audio enhancements (VPT Surround, DSEE Sound Enhance, Clear Stereo, and Dynamic Normalizer) disabled. The player has replaced my Cowon S9, which I've been using for 8+ months and have ranked above the Sansa Clip and Fuze in terms of sound quality; to my ears, then, nothing sounds better than the X Series. It's rich and full, bright and balanced, sparkling and warm.

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Even with the included earphones (MDR-NC020, shown above), which are required for use with the well implemented digital noise canceling feature, the Walkman sounds fantastic. The audio enhancements are more useful with these buds as well (they sound slightly unnatural with the triple.fi), so if you're not a hardcore audiophile or an overly nitpicky listener, you'll have little reason to invest in a better pair.

Build quality. Quality is rarely an issue with Sony products and the X Series is no exception.

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The player has a substantial heft to it and is made of metal, plastic, and glass that all work together to produce a geode-like design: rough rock-like texture on the edges, smooth/glossy front and back flecked with glitter.

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Nothing on the device feels like Sony skimped on any of the materials; everything is tight and solid.

Touchscreen. In addition to the player's 3-inch OLED being positively stunning in terms of colors, brightness, contrast, and viewing angles, the touchscreen is incredibly responsive.

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Swipe gestures, kinetic scrolling, and simple taps are registered immediately and accurately, making the touch experience fast, enjoyable, and frustration-free.

Hardware controls. One of the nice features about the X Series, especially for those who like to operate their players from within their pockets, is that it includes a full set of hardware controls.

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From the large hold switch and home button to the volume rocker and playback buttons (back/rewind, play/pause, next/fast-forward), the Walkman can be used blindly when listening to music and podcasts. Another nicety is that the hold switch can be configured to disable accidental operation of the entire device or just the touchscreen.

User interface. Though the player's UI lacks customization beyond selecting a background photo, its simplicity and navigational considerations make it a highlight.

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The home screen is nothing out of the ordinary, so what makes the interface intuitive are all the little details that eliminate unnecessary tapping and backing out of menus.

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Just as the alphabet strip/index at the top of music lists lets you find a particular song/album quickly, the icons always present at the bottom of the Now Playing and list screens make searching through your music library efficient as well.

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Tapping the magnifying glass icon brings up a context menu that allows you to browse your music by All Songs, Album, Artist, Genre, Release Year, Playlists, and Folder.

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Another nice function is the globe icon, which launches a Related Links screen that lets you select the artist, song title, or album and search for the keyword on YouTube and Yahoo! oneSearch.

You can see the UI in action in one of the many video demos available on YouTube.

Slacker Radio. In addition to the standard FM tuner, the X Series also features a dedicated Slacker app that caches up to three custom streaming radio stations that can be accessed even when not connected to a WiFi network. Custom stations must be created on a computer, but refreshing them occurs directly on the player via WiFi. A basic Slacker account is free, while a paid subscription is $3.99/month and offers unlimited song skips and requests, no ads, and complete lyrics.

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The Slacker interface is just as straightforward as the standard Now Playing screen, with rating icons (heart and ban), artist/album/song information, EQs, and VPT/DSEE sound enhancements all accessible from the playback screen.

YouTube. As with the Slacker app, YouTube is nicely integrated and enjoyably usable on the X Series Walkman. Along with the intuitive Related Links tie-in with the music playback screen mentioned earlier, a dedicated icon on the home screen provides quick access to YouTube.

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You can browse Featured and Most Viewed videos, search by keyword, and even find related videos to the one you're watching. Standard quality videos load fairly quickly (depending on your network connection) and play smoothly in landscape mode.

Battery life. The X Series Walkman doesn't offer the longest battery life, but 33 hours for audio and 9 hours for video (depending on settings and usage) is still impressive and more than enough for most users. I use the player solely for music and have only charged it twice in the past few weeks.

Included accessories. At a time when most DAPs/PMPs are bundled with the bare essentials, the accessories included with the X Series almost seem luxurious.

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In addition to the premium headphones (with three sizes of silicone tips), which are already a nice bonus, the player comes with a cradle attachment, proprietary USB cable, audio input cable, airplane plug adapter, software CD, and requisite paperwork.

Worst Reasons to Buy the Sony X Series Walkman

Web browser. The absolute worst reason to get the X Series Walkman is for its NetFront web browser. Compared to mobile browsers on modern devices like the iPod touch, Archos 5, and various smartphones, NetFront on the X Series is appallingly bad.

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Sony should honestly be mortified to have released a product in 2009 with a browser like this.

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Its lack of support for Flash, streaming media, uploading/downloading files, and inability to render complex sites without choking notwithstanding, the browsing experience is tedious and unpleasant due to T9 text entry, terrible view modes (Normal, Just-Fit, and Smart-Fit) for anything other than mobile versions of websites, zoom functions that are not always accessible, manual screen rotation, and low screen resolution.

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Some could argue that a pathetic web browser is better than no web browser at all, but I disagree. The X Series would be better served without a browser, as its implementation is laughable and shows little sign of any thought or effort having been put into it. Why bother if you're not even going to try, Sony? We all know from using NetFront on the mylo 2 that you're not completely incompetent or oblivious to the competition.

The WiFi implementation on the X Series Walkman really should have been limited to Slacker and YouTube. Sure, consumers may have complained about the lack of a web browser, but it would've been better to leave them wanting more than feeling disappointed and disgusted.

Price. A premium price tag has always been associated with Sony products, so if bang-for-your-buck and great value are what you're after, the X Series is not for you.

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Priced at $299 (16GB) and $399 (32GB), the Walkman is $100 more expensive than the Samsung P3 and Cowon S9 (arguably its non-iPod competition) and exactly the same price as the much fuller featured second-generation iPod touch, which will probably get a price cut when the third-gen is announced next week.

Video support. Although the gorgeous OLED screen seems ideal for watching movies and other videos (if you don't mind the 3-inch screen size), getting videos successfully transferred to the X Series is generally not a simple matter of drag-and-drop. Unlike the Archos 5, Samsung P3, and Cowon S9, which will play just about anything (DivX and XviD included), the Walkman is limited to a few video codecs that often require a run through conversion software.

Conclusion

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The sound quality alone justifies the inclusion of the Sony X Series Walkman in my collection. Yes, it's overpriced and the web browser is complete and utter garbage, but I think the player has a lot going for it too. Slacker and YouTube integration, outstanding build quality, responsive touchscreen, stunning OLED screen, and a straightforward user interface are all stand-out features worthy of recognition.

So even though the X Series will probably be knocked completely off the grid when the Zune HD and new iPod touch are released in the coming weeks, my ears are happy that it's here now.

The Sony X Series Walkman is available now from Amazon and other retailers.

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Jenn K. Lee

Jenn K. Lee is the founder of Pocketables. She loves gadgets the way most women love shoes and purses. The pieces in her tech wardrobe that go with everything are currently the Samsung Galaxy Note II, Sony Tablet P, and Nexus 7, but there are still a couple of vintage UMPCs/MIDs in the back of her closet.

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32 thoughts on “Review: Sony X Series Walkman

  • September 1, 2009 at 7:10 am
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    Great review Jenn. You really got the good and the bad things pointed out.

    I would never recomend the X, if anything besides music is important to people. But for music the X really really shines, and the UI is brilliant, both the touch UI and the physical buttons. And the sound quality is nothing less than stunning!

    Together with my Sennheiser IE8’s and other highend phones, this player is a killer. And even the included phones are more than decent.

    So for music alone, I also wholehearty recomend the Sony X.

    Btw. I haven’t even started the browser, and probably never will :)

    Reply
  • September 1, 2009 at 7:30 am
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    Thanks for the review Jen. Right now I’m really looking for a portable media player with the best sound quality so this review is right up my alley. Unfortunately for Sony the 32GB iPod Touch and and 32GB Zune HD will both be available for ~$300. Another $100 price drop please Sony. :)

    Two questions though. Does the Sony X have better sound quality than the Cowon S9 with BBE? And how much better would you say the sound quality is?

    Also, PLEASE tell me you already have the Zune HD preordered and that you will be buying a 3G iPod Touch on day one :D

    I trust your reviews definitely want to know what you have to say about the sound quality of the Sony X, Zune HD, an 3G iPod Touch.

    Reply
  • September 1, 2009 at 9:49 am
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    From what I have read, most people say the Sony X sounds better than the Cowon S9. Even CNET, who is usually clueless, says this in their X vs S9 prizefight. The X comes out as the overall winner.

    iPods will never sound as good as Cowon or Sony, so I would skip the new Touch if you are serious about sound quality. Most iPod users use those god awful white crapbuds so it is clear that they know nothing about SQ. It is funny how they think those white buds are status symbols when they are really advertisements for how they don’t care about what their music sounds like!

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  • September 1, 2009 at 11:31 am
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    Well I just sold my iPod Touch 1G in anticipation of the flood of DAP’s coming out. The Android based Archos 5 is coming out very soon too and that will be in the mix as well.

    I know the iPod Touch *probably* won’t have great audio quality but I know a lot of hearsay gets thrown around and repeated as fact. I’ve compared a 5.5G and 1G iPod Touch and the 1G sounds better despite the slight background hiss on low impedance phones. Most people say 5.5G has better sound quality because of the Wolfson chip but IMO it doesn’t. The 1G had a much smoother and clearer sound.

    Anyways, I plan on getting the lowest capacity iPod Touch 3G only for the applications and what should be a camera and faster processor and drmed movies I got for free with blu-ray purchases. My second DAP will be decided purely based on sound quality and easy of navigation through music, anything else is a bonus.

    Sony is leading the current pack but man that Zune HD has such a beautiful interface that I really really hope it can deliver in the sound quality. The Sony really needs a price drop too, it can’t be more expensive than a Zune HD or iPod Touch 3G.

    Oh and for headphones I have some Monster Beats Over the Ear which sound good despite the hate they get, and I recently got some Audio-Technica AD900’s which I’m still evaluating.

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  • September 1, 2009 at 11:43 am
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    Is it X Series or X-Series? With or without the hyphen?

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  • September 1, 2009 at 12:31 pm
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    “Btw. I haven’t even started the browser, and probably never will :)”

    Smart move!

    What sound settings do you use most often on your X? Even though it sounds great with nothing enabled, I use a custom EQ and turn on Clear Stereo. VPT and DSEE are kept off.

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  • September 1, 2009 at 12:55 pm
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    Any BBE setting in particular? The S9 is my first Cowon player so these may just be standard, but there’s BBE, BBE ViVA, BBE ViVA 2, BBE Mach3Bass, BBE MP, and BBE Headphone 1-3.

    The “regular” BBE makes the S9 significantly heavier on bass than the Sony X, though I’m not sure it’s really fair to compare the two players if only one of them is using sound enhancements. I also don’t know how comparable sound quality is when listening with canalphones like my triple.fi 10s versus full-size headphones like your AD900s. I haven’t ventured into the world of full-size cans…yet!

    Keeping in mind that I am *not* an audiophile, what I like about the Sony over the Cowon is that there just seems to be more sparkle. The sound stage seems a bit wider as well, though that may have something to do with my triple.fi 10s. I also prefer the midrange and treble over bass, which I suppose means that I like bright rather than warm sound.

    I do plan on getting the Zune HD but can almost guarantee that I won’t be getting the new iPod touch. I actually don’t have any of the other models (my husband has the first-gen and the second-gen I used in my S9 vs P3 vs touch article — http://pocketables.com/2009/03/apple-ipod-touch-2g-vs-cowon-s9-vs-samsung-p3.html — was just a loaner). I do have all three gens of the iPhone, though, which has a lot to do with my lack of iPod touches. :-)

    I have high hopes for the sound quality of the Zune HD based on my experience with the previous models but have a feeling that I will probably continue to use the Sony for music.

    Reply
  • September 1, 2009 at 1:04 pm
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    I notice that a lot of tech sites use the hyphen (probably because Sony used it in the press release), but Sony Style and the actual product box don’t.

    It actually used to be referred to as the X1000 more often before, which makes more sense to me considering the model numbers are X1050, X1051, X1060, and X1061 (depending on capacity and region).

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  • September 1, 2009 at 4:55 pm
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    No setting in particular. Someone on head fi mentioned that the Cowon with BBE sounds better than the Sony so I was just curious if you compared both at what you believe is their best but sound can be a very subjective thing.

    Anyways, I’ll be very much looking forward to your sound assessment and music navigation of the Zune HD. If you can please throw up a quick comparison with the Sony X :)

    Reply
  • September 1, 2009 at 9:16 pm
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    Well, if you’re looking for an audiophile’s opinion, head-fi is definitely the place to go! Do you know what kind of headphones that person was using?

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  • September 2, 2009 at 2:26 am
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    “Yes, it’s overpriced and the web browser is complete and utter garbage,” But come on…it’s a Sony !

    Jenn, I think if you were to research your family geneology, you might find you are the heiress to the Sony empire…lol

    Reply
  • September 2, 2009 at 4:19 pm
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    If that turns out to be true, one of the first things I’m going to do is make sure a new and improved UX is released. :-)

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  • September 3, 2009 at 12:49 am
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    10 million years from now when archaeologists are scurrying through the ruins of our ‘civilization’ they will conclude that Hawaii was once part of the main island of Japan because of the large concentration of shiny and overpriced Sony devices found in both places….lol.

    Are you sure you want to be responsible for leading the schoolkids from 10 million AD astray ?

    Reply
  • September 3, 2009 at 5:17 am
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    I use the Jazz-setting on the equalizer when I listen to electronic stuff, some kinds of rock and, ya, jazz :) I really like the laidback sound, with lots of punch. When I listen to metal, I turn the EQ off, that brings the guitars out, and sounds absolutely great.

    I don’t use any of the other sound settings, infact I can’t hear any difference when turning on Clear Stereo – But then the manual states that Clear Stereo only works with the supplied phones… Probably the reason I don’t hear any difference with my Senns :)

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  • September 3, 2009 at 1:35 pm
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    “But then the manual states that Clear Stereo only works with the supplied phones”

    You’re kidding! I guess my ears are playing tricks on me when I turn it on with my triple.fi 10s! >_<

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  • September 3, 2009 at 1:37 pm
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    Oops. You accidentally typed “leading the schoolkids from 10 million AD astray” when I think what you meant to say was “enlightening the schoolkids from 10 million AD and leading them down the path of righteousness and all that is beautiful and shiny.”

    Reply
  • September 4, 2009 at 11:52 am
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    my MOST awaited review! Thanks Jenn!

    Cheers,
    DarkPotato of the pocketablesforum

    Reply
  • September 5, 2009 at 8:26 am
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    Well, I’ve just sold my X 1050 to a colleague…
    And have ordered a X 1060 instead :)

    He was holding it in his hands, playing with the search, looking in my music collection, plugged his phones in, and bam, sold!

    I haven’t mentioned wifi, browser, pictures, movies, youtube or fm radio – infact he was never out of the music menu!
    But then again, he’s a musichead, just like me :-D

    Reply
  • September 8, 2009 at 10:31 am
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    Hey Jenn,

    have you tried to play some files you bought from iTunes? Would be awesome if iTunes Plus files work! :)

    Reply
  • September 8, 2009 at 1:27 pm
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    I don’t have any iTunes Plus files, though I assume they’d work since they’re just DRM-free AAC. Have you heard anything different?

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  • September 10, 2009 at 3:03 am
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    “Btw. I haven’t even started the browser, and probably never will :)”

    Ouch. While I understand that the point of this is to play music, the browser is important to me. I suffered through NetFront on my 2003 PDA, and have no desire to continue to do so.

    Reply
  • September 17, 2009 at 6:31 pm
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    I just got the 16 gb. version at sonyrewards.com monthly reverse auction for 160.00….waiting at my mailbox for it now.

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  • September 22, 2009 at 3:12 pm
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    I bought the 32gb version back in July right after it was released and I can say I am definitely SATISFIED with my overall experience on the X-series walkman. It is definitely not the best “all-in-one” because it lacks the open-source capabilities of the Ipod touch (and other players) but it does not disappoint when it comes to a user-friendly (YES!) UI, beautiful OLED screen, and, of course, SQ. For what its worth, all Sony products are over-priced so no one should be surprised by the $299 and $399 price tags for the 16 and 32gb versions, respectively.

    One warning: I recently noticed a very minor surface scratch on my screen :-(. You should def buy a case/screen proector as soon as you purchase this item (of course I noticed the scratch right b4 I was about to apply the protector that I bought today….)

    Reply
  • September 22, 2009 at 3:16 pm
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    Quick Question: Does anyone else have any issues with the bundled headphones (MDR-NC020)? I have no problems with the quality or NC feature of them but the design seems a little flawed….it seems as though that one end is MUCH shorter than the other side and this causes some issues when trying to listen to music.

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  • September 23, 2009 at 1:33 am
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    They’re designed like that so the wires don’t dangle in front of you. The longer cord goes behind your neck so it stays out of the way. I think the style is called “neck chain” (versus the standard “y-cord”).

    Reply
  • September 23, 2009 at 9:38 am
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    Thanks for your quick response Jenn…it seem to work a lot better now that I am not accidently tugging on the shorter cord during use :-p. Just goes to show how outdated I was when it came to using headphones/mp3 players (this is my first one – last player I had was a CD player LOL).

    Reply
  • September 26, 2009 at 1:55 am
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    Thanks for the review Jenn. I am almost ready to buy this great little mp3 player :) I was just wondering, how is the screen quality vs the Zune HD? I only really listen to music and will use youtube on this walkman. Most of my picture viewing, internet browsing and video will be done on my Nokia N95-3. I am looking at some Triple.fi 10 too, should be an improvement over UE fi.100 and 1st gen nano :P

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  • November 8, 2009 at 7:56 pm
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    The X-Series is a superb choice for audiophiles who want a luxury device with an excellent touch-screen interface and plenty of other bells and whistles.

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  • November 24, 2009 at 11:13 pm
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    The Sony S-Series Walkman is very inexpensive and easy to use; it offers support for multiple audio codecs as well as subscription music and Amazon video;

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  • January 6, 2011 at 6:18 pm
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    Anybody knows where i can get the bundled earphones for the x1061? i’m outside US and sony.us doesnt ship international!!

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  • May 21, 2011 at 4:01 am
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    Too tru apple users no nothing about sound quality

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  • March 14, 2012 at 6:07 am
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    pmh, I too am looking to replace the mdr-nc020s as they have fallen pray to my roommates dog and are all chewed up. I couldn’t find anything online except for eBay where they were selling for $25 + shipping. Not sure it was worth getting the same ones but they really were HQ IE headphones seeing as they were bundled.

    I have opted for the sony mdrexp-310 lp as replacements and hope they are at least as good as those OEM headphones (minus the NC feature).

    Reply

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