Saturday, December 27, 2008

Whatever happened to Sony music players?

In the 1980s Sony owned the portable music player market with their Walkman range of cassette players. The company had become a major international brand with the success of a small transistor radio that went around the globe.


The Sony Walkman tape players delivered pretty good quality at the time, given the combination of reasonable cassette tapes and Dolby noise reduction circuitry.

We would dub our vinyl records to cassette or better, make collections of favourite tracks, even cross-fading like at a radio station if we had the equipment for that.

In the 1990s Sony introduced a revolutionary optical audio recorder/player using a proprietary MiniDisc format that stored audio in a proprietary compression format called ATRAC.

I was worried about locking my music up in a proprietary data format on a proprietary media and never bought one, but many people did and were happy with them.

Somewhere along the line MP3 emerged as the de-facto standard for consumer music compression. Sony, however, stuck to their proprietary ATRAC and up until 2004, their digital music players would even play back MP3 and their software would convert all your music, with the consequent generational loss in quality.

Long before Apple had company stores, Sony had Sony Style stores. They look well designed and show off loads of products I've never seen before, but they always seem a bit quiet.


Recently I visited a Sony store and had a look at their portable music players - they look pretty good, there's a model for every price point and go head to head with the iPods, with similar prices and often extra features like FM radio tuners and bluetooth, but how are they selling?

Amazon has a very useful public rundown of their top selling products in each category, a look at Electronics > MP3 Players is very interesting.

Bearing in mind that items in the list are particular models rather than a category, it's still surprising to see that the top selling MP3 player is the Apple iPod touch 8GB (2nd Generation), probably because it's the only model in that category, compared to the nanos which have lots of colours and so get spread out.

Apple's iPods completely dominate the list. The top 5 are iPods, there's a Zune 120Gb at #6, then it's all iPods until #20 when we have a Pro Ebiz 4GB. At #22 and #23 we see the other big brand out there - the Sandisk Sansa 4GB.

There's Coby, Creative Zen and Archos in there just making the top 30 but then it's pretty much iPods all the way down.

walkman2.jpgWhere's Sony? The first one is the 4GB Walkman Video at #86 and 8GB Walkman non-video at #96.

What's wrong with these products? The features look great: Battery life is 45 hours of music, the screen is a 2 inch at 240x320, audio codecs are MP3, WMA, AAC-LC, linuear PCM, video codecs are H.264/AVC, MPEG-4, Windows Media Video 9. FM Tuner too. Sounds great and they look pretty good although not as minimalist as the iPod and they don't have the neat Apple scroll wheel.

Sony's desktop software in the past has been clunky to say the least, these devices don't need any particular software, you just plug them in to USB and drag music files to the mounted device.

Oddly for an international device there's lots of buttons with words on them: "Option", "Back", "Home" and so on. I've always wondered why iPods have one button with the word "Menu" on it, perhaps that's internationally understood more than any icon for the idea of a menu.

If there's a lesson to learn from Sony's fall from grace, I think it's that they tried to push proprietary media and data formats on us. (Don't get me started on MemoryStick). Both Apple and Microsoft are guilty of a bit of this with their respective DRM formats.

As I now consume all my images, audio, and soon I suspect all my video as purely digital streams the worry in the back of my mind is that I might have chosen a format that will be un-playable in the future.

The Sony devices look pretty good and deserve to get a bit more of the market. Certainly Apple's dominance is so complete that it's important that some competitors exist to keep them innovating.

Here's the non-iPod section of a JB HiFi store:


The nicest non-iPod looks like the IRiver.

iRiver.jpgThey've been watching Apple and learning. Note the glass table reflection.

It's a real minimalist design, it looks like one button but it actually has up/down/left/right around it.

The E100 4GB is AU$112 and has audio codecs for FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec)files, as well as a variety of codec for music files in the form of MP3, WMA, ASF, and OGG. Video codecs are MPEG4 SP, WMV9, and XVID SPWow.

The device has an FM tuner and timer record feature. It has tiny speakers, which I do find useful on the iPhone, as well as a microphone, mic-in and line-in sockets.

Note that the IRiver model is named "E100", the popular iPods are "nano" and "touch", while the Sony models are called things like "NWZS738FB", "NWZE436FP", and "NWZB133FB". Come on Sony, even if I wanted one, I couldn't remember which one it was to buy it!


Dropped in to David Jones in Brookvale today and the Sony "store in a store" is getting huge. The space used to be mostly Apple but I guess they've moved out to their own stores.

Sony had a guy there (Apple used to do this) but he didn't seem to know much about their digital SLR cameras.

I wonder who pays who for this space?


mvandewettering said...

I long ago gave up on Sony for pretty much anything. It's no one thing really: it's just a bunch of little bad things. Like the Sony desktop computer that my wife had which had a power supply which was incompatible and double the price of anything else on the market. Their support of proprietary formats, chained to completely annoying and inadequate desktop software which never worked properly and was never updated. Even their claim of superior quality was highly suspect: look at the bargain basement sansa music players. Do you really need to pay double to get Sony, with no discernable increase in quality?

Apple has absolutely *crushed* the portable music market, and are fast becoming the standard in cell phones as well (a market which Apple has seen to be linked, when other companies still steadfastly believe they make phones (which incidently play mp3s) or music players). Sony isn't poised to play in that market.

Anonymous said...

Sony have self destructed. In addition to their insistence on proprietary formats and hardware, I've also had bad experiences with their laptops. After getting a virus, I wiped Windows and reinstalled only to find out that Sony does not provide device drivers on their website (like every other pc manufacturer on earth) and instead charges consumers $50 for a disc in the post.

Add to this the rootkits they distributed with audio CDs, fake movie reviewers, memory sticks, and the other controversies listed at Wikipedia and you have a company with total contempt for its customers. I do my best to avoid buying any Sony product.

Apple is only marginally better. Itunes tracks have DRM, they won't let you copy your own music off your ipod, the App Store is subject to Apple's monopolistic whims, itunes on Windows is a pig, Apple Lossless is a farce, etc, etc.

Both companies are more interested in marketing and brand building than delivering useful and usable products.

Peter Marks said...

Apple would do well to learn from the mistakes of Sony.

Proprietary formats and DRM can clearly drive away consumers.

There does seem to be a trend away from DRM at the moment, hopefully consumers will figure out that it's to be avoided - it only takes one bad experience and you remember forever.

Anonymous said...

Is that the Sony store in World Square?

Peter Marks said...

I have visited the World Square store but no, the photo above is at Chatswood.

I asked a sales person to compare the player above with an iPod nano, he claimed that the Sony players have superior audio but couldn't explain why.