09/07/2012 10:22 | By Nick Peers, contributor, MSN Tech & Gadgets

Sony Walkman NWZ-B173 review

A slim profile makes this cut-price media player worthy of consideration, though its awkward user interface is off-putting.

Sony Walkman NWZ-B173 is rated three-and-a-half stars out of five by MSN Tech & Gadgets (© Sony)

What is it?
Sony's entry level Walkman with a fast-charge option for a quick sound blast.

What's great
Sound quality excellent for such a small player; clever design; small, lightweight footprint; easy to sync with a Windows PC; good battery life.

What's not
User interface difficult to navigate and counter-intuitive in places; disappointing lack of format support; no FM radio.

The bottom line
Worth considering if you're looking for a slim, handy companion to accompany you to the gym, but the awkward user interface will put off anyone who likes to browse their collection.

This is Sony's entry into the cheap end of the portable music market, low on features, but competitively priced and blessed with a clever, elongated design, reasonable sound quality and decent set of supplied earbud headphones.

The unit will appeal to those engaging in exercise - it comes with a detachable belt clip that allows you to pin it to a part of your clothing and, at under 30g, won't threaten to undermine your attempts to set new personal bests. It comes in a range of colours - we got to review an aquamarine model - and will also fit unobtrusively underneath baggy clothing should you want to use it on the train.

It comes with a decent battery life - 18 hours after a 70-minute charge, but is also designed to be charged in three-minute bursts, which will give you 90 minutes of playback, enough for a one-way commute or trip to the gym. It's a nice touch should you forget to keep it topped up and increases its appeal to its target audience. The fact the USB plug is built into the unit - just whip off the cover and slot it into an available port - is another clever move.

The unit comes with 4GB onboard storage - nowhere near enough for your entire music collection, but it integrates well with Windows and it's easy to swap music in and out using Windows Media Player. Sadly its format support is rather limited - just MP3 and the PC-friendly Windows Media Audio, which counts against it.

Once music is transferred to your Sony, navigation is done using the rather clunky physical controls and three-line display. Things aren't helped by the counter-intuitive nature of the dial used to skip tracks, which doubles up as a navigation tool. Our instinct is to move down the list using the skip forward control, but Sony has decided the reverse is true, and it'll catch you out more than once.

See also - Logitech Ultimate Ears 9000 review

Music is thankfully organised according to artist and album, with support for playlists imported from Windows Media Player, but you won't want to spend too long getting frustrated with the controls before hearing some of your tunes. Thankfully, when you finally press play, you'll be pleased that the sound quality is decent considering the price point. The front dial even lights up in response as your tracks play, flashing in tune with your music.

There's a bass control that makes a noticeable difference to the sound depth, but with a lack of support for Sony's Clear Bass technology, it does noticeably muddy upper and middle levels. Confusingly, the bass button also doubles up as the 'Zap' button - when switched on it delivers short bursts of each track as a taster. Worse still, you need to press and hold to activate the bass rather than the Zap feature - another counter-intuitive move.

Look hard enough, and you'll also find a five-bar equaliser control buried away in the settings dialogue box. If you do decide to venture through the navigation system to locate it, you'll find four presets and a custom setting you can use to save your personal settings. They all have a noticeable effect on the sound, but not necessarily in a good way. In most cases, you'll want to leave well alone as the default settings are perfectly good for such a small player.

The Sony NWZ-B173 is well worth considering if you're looking for want a small, unobtrusive companion for the daily commute or exercise regimen. But if you want to exercise a decent amount of control over the music you listen to, or want something with more storage capacity, you'll need to look elsewhere.

Sony Walkman NWZ-B173 is rated three-and-a-half stars out of five by MSN Tech & Gadgets

Other budget music players
Smaller and lighter, less storage space, no display: iPod Shuffle
Same storage, better screen, cheaper price, FLAC support: Archos Connect 18d

Essential info
Price: £35
Capacity: 4GB
Expansion: none
Screen (size, type, resolution): three-line LCD
Audio formats supported: MP3, WMA (non DRM)
Video formats supported: none
Other features: voice recorder, built-in USB plug
Stated battery life: 18 hours, or 90 minutes with a three-minute charge
Dimensions: 89mm x 22.5mm x 15mm, 28g