SonicStage also managed to crash on me once – something that iTunes has never done. But while SonicStage may be a poor stunted thing compared to iTunes, the NW5 is undeniably a great sounding player. Tracks encoded in MP3 sound noticeably better than they do on my third generation iPod, giving them a new lease of life. I also conducted some subjective listening tests using ATRAC3 and ATRAC3 Plus. Of course this was on my own excellent sounding Koss Porta Pro’s as opposed to the small earphones included in the box. (First rule with any portable player is, ditch the bundled ‘phones and get a decent pair). The default encoding method in SoncStage is to Atrac3Plus at 64Kbps. This is decent but not fantastic – equivalent to 128 Kbps MP3. The next higher quality Atrac3Plus setting is 256 Kbps. It’s quite a hike in terms of file size but it does sound superb. Below this is plain ATRAC3 at 105, and 132Kbps and personally I’d go with the latter as it gives the best trade off between quality and capacity. If you prefer a more universal format SonicStage can now rip straight to MP3 and will convert WMA tunes on the fly. If you also like to download paid for legal tunes SonicStage will take you to Sony’s Connect Store. Tracks here will be downloadable in DRM encoded Atrac3 format.
What the NW-HD5 doesn’t have is extra features such as an FM tuner or a microphone which will probably put off those who want their MP3 player to offer kitchen sink functionality. However, the thought of having to use SonicStage may put off even more people.
In hardware terms though the Sony is a lean mean little player that knocks spots off the iPod in terms of size, battery life, sound quality and even price. You can pick the NW-HD5 up from Komplett for only £169 (silver and red only) - 40 quid less than the 20GB iPod. Granted it still doesn’t have the same unquantifiable cool but then there are an awful lot of people who aren’t members of the iPod fan club. Whether the thought of going Sony will appeal to them any more is debatable though and the look and the interface of the NW-HD5 may be too quirky for some.