It's surely a hard life producing a small portable media player, taking on as you must the iPod nano, but Sony has proved itself capable in the past of impressing in this area, with players such as the E443 taking on Apple's contender and in many ways coming out ahead. The A-series isn't quite as direct a competitor with its larger form factor, but the price and feature set mean that although a little bit larger, it makes a compelling alternative to its smaller rival.
Pricing for the A-series starts at £130 for the 16GB A-series, progressing to £189 for the 32GB model and a lofty £279 for 64GB of memory. As there's no way to augment the built-in storage, you'll want to ensure you get a capacious enough player from the off, which makes the competitive pricing a boon to the A-series.
The form factor straddles a good middle ground between small enough to be portable and large enough to be comfortable to hold; the 105m x 47mm x 7mm frame fitting nicely in the hand. Apparently this is Sony's thinnest media player to date, but we can't say that attribute particularly inspired us. We were, however, pleased by the construction, which gives the A-series a quality feel which devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Player 50 sorely lack - even though both are made of plastic.
Although we are fans of the fancy touchscreen interfaces of the iPod touch and iPod nano, we have to concede that a return to physical controls is a refreshing improvement in many situations. For a start, you don't have to look at the A-series to know what you're doing with it, which makes playing and pausing music, or skipping tracks much easier in just about every situation.
A few niggles did present themselves; for one we found the buttons a little hard to distinguish between at first. Furthermore, if you have large fingers it's easy to end up pressing the wrong control if you're not careful. The hold slider is well-placed falling under either your right thumb, or left forefinger, depending upon which hand you use to pick up the Walkman A-series.
The simple navigation controls pair nicely with the intuitive user interface. Owners of any of the last few generations of Sony media player will be familiar with the menu system, which just goes to prove that what isn't broken need not be fixed. Our only issue was that album artwork embedded using iTunes didn't show up on the player - but then there's no reason to use Apple's media player with the A-series, so it's not a big problem.
The OLED display is worthy of note, delivering as it does bright, vibrant colours and smooth video playback. The resolution of 400 x 240 pixels is decidedly not record-breaking, but it's good enough for the sort of video you'd want to watch on a 2.8in screen. The format support is par for the course, with MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 and WMV files playing without issue.
On the audio front, WMA, AAC, WAV and MP3 support covers the important bases. We'd have liked to see FLAC on that list, but aren't surprised to see its omission at this price point. We're far from convinced that the benefits of lossless music can be experienced on this type of player anyway - other than a placebo effect, perhaps.