More important than equalisation or surround settings is basic sound quality. Here the Sony NWZ-A866 wins on two fronts. Its standard output is very pleasant, with a warm-sounding and refined tone that betters the output of the iPod Classic to our ears. The maximum volume of this player is very high too - much more so than the NWZ-E463 - making it a good choice if you use hard-to-drive earphones. However, it already offers a pair of bundled earphones that outclasses the vast majority of bundled sets.
You get the Sony NWZ-EX300 IEMs as part of the package. They sell on their own for around £40, and provide good noise isolation plus a detailed, satisfying sound. As with some NWZ-series earphones, they need to be given a while to calm down as the treble is a little too keen straight out of the packaging, but there's no need to upgrade from this set unless you're a real audio nut. And the lack of advanced lossless support may have turned most of those off already.
Off a full charge, Sony claims 23 hours of battery usage. We achieved less, but that included plenty of fiddling with the SensMe features and DPC speed control. Even at the full claimed whack though, the battery life is less than some key rivals. It matches the Philips GoGear, but is beaten by the iPod Touch's 40 hours and the Cowon J3's 64 hours.
Charging is fairly quick though, over and done in a couple of hours, so in real-life use this won't be a big problem unless you spend weeks away from a computer at a time. The NWZ-A866 is designed to be charged over USB, so you'll need a dedicated USB charging adaptor (not supplied with our review unit) to recharge the battery directly from a plug socket.
The price is less easy to swallow though. At £219, the NWZ-A866 costs around the same amount as a current-gen 32GB iPod Touch, and a full £90 more than the best price of the 16GB Sony NWZ-A865 (same player, less memory). While we think this is a better dedicated music player than the iPod Touch, thanks to its physical buttons, smaller size and better earphones, Apple's player offers so much more potential for fun - as well as access to music-related content like Spotify, internet radio and music streamed from a computer over Wi-Fi.
The Sony NWZ-A866 is a device we'd happily live with, day-in day-out. Its interface is great, its design attractive and its sound quality above-par. However, it puts itself in a tricky position. At £219 it's darned expensive for something that can't truly claim to be an audiophile device, not having FLAC, APE or OGG in its arsenal.
The Sony NWZ-A866 is an extremely likeable device. It looks and feels great, offers an interface slicker than just about everything but an iPod Touch, and packs-in more quirky features than any other MP3 player we've tested of late. It sounds good too, thanks to the decent bundled earphones and a more-than-capable sound engine at its core. However, at £220 the expenditure is a bit wince-inducing, especially when the 16GB NWZ-A865 sells for as much as £90 less.