Review Price £219.99
Treading the line between genius and uselessness, the bag of additional tricks that the Sony NWZ-A866 boasts is sure to entertain. Even if you fail spectacularly to find a long-term use for any of them.
The Karaoke mode is the most frivolous of all, fiddling with the stereo audio channels to silence, or at least reduce, vocals in songs. You can get lyrics to pop up too - on top of the album art - although we imagine that few of you will have music libraries chock-full of embedded song lyrics.
Still, if you've spent far too much money on nights in dingy karaoke bars, pair the NWZ-A866 with lyric-grabbing software and you have a surprisingly complete (but still ridiculous) solution for a cheap night in. You can even change the key of the song, although this makes most songs sound predictably ridiculous when extended beyond a semitone or two.
When not singing along in Karaoke mode, you have access to the DPC feature - which controls the speed. It's effectively the opposite of the key change function. Where that changes pitch but not speed, DPC alters speed but not pitch. Our first reaction was that it's a bit silly, but having listened to a few tracks at 0.5x speed for kicks, we'll admit it'll come in handy for any musicians looking to learn guitar, drum or piano parts by ear. We're yet to find a proper use for the 2.0x speed settings, mind. Answers on a postcard…
The last unusual feature of the Sony NWZ-A866 is perhaps its most ambitious. SensMe scans through your music library and splits up tracks into nine different moods, ranging from Extreme and Energetic to Mellow and Emotional. It does so using the power of science. That is, by scanning the file and assessing its dynamics and frequency patterns.
You then simply pick a mood and the NWZ-A866 makes a playlist based on your selection. It works remarkably well too, although we can't imagine dumping traditional album-listening in favour of it for day-to-day use. We'd also appreciate being able to listen through the SensMe function while browsing through the main music library, but - just as with podcasts and the FM radio - playback stops when you leave the SensMe "quasi-app".
It's not all silliness with this player, though, we promise. For those with conventional tastes, the NWZ-A866 also offers a customisable 5-band EQ and a selection of similarly-common surround modes.
Equalisation is unusually tasteful, offering the ability to employ a decent-sounding bass or treble boost using /-3 sliders for the 400Hz, 1 kHz, 2.5kHz, 6.3kHz and 16kHz frequency bands, plus the ClearBass bass boost (which has long been a feature of Sony Walkman products). ClearBass provides additional low-end warmth and bass grunt without generally making things sound muddy, because it cleverly tweaks parts of the spectrum other than just the very bottom end. The sound customisation lacks the power and sheer tweakbility of the BBE system used in Cowon's top players, but it's streets ahead of what you'll find built into an iPod Touch or Classic.
We find the VPT surround modes much less useful - primarily because they're designed to make your music sound like it's coming from a club, arena or other live environment - and who wants that? It does so by fiddling with the channels and employing some basic reverb effects. They're not our bag, and we imagine they're not most of yours, but they're relatively subtle and inoffensive compared with some we've heard over the years.