I won’t go into great detail about how to operate the player as not much has changed since Riyad covered the HD1. Generally speaking though, the interface is fine, though not as impressive as the arrangement on the iPod, or indeed the Creative Zen or iRiver H10. However, it’s not too bad, though scrolling though a long list of artists or albums could get tedious.
With its metal casing the NW-HD3 feels well built, though as with any player I’d recommend getting a protective case as soon as possible. At least Sony has ensured that the slot underneath where you attach the USB connector has a internal flap so that it’s not exposed as it is with many players such as the iPod and the iRiver H10, which instead rely on a piece easily losable plastic.
Sony also claims that the HD3 has some drop resistance thanks to its G-Sensor, which can detect the unit is being dropped and move the recording head away from the disc platter to protect it.
It fits snugly into the hand or pocket and at 130g is lighter and smaller than the 158g 20GB iPod. The screen is a nice high resolution display, is clear to read and usefully tells you what codec the track is playing and the bit-rate, which the iPod doesn’t do.
The supplied headphones aren’t too bad as bundled headphones go but we’d still recommend changing them for something better. To test sound quality we used set of superb Koss Porta Pros. Comparing closely with the iPod I found that the HD-3 had a warm bassy sound that was pleasant to listen too for extended periods. However, the iPod has a slightly more detailed, accurate sound. If sound quality is paramount it might be worth a trip to a store to compare the two and see which you prefer.
I discovered several reports online of users complaining of background noise from the unit, but I couldn’t detect any signs of this on my review sample. Additionally, some users have complained that the top-end volume level is too low but this is because it had been restricted to meet with EU requirements. If you want to circumvent this a Google search should help you find instructions on how to enter the service menu and increase the sound pressure level, though you’ll at risk of ruining your player if you aren’t careful.
As a long-time iPod user I have to admit to being impressed with the HD3 as a piece of hardware and the ability to play MP3 tracks natively is a huge boon for functionality. However, while SonicStage is making slow gradual improvements with each version, it still a long way from getting close to the ease of use of iTunes. Also if you’re interested in buying music online, choosing between SonicStage and iTunes also means choosing between Sony’s online Connect store and Apple’s iTunes store – again, not much of a contest.
As a piece of hardware, the HD-3 is a success, being smaller, lighter and generally sleeker than an iPod. However, as with the HD1 before it, the SonicStage PC software holds it back from being a serious competitor to the iPod. Thanks to the addition of native MP3 playback the HD3 is worthy of consideration but only for those prepared to put up with SonicStage’s idiosyncrasies. For the masses though, the iPod is still the way to go.