- Great touchscreen and interface
- Good sound quality
- Plenty of fun functions
- Strong design
- No apps
- Non-expandable memory
- Review Price: £219.99
- 32GB internal memory
- 2.8in 240x400 pixel screen
- Capacitive touchscreen
- Physical controls
- FM radio
Instead, the NWZ-A866 is a comparatively simple music player. It doesn’t offer Wi-Fi connectivity or scores of apps, but if you already have a smartphone to take on these tasks, it could be just what you’re after.
Not having an advanced OS to contend with also means the player can slim right down without appearing clumsy or compromised. In this sense, it’s much like its cheaper cousin the NWZ-E463. However, where that £60 player was a little plasticky, the NWZ-A866 feels strong and solid. Sexy, even. It needs to feel this good though, as at £219 for the 32GB edition it costs as much as the Cowon iAudio S9 or current-gen iPod Touch. It ain’t cheap.
The back is made of tough, slightly metallic finish plastic, but the screen surround and side is plastic-coated metal, finished in sultry glossy black. This attracts fingerprints and greasy marks, but otherwise looks the business. Next to the iPod Touch, this is one of the best-looking players around, edging off the Cowon J3 and latest Philips GoGear model in our estimation.
At 75g and just 9.3mm thick, the NWZ-A866 is immensely portable, and light enough to hold in-hand while out on a run. Its body also offers functionality pluses some touchscreen music players lack – physical controls.
Along the right edge are a trio of playback buttons, volume controls and a hold switch. These are deliberately contoured to make identifying them blind – for in-pocket operation – simple. One of the few valid criticisms to be made about the iPod Touch is that its lack of physical controls can make quick operations, like changing tracks or nudging the volume a tad, unnecessarily fiddly. The Sony NWZ-A866 doesn’t suffer from such issues.
Here’s that proprietary socket. Humph.
Its hardware isn’t perfect though. In traditional Sony fashion – as the force behind such proprietary flops as the Minidisc and ATRAC format – it uses a proprietary socket connector, for charging and data transfer. We’d ideally like to see a microUSB here, as it’s fast becoming the standard for the majority of small consumer electronics, but its no deal-breaker as mass storage data transfer is supported. You’re not tied to any headache-inducing third-party software here.
Physical buttons? Yay. No microSD? Boo.
The lack of a microSD slot is more irritating. In snagging itself the expandable memory feature, the NWZ-A866 could have won a serious victory over the iPod touch. The 32GB of internal memory is enough for around 320 albums at 192kbps, but for serious music fans intent on taking around a comprehensive collection, this won’t be enough. Thanks to the fall of the hard drive MP3 player though, only a small handful of devices offer significantly more storage potential – such as TrustedReviews favourites the Cowon X7 and iPod Classic.
Hardware isn’t perfect from a purely features-oriented perspective, then, but under the hood the Sony NWZ-A866 pulls off a compelling performance. There’s an FM radio on-board, a voice recorder function and Bluetooth, letting you transfer files from a phone or computer and connect to any Bluetooth-enabled headphones or speakers.
Podcasts are as welcome as music here, but you’ll need to use the proper sync software to get them to display properly within the podcasts section of the main menu (as there’s no Wi-Fi, you can’t download them directly from the player).The simplicity of the NWZ-A866 allows its menu system to stay attractively minimal. The home screen is entirely icon-based, with no text to clutter-up the look.
This will mean that technophobes may take a few minutes to acclimatise to its ways – but we think most of you will agree there’s no tricky learning curve here, right? The real triumph of the interface, though, is in touchscreen performance. A combination of speedy system software and a highly responsive capacitive touchscreen make the NWZ-A866’s menus a joy to flick through.
Navigating through a music library is handled in standard iPod style. You thumb your way through your albums by artist, album, song name or other ID3 tag identifiers (genre, release year). There’s just enough animation in these menus to make them feel slick, without resorting to superfluous visual layers – which tend to slow gadgets like this down. Idly rifling through tracks feels good, feels right.
Other than the responsiveness of the touch layer, the quality of the display helps here too. It’s a 400×249 pixel 2.8in panel, using an LED backlight. This gives it a pixel density of 168dpi, which while way below the 329dpi of the current-gen iPod Touch is sharp enough to keep small text easily legible. Unlike the cheaper NWZ-E463, viewing angles are great, free of unsightly contrast shift.
Like the limited storage capabilities of the player, codec support stops it from becoming an audiophile’s dream. The NWZ-A866 supports WMA, MP3, WAV and AAC, but won’t accept FLAC, APE or (for the real audio crusties out there) OGG. As all of you will have established digital music libraries, whether or not this is a deal breaker should be immediately obvious. We’ll cover sound quality in-depth later.
Although the 2.8in screen is a little too small to watch videos of any significant length on, in our opinion, some video codecs are also supported. H.264, WMV9 and MPEG4 vids are welcomed, but other formats such as MKV and DivX simply won’t show up. As such, it failed most of our video benchmark tests before we got the proverbial movie projector warmed up.
Fans of more advanced audio and video codecs would be better off with something like the Cowon J3, but the more intuitive interface of this Sony makes it much more pleasant to use. Plus it offers a bagful of periphery features that, while some will find utterly useless others will lap up…
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.
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.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 8
|Internal Storage (Gigabyte)||32GB|
|Screen Size (inches) (Inch)||2.8in|
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