- Review Price: £109.99
Ever since we came across the Sansa e260 from SanDisk we here at TR have been trying to convince everyone that it’s the best flash based mp3 player on the planet. Video playback, simple drag and drop transfer, and a very slick interface make the Sansa the most feature rich and easiest player to use. But, despite what we say, Apple’s marketing clout and the public’s “keeping up with the jones’ ” mentality has meant the iPod nano still reigns supreme in terms of sales. So, with Sony’s even larger marketing team (and budget) can its new video Walkman finally make a dent in the iPod’s dominance?
Available in 2GB(A805), 4Gb(A806), and 8GB(A808) capacities, the specifications of the NW-A800 series are certainly up there with the Sansa and utterly trounce the nano. Its 2in (42 x 31mm) 320 x 240 pixel screen is the biggest of any player in this class and is nearly twice that of the nano, battery life is as high as 30 hours while continuously playing music, and the pièce de ré·sis·tance is MPEG4/H.264 video playback at up to 30fps – twice the rate of the Sansa – which it can keep playing for up to 8 hours. All this and it’s still only 9 x 44 x 87mm which is positively anorexic compared to the Sansa. All of which puts the Walkman way out in front of the competition, but as we all know there’s more to these things than just statistics so let’s see how it performs in use.
The moment I set eyes on the NW-A805 I was won over by its sleek lines and well proportioned layout. The large screen, the subtle curve of the sides, and the little bits of chrome trimming combine to make this the best looking player on the market. As a conceptual design the iPod would probably win the award but on looks alone the Walkman wins hands down.
It’s ironic, then, that I don’t actually like the feel of the Walkman in my hand. Super slim design may be great for your pocket/purse but, when handling a device, my big hands like to have something to get hold of. When using the A805, I found myself feeling paranoid of dropping it all the time and it was a real pig to pick up off the table. Of course I have the same problem with the nano, so it may just be me. Personally, I find that the Sansa is the perfect thickness and shape to handle comfortably.
Another ergonomics complaint I have is that the hold slider is situated on the back in the bottom right hand corner where it’s nearly impossible to reach without flipping the device round or using two hands. This is in contrast to the nano and Sansa that have the hold switch on their top edge where your index finger or thumb can easily reach them.
Elsewhere the layout is much of a muchness. Volume is controlled by a rocker on the right edge and along the bottom edge are connections for the data cable and your headphones. The main controls are situated under the screen, in easy reach of your thumbs.
Unlike the Sansa and nano, the Walkman uses a pure button based interface – rather than combining buttons and a scroll wheel. At a glance this arrangement, and the extra labelling that comes with it, makes the interface appear more complicated than that of the nano or Sansa but upon using it you quickly become accustomed to the layout. The positive click of the buttons combined with the lightning fast menus means that getting to where you need to be is quicker and easier than on any player I’ve used before. The only area I found I really missed the touch wheel was for volume adjustment and scanning through tracks where the imprecise but analogue nature of the wheel is most useful.
Where possible, menus are arranged as grids rather than lists so that navigation is as efficient as possible. When lists are needed, pressing left or right will act as pageup and pagedown or will skip to the next letter in the alphabet, reducing the number of button presses needed to get to where you need to be. And, if you need to get to the bottom options of a list, you can always scroll backwards unlike the nano.
For direct sound quality comparison, I listened to FEAR by Ian Brown, Like A Star by Corinne Bailey Rae, Best Of You by Foo Fighters, and, In The Waiting Line by Zero 7. All the songs were encoded using mp3 at a bit rate of 192kbps, except for Best Of You for which the bit rate was upped to 256kbps. I’ve also spent the last few days listening to a whole variety of more eclectic music – as some people would call it – to get an overall feel for the player’s capabilities.
Thankfully, sound quality is excellent with much better stereo definition, accuracy, and clearer overall sound than the nano. This will probably come as no surprise as the nano is well known to be inferior to other players out there when it comes to audio quality. Between the Walkman and the Sansa there was much less discernable difference and my ears would call it a dead heat. Of course if you encode your music in ATRAC on the Sony it will sound even better, but unfortunately most people already have a music library in mp3.
There is a multitude of audio enhancement options available including a customisable EQ which has five frequency settings as well as a Clear Bass option that adds a bit of punch to those kick drums and deep bass lines. Four preset options are available, Heavy, Pop, Jazz, and Unique. Of the four, I found only Heavy benefited any of my music, adding clarity to the searing guitar parts and depth to the chugging rhythm sections of the metal music I listen to. There are also four surround emulation options available that try and make it sound like you’re in a studio or at a concert, club, or arena. I’ve never seen the point of these and still don’t. Fundamentally, as always, I wouldn’t recommend changing any of these settings but at least they’re there if you like them.
The A800 range also has Sony’s latest audio enhancement technology called Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) which attempts to add in the higher frequencies of your music which have been lost during the encoding process. I didn’t notice much of a difference when this setting was turned on but this is most likely due to me not using anything below 192kbps mp3, a level at which the loss of high end is pretty minimal.
The included earphones are certainly an interesting design. One part is a deep insertion in-earphone with a soft flex sleeve, the other part sits in the outer of your ear like Apple’s earbuds. The premise is that the inner section handles upper frequencies while the larger outer section, which holds a much larger driver, handles the lower frequencies. It certainly makes sense but I can’t say I was overly impressed with the results. Though there was certainly oodles of bass, clarity was lacking and the overall result was just a bit muffled. No doubt they will appeal to the Max Power Nova drivers of this world but to the music enthusiast they won’t be competing with your usual aftermarket choice. Having said that, they are the best bundled earphones I’ve come across so if you don’t want to spend another £100 or more on a pair of earphones then at least you’ll have something half decent to get on with.
While audio playback is certainly important, what really sets this player apart from the competition is the superb display that is large, bright, and clear. Viewing photos is a pleasure and though there is some slight colour banding, as evidenced by our photo below, the overall experience is better than any other. Video is also eminently watchable and, though I might hesitate to watch a full movie on a screen this size, I would quite happily watch trailers, TV shows, and podcasts. You can orientate the video to play in landscape to make maximum use of the screen and can even choose which way round the video is in case you prefer to have the controls on the left or right of the screen. Videos and photos can be dragged and dropped onto the player without any intervention from proprietary software – assuming they’re the right format. Otherwise a file conversion tool is provided that will prepare your files for you.
However, it’s not all good. To transfer music to your Walkman, you must use Sony’s SonicStage software. Yes, that’s right, we all knew it was coming. Sony just couldn’t let us have our cake and eat it. If you want to use the best mp3 player available, you apparently have to make sacrifices somewhere. And, in this case it comes in the form of music library hi-jacking software. If you’re a Winamp, Musicmatch, iTunes, or any other media player user, you’re going to have to either run both simultaneously or switch completely to SonicStage. In fairness to Sony, locking the hardware to your software is no different to Apple and iTunes, I just wish it might have made the bold step into either DRM free downloads – giving a use for SonicStage, or, just used a drag and drop interface. This is all the more important considering the sizes that this Walkman comes in. Most people’s music collections are over 10GB so cannot all fit on these players therefore albums have to be cherry picked for transfer. In which case I’d rather just use my file browser rather than have to open another piece of software.
As you may expect SonicStage is similar to iTunes and Windows Media Player in providing you with a music management interface (library) including all the necessary tools for importing music and transferring it to relevant players. Music can be scanned from your existing library (providing it’s not DRM protected) or imported from a CD. You have the choice of ATRAC, ATRAC lossless, WAV, MP3, WMA, AAC, and HE-AAC, audio formats and bit rates go as high as 352kbps. There is also a portal for buying music online from Sony’s Connect store. Single tracks are £0.89 or £0.99 while albums are generally between £7.99 and £9.99.
SonicStage does all this perfectly adequately and I certainly couldn’t fault the software for basic functionality. However, it just isn’t that slick. Moving from iTunes with cover flow showing all my album artwork in its full glory to SonicStage’s clunky library with its tiny artwork icons just feels like a step back in time. Other little annoyances include not being able to skip straight to a band or album just by pressing a letter or number on your keyboard and, in the same vein, play/pause isn’t controlled by the spacebar – minor things, but they all add up. Also, not that I buy music online, it doesn’t help that the Connect store charges £0.10 per song more than iTunes.
So, the software is a bit of a let down but is it bad enough to affect the overall verdict of the Walkman? Well, that depends. If you can’t bear to be without your beloved media player then having to use SonicStage may prove too much of a hassle over just dragging and dropping to a Sansa – especially if you’re not too bothered about video. However, if you’re prepared to make the change then the overall Walkman/SonicStage experience is a positive one that I’d recommend over an iPod nano any day.
As for price, a 2GB Sansa can be had for as little as £70 which, even given its slightly lower specification, makes for an undeniable bargain. The cheapest I could find the 2GB Walkman for was £109.99 so it’s struggling to compete. As for the nano, it doesn’t play video, has the worst sound quality, and has a relatively small screen, so, at £99, it’s not really a contender, despite being such a revalation when it first launched.
Sony’s first attempt at a video Walkman is most definitely a resounding success. It combines sleek looks, magnificent sound quality and a competition beating feature set. If you can face using Sony’s SonicStage software then it betters Apple’s iPod nano without doubt. However, the real contender remains the SanDisk Sansa and at £40 less than the Walkman the little known underdog is probably still the champion.
Score in detail