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.