- Review Price: £44.99
Over the years, I’ve regularly been impressed by Sony’s MP3 players. The firm seems to place much more emphasis on good sound quality than many other manufacturers. However, it has always blindly insisted on forcing its frankly useless SonicStage software upon users of its music players, and this has reduced some potentially great products to the merely good. Of the many capabilities the giant corporation can boast, software development is clearly not its strongest suit.
Finally, the bigwigs at Sony have recognised this and, in a bid to keep step with the competition, they’ve produced the 2GB NWD-B105. It’s the firm’s first ever MP3 player to be liberated from the crippling yoke that is SonicStage, and it’s all the better for it.
Of course the removal of SonicStage from the mix merely levels the playing field. In an attempt to give the NWD-B105 the edge over the competition, it has an ace up its sleeve. While you can simply drag music tracks to it as if it were a USB thumb drive, this player also has a lightweight piece of software on it that can be run automatically when you plug it in. Called Auto Transfer, this scans commonly used music folders for compatible tracks (the NWD-B105 supports WMA and MP3 files) and transfers a selection to the device.
It’s simple, but beautifully so and means you can ‘shuffle’ your music without having to resort to a more heavyweight application such as Media Player or iTunes. Why Sony couldn’t have done this years earlier is beyond me?
Apart from its new-found freedom from SonicStage, the NWD-B105 is a pretty straightforward player. It’s very similar, in fact, to the firm’s budget NW-E015 I reviewed barely a month ago. Like that player, it looks more like a tube of lipstick than a sophisticated piece of technology. It has the same, small, three-line colour TFT and comes in a similar assortment of colours. But there are improvements.
The back/home button has been moved off the edge of the player to just below the play button, which makes navigation much less of a fiddly affair. The other controls – volume, record, and on/off – are still on the edge but they’ve been made much bigger than before. The hold key is also easier to use, taking the form of a collar switch around the headphone jack. And the up/down buttons used for navigating through lists are larger too.
It’s the same story when you switch on the NWD-B105 and start to browse your way around. Again it is similar to the NW-E015, but with subtle improvements. In addition to tag-based music organisation, this player also allows you to browse by folder and file name, for example. This is a boon for anyone who listens to a lot of classical music, which tends to be tagged confusingly and inconsistently. Scrolling through long lists of songs and albums is still a bit fiddly – it always will be on a device this small – but this seems to have improved as well, scrolling with a little more speed.
The supplied earbuds represent another significant improvement over the NW-E015. Gone is the annoying hiss that plagued the original items: these sound good, with plenty of clarity in the mid-range and top-end without losing out on the bass. Sony has also added an external microphone so you can use the NWD-B105 as a dictaphone, but you’ll have to spend a little more if you want the FM radio-equipped version (NWD-B105F).
Alas the detachable cap covering the USB connector is just as easy to lose as it is on the NW-E015 – it can’t be tethered. But thankfully the most important aspect has also remained unchanged. Its sound quality is one of the best you are likely to clap ears on for under £100.
Listening to each player back to back the new player sounded a touch warmer than the older one. But it’s a subtle difference that won’t detract from your listening pleasure. Kicking off with Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black revealed the same balance between clarity, mid tones and bass presence that I praised the NW-E015 for. Furthermore, a touch of big band blast from Georgie Fame demonstrates that even when faced with complex, dynamic material, this player can still cope, rendering each section of the band without turning it into audio pea-souper.
More importantly, I’d say that its audio poise makes for a better listening experience than the Shuffle, Zen Stone Plus or Sandisk Sansa Express can provide, and the level of volume it kicks out isn’t bad either.
But despite all the improvements, there are two areas where the NWD-B105 turns out to be inferior to its predecessor. First is that it’s been shorn of the ability to playback ATRAC music files. Despite disliking proprietary music compression formats in general, I have to admit that ATRAC is definitely the cream of the crop and its omission here is strange.
Second, and more serious, is its battery life, which drops from 30 hours (as with the NW-E015) to an unremarkable 12. In a world where battery life normally goes up rather than down whenever a new product is released, this change is even more difficult to fathom.
So despite promising beginnings and some welcome innovations and improvements, the NWD-B105 turns out to be yet another frustrating Sony MP3 player.
The NWD-B105 boasts superb sound quality – as good as any other player I’ve heard in its class and better than most – is competitively priced and has been freed of the restrictions SonicStage places on other Sony players. But its battery life is average and it’s missing ATRAC support, a feature that would have set it apart from the flash-based MP3 player crowd. It’s well worth considering, then, but alas it isn’t quite the milestone product I was hoping it was going to be.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 9