- Review Price: £89.99
Sony has had a long history of making great audio products that, for some reason or another, have fallen by the wayside because it refuses to open up the technology. The latest example of this was the Sony Walkman NW-A805 that I looked at back in April. It was a superbly well featured, easy to use piece of hardware that was fundamentally flawed because it required the use of the crummy Sony SonicStage software just to load music onto it. In this day and age, with Apple’s iPods still being seen as the defacto standard PMP by the general public, it simply isn’t enough to create a technically good player – the whole user experience needs to be there as well. That’s why Sony has finally seen the light and allowed users to simply drag and drop music to its latest PMPs.
The first example we saw of these new players was the NWD-B105, which Jon looked at in August. It was a nice player that maintained Sony’s reputation for great sound quality, while also providing a simple and user-friendly interface. Fundamentally, though, it was let down by poor battery life and, of course, it didn’t play video. However, also amongst the line-up of new drag-and-drop players is the NWZ-A815, which is the updated version of the video-playing, nano-rivalling NW-A805, that, released from the shackles of SonicStage, finally looks like the player it always should have been.
On the surface little appears to have changed with the exact same weight (53g), connections, button positions, styling, and colour options (black, white, pink violet, silver) as the previous version. Indeed, externally, the two players are identical bar a small increase in both width (0.7mm) and depth (0.5mm).
This is both a good and bad thing because the NW-A805 was quite well designed in the first place but equally, it wasn’t without its flaws. To start with, a proprietary connection is still used to connect to a computer. With the move to a more open attitude, it would’ve been nice to see mini-USB used instead, saving on the number of cables you need to carry around with you. To give you an example, I currently need to carry five different cables to connect all my stuff and they’re all essentially glorified USB cables. Secondly, the hold switch is still located on the back where it’s difficult to operate one-handed. Moving this to the top edge would improve things greatly. These points aside, though, the overall styling, weight, and dimensions are still very competitive.
Surprisingly, the only major change is one I wasn’t expecting at all and that’s the screen has been improved. It’s still the same 320×240 resolution with the ability to playback video at 30fps, but now the brightness and contrast ratio have been improved significantly. This makes watching video and viewing pictures even better than before. However, video format support is still limited to MPEG4/H.264 so your choice of what to watch is somewhat limited. Moreover, with the upcoming SanDisk Sansa View set to have DivX and Xvid support, this limitation becomes all the more glaring.
Navigating round the NWZ-A815 is again very similar to the NW-A805, with directional buttons used to navigate the grid based menus. There are a few very minor cosmetic differences like larger icons and a different background, but essentially it’s the same. With the advent of the iPod Touch and its incredible touch driven interface and the latest nano and its new CoverFlow and half list/half thumbnail menus, the NWZ-A815’s menus do look a bit behind the times on the funkiness scale. However, for simply getting to where you want to be, they are still without fault.
To accompany the new drag and drop interface, a new option has appeared in the music library that allows you to browse by folder and file name. So, if you can’t find your music using the tag generated library, you can at least go back to basics and pick it out by hand.
Music can also be added using the sync facility on Windows Media Player 11, a copy of which is provided on CD, which, even if you don’t use it to organise your music, adds some useful extra functionality to Windows Explorer. Namely, when you try to copy music or video to the player it will pop-up a message telling you if the file isn’t supported by the player. This is particularly useful for video, which tends to be encoded in all sorts of esoteric formats. Also, for all your open sorcerers out there, you’ll be glad to hear the NWZ range also plays nice with Linux as well.
As for music formats, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that MP3 is now supported and is joined by WMA and AAC (DRM-less versions thereof, of course). Notable, one might even say lamentable, by its absence, however, is Sony’s ATRAC format. Even though we don’t like to see proprietary formats used exclusively, to drop them completely is almost as bad and, given the superior sound quality of ATRAC compared to MP3 and WMA, it’s an even more troubling loss. At least Sony do bundle an ATRAC to MP3 conversion tool that will convert your entire library in one go, saving you that hassle.
Listening to the two players, there seems to be little discernible difference between the two, which really is a testament to how good the original NW-A805 was in the first place. That said, one thing I didn’t notice the first time around was a hiss that is introduced when anything but the standard EQ settings are used on the NW-A805. Thankfully this is something that’s been cleaned up on the NWZ-A815, so it remains hiss free regardless of how much you pump that Clear Bass setting.
I always maintain one of the toughest tests for an MP3 player, bar listening to classical or acoustic music, is listening to busy noisy metal, as with lesser players the whole lot becomes an ill-defined mess. However, the NWZ-A815 handled Soilent Green’s Hand Me Downs with adequate accuracy, power, and brutality. Moving onto less aggressive fair, Martha Argerich’s interpretation of Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne No. 1 in B Flat Minor proved this player’s ability to reproduce the merest subtlety was up there with the best as well. That said, volume levels are only just adequate for quiet recordings like this and, although earphone listening is fine, moving to something more power-hungry, like Jon’s Grado headphones would be pushing the player to its limits.
Of course, Sony provides a really quite decent set of in-ear headphones with the player so you shouldn’t need to rush out and buy expensive alternatives straight away, as we’d always recommend you do with most of the competition. They employ a twin driver design in which the smaller treble driver is inserted inside the ear canal and the larger bass driver sits in the outside of your ear, like standard headphones. The combination works very well with clarity being maintained even while a good dose of bass is being dealt. They don’t cut out external noise as well as Shure’s headphones, but they are sufficient for listening on the tube without requiring deafening levels of volume.
Claimed battery life is also impressive at 33 hours for music playback and 8 hours for watching video. Having listened to the player for several hours each day for the last few days and watched an hour or so of video, the battery indicator is still on full so I have no reason to doubt these claims. This puts the NWZ-A815 firmly out in the lead in players of this size and capacity.
So, Sony has once again created a superb sounding MP3 player that is easy to use, has a great screen for watching video, comes with some of the best earphones in its class, has superior battery life, and, to top it all off, is now drag and drop. But, does it all combine to make for a recommended purchase? Well, that really comes down to cost. And, looking at the prices of the 4GB versions of the NWZ, nano, iRiver clix2, and the Creative Zen V-Plus, the Walkman comes out cheapest. So, I guess it is. The only possible fly in the ointment is the upcoming Sansa View but until we take a look at it, we can’t say for sure.
With the Walkman NWZ series, Sony has finally created the nano killer the NW series always should’ve been. Being able to drag and drop files to it makes managing your music a breeze, while the superior sound quality and bundled headphones round out the package. Best of all though, is you get all this for less money than any other player in its class.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 9