There it was. At last! Writ large upon the outer wrapping of the new Sony NWZ-A828K Digital Media Player (which most of you will know as a Walkman). There were the words I have longed to hear from a media player for so many years. The box read:
Enjoy music wirelessly with the supplied Bluetooth stereo headset.
Yes, that is right folks. This will be my first media player review without the patented Bluetooth rant. And really, having found a media player with Bluetooth, I might as well end the review right here. Nice job, Sony! But no, as long as I have the media player, I suppose we should take a closer look and see what else this thing can do…besides transmitting music, “wirelessly with the supplied Bluetooth stereo headset,” that is.
Unboxing: Before we get started with the full review, I realized that we never did an unboxing post. So, let’s go ahead and take a look at what exactly is included, in addition to the Sony Walkman, you will find all of the following:
— wireless stereo headphones
— wired headphones
— mounting attachment (which is used to connect the player to a dock, sold separately)
— USB cable
— power cord for wireless headphones
— manuals and software
Quick Look: I know that as exciting as all of those accessories and manuals may appear, what you really want to know is how the player itself looks.
The first thing I noticed was how skinny the player is. Here, you can see it along with the comparable Sansa View and the previous Sony model (the A828 is in the middle), and you can see that the Sony is considerably smaller and skinnier. I was really impressed by how much better the Sony utilized the available space on the player.
The second thing I noticed was the screen. At 2.4 inches, this high resolution screen is considerably bigger than that on the previous Sony model. This is a much better screen for watching videos. I would have liked a touch screen for the menus, but that was pretty insignificant.
Of course, with such a nice screen, this thing is bound to be a fingerprint magnet. In that respect, it was BoxWave Versacharger Pro to the rescue. They provided me with an excellent screen protector for the Sony. More importantly, however, they gave me the custom made PPC Techs Penguin. This is their signature case, with airplane grade aluminum wrapped in supple black leather. It offers fantastic protection and adds very little to the size of the player. I almost felt bad the few times I had to use it without the case.
Beneath the screen are the controls. I was really impressed by how intuitively these controls worked. Obviously, the directional controls will move you up, down, left, and right in the menus. In the center is the play/pause button, which also serves as enter or select. On either side of the directional pad is a multi-function button. Push the button on the left to go back one menu item. Push and hold to return to the home screen. The button on the right will open the appropriate options menu. Push and hold will power down the device. One thing I did notice was that the controls are extremely sensitive, so you will want to use the hold button in order to avoid accidentally activating the player in your pocket.
The hold button is on the right hand side of the player. Just slide it up to lock the controls. Above that is the Bluetooth button. Press this button and the player will automatically seek and connect with the default Bluetooth headphones. You can use the options menu to change the default headphones. This button may seem like a small thing, but it is one of the best improvements on the device. Just push one button and you will be connected. None of my other Bluetooth devices make it that easy. And the cool graphic on the screen makes it easy to know exactly when a connection has been established.
Above the Bluetooth button are the volume controls. I found that it was just a little too easy to hit these by accident. Often, when I would reach into my pocket to retrieve the player, I would bump this button with my finger…which can be treacherous when you are still wearing headphones.
There are no controls on the top or left side of the player. The bottom contains all of your connections. Here, you will find the standard 3.5 mm headphone jack, which is perfect for those times when you just need to use a standard pair of headphones. There is also a sync/charge jack, which will connect to the included USB adaptor. This will allow you to connect to a computer to sync your content or charge the battery. If you have an AC adaptor, such as the BoxWave Versacharger Pro or PPC Techs Penguin, then you can connect to an AC adaptor using this cable.
On the back of the device is a small recess which you can use to connect the stand. I liked the idea of this stand, which allows you to display the screen both vertically or horizontally. This has been another of my pet peeves with portable media players: the inability to set the player down and watch a movie. I like that Sony included a method to keep the player upright for viewing. I was initially a little afraid of loosing this stand, which does not connect very securely. I quickly learned, however, that the string on the end of the stand can be tied through the loop on the left side of the player, where it can safely dangle when not in use. There is also a reset button on the back, for those times when everything goes wrong. I never had to use that button.
Menus: I absolutely love the menus on this media player. They are well designed and easy to use. The main menu, or Home Screen, provides one quick access to everywhere you need to go with nine large icons. These icons will take you to:
- — The Intelligent Shuffle
- — Search
- — Bluetooth controls
- — Photo Library
- — Music Library
- — Video Library
- — Playlists
- — Now Playing
- Just use the control pad to scroll through the menus. As you click to the next menu item, it will be highlighted, and the name of the item will appear on the bottom of the screen. Like I said, it is extremely easy to use. The only thing I would have liked here would be a touch screen. The large icons and easy navigation are just screaming for fingertap access. Otherwise, navigation is easy and intuitive.
Audio and Music: I used the Sony Walkman primarily for listening to music, and I thought it did a fantastic job. Transferring you music or audio content to the Walkman is extremely easy. You can either drag and drop your media into the music folder or sync it in Windows Media Player. I found, however, that the album art had some problems transferring when I used the drag and drop method. It worked fine if I synced via Windows Media Player.
Once your music has been loaded, there are several different methods you can use to access it. First, if you have created playlists, just select the playlist icon,and select the playlist you wish to hear.
If you are looking for a specific song or artist, use the initial search. This allows you to search for any artist, album, or song, by entering the first letter of the name. From the results screen, you can scroll through the media starting with your selected letter, or use the control pad to jump to another letter. I was really impressed by this feature, which most media players have not typically included.
If you are more of a traditionalist, you can always just select Music Library. From here, you can scroll through all of your music in alphabetical order, sorted by songs, artists, albums, genres, release year, or folders.
Of course, people like me are probably going to want to just hit play and go. I like a lot of variety in my music, so I typically just hit shuffle and head out into the day. The Intelligent Shuffle option is among the best features on the Sony player, and really makes it stand out from many other comparable players I have used. Unlike many media players, I rarely found that the intelligent shuffle got stuck on a particular section of the music library or, worse, a particular song. Frequently with other media players, I will find myself listening to the same song recurring after every couple of songs. More impressive to me, however, was the time machine shuffle (above). Just select this feature and the player will randomly select a year and begin playing music recorded in the selected year. This is just superb!
Once you have selected the song or media you wish to hear, all of the information for the selected song will be displayed on the screen. This includes the artist, album title, song name, genre, and year. The album art is also displayed on this screen. Select cover art from the options menu, and a nearly full sized image will be displayed.
I was extremely impressed by how accessible your music is on this player. But that does not cover how your music sounds. I have received some criticism in the past for not discussing how music sounds on a particular player. The truth is, this was no accident. The chosen player has a great deal to do with how you access your music, but very little to do with how it sounds. Sure, there are some variables, such as a 5+1 channel equalizer, and VPT surrounds sound. But the truth is, the more important factors relate to the format of your music, how it was recorded onto your device, the quality of your headphones…and a whole host of other factors. So, when I would try to tell you how it sounds, I am really telling you that this song, which was recorded in a particular format from a CD, and played over a certain pair of headphones sounded exquisite. However, the same song recorded into a different format or with different headphones might not sound nearly as good. As such, I have refrained from discussing how a particular media player sounds because there are simply far too many variables, many of which are completely unrelated to the player itself.
Video: Playing video on the Sony media player is quite easy. Just select Video Library from the main menu and a list of your stored videos will appear. Click on the one you want to watch and it will immediately begin playing in landscape mode.
I was a little apprehensive because such small screens can often make for some difficult viewing. I found this screen, however, to be fairly crisp and really displayed the images well despite the small size.
You can use the options to determine whether to start the video where you left off or from the beginning, zoom in or out, or change the orientation if you would like to view it in portrait mode (I would not recommend doing so with this screen).
Now for the bad news. The Sony Walkman is terribly limited when it comes to video content. In fact, it can only play .MPEG4 and AVC content. Although these are said to be among the most common video formats, I was shocked by this, and more than a little confused as to why it would not recognize .WMV content from Windows Media. It can play Windows Media Audio (.WMA) and it is designed to sync with Windows Media 11. So, it should go without saying that Window Media Video (.WMV) would be recognized by this player. Hopefully, future versions of this player will expand the available video codecs. Since I obtain almost all of my content through Windows Media, the inability to recognize .WMV constituted a fatal flaw which made it extremely difficult and inconvenient for me to enjoy this feature.
Overall, I was fairly impressed by my viewing experience with this player. It was easy to load and comfortable to watch. Often, some of the smaller screen devices (including the previous Sony model) have a display which is so tiny you can’t tell whether those cowboys are fighting or kissing. They also corrected one of my big complaints by adding a small stand. Not the best solution, but certainly workable. I thought Sony did a great job of providing a viewable screen without making the device overlarge. The one true failing here was that it was far too limited in terms of which formats could be used.
Photos: As if your music and videos were not enough, the Sony will even display your photos. I can still remember the days when this was considered a novelty. A music player that could display photos was something only the real techies and geeks had or used. Now, it is a standard and essentially expected feature in all media players.
Displaying your pictures is just as easy as playing your videos. Just select the photo library option from the main menu. From here, you will be whisked away to the photo wall. This displays your photos in rows of three, with four rows on the screen at a time (OK, I know that is a terrible picture, above.) You can scroll through here an select any picture to see a larger view. I did find, however, that it could be extremely difficult to see 12 thumbnails at a time on this screen. They just became too small. It would be nice if you could control the size of the images on the screen, to maybe display nine larger images at a time.
From here, you can also choose to view the photo wall as a list with photo names attached or even watch a calming slideshow of your loved ones. Ah, remember that trip to the beach when your son slipped on the rocks and split open his chin? 15 stitches. Good times…
Included Headphones: Every media player I have ever purchased, since the original Sony Walkman, included some form of headphones. Typically, these are functional, but hardly comfortable. I would describe them as good enough to hear the music. So, you can imagine my surprise when I found two pairs of headphones in the Sony box. Let’s take a look at them.
The first pair is the same wired headphones which were included with the previous Sony media player. When I reviewed that one over at JAMM, I described them as a:
fantastic pair of earbud style headphones, which are considerably more comfortable and offer better sound quality, as well as noise isolation, when compared with the typical “rest in the outside of your ear” headphones which most media players offer. In fact, the pair which come with the Sony Walkman are styled in the same manner as many of the highest caliber headphones, and are very similar to Sony’s MDR-EX85 headphones. I was also impressed with their noise isolation. Typically, when I am waiting on the train platform, you just have to resign yourself to the fact that trains are loud and will often drown out the music in your ears. The Sony headphones actually withstood this background noise, and I was able to enjoy my music even while walking past the engine. These are certainly no throwaway headphones.
And really, not much has changed with these. They are exceptional headphones, and certainly are a step above what you would normally expect to receive free in the box when you purchase a media player.
I’m pretty sure though, that what you really want to hear about are the Bluetooth headphones. I thought Sony did a pretty good job here. The Bluetooth headphones are typical outside the ear headphones with the foam pads. They have a stiff band which wraps around the back of your neck, making them a bit uncomfortable for me. I did like, however, that the band collapses, making it easy to store and transport these headphones. Most of the Bluetooth headphones I have used do not have a collapsible band, making them terribly inconvenient. The controls were well placed on the right side, making them easy to use. Overall, I was very impressed that Sony included two extremely nice pairs of headphones in the package with this one. Go ahead, take your pick.
Wireless Connectivity: Did I mention this one has Bluetooth? Usually, I use this section to lament the fact that the brain trust behind all of these media players has once again failed to adopt what could be the biggest technological advancement to hit the music scene…OK, maybe that is an exaggeration. But I never understood why Bluetooth was not more prevalent. It just seemed like such a natural fit to me.
Well, apparently Sony agreed with me because they included Bluetooth connectivity (finally) in their latest offering. You can easily pair as many different headphones as you want. However, the nifty button on the right can only connect one of them, so you will want to set your favorites as the default. Once you have done so, just turn them on and push the connect button. The Sony will do all of the hard work for you, and even gives you a nice graphic while you wait for the connection.
I absolutely loved the new wireless lifestyle this allowed me to enjoy. In fact, I loved it so much, I hardly noticed that the connection could get a bit wonky at times. I was just happy to finally be able to enjoy all of the wireless headphones I have accumulated over the years and use them the way they were fully intended.
Memory: The memory included in the Sony was pretty good. It comes with 8 GB of memory, ready to store your media. Frankly, this is an enormous amount of room if you want to play music. Even if you are going to store some pictures, 8GB is going to be plenty (there is also a 16 GB model, just in case). The problem only arises when you try to watch videos. Those things are huge. A feature length movie can exceed 1 GB. So, toss on a few movies, and now you are running out of space already. This could have been easily fixed if Sony had included an expansion card slot. I know Sony is particular to their Memory Stick format, but they are a but large. I wish Sony had bitten the bullet her and included a micro SD card slot. That could have given you up to 8 (or more coming soon) GB of memory in a universally accepted format. The lack of an expansion card for videos is probably the biggest deficiency I found on this one.
Battery: Sony advertised this player as offering between 10 and 36 hours of playback, mainly depending upon which display and other options were activated. This is about average for a player like this, and I really found nothing to contradict this estimate. Using the BT headphones obviously affected this estimate as well. When I used the BT headphones and had the screen on, I still probably was able to achieve close to 20 hours per charge, which was not bad at all.
I was a bit disappointed by the fact that there was no AC plug included in the box. Only a USB plug. As such, you will either need to be content to charge it with your computer, or spend additional money for an AC adaptor. It would be nice if an AC adaptor had been included in the box.
Conclusion: It seems like every time I review a media player, I am a little more impressed than the last one. But the truth is, these things are getting so much smaller and feature rich every time, it just blows me away. This Sony is by far the skinniest player I have used, and yet it has one of the biggest screens. Unlike the Sansa View, it makes efficient use of space, which allows it to be considerably smaller than the View. And the Bluetooth is just the cherry on top.
What I Liked: Bluetooth, Bluetooth, Bluetooth. Easy to load and play media. Small and skinny with a large screen. Great menus. Very easy navigation.
What Needs Improvement: It really needs a memory expansion slot for video.
Where To Buy: Sony
Price: 16 GB — $319.99
8 GB — $269.99