Friday, June 13, 2008

Sony Walkman Video NWZA818 review

After my old DAP died I started searching for a replacement dedicated player. I use my phone as a DAP, but I wanted something more specialised during days when I just want to travel light, or when jogging. After comparing various players I decided that the Sony Walkman NWZA81x series was close to perfect for my music needs. The replacement high-end A828 was recently released and Sony has been discounting the A81x series to clear stock. What better time than now to finally get one - especially when I have a couple of Amazon coupons to use? I've always wanted to get one, ever since I first demo'ed a unit at a Sony shop and my mate's A816. After toying around with the idea of paying 100% more for the A828 Bluetooth, I came to my sense and ordered the NWZA818 8GB black player. So here I am with what is possibly the best ever portable music player I've ever had the joy to use - even if I am a little late to the party. My first Walkman since the incredibly sexy MZ-E900, and my fifth overall.

The A818 is a very thin (9mm) and light (53g) player that fits perfectly in one's jeans or shirt pocket. The design is typical Sony - smart 80s industrial look with hard edges. I have to admit it isn't the prettiest player to look at, but with its matte magnesium body (glossy finish on 4GB models I believe), restrained use of chrome finish and minimal plastic - the built quality is unmatched in the market. Construction wise, this Walkman is unlike the majority of mass market portable audio player in that it does not look or feel toy like. It is a very solid player, and a stylish one too. Dominating the front is a bright 2" LCD screen with a fairly standard 240x320 resolution giving all around clarity and dot pitch that surpasses the screen of my PSP. The LCD, while not brilliant, is good enough though I did wish the contrast was better. The A818 is bundled with a pair of dual driver Sony MDR-EX082 (which is based on the EX85) fontopia in-ear passive noise cancelling headphones. This model offers increased fidelity compared to my old EX71SL,on par with the CX300 and just below Shure's old e2c, especially after a marathon burn-in session with a FM radio. The EX85 has a RRP of £40, so you are effectively paying only half for the player. Sony's trend of packing in quality headphones is admirable and should be learnt from other manufacturers.

Transferring music is simple enough since the player is MTP compliant. Just plug the USB cable into your PC and it should be recognised as a MTP device. You can also force it to USB MSC mode via driver change. Either way you can drag and drop or use one of the many various music management utilities like MediaMonkey to sync your collection with the player. The UI system is a mixed of grid and label based and is exclusively controlled via clearly labelled hard buttons. Navigating the player is an child's play and not once did I have to refer to the included manual - it is certainly a very intuitive UI. Browsing is through the now standard standard Creative-like hierarchy method where tracks are sorted based on the ID3 tags. You can search your music using an alphabetical index system - a very useful feature if you have thousands of files. Even better you can access your music folders (up to seven level of directories) - something that other manufacturers seems not to care about. However I do question their decision to build the volume buttons on the side, as it does handicap the controls a little bit.

The sound quality is very impressive, particularly when using the bundled headphones. Music playback is clean, deep and warm and does not suffer from any sort of distortions, even with the most demanding genres and provides excellent dynamic range and frequency response. Now I am no audiophile so I just let my ears do the talking, uhm, listening; and they love what they are hearing particularly when I started listening to very technical music. And despite the petite size, the Walkman was capable of driving my Sennheiser cans. Sony conservatively pegged the Walkman's output a mere 5mW per channel, but seriously I find myself only using half the available volume (14-16/30). It won't have trouble powering most headphones save a few selected designed for home cans. Among the usual playback is Sony's Time Machine Shuffle which plays randomly shuffles songs based on a random year.

The five-band EQ is disappointing as it doesn't give you much control, but it works as advertised. There is also the gimmicky VPT Surround feature that 'enhances' the music played depending on the settings the listener wishes for, which includes Studio, Club, Karaoke etc., you know the kind of stuff usually included in various sound related 3D sound post-processing software on your PC that you never ever use. There is also DSEE, which aims to compensate for highly compressed files, though you would do well to disable it if you have high bitrate files. One particularly interesting post-processing setting is Clear Stereo, which I read is designed to work specifically with the included earphones. The tracks become noticeably clearer and the bass cleaner when enabled. Overall I am extremely happy with the A818's EQ. Coupled with my CX300, the Walkman delivers all around quality giving me escapism, for example, from the throngs of noisy tourists while wondering through Covent Garden. Even the bundled earphones worked well against the noise, though not as well as the CX300 and Shure's IEM.

The player is also capable of playing MPEG4 and AVC (H.264) videos at a maximum resolution of 320x240 and 30fps, but this is a feature I will rarely use except during times when I do not want to carry my PSP along. But for the purpose of review I loaded it up with a couple of Haruhi and Family Guy videos, and all of them played flawlessly. Also included in the A818 is an image viewer, which works well but I can't see the point considering the lack of memory card slot, but I guess it is there for people who enjoy viewing holiday pictures on 2" screens... The included screensaver clock is pretty damn elegant, but it does just that - tell the time. In addition to those already mentioned, nothing else worth noting is included. Sony's engineers motive when designing the A81x series is clearly geared towards its multimedia, particularly its music capability, and nothing else. So while it doesn't do much else, what it can do it excels in.

As much as I love the Walkman, it isn't a perfect machine (nothing is). For one it does not come with A2DP Bluetooth feature, but for the price I won't complain. The newer Walkman A820 series has this feature but costs nearly double for the equivalent storage space. A Bluetooth plug-in accessories are available for those requiring such feature but these are so rare and expensive you may as well pony up for a NWZA828K. The player is also fitted with a proprietary shaped USB port, which frankly is a big deal these days considering the ubiquity of the USB standard in new mobile devices (even Nokia has ditched their famous Pop-Port interface). The fact that it does not come with a wall charger may annoy people even more, but you can get a cheap AC-USB adaptor anywhere. The lack of OTG playlist creation is also disappointing. Fortunately I am not the person who tends to have multiple playlists for different occasions (e.g. one for the gym - but I don't go to the gym).

Before buying I had concerns over the lack of lossless file support like FLAC or WMA Lossless, until I realised I won't be getting much out of a meagre 8GB storage. But I did wish it had more codec support, including Atrac+ (which I like) as well as Ogg. But one omission may be unforgivable to some and that is gapless. Fortunately classical music only make up 5% of my music collection, so the lack of gapless is all but a minor irritation. Still, support is better than none and I hope Sony will eventually address this in future models. Also while the screen is viewable under the sunlight, it isn't as clear as it would be in doors. The lack of option to invert the colour scheme also worked against it. Finally, despite the A818's superior battery life (quoted at 33 hours for audio - which based on my usage pattern is near achievable even with post-processing) the lack of user replaceable battery is disappointing (remember those chewing gum batteries? Sony should start reimplementing them).

All in all, I am pretty happy with the device. It isn't perfect but it is close. Audio quality is by far the biggest reason to get this, next to its svelte size and superb value for money. The Walkman NWZA818 is a no frills player that has no PIM functions, games or fancy stuff like stop watches (which you can already do so on any £10 phone). And while it is a capable video player, it makes no pretence that its primary task is to let the user eek the best portable music experience they can possibly get. No gimmicks and RFD spin here, just a music player for music lovers.

The NWZA818 and its new replacement the A820 series is out now.


Here's a tip I recently gathered from Head-Fi.

In the Home menu, put the player into [HOLD]
Hold down [OPTION] then:
up, up, down, down, right, left, up , down, up ,down, right, play

A simplified UI will appear with bubbles will appear after the simplified colour/contrast chart. My suggestion is to ignore the rest of the settings if you don't want to mess your player, and head straight to DAC.

The default DAC setting on my A818 is:

Bass -6.0, 50Hz
Treble 0.0, 15kHz

Personally I left both settings alone as I didn't have any problem with how my music sounded on the A818. The poster suggested to use the following on the A720/A820:

Bass: -1.5 @ 50Hz
Treble: -7.5 @ 15kHz

realstar's suggested custom EQ: Clear Bass: +1, EQ: +2, +1, +0, +2, +1
My original custom EQ: Clear Bass: +2, EQ: +2, +1, +1, +2, +2

I tried the recommended EQ setting as some has attested that it provides a more natural sound, and it seems to give music a warmer sound on the stock earbuds - though generally I prefer my custom EQ setting which I thought was cleaner. But on the Shure e2c IEMs I found it to be harsh and provide a very synthetic sound, particularly with Thrash Metal (tested with ...And Justice For All). Haven't tested it with the CX300 yet, but I am sure you are getting my message. There is no perfect setting out there. EQ in particular is highly dependent on the genre, headphones and your preferences.


Anonymous said...

I had this but now have the A829 (16GB). The bundled phones are ok, but I use Shure e210 IEM and it sounds amazing.

Jon said...

I will wait for the 32GB version before I bite. I am already running out of space on the 8GB!

Anonymous said...

I have a S618 and I can't open the service menu!

berniebennybernard said...

I have the 728 model and it goes exceptionally well with my Super.Fi and Sleeks. I loved the Sony models since I had the round circular ones about three years back, and they still don't disappoint!