Sony Bluetooth Walkman NWZ-A826K
Better late than never?
Review Available in three flavours - 4, 8 and 16GB - the pithily named NWZ-A826K is Sony's latest post-ATRAC assault on the MP3 player market, an attack launched once again under the now rather faded Walkman banner.
One can only imagine the gnashing of teeth that goes on at Sony when anyone mentions that in the 1990s we all had a Walkman, but now we all seem to have iPods.
Sony's Walkman NWZ-A826K: a handsome little devil
The reasons for the decline are many, but pride of place probably goes to Sony's unhealthy attachment to its proprietary ATRAC music format and SonicStage media management software. Thankfully, Sony has now shaken off the dead weight of both and if this is a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, it's also worth considering that it's better late than never.
Still, the new A82 series players are nothing if not handsome little devils and at an eminently pocketable 50.2 x 93.6 x 9.3mm and 65g they sit comfortably alongside their major leading brand competitors, the squat third-gen iPod Nano  and the touch-screen Samsung P2 . Indeed, in terms of screen size the Walkman sits right between these two, its 2.4in, 240 x 320 screen being a touch larger than the Nano's, but a touch smaller than the P2's.
The Walkman's controls are simple. On the front a navigation pad lets you scroll around the nine-icon main menu, the centre button either taking you into the selected menu or starting/pausing playback. To the left is a Back key that, if held down, also takes you straight to the main menu. To the right is an Option key that, if held down, switches the player on and off.
On the right-hand side of the player is the volume control; a small rubber button that allows you to turn the Bluetooth on and off without recourse to the main menu; and a Hold slider. At the bottom of the unit is a 3.5mm headphone jack and a bespoke USB port.
Mastering the menu system only takes a few seconds and after that it's all pretty twit-proof. The screen itself is bright and clear, while the sizeable white out of black text makes reading the screen very easy no matter what the prevailing lighting conditions are.
File support extends to the usual MP3, WMA and AAC formats, though the absence of support for FLAC is a little odd in view of Sony's pitch being based on better-than-the-rest audio performance. Video playback is limited to MPEG 4 and H.264 files.
The eminently pocketable player is available in four fetching colours
Shorn of it's dependence on SonicStage, the process of moving media onto the Sony is a simple case of drag and drop using Windows Explorer or the bundled Sony MediaManager software. Alternatively, you can sync content and playlists using Windows Media Player. While Mac users are catered for, Linux users are not.
Rather oddly, Sony provides no video re-formatting software, but rather offers you the chance to upgrade the MediaManager package to a 'pro' version for $13 (£6), thereby enabling the video reformatting tool. This seems a small financial gain when set against the number of buyers whose nose this level of parsimony will get right up.
Video playback is supported up to 30f/s so once you have your content formatted is looks pretty decent. Sony supplies a little plastic clip-on stand that will prop your Walkman up at around 80° like a PMP, if you fancy doing some serious video watching.
Sony bundles both wired and Bluetooth 'phones. The wired earbud phones, with three sizes of rubber bud, are of a very high quality indeed, looking and sounding a lot like Sony's MDR-EX75SL earphones. Pretty much every other MP3/PMP maker could learn a thing or two from Sony on the subject of bundled earphones, quality thereof.
The Bluetooth headphones are Sony's DR-BT21G neckband variety and come with a hinged frame to ease storage when on the move. They sit both securely and comfortably on the ears when in use and weigh a not unreasonable 65g. The one front you would expect the Sony to shine is sound quality and they don't disappoint.
Of course, these days back-to-back tests of this nature are rather complicated by the plethora of music filters and enhancers fitted to music players. The Walkman comes with two user-definable and four pre-set EQ settings, and four sound modifiers: VPT for a surround sound effect, itself with six sub-settings; DSEE for an enhanced stereo effect; Clear Stereo and Dynamic Normalizer.
For the purposes of this test we compared the Walkman back-to-back with a 4GB iPod Nano using the Sony's supplied earphones and our usual Sennheiser HD 25's.
The controls are simple enough to master
Switch all that unnecessary guff off and the Walkman has the more solid bass, the better defined vocal line - consonants blurred on the iPod are far clearer on the Walkman - and a generally more satisfying sense of balance and space. The Walkman also pumped out a fair bit more volume, a handy feature if you are going to be using your player in a loud environment.
When we played the same tunes back-to-back through each players supplied earphones the Walkman beat the iPod like a fat kid stealing someone's lunch. We would even go as far to say that the Walkman shades the Samsung P2 when it comes to sound, and that takes some doing as the P2 impressed us mightily.
Many MP3 player makers could learn from Sony on the subject of bundled earphones
Happily enough, the sound didn't take as precipitous a dive into the toilet bowl when using the Bluetooth headphones as we had feared it might. Sure, there was a noticeable drop in quality especially in the bass, but the listening experience was still far from unenjoyable.
One thing we didn't like about the Bluetooth listening experience was the fact that the volume control on the headphones is a little too close to the track-skip switches, resulting in us often changing the track rather than the volume level.
On the upside, the Bluetooth headphones come with a built in microphone, which is useless in the Walkman context but handy if you want to use them as a hands free headset with your phone, a function they performed admirably well when paired with a Sony Ericsson K660i  we had kicking about.
The player's battery life was impressive. We got 31 hours out of it, a tad shy of the 36 Sony claims, but nothing worth taking legal action over. The Bluetooth phones died after seven hours constant use, but that didn't seem unreasonable. The Bluetooth headphones can be re-charged using a supplied power adapter while the player itself can only be charged with a USB cable.
Mastering the menu system only takes a few seconds
Being a Sony, the A826K isn't what you'd call cheap, coming in at around the £170 mark. In 4GB form that price drops to around £140, in 16GB form it rockets up to a rather dizzying £280. So, considerably more than an iPod Nano or Samsung P2, both of which in 8GB form will set you back around the £130 mark and both of which are likely to appeal to the sort of brand-conscious purchaser that Sony has in mind.
Of course Apple's Nano doesn't come with Bluetooth and while the Samsung does, you still have to buy a decent set of Bluetooth cans and those will probably set you back a touch more than the £40 price difference between the two devices. Add the very high quality wired earphones that Sony also bundle into the deal and a sound quality that bests anything an iPod can deliver and also just shades the Samsung and we'd say Sony are not being all that greedy on the hardware front with the 4 and 8GB models.
At the moment there is no such thing as a 16GB P2 or Nano, so it's a case of pay up or shut up on the 16GB front. A word of warning, though, some retailers are selling the A82 series without the Bluetooth phones bundled. If you see a great price, just make sure you know what you're getting.
The longer we live with the Walkman the more we are driven to an strange conclusion. Yes, the Walkman is good, very good in fact, but like the Samsung P2, which is also very good, it is just not as flat out cool, neat, funky - use whatever you word you want - to own and use as an iPod. This test has underlined to us once again just what a curiously but desperately possessable gadget the iPod, any iPod, is. Buy the Walkman and you will come to like it and respect it enormously, but you won't ever come to love it as some people, including us, love their iPods.