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HolidayBuyer's Guide
MP3 Players

Sony's tiny high-resolution audio player might be the next big thing

It's called the Walkman NWZ-A17, and this wafer-thin player has a lot going for it, says the Audiophiliac.

Sony's latest reboot of the Walkman -- the NWZ-A17 high-resolution music player -- brings back memories of the original Walkman analog cassette players that were all the rage in the 1980s. Sony went on to sell boatloads of CD, video, radio, network, and even MP3 Walkmans, but the NWZ-A17 is the first one I really wanted to try since the original player. I love that the NWZ-A17 is (probably) the smallest bona-fide high-resolution player on the market. The sleek, die-cast aluminum body measures a trim 1.75 x 4.3 x 0.3 inches (44.4 x 109.1 x 9.1 mm), and it weighs next to nothing, just 2.4 ounces (66 grams) but still manages to exude high-end glamor. It feels like a precision made design, with an easy to read antireflective TFT LCD display. The controls and user-interface are intuitive to use, which is far from true with most high-resolution music players.

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The Sony Walkman NWZ-A17 Sony

The NWZ-A17 features 64 GB of built-in memory (expandable via optional microSD to 192 GB), and it can play tunes for up to 50 hours. It supports MP3, WMA, WMA lossless, AAC, FLAC, AIFF, WAV and ALAC files, with audio resolution up to 192 kHz/24-bit. Some audiophiles might be surprised to note the NWZ-A17 doesn't support Sony DSD high-res files, but that's a story for a different time.

What exactly do high-resolution files sound like, compared to ALAC files ripped from CDs, played on an iPod Classic or phone? Listening to jazz pianist Dave Brubeck's iconic "Take Five" album in high-resolution on the NWZ-A17, the differences were immediately clear. The high-resolution files sounded significantly clearer than ALAC files, played on my iPod Classic. You hear the "spaces" between instruments more clearly, and the dynamic shadings of the piano and drums are more nuanced. Is the sound better or different enough to justify spending extra for higher-resolution files? That's up to you, I'd say for well-recorded music you really love, absolutely, but in order to hear high-resolution sound you'll need a set of audiophile-grade headphones, otherwise you'll miss out on the detail and clarity high-res files can offer. I would also say the NWZ-A17 made standard-resolution ALAC and FLAC files sound close to high-resolution files.

A shootout between the NWZ-A17 and FiiO X5 high-resolution players seemed like a good idea, as they're nearly the same price. The X5 is more powerful and can play full-size headphones a lot louder, but it's bigger and bulkier; I prefer the NWZ-A17's user-interface and easier-to-read display. The X5's controls are awkward to use, and worse yet, it occasionally stops playing tunes (the reset gets music back on track). The X5 sounds warmer and fuller paired with my Audio Technica ATH-M50x and Sony MDR 7520 headphones. The NWZ-A17 was lighter in tone, with a smaller sound stage. The X5 opens up the sound; it's less inside my head, and the X5 also did a much better job with difficult-to-drive (300 ohm impedance) Sennheiser HD-580 headphones. The NWZ-A17 didn't cut it with the HD-580s.

Continuing with Logitech UE 900 in-ear headphones, the X5 and NWZ-A17 were more evenly matched, but the tonal differences were still there. The NWZ-A17's sound is more present; the X5 is sweeter and more laid-back. Which is better is very much a question of personal taste. I prefer the X5, you might love the NWZ-A17.

Then I stopped comparing and settled down with the NWZ-A17 and the Logitech UE 900s. Scientist's dub reggae was a blast. Deep bass was solid and firm -- there's no flab down there! The NWZ-A17's clarity is so addicting you may never want to listen to music on your phone ever again. All told, its build quality, tiny size, and ease-of-use make this player a very viable alternative to the now-discontinued iPod Classic, the current line of FiiO players, and probably the upcoming $400 Pono music player. I will definitely try and get a Pono in for review when it's available.

The Sony NWZ-A17 Walkman sells for $299.99 in the US; prices for the UK and Australia were unavailable, but the US price converts to about £180 and AU$325, respectively.