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Sony NW-A808 review: Sony NW-A808

The Sony NW-A808 is one of the sleekest, sexiest MP3 players we've seen in, well, ever. On looks alone, it's a worthy contender to Apple's iPod nano and Samsung's YP-K3 -- and it's pretty good spec-wise too

Nate Lanxon

Special to CNET News

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6 min read

The Sony NW-A808 is one of the sleekest, sexiest MP3 players we've seen in, well, ever. On looks alone, it's a worthy contender to Apple's iPod nano and Samsung's YP-K3.

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8.3

Sony NW-A808

The Good

Great sound from bundled headphones; superb, lightweight design; high-quality video; useful equaliser functions; long battery life.

The Bad

Lack of FM radio; high price; unfriendly SonicStage software.

The Bottom Line

The most beautiful MP3 player we've seen since the nano, with incredible video playback and superb battery life. Sadly, though, the SonicStage software still drags down usability

Things are pretty good spec-wise, too -- there's 8GB of flash memory and video playback along with smaller dimensions and a longer-lasting battery than the nano.

Part of the NW-A800 series, we've tested the £180 8GB model, although 2GB (NW-A805, £120) and 4GB (NW-A806, £150) versions will also be available when the range debuts in April.

There's no doubt that Sony has finally succeeded in producing a nano contender, but is it worth the £180 price tag?

Design
The A808 has been designed with elegance in mind. The graphite-black matte finish is complimented by a stylish silver trimming. It's ever so slightly smaller than the nano and weighs a mere 10g more, despite being capable of playing full-screen video.

Screen size is important when you're going to be watching video on a device, and the A808's screen is a very attractive 51mm (2-inch) 240x320-pixel colour QVGA LCD screen.

This model feels as delightful to hold as it is to look at. It also doesn't feel like you're going to crush it during use; it's surprisingly rugged for such a thin and lightweight device.

All navigational and selection controls are on the front of the device and are incredibly easy to operate with a thumb. Only the volume control is situated on the right-hand side, but is comfortably within reach of a forefinger.

The only thing we didn't like too much, like the nano, is that the headphone socket is on the bottom of the player. We prefer these sockets to be on top, but this is just our preference.

Features
The interface reminds us a little of the one used on the PSP, with all the pretty menu icons contained in a three-by-three grid. Navigating through the lists is simple and the controls are immediately responsive, with each icon glowing alluringly when selected. 


Menus are stylish and easy to navigate

Your music collection is sorted in the traditional artist/album/song structure, but we particularly liked being able to browse by the year of album release. The A808 can also pick a year at random and play all music released in that year.

What separates the A800 series from anything else in its class is its support for H.264 videos you've converted and transferred from a PC. Other flash-based MP3 players can cope with video, such as the Creative Zen V Plus, but they use proprietary video formats that result in much larger files.  

Videos are rotated to fill the whole screen and look stunning. The screen is too small for watching full-length movies, but it's perfect for short clips, music videos or film trailers. Because this is a flash player, videos start instantly -- there's no waiting around for a hard disk to seek the correct location. It supports a variety of bit rates, from the watchable 384Kbps to the stupendous quality 768Kbps. Unlike audio, video files can simply be dragged and dropped on to the player through Windows.


Photos look amazing. Once you've dragged and dropped image files on to the device, you can create cool-looking slide shows with some nifty transitions between your different shots. If you divide your photos up into folders on your PC, they appear on the NW-A808 as galleries, with handy thumbnails easily showing the contents.

The music playback screen is informative and tidy. Album art is generally displayed in a small square at the top left of the screen, although you can choose to have floating album art which fills about 80 per cent of the screen during playback. Artist, album, song title and year of release are all displayed in the lower half of the screen, along with a progress bar.

The built-in search feature is incredibly useful for finding artists or songs in a large library. The whole alphabet is displayed on-screen, with unused letters greyed out. To jump to all artists beginning with the letter 'S', for example, just click 'S' and you're immediately taken to the appropriate section of your library.

Playlists generally work as you'd expect, but there's also a dynamic playlist option that lists the 100 most listened-to tracks. You can also have up to five on-the-fly playlists and tracks can be removed just as easily as they can be added, by clicking the 'add to trash' option.

Other useful features include the ability to create on-the-fly music playlists, fully searchable music libraries via an alphabetical search filter, various modes of shuffle playback and a dedicated 'options' button for bringing up in-line context menus.

Performance
Audio playback is stunning and, miracle of miracles, the bundled headphones are excellent. All ranges in the audible spectrum are reproduced well, but especially bass. We were particularly impressed when listening to Slam by Pendulum -- a bass-driven dance track that pounded clearly through even the stock headphones. Mid-ranges and highs performed equally well.

Audiophiles will still probably want to invest in a superior pair of 'phones, but the supplied set will perform well for the majority of people. We've been waiting for this day to arrive for a long time!

For once, the bundled headphones are superb

Sony's Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) is supposed to make the compressed audio sound better, but we didn't notice any significant improvement.

But turning on the ClearStereo and ClearBass options did make a dramatic different to sound quality. ClearBass on its highest setting makes bass frequencies feel twice as loud without affecting mid ranges and highs at all.

Being a Sony player, the NW-A808 supports Sony's own ATRAC format. This may leave you reliant on SonicStage, however, as the format is sparsely supported in other PC media players. Other audio formats include MP3, unprotected WMA and AAC. This means you'll be able to play downloaded files you've bought from Sony's own Connect online store, but not those from services such as Napster or iTunes.


Battery life is better than the nano -- Sony claims 30 hours of audio playback, which isn't too far off the 27 hours we got from our continuous MP3 playback test from a full charge. What's really good, though, is that the battery can be fully recharged in just 3 hours. Video played for an impressive 7 continuous hours in our test.


Video playback is incredibly crisp and a pleasure to watch

Transferring our 1.5GB test library of MP3s to the A808 took 22 minutes. This isn't too bad when compared to the 26 minutes it took to transfer the same files to our Creative Zen V Plus, but is vastly more time consuming than the Samsung YP-K3, which took a mere 12 minutes and 30 seconds.

Sadly, the supplied SonicStage software is still not as good as those provided by rival manufacturers. SonicStage has had a rough history and we were disappointed to see no noticeable advancement has been made to accompany the superb hardware. However, once you get used to the interface and its clunky methods of operation, managing a library and transferring it to your device isn't backbreaking. You're able to re-encode tracks, rip CDs, buy music from Sony's Connect store and manage both your computer's library and your device's library from one screen.

Conclusion
The Sony NW-A808 is the most stunning flash MP3 player we've seen since the iPod nano -- if anything, it's better in many significant areas. It's one of the only MP3 players around to make music sound great out of the box -- plus video clips look lush and the battery life is superb.

The only drawbacks are the SonicStage software, as ever, and the relatively high recommended price. You'll have to learn to live with the awkward software, but the nice people at Advanced MP3 Players tell us they're planning to sell the NW-A808 for less than the price of a nano -- if this happens, it's well worth snapping up.

Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide