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Here in the CNET offices, there's no doubt that the death of SonicStage will allow Sony's Walkmans to move a significant step up in the MP3 player market share competition. The company's new devices support AAC and protected WMA, offer excellent battery life, and sound fantastic. The latest Walkman to cross the review desk is the NWZ-A810, a video-friendly flash player available in 2GB ($119.95), 4GB ($149.95), and 8GB ($199.95) flavors. We're pretty impressed with this model, and we think you will be too.
The Sony NWZ-A810 is a pretty slick player. It has a high-quality, metallic build with the main body decked out in the brushed color of your choosing--black, pink, white, or silver. A chrome-like strip surrounds the edge of the device, and accenting of the same style surrounds the buttons and makes up the logos on the front. The overall look is more elegant than flashy, so it may not turn heads, but users with an appreciation for understatement will like the style. Actually, the most eye-catching feature is the excellent, 2-inch QVGA display (320x240)--it's bright and crisp and can be used in landscape orientation for viewing photos and videos. The main menu screen is well-organized, with icons that highlight and magnify as you scroll through them, and the playback screen displays album art and a wealth of information. You can even set a screensaver to display the time and date while you're not actively using the player.
Luckily, Sony has learned its lesson about emphasizing form over function and the NWZ-A810 is as easy to use as it is pleasant to look at. Of course, getting rid of SonicStage was a major help, as you can now use all the new Walkmans with WMA jukeboxes, such as Windows Media Player (WMP) and Rhapsody. Once you get some content onto the NWZ-A810, navigation is handled via three circular controls on the front of the player: a power/option key, a back/home button, and a four-way control pad surrounding a central play/pause key. A dedicated volume rocker--always a nice touch--sits on the right edge of the player. The only two design aspects we're not too keen on are the proprietary dock connection and the hold switch, which is placed inconveniently on the back of the device.
Somewhat surprisingly, this Sony Walkman doesn't have some key features we expect at this price point. Namely, there's no FM tuner or voice recorder--no memory expansion, either. Still, the NWZ-A810 has several desirable extras, not the least of which is a pair of MDR-EX082 headphones in the package, making this one of the few players that sounds great right out of the box--no earbud replacement required. On the downside, the headphone cable is extremely short--even with the extender attached--so unless you always keep the player in a pocket (it can just reach comfortably to a pants pocket), plan on supplying another extender. Other features include photo (JPEG and slide shows) and video (MPEG4 and M4V) playback, as well as support for protected WMA files. The NWZ-A810 also plays MP3 and AAC tracks, and it offers a plethora of EQ options and sound enhancements for tweaking the sound. Finally, there's the unique and fun Time Machine Shuffle, which plays all songs from a randomly selected year.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Sony NWZ-A810 is its performance. Not only is the battery life of 35.3 hours for audio and 8 hours (rated) for video exceptional, but the processor speed is snappy and photos and videos look very good on the bright color screen, with nice detail and excellent color saturation. But, as should be the case for any music player, sound quality steals the show--namely because you don't even need to replace the headphones to enjoy good audio playback. Still, we decided we might as well pop in a pair of Shure SE530s to really put the player to the test. We were not disappointed. Although bass was impressively present through the MDR-EX082s, it really thumps with the SE530s. Similarly, mids were warm and enveloping, and the clarity on the high end was not sacrificed. Sound really sparkles--if excellent sound quality is a must for you, definitely give the NWZ-A810 a try.