We've been consistently impressed with Sony's Walkman series and we've been eagerly anticipating the newest arrival. This latest model -- also known as the NWZ-A820 series or the lengthy NWZA826KB and NWZA826K -- takes over from the NWZ-A810 series and adds stereo Bluetooth, plus a host of other improvements. It's currently available for around £130, but will we be as impressed this time around?
Sony's players never fail to win style points with us. The A826 is sleek, with an aluminium enclosure and a beautiful 61mm (2.4-inch) screen. The 320x240-pixel display is bright and boasts terrific pixel density to produce a sharp image. You'll see vivid colours and decent blacks on this screen. Slightly larger than its predecessor, the A826's navigation pad has also been redesigned -- a four-way control pad sits in the middle. Dedicated 'back' and 'option' buttons are on either side à la most mobile phones.
What we do quite like is the dedicated button for switching Bluetooth on and off -- it's extremely useful. On the downside, the player uses a proprietary USB cable, so you'll want to kick yourself if you lose the one supplied.
Obviously then, Bluetooth is a feature and you'll find Bluetooth headphones in the box -- they're very average, though -- along with the standard earphones. The player will pair with Bluetooth speakers and other earphones -- we hooked them up easily to a pair of Etymotic ETY-8s. Sadly, you can't sync to a PC this way.
Supported audio formats include MP3, protected and unprotected WMA and unprotected AAC, while video support simply includes MPEG-4. Napster purchases and 'Napster To Go' songs work without problem, and syncing with Windows Media Player, Napster or Windows drag 'n' drop is about as painless as rolling around in a pile of marshmellows. Album art is supported, too.
Operating the player couldn't be simpler unless, of course, you were doing it with your mind. Menus are basic and attractive, with no obvious stumbling blocks for technophobes or digital newbies. The larger font and clear screen will ensure you won't be squinting at the player while you change tracks. A thumbnail layout and attractive slideshows give JPEG photos and videos a similarly engaging feel.
Organising your inspirational workout playlists -- the Rocky theme, Eye of the Tiger, etc -- can be done within Windows Media Player, but they cannot be created on the fly within the player itself. The bundled software is convoluted functionality-wise, but will handle your podcasts and even Flickr feeds. You can easily add the feed for your contacts' most recent photo uploads and their photos will automatically appear in the player's photo library when you connect it to a PC.
Podcasts are synced in the same way, though they just appear within artist / album lists as if they were music. There's no playback position bookmarking for podcasts, however; you won't find support for Audible downloads, an FM radio, voice recording or gapless playback either.
Fortunately, these inadequacies are overshadowed by the A826's amazing sound quality. It really is one of the best-sounding players we've ever heard. It's on par with offerings from Creative and Cowon and Sony's signature bass-heaviness is immediately apparent through our Denon AH-D5000 reference headphones.
A deep, warm tone underneath Ingrid Michaelson's beautiful song Masochist was our first clue that we were dealing with a sonically impressive player, and the clarity and power with which the rest of the song was delivered sealed the deal. The same can be said for Linkin Park's unusually mellow and U2-esque track Shadow Of The Day. It was full of detail and depth -- just what we were hoping from Sony's expensive Walkman.
The same cannot be said for video. While the player is full of potential -- thanks to the great screen and H.264 support -- it was almost impossible to get video on to the player as a result of the strict properties it requires for video files. We were very confused, and it took hours of trial and error with four different software packages. We finally succeeded and the results were terrific. Video is crisp, smooth and easily comparable to the iPod nano -- but you'll work much harder than necessary to get it.
Finally, battery life is rated at 36 hours for audio and 10 hours of video. Check back soon for our update about whether we achieved these figures in our tests.
Sony's NWZ-A826 is a terrific player and easily one of our favourites of the year so far. It blew us away with its stellar audio performance and screen quality, and it's beautifully designed and easy to use as well. It's unfortunate that its awkward video support was a major turn-off.
We'd say that Apple's iPod nano is marginally easier to use and offers simpler video functionality. It's more affordable, too. Also consider Creative's Zen if you still want more memory for less money, and iRiver's Clix 2 offers a few extra features over the Sony. All of these are at the expense of the Bluetooth capability, though.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday