Most of the time I just the first and last page of reviews. As far as this review goes, let me say this: I like the Sony A818. A lot. Read on to discover why; I think you’ll want to know.
My Affair with Sony
With the holiday shopping season coming up, the question of what to get that tech-loving geek on your list is always a tough one. Personal media players are a pretty good bet, but with so many brands to choose from, and the dominance of Apple’s iPod, knowing what to look for can be tough.
Many companies have gotten into the fray, including Sony. They have taken their venerable Walkman brand into this arena and presented IcronticHQ with a Sony Walkman A818 portable media player in order for us to share it with you.
I own an Apple iPod, and I’m somewhat “married” to the iTunes store. I’ve purchased dozens of songs and many albums through the service. For that reason, I’ve never thought of looking elsewhere for a media player, and that’s saying something. I came into this review as an outsider from the “Apple perspective”.
So let me just say it: I think I regret being married to iTunes now. Read on to find out why.
It’s a funny thing – we spend money on a device, we get excited about it, and we justify it and defend it to detractors just because we’ve got one. When you’ve spent both financial and emotional capital on something, you defend it as if attacks against it were personal. Now, I’ve never been a “fanboi” but I’ve always defended my decision to jump into the iWorld. I certainly don’t regret jumping into it when I did, because at the time, iTunes was lightyears ahead of the competition. For the early adopters, there was no other choice to have a huge, legal music library available for purchase online. Think back, you’ll remember. It wasn’t that long ago.
But now I am presented with this slick little black thing. A shiny and sleek device that fits in the palm of my hand, isn’t much bigger than my first gen iPod shuffle, and is oh-so-much more capable. My first thought? “Dammit, how do I get all my songs onto this. How do I switch?”
My initial experience with the Walkman wasn’t 100% positive. I was impressed by the screen brightness, clarity, and the physical aspects of it – it’s very small and light. However, when I first plugged it into my computer running Vista I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Apple, if anything, has their user experience ironed out. Even my mom can use iTunes (and that’s saying a LOT, trust me). Using an open device that can use Windows Media Player is a whole different ballgame. I can say with authority that there is no WAY my mom could use this thing without my assistance. I was expecting an Apple-like experience: you plug it in, Windows Media Player opens up, I drag songs and movies to it, and voilà, it works. No, not so much. I spent a good hour trying to get a video onto it using WMP11 before giving up. At no point did I see any documentation or get any hints as to why (turns out it was because you have to have video encoded very specifically for it to work on the Walkman). I had some Looney Toons shorts in plain-jane mpeg AVI format and they just wouldn’t play. I got “this video type is not supported” or something to that effect. I tried several different movies, nothing worked.
Eventually, I figured it out. The “magic formula” involves third party freeware, a bunch of Googling, and several frustrating tries. If it isn’t obvious enough, getting video onto this thing is NOT intuitive.
I did bring this up with the Sony PR reps I’ve been working with, on of whom admitted that he uses Red Kawa’s PSP Video 9 to get video onto his. That’s what I used, and it’s a viable solution. You really shouldn’t have to be that internet savvy just to get video onto your video player, though. Sony needs to come up with their own simple to use software solution to get video and audio onto their device.
But How Does It Sound?
Enough with the gripes. The audio quality on the A818 is absolutely stunning. When I brought up my video issues with Sony PR, they basically admitted that the video is something of an afterthought and that this is primarily an audio player. Fair enough. As an audio player, the Walkman excels. They have three proprietary software technologies as well as custom audio hardware that all work in conjunction to present an audio experience that is designed for discerning users. According to their website:
“The 8GB Walkman® Video MP3 Player utilizes 4 Clear Audio Technologies to reproduce crystal clear, CD-quality audio: Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) restores the higher sound frequency lost when creating compressed music files. Clear Bass enhances the bass sound while minimizing distortion. Clear Stereo reduces signal leakage from one channel to another.”
The fourth Clear Audio component is the the high end MDR-EX082 earbuds, which on their own retail for almost $70. With 13.5mm drivers, the sound is rich and full. These are the best earbuds I’ve ever used, and far exceed the audio quality of the iPod earbuds. I must have strangely shaped ears, because I have a hard time using earbuds for any more than 15 minutes at a stretch without pain and discomfort. These, however, I’m able to wear these for over an hour before I need a break. Instead of inserting a hard piece of plastic into your ear, the MDR-EX082 earbuds have a soft silicone nub. They are much more comfortable than most earbuds. While they are not noise-cancelling, the silicone serves to plug up your ears enough to block out a good deal of ambient noise.
At first, I was confused about the cord layout of the earbuds. As you can see, they are off-center. The audio plug is very near the left earbud, while the right earbud is on a longer wire. At first, I thought it was a manufacturing defect. After talking to our Sony rep about it, they clarified that it was because many people leave the player in their left breast pocket, thus the short left wire. The right earbud is on the longer cord. It is important to note that the cord layout is useless if you are not keeping the device in your breast pocket. To that end, they included an extension cord which makes it easy to keep the player on your desk, in your pants pocket, man purse, emo hoodie front pocket, or what have you.
Open Format… Sorta
While their literature suggests that as an “open format player” you can play unprotected AAC content, that’s not necessarily true. I was excited because all of my extensive CD library is encoded in AAC lossless format. While regular AAC may work (these would be .m4a files), AAC lossless does not work. Therefore, I would have to re-rip my entire CD library in order to make it available to the Walkman. This is a daunting undertaking, but a day’s worth of reripping would be worth it to me to switch over to this player simply for the much improved audio quality.
I don’t consider myself an audiophile by any stretch. However, I do notice that in some of the deep bass beats of, say, Fischerspooner, there is a lot of crackling (or “distortion”, as they say) when I play it on my iPod. Or, when Coheed and Cambria’s Claudio Sanchez screeches in his high falsetto during “In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth”, it gets shaky. While these instances are annoying, they are nowhere to be found when I listen to the same audio on the Walkman.
A friend of mine came over the other day, listened to some Alice in Chains, and said, “Dude, this thing sounds awesome”. That pretty much says it all.
It would have been really nice to have had a media slot available, even though it would have been a proprietary Sony Memory Stick slot. The display is very bright and sharp, but extremely small. This is not a great choice if watching movies is very important to you. If you want a video player, a Sony PSP is actually a fantastic choice due not only to the memory slot but also the relatively larger and brighter screen.
Battery life is spectacular. They advertise 30 hours, and my tests show that to be fairly accurate. I got 28 hours out of it, more than enough to listen to whatever you need to listen to between charges. Unfortunately, the battery is not user-replaceable.
It is priced competitively when you stack it up, especially considering the inclusion of the earbuds. The low end A810 starts at $109.95 for 2gb, while the 8gb model is $199.95.
So take your holiday spending money where you may, but a 2gb Sony Walkman for $109.95 is a great starter media player. Definitely a better choice than an iPod Shuffle or iPod Nano. If you can spend the extra $90 for the 8gb model, you are going to have a seriously high end audio player that will make you a very happy holiday camper.