Earlier in the year, we took a look at the first devices in Sony's A-Series of players, notably the NW-A808. Though we liked it a lot, the reliance on Sony's proprietary software and the device's high price, made it more difficult to score.
However, a few months down the line we're now looking at the next set of A-Series players, the NWZ-A81x range, which includes the NWZ-A815, the NWZ-A816 and the NWZ-A818 models -- the only difference between the three is memory capacity -- and both SonicStage and high prices are nowhere to be seen. Finally, has Sony nailed it?
The sleek, all-metal casing of the A81x series broadcasts professionalism on all frequencies. It's a solid, rugged and well-built player that doesn't feel like it would break after a short fall. The 51mm (2-inch) screen sits in a portrait format with the player's navigational buttons below. We were sad to see that beside the hold switch around the back sit two silver screws, though they do at least conform to the device's generally metallic appearance.
Volume controls reside at the top of the right-hand side, in perfect position for thumb operation by right-handed folk. Finally, a proprietary USB socket sleeps away under the device's base, alongside a 3.5mm headphone socket.
Inside, the A81x series offers a heap of high-quality codecs, though Sony's proprietary ATRAC audio format is highly conspicuous by its absence. Sony even includes software to convert existing ATRAC files into MP3! Support for MP3, protected and unprotected WMA, unprotected AAC and WAV files come as standard. Sadly, there's no support for lossless WMA files. On the video side, high-quality MPEG-4 files can be played, though no included software converts video into this format.
The icon-driven main menu is attractive and self-explanatory, with all functions ordered in a 3x3 grid. In the music menu, your library can be sorted by album, artist, song, genre or release year. There's a quirky 'Time Machine Shuffle' option that creates ad-hoc playlists of tracks from randomly selected years of release.
Videos are simply sorted in a plain list format with small static thumbnails. Image libraries too are organised with the utmost simplicity, appearing as 3x4 grids of thumbnails. These default sorting methods can be changed.
Playlists made on a PC can be transferred when the player is synced with Windows Media Player and accessed from a playlist option within the device's main menu. A rudimentary search system allows you to search your entire music library instantly by letter.
For example, clicking 'A' doesn't just bring up a list of albums and songs that begin with 'A', but also any items that contain the letter 'A', though the latter appears lower down in the results list. Oh, and where's the FM radio, eh?