After winning considerable plaudits for its first video-playing Walkmans, the A810 series, Sony's decided to go right for Apple's jugular. The A820 series features unique functionality and form factor – it’s a player that attempts to blend the pocketability of the iPod Nano and screen real estate of the Touch, and trumps both with built-in Bluetooth audio streaming.
But taking on both of Apple’s mainstays simultaneously is a dangerous game – the A820 could end up satisfying no one. Another concern is price: the 4GB NWZ-A826 model we’re looking at here is £145, which is £46 more than a Nano with equivalent storage.
Why so pricey?
The relative expense of Sony’s NWZ-A826 is partially justified by the Bluetooth wireless DR-BT21G behind-the-head headphones (worth £70) that complement its standard earbuds. Also, Bluetooth technology doesn’t come for free, and neither does the NWZ-A826’s enlarged 2.4in screen.
The screen tips the scales at 0.4in bigger than the Nano or A810, but 1.1in smaller than that of the Touch. It’s the perfect conduit for the attractive, cretin-friendly mobile phone-style interface that we’re familiar with from the A810 series. This makes navigating menus easier than acing GCSE Media Studies and reacts instantly to any commands you issue.
Aesthetic impressions of our black NWZ-A826 model were positive. One Stuffer proclaimed it better looking than the Nano, though those of us with eyes that focus put it more on a par with a Sony Ericsson Walkman phone. But its low weight and plasticky looks belie its surprisingly tough aluminium construction – it's a player that will happily accept a little abuse.
As with the A810 series, music can be loaded on to the NWZ-A826 using Windows Media Player or can be dragged and dropped on either PC or Mac. Neither experience rivals the iPod/iTunes or Zune combinations, but they’re certainly acceptable.
Despite the provision of Bluetooth headphones, the NWZ-A826 is also one of the only players available with in-ear buds worth keeping. They provide a slightly bass-heavy but extremely smooth and detailed delivery, like the aural version of chocolate with flecks of minty sugar embedded in it. Or something.
The story is similarly positive with the Bluetooth cans. Bass is the focus but there's enough midrange and high-end fidelity for the balance to be enjoyable, while the built-in controls and call answering facility (for use with mobiles) are welcome additions. Our one concern is the bulk, though they're mercifully lightweight.
When we plugged in our reference headphones we were even more impressed. With Clear Stereo enabled the NWZ-A826 is a player to rival any on the market, beating even its A810 predecessor. Only the slightest digital haze mars an otherwise unimpeachable performance.
Video is similarly impressive. It's bright, colourful and crisp with excellent definition, while movement is Teflon-coated. The screen size and quality make the NWZ-A826 far better suited to extended clip viewing than the Nano, though it can’t touch the… erm, Touch.
While performance is generally excellent, there are niggles. The new Walkmans still don't support gapless playback – unacceptable for fans of prog or DJ mixes. Sort it out, Sony.
The price isn’t right
A greater concern is pricing. The Bluetooth connectivity and bundled headphones elevate the NWZ-A826 far beyond Nano territory, while at £220 the 16GB NWZ-A829’s main rival is the Touch – and it doesn’t even come with Bluetooth cans.
On the other hand, the slightly-bigger-than-Nano-but-way-smaller-than-Touch form-factor is an excellent compromise. The NWZ-A826 slots comfortably into any pocket without seriously jeopardising video performance.
So, if you think you’ll use the Bluetooth headphones, you’ll find an extremely talented partner in the NWZ-A826. Otherwise, even given its audio performance, you’ll probably find it hard to justify the premium.