Sony NWZ-A866 MP3 player review

Classy MP3 player for audio purists
Photo of Sony NWZ-A866 MP3 player
£219 inc VAT

If a handheld device wants to be taken seriously, it usually has to do much more than its primary task. Why bother carrying a phone, camera, MP3 player, satnav, ebook reader, games console and web browser around when one device can do it all? Get an iPhone 4s and even idle chit-chat comes built in.

It takes a brave company to fly in the face of received wisdom, but there’s none braver than Sony. The A866 looks thoroughly modern with its touchscreen, Home button and slim, curved shell, but browsing the icons on its home screen reveals a purity of purpose. As the X Factor contestant with zero charisma would say, it’s all about the music.

The A866 can record voice notes, too, and also supports photo and video playback, but the 2.8in, 400×249-pixel screen is too small for extended viewing. However, at £219 for a 32GB player, it needs to pull something pretty special out of the bag to take on the iPod Touch, which can be had for £220 online from Amazon.

Good headphones
Sony is off to a bold start with its choice of headphones. The MDR-EX300 set is available separately for around £35, and is a world apart from the cheap headphones that come bundled with most players.

In testing, sound quality was crisp and detailed, and there was plenty of bass without help from the player’s EQ settings. Its silicon plugs form an airtight seal in the ears, cutting out background noise but also accentuating rumbles caused by movement in the cable.

The player itself sounded clear and precise, and comes with a five-band equaliser and Sony’s Clear Bass technology plus lots of other digital processes to play around with. It’s not the loudest headphone amplifier we’ve heard, though, particularly when used with the supplied headphones. The lack of support for lossless compression formats – other than the capacity-hogging PCM WAV format – will disappoint those for whom quality is paramount.

Smooth operator
It isn’t easy living up to the iPod Touch’s slick operation, but the A866 manages it comfortably. The capacitive touchscreen and menus were both unerringly responsive, and browsing our library of thousands of tracks was quick and intuitive.

Music is organised by album, artist, genre, release year or containing folder, and there’s a carousel of album artwork that’s available directly from the Now Playing screen. Playlists must be created using the bundled software, though.

There’s an FM radio plus Bluetooth for streaming to wireless headphones or speakers. A strip of physical buttons down the right edge make it easy to control basic functions without removing the player from a pocket.

Anyone who has suffered at the hands of iTunes – especially when it comes to migrating an iPod to a new PC – will appreciate the ability to transfer music and videos simply by dragging and dropping in Windows.USB transfers were reasonably quick at 4.3MB/s, and after adding a couple of gigabytes of music, the player refreshed its music library within 20 seconds.

Charging is via USB only, and the 23-hour battery life respectable but far from exceptional. The proprietary USB socket also means locating a replacement cable could prove to be tricky.

On the right track?
The A866 is undoubtedly a first-rate player, and its premium headphones help to justify the high cost. However, we wonder how many keen audiophiles are looking to buy a new player and new headphones – it seems likely that they will already own high-quality headphones that they won’t be planning to replace. For them, the excellent Cowon X7  with its 160GB capacity and FLAC and OGG format support might be more appealing – especially at its £199 current price. For those with more mainstream needs, the iPod touch’s huge versatility is likely to be the deal-clincher.

Company: Sony

Website: http://www.sony.co.uk/

Contact: AdvancedMP3Players on 0131 443 8545

Positives
  • Excels for music playback; excellent headphones.
Negative
  • Expensive; not a multi-tasker.

Verdict

It's hard to imagine a more elegant MP3 player, and the A866 beats the iPod Touch for sound quality and fuss-free music transfers. However, Sony is making a bold statement by charging just as much as the 32GB iPod touch - and we're not completely convinced it pulls off the coup.