Sony needed to do something special to get back into the game on the MP3 player front. Over the last decade the electronics giant has been consistently rated as the world’s number one brand, yet in the digital audio field it plays second fiddle to Apple and other rivals.
Most would argue that’s partly down to its decision to enforce the ATRAC music standard across its players and remove the ability to use devices as portable hard drives. Thankfully, it seems as though these restrictions have been abandoned in recent times; the new 8GB capacity A1200 scores points for both design and adaptability.
The sleek black player (although it is available in a number of colours) is perhaps a statement of intent against Apple’s clean white image. A fade-out screen and subtle silver lines really do have a lot of aesthetic impact and go some way to justifying the product design award that the A1200 has won.
You’re still forced to use the SonicStage software to transfer music to your device, but this is no big problem, and you’ll now find support for MP3 and WMA as well as the traditional Sony ATRAC. The player is still biased towards this latter format and you’ll need to encourage it to leave tracks as they are if you do want to keep your MP3s unblemished, but this time around we’d go so far as to recommend it.
To start with, tracks tend to be smaller than their MP3 equivalent with no discernable loss in quality and you’ll find that the battery lasts longer playing back low bit-rate ATRAC files than it does with MP3s. Gone are the lengthy format conversion times that haunted earlier models like the Sony NW-HD3; you’ll now find an album can be converted and copied in not much longer than it would take to do a straight file transfer.
The A1200 also works with Windows Explorer; while you have to use SonicStage to copy audio files across, other files can be copied onto the device in the traditional way if you do want to use it for temporary storage.
So, on to the A1200 as an audio player. Once you’ve got your files copied across and you fire it up, a short library update picks up your ID3 tags to get everything organised and ready.
You won’t find a lot of extra features on the A1200, as it’s a pure-bred music player and makes no apologies for that. As a result, before you transfer tracks you’ll need to make sure your ID3 tags are as complete and accurate as possible. This is something SonicStage will pick up on and help you with if they’re not.
The reason for this is that there’s a host of options to change the way in which you listen to your music, varying from setting up playlists to rating your favourite tracks and telling the player to create a randomised list based on music information.
In terms of manipulating music, the A1200 is surely the best around. A dedicated ‘Artist Link’ button on the side of the device uses the ID3 tag information of the song currently playing to search your music library for similar types of music and present you with a list of related artists to choose from.
This is a great idea if you’re in the mood to listen to a certain genre, at a party or similar occasion. You can also use the ‘intelligent shuffle’ menu to shuffle through Artist Link results, and a ‘time machine’ shuffle randomly selects a year from those included in your library to allow you to play tracks from a specific era.
There are loads of other features built-in that perform similar functions for jazzing up playlists, such as play history, transfer history, bookmark creation and track rating, along with a feature to play back the 100 songs you’ve listened to most frequently on the player.
The A1200 manages to pack all of these options into a very manageable menu structure with effective controls that allow easy access to all aspects of playback and storage. You might be left wondering if you will actually use half the features on offer, but if you take the time to find out how they work you’d be surprised at how useful they can be.
You’ll also find battery life very impressive. It’s touted at around 17 hours but you’ll get a little more out of it if you encode files to low bit-rate ATRAC format. Sound quality is excellent, as expected from Sony, and it’s notable how good the quality is even at lower bit-rates.
You won’t find a lot of additional extras with the A1200, such as a movie player or photo viewer. It only has a monochrome screen after all, but what you do get is something that very few manufacturers have ever accomplished. Sony has found the secret ‘Je ne sais quoi’ that only Apple seems to have truly captured in the MP3 market.
The A1200 just feels and looks great, and kind of makes you feel and (think you) look great while you’re using it. Maybe it’s the svelte lines, or the knowledge that you have total and complete mastery of your music collection in the palm of your hand, or the thought that you could put it head-to-head in the style stakes with anything Apple has produced and have people at least polarised in their opinion of which is best.
If it was Sony’s intention to step up to Apple with the A1200, it certainly hasn’t let anyone down. Looking at the closest competitors in the iPod range, Sony has them beaten on capacity, price, audio control, and – debatably – looks. The only thing really missing, that Apple can crow about, is a colour screen.
Due to the iPod’s continued exposure at the highest level and unbeatable branding, Sony won’t overtake it with this 8GB player, but it does give a more than capable alternative to anyone who wants to deviate from the norm.
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