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Sony A-Series Review (NWZ-A15)


Walkman fans have been wishing for Sony to add expandable storage to the Walkman for ages.  Ever since the A810 series, users were wondering why the lack of support for micro-sd.  This went on for several generations and varying series' of Walkmans.  Of course one of the main reasons was that Sony would be able to release higher capacity versions at inflated prices.  The arrival of the ZX1 ushered in an era of higher capacity for the Walkman, but it came with a much higher price.  Still there was no expandable storage on a device designed for high resolution audio files which take up a lot of space.

Then it seems Sony had a change of heart and decided to introduce a new A-Series with micro-sd support.  It was a little over a month after the IFA introduction when I finally had my hands on the new A-Series; with high resolution audio and micro-sd support I felt this was the Walkman for me.  

So after 4 months of constant use, does the new A-Series live up to the hype or did Sony miss the bulls-eye again?

Full review after the break.
                  

I would first like to apologize for the long delay of the review.  I have been rather busy in my last year of medical school and there was always an exam around the corner.  But then, I would rather have tested the device for longer and discover all the positive and negative aspects and not put a review after a week and then find something I did not like.  Finally the last reason/excuse, I do not have any good in ear headphones except the pairs that shipped with my previous Walkmans (MDR-NC31).   My MDR-10BT headphones have high resolution support but the A-Series is not able to deliver a high enough volume and would require an AMP to drive them.  Therefore I waited for Sony to release the new XBA headphones in Japan and then Europe.  Clearly nothing has been released in Europe, so I was forced to order my pair from Japan in early January.  My XBA-A3 finally arrived about 2 weeks later and I have been testing them with my A15 since then.  I will have a separate review of them up later on.

Build and Design

The new A-Series brings a new design direction to the familiar Walkman design.  The candy bar shape remains, where as the Micky Mouse controls are finally gone.  The back and option buttons have moved under the screen and the direction pad now is diamond shaped.  The front is some sort of metal with a textured surface and the back being a matte plastic.  Sony could have made it all metal but that would have increased the weight.  Regardless, the overall design and materials gives the new A-Series a nice premium feel which was lacking in the older Walkmans.  Compared to the X-Series, the A15 is only slightly lighter but overall both feel solid.  When compared to the A840, again weight wise they are similar but the older 840 is fully metal in construction and feels slightly more comfortable due to the rounded edges on the back.  Otherwise there is not much of a difference.  I would have preferred a larger screen on the A15 akin to the older A840, but this is not a deal breaker.  The NFC is located on the back near the top and pairs with ease to other devices like wireless headphones or speakers.

After 4 months of use, the A15 only shows some signs of wear and tear, mostly on the rear of the device which is plastic and some minor areas on the front but that is my own fault.  I accidentally dropped the A15 from waist height onto a rocky gravel surface;  the Walkman fell face down, but the screen did not break and only tiny minuscule marks appeared on the metal.  Overall the fact the device has been used almost daily for 4 months with almost no major scuffs or marks is nice.  But to protect it, I ordered the silicone case (CKM-NWA10) from Japan.  The silicone case is similar to previous silicone cases for the Walkman, meaning it comes with a screen protector and a silicone case in the box, not much more.  Unlike previous cases I have owned, this one is not transparent but solid in colour and the controls are now labelled, Play/Pause, Home/Back and PWR OFF/Option. 



Apart from that, nothing more to say about the build and design, a solid premium device from Sony.  Shame they did not use metal for the rear but then a part near the top might need to be plastic in order to allow the bluetooth and NFC to function like on the E-Series (E575).  High marks for Sony.

Audio Quality

Sound quality is always subjective and you can read all sorts of reviews by users on forums, especially on Head-Fi.  For me, the new A-Series is the best sounding Walkman that I have owned so far, I have not used the F-Series much, nor have I had a chance to play with the ZX-Series. Priced at 200 Euros, the new A is reasonably priced, especially with the added micro-SD support.  I am sure there are other brands of mp3 players which are probably better than the A-Series but comparing/reviewing all of them would be beyond my budget and scope.  I was able to compare the new A to 3 different previous Walkmans, the old A818, A840, and X-Series, only the A818 was purchased outside of Europe, so it has no volume limitation. 

A15 vs X-Series

I feel a lot of people will want to know how these compare, to sum it up, the A-Series has a better deeper sound and is slightly louder.  The lows are much deeper on the A, mids seem almost identical with perhaps a slight edge for the A in the highs.  The differences depend on the type of music I feel, for instance, classical music sounds a lot better on the A-Series.  When comparing hiss, the A-Series also wins out by a wide margin, again all subjective but using the same headphones, same songs and similar volumes, the hiss is more evident on the X-Series.  I am unaware if there if there is any volume limitation on the new A-Series but if there is, it is minimal.  When removing any variables like outside noise, different volumes on the devices or different songs, the A-Series is louder by 2-3 positions in volume.  I used my older headphones for the test, MDR-NC31s, but when switching to my XBA-A3s on the A, I am able to listen at even lower volume.  With all that being said, I will mention that the X-Series has a much warmer sound overall, this does not mean the A does not have a warm sound, it does but less so than the X.  Maybe this will change in the long run.  Overall, the A15 edges out the X-Series in overall sound quality and worth the upgrade if anyone is thinking of replacing their X-Series.

A15 vs A845

It may seem unfair to compare the older A to the new A15 but I feel spiritually, the new A feels more like a true successor to the A845 rather than the last A-Series (A860).  Volume wise, they are close, the A15 edges out the A845 by 1-2 positions on volume.  When comparing the sound quality, the A845 is able to hold its own versus the A15 for being such an older Walkman, but in the end, it just does not match the deeper sound, better clarity and less hiss of the A15.  One feature where the A845 wins in is the built in noise cancellation which is lacking on the A15 (excluding the Japanese model which features NC).  While the A845 is more comfortable to hold, ease of use is better on the A15 since the controls are more spread out unlike on the A845 with its more compact controls.  If you still own the older A840, I would recommend upgrading to the A15.

A15 vs A818

My A818 is the only model with no volume limitation as it was purchased from the US, so I was curious if there would be much of a difference in volume.  To my surprise the older A818 is slightly louder than the A15, this probably is due to the volume restriction on the A15, if it is present  When comparing sound quality, the A818 looses out, the sound does feel warm like the A15, but it is not as refined or smooth as the A15.  The A818 was my second mp3 player from Sony (after the A1000/A3000 Walkmans).  The A818 still sounds pretty good versus the A15, sure it does not come close but considering at almost 8 years old, it does a pretty good job.

Controls

Sony finally decided to change up the controls on the new A-Series, gone are the Mickey mouse controls replaced by a more modern looking design.  The directional pad is now a diamond with the menu keys being moved under the screen.  Using the Walkman in my pocket is quick easy but at times I do have problems finding the volume keys.  I do prefer the new design since you are less likely, if ever, to accidentally press the Back or Option buttons since they have been moved up higher.  Reaching the menu controls is very easy from the directional pad.  This new layout of the buttons makes me wonder why Sony did not use this layout all along.

One complaint is, when playing a song, you happen to press the downwards on the pad, you enter what I would call an album stream with album cover photos.  You can browse through the albums using up and down, while a nice feature, you are stuck on one song only or at least the entire album.  Since most of my songs are singles or remixes of singles, the albums generally contain one song, so I am usually stuck on that one song.  Another issue which I have noticed on most if not all Sony Walkmans is the shuffle option.  I do not know what it is, but the shuffle selection is not as random as it should be.  I feel this is coded into the current Sony OS on the Walkmans and has not changed much since forever.  An option to have the most recently added shuffled or favourites shuffled, with the favourites automatically chosen on play frequency.

There is the SensMe Channels option which allows you to listen to songs depending on your mood. I do not use it but before you can use it, the Walkman needs to analyze the songs first.  This takes time and depends on how many songs are on the device, but for around 400 songs it takes around 5-6 minutes to analyze.

When it comes to playlists, Sony has decided to keep the bookmark list feature which has been present from the earliest A-Series Walkmans.  You have 5 different bookmark lists to use, each list can store up to 100 songs.  You can add a song to a list using multiple methods.  When a song is playing, pressing play/pause will add the song to the default bookmark list.  Another method, while playing a song, press PWR OFF/Option then scroll down to "add to bookmark" and then select the bookmark list you wish to add the song to.  Finally when scrolling through your library, you can select a song and then press play/pause again and it will be added to the default bookmark list.  Here are the rest of the instructions for removing one song, all songs and rearranging songs.

While I do not use the bookmark lists often but they do come in handy for making quick playlists of new songs or your favourites.  One feature I wish the A15 had was a recently added playlist, something my Xperia Z1 has.  Normal playlists in m3u format will work on the device.  For example, if you copy over an album with a m3u file, it will appear in the playlists menu.   One method of making playlists is plugging in the Walkman, opening the directory with all your music, select the songs you want in your playlist and then drag them into winamp.  Next save the playlist into the same directory as the songs and the playlist will appear om the Walkman.  This is the fastest way to make playlists but it requires a computer so there is that problem.
 
Day to Day use

If the new A-Series has anything going for it, it would be the insane battery life.  I do not have a lot of my music in flac but for the most part, (95%) all my songs are 320kbps mp3s, so not the easiest on battery life.  My older E585 never lasted more than 1-2 days before I had to recharge it and my X-Series while for the first year and a half had decent battery life but never lasted as long as the A15.  I have gone a full week of regular use, same as my E585 and I still have 50% of battery left.  I know Sony had to use a larger battery for hi-res audio but the benefit to non hi-res audio battery life is ridiculously awesome and one of the advantages for users who need a long lasting player. 

One issue is the actual micro-sd support, while a plus, you cannot access both the internal storage and the sd card memory.  From the sd card settings menu, you have to select the location for USB storage from system storage to sd card.  I am not sure why Sony did not just have ability to view both internal and sd card storage while browsing the device on the pc.  Perhaps this is a limitation of the current Walkman OS.  But the upside, once you fill up your internal storage, you just set the device to sd card and use that.  Unfortunately making playlists using winamp will not work if you want to use songs from both memories, so you will have to use the bookmark list option.




If given the option between my Xperia Z1 or the A15, I would go for the A-Series always, even with the disadvantages of the Walkman OS and better playlist support of Android.  I have compared my Z1 to the A15 and even with the XBA headphones the Xperia still lacks the clean sound of the Walkman.

Final thoughts

So is the new A-Series finally the perfect Walkman?  Well no, but it comes as close.  Sure Sony could have included noise cancellation like on the Japanese model but then using MDR-NC31 headphones on the A15 would not do justice to the superior sound quality.   The A15 begs to be used with high quality headphones, perhaps the XBA-A3s are not at the super high end of this scale, but nonetheless provide pretty amazing sound quality.  I would not recommend people buying the XBA-Z5s, the seem like a slight waste of money for the an almost identical product to the A3s.  I would highly recommend the XBA-A3s but if those are too expensive, then consider the A2s.

Thanks for reading, I can answer questions in the comments, so if you have any please leave them below.  Hopefully there are no major spelling or grammatical mistakes :)

Pros
  • Premium design and feel
  • Insane battery life
  • Expandable storage 
  • Bookmark list feature handy
  • m3u files will work but making playlists requires a computer
Cons
  • No supplied headphones
  • Plastic back easily prone to scratches
  • No built in Noise Cancellation
  • Cannot access both memories at the same time on a computer

                  

More photos from October 2014, previously posted on the A15 Preview post.











    11 comments:

    1. Thanks for the great review! I keep waiting on a viable replacement for my x-series, so this is definitely an option. I'm hoping Sony makes a new F-series with NC and SD support, as I like the touchscreen capability. Do the XBA headphones sit well in the ear? I had to replace my headphones last year, and tried some Sony hybrids, but I didn't like the sound or the way they sat in the ear. I ended up getting the MDR-XB90EX headphones from Japan and I love them. As for the Walkman... the concept of Hi-Res is great, it's just not conceivable that I could replace my ~200kbs mp3s with FLAC files. I currently have well over 4000mp3s on my x-series, and there's no way I could re-rip the CDs, time-wise; and that's only 2/3 of my music collection. Plus, any songs I purchase tend to be 320kbs, from Amazon Music. With whatever Walkman I end up getting in the future, I might end up upping the bit rate to 256 or 320, but only for new rips. I just have too many songs.

      ReplyDelete
    2. This doesn't have software to play podcasts, right? That's my favorite feature of my e465 for audiobooks...

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      Replies
      1. Yes it does. Podcasts are very well integrated into the system and easy to transfer from a Mac to the Walkman with just a drag and drop.

        The battery life and storage make this a fabulous device for podcasts. I've found it much better for podcasts than an iPod just because it is smaller but with better storage and battery life.

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    3. Can this player synch via windows media player, or am I forced to use Media Go?

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    4. Hello. Do you know if the A15/A17 will be replaced anytime soon? I'm interested in buying but since these models came out last year there may be newer models on the way.

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      Replies
      1. yes, a new model is coming at IFA this year.

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    5. Thanks for the review! I do have a super-fast microSDxc Lexar card (and reader). And I was wondering if it's possible to load and organize music on the card just using the card reader. I'm particularly interested in creating playlists this way. Is it possible or do I have to stick to Sony's content transfer?

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    6. my best player remains Creative's Zen. Followed by X-Fi.
      i do love Sony's superior sound quality though, but i have to say, MediaGo is a crap software.
      after much googling, i finally figured to redownload winamp (age old software) to enable me to create playlists ON MY DEVICE!!!
      also, the a15 device is lacking in versatility of creating playlists on the device itself. and i really wish they had thought of a backlight for the keys! a quick button on the player to take u right to the now playing list would also have been useful. creative really was superior back in the day. am surprised sony are so behind versus creative's decade old players and softwares.
      an avid Apple products boycotter

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    7. Hi, thank you so so much for this long and detailed review.
      I am a new User of a15. And i have a simple question. I can not close my walkman. :) i am using Power off button, it seems like shuted down. But then when i press any button of it, it does open. Is it normal?

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      Replies
      1. Let it stay longer and it will be shutted down

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    8. I have music in many different genres. WOuld it be possible with the A15 to shuffle play
      all songs in only one specific genre (pop,classical etc.)

      ReplyDelete

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