Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: Sony NW-A 1000


You´re about to read the fifth out of nine reviews. You don´t need to read them all, just pick the unit that seems to be the most interesting to you. In the weeks to follow I´ll review the following units: Kenwood DP-5090, Pioneer DV-610, Sony CDP-470, Pioneer BDP-140, iRiver IMP-550, Sony MZ-R 55, Sony MZ-R 37, Sony NW-A 1000 and the Sansa Clip+. Stay tuned and enjoy the new review: the Sony NW-A 1000! I also implore you to read the article describing my rigorous testing methodology before you actually start reading this one.

Sony NW-A 1000
I admit it: I´m a Sony fan. Sue me. What other reason would I have to purchase a portable player that is forced to use the dreaded piece of software called SonicStage? Yeah, go ahead and ask "Why?" I wanted to try out something different than mp3 or AAC: because of my good experiences with ATRAC DSP Type-R I thought that the more modern ATRAC3Plus would be an improved version combining less space requirements with equally high sound quality. Boy, was I wrong! After I received the used NW-A 1000 I started to convert several albums to ATRAC3Plus using 256 kBit/s CBR (VBR doesn´t exist) with SonicStage and transferred them to this glossy gadget. While I admired the amount of definition and crispness upon listening to it I noticed a lack of impact, punch and snap. All the transients seemed to have been transformed into cute kittens instead of the wild cat they were before encoding. It didn´t take long for me to discover that the codec itself was the culprit: Sound Forge offers the very same ATRAC3Plus codec as an encoding option (why I didn´t think of testing the codec before purchasing the NW-A 1000 escapes me). With these files encoded by Sound Forge I was able to find out that the codec is neither transparent at 256 kBit/s nor at 352 kBit/s (both have exactly the same quality but the latter uses more space for no reason). Sound Forge also offers a "High Quality" setting for the codec which takes a bit longer to encode; only then will the ATRAC3Plus codec be finally transparent. SonicStage sadly doesn´t offer this option when transferring from PC to portable player, it just encodes with "Normal Quality". You could now say "Why don´t you encode with Sound Forge all the time?" I would if I would keep tagging options! Without tags embedded in the files the Sony won´t show anything on its display, I wouldn´t know what album I´d be picking. CDDB tagging doesn´t help either since SonicStage always messes up the tags (how can someone engineer a software as stupid as this one?). After a firmware update it was able to play AAC files - but that didn´t help either because SonicStage ignores embedded AAC tags, it has to tag itself using its own scheme. The only option I have been left with is to use mp3 which I finally accepted begrudgingly - I´ve started to use 256 kBit/s or 320 kBit/s files CBR (VBR drains the battery faster) using the -q0 switch... it takes forever to encode but the difference in quality is audible (I did a DBT to confirm this).

Sony NW-A 1000 backside: heavy metal
When it was released to the market in 2006 Sony very much desired for it to kill the iPod. Several journalists indeed described the NW-A1000 as being capable of being an "iPod killer" and Sony did everything in their power to make it last inside a highly competitive market being ruled by Apple products since 2001 (for starters they should have terminated SonicStage). As typical for Sony they approached this goal by assuming that customers would be interested in a high quality device that was combined with wonderful sound. It is in fact one of the best manufactured portable players I´ve ever seen, everything fits tightly together, the two (!) transparent layers of plastic acting as the upper shell with the backside being constructed out of thick aluminum. When you touch a button the player doesn´t light up immediately, it takes half a second to light up completely. The same happens when it deactivates or saves power: it slowly dims lights down, with different timings for display and buttons, creating a nice effect. Everything about this player suggests "I´m a high quality device, better than the iPod - love me and abandon Apple." Its design even won a prestigious award from the International Forum Design (I still don´t find it THAT beautiful). It looks and feels like an expensive & heavy space age cigarette case, revealing its true function only at the touch - nifty.

Sony NW-A 1000 closeup
When I took it apart I found that the inside looks pristine as well: Sony seems to have used a bunch of quality parts for it. One example is its D/A converter which is a Burr Brown PCM1772 (still in production), a 24/48 capable high quality converter developed by Texas Instruments with portable gear in mind. Sony combined it with 16 MB RAM and an AN17020A from Panasonic, a headphone amp with additional line-out function. Because in 2006 solid stage cards were still expensive Sony decided to use the Microdrive, produced by IBM. Should a person desire more space than the 6 GB the NW-A 1000 provides one could use of course a CF Card with 16 GB or more (they are really cheap nowadays) - sadly that doesn´t work; the player will accept it but SonicStage won´t. BTW, the Sony really does put out signals with 24 bits - but only for AAC and ATRAC3Plus, not with mp3. Together with the line-out function this creates a tiny portable high end machine. Kudos to Sony for wisely choosing the best hardware the price range allowed. But since customers are more interested in convenience than sound quality this strategy didn´t work because in the end Sony wouldn´t take the market by storm with this player.

Sony NW-A 1000 measurments (line-out)
Sony NW-A 1000 jitter (with AAC encoded test file)
For a portable player using a lossy compression scheme it behaves quite well. Measurment differences between mp3 or AAC were negligible, ATRAC3Plus encoded test signals on the other hand measured horribly, especially at distortions (not caused by the player, the codec just sucks). Jitter however is not so good, the spread around the sine at 11.025 Hz indicates low frequency jitter and has the potential to become audible. I doubt that all other peaks are high frequency jitter, most likely these spikes have been introduced by lossy compression.

Sony NW-A 1000: glossy perfection
How does it sound? It's hardly noticeable that the NW-A 1000 reduces impact of transients and that snap & punch do not completely sound like the reference. The same goes for the speediness of the material: it´s a bit slower compared to the source. But all of this is only valid when music is loud; should it be soft everything is allright. The frequency response diminishes deep bass and treble marginally which might also be responsible for an insignificant loss of resolution and definition. The amount of details on the other hand is pure bliss and a perfect match. Staging sounds like a carbon copy - except for a slight forwardness of everything that´s in the center. It also sounds instable, instruments are wandering around a bit and changing their size slightly. The result of this characteristic is that the NW-A 1000 sometimes sounds "small", too nice and too confused. Well... I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed, I expected it to sound better. Don´t get me wrong, it fares really well, certainly better than the Sansa Clip+, the iRiver IMP-550 or the Kenwood DP-5090. We also have to consider that those three players were reviewed with lossless material while this one used lossy mp3 files! But I still had hoped that this unit would finally be THE ONE with the perfect mixture of convenience, available space and sound. It´s really good and I´ll probably use it often... but I nevertheless will seek an even better player.


Sonic Balance:
Dynamics:
Resolution:
Stage / Ambiance:
Character:

Sony NW-A 1000


6 comments:

  1. Yes I know I'm a few years late but I am desperately trying to find a replacement for a failing NW HD5 HDD and came across this article I am not a technician of the order of the author of this piece but I do have two ears and considerable experience of live and recorded music. I can't believe the central theme of this article, over the years I have listened to most of the compression algorithms and in my opinion none, yes none match ATRAC3plus therefore the imminent failure of my NW-HD5 player is a very serious problem for me, I suppose I might over a period of time manage to put up with the rubbish that is an MP3 but I don't want to have to.

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    1. ATRAC3Plus is very, very good using the highest possible bitrate. But MP3 has been very good for a few years as well. You may not believe me, but have a look at my article "MP3 and other HiRes formats" where I give advice to extract the best possible quality out of MP3 and AAC.
      But why is your HD5 failing? Is it the HDD? If so, why don´t you replace it with a new one? Just google for it, there are several forum thread for you to find that deal with this. Or you could bid on an HD3 on eBay, they are very similar. Or you could go for one of the newest HiRes players like the FiiO X3. The latter will play true lossless quality, contains a very good headphone output (and a line-out & digital out) and is able to play up to 24/192.

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  2. Thankyou for your intelligent, helpful and prompt response. It is the HDD failing I presume it is losing sectors as some tracks suddenly stop and another one starts, I have now ordered a new 20gb HDD and hope my fingers are up to the task of replacing the failing one.
    I will also investigate the player you mention at the end of your response because being a pedant I have been wondering for a while with the massive increase in HDD size why no-one has reverted to a player that you could record whole CD's on without any compression algorithm mashing it up.
    Thanks again for a very helpful response, I will read more of your articles.
    One question, I was just wondering whether your expertise extends to sound cards and if so where I should start looking for a card that would make my PC a high level audio source.

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    1. You´re too kind, really. And I too hope that you´ll manage replacing the failing HDD... but from all I´ve read it shouldn´t be too difficult. But be careful about those flat ribbon cables inside the HD 5: when I took apart my HD 3, I managed to break it completely. Reason was the connector for the flat ribbon cable connecting the touchpad panel to the mainboard. The HD 3 and I don´t seem to be very compatible: a second one was crushed by the company delivering it.

      The FiiO X3 I mentioned above can deal with .WAV, FLAC or APE. It can also deal with MP3, AAC, OGG and WMA but I assume you want to go lossless. I´d recommend FLAC since it´s a fully lossless compression (and don´t believe in the stupid assholes telling you different!). The FiiO comes with 8 GB of built-in space which can be extended with Micro SD cards as big as 32 GB (a 64 GB version is possible too, but it´s still very expensive). The higher model from FiiO, the X5 contains two Micro SD card ports which yields either 64 GB or 128 GB (depending on the used cards).

      Soundcards... what do you want? How are you planning to connect them? Should it amplify a headphone like the Sennheiser HD-600? Should it be external or internal? A good starting point is the site of my dear friend Vincent, called 'The Well-Tempered Computer'.

      Have a look:
      http://www.thewelltemperedcomputer.com/HW/USB_DAC_Async.htm
      http://www.thewelltemperedcomputer.com/HW/PC.htm

      Or do you want a streaming solution (where everything stays on your PCs HDD and gets streamed to your stereo system)? I might help you with soundcard but I have to know a bit more beforehand.

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  3. Hi, I'm afraid it's me again. At present I have a home built PC with an I3 processor and Windows Vista 64 bit, recently I resurrected a Creative Labs Audigy2 ZS card with what I call a breakout box?. The sound from this seems through Grado SR80's better than any Hi-Fi system I have ever owned but there are two flaws one: the PC cooling fan is too noisy two: because the Audigy card is old it is not supported on Vista64, it tells you this but does load with a warning, I think because of this my PC now bluescreens once or twice a day being rather daft my solution to this is to build myself a new very up to date machine with Windows 7 or 8 on it with an especially quiet cooler. Included in my new machine I would like a state of the art sound card I mostly use the system I have in a streaming mode feeding my SR80's or hopefully in the near future a passable stereo system, so in my long winded way I have answered your question - I want to stream my music to some headphones like the SR80's, which unfortunately disintegrated the other day so will need replacing.
    I have read several of your interesting articles and you have awakened me to the world of HI-RES audio so I may replace the HD5 with this new SONY machine which is very expensive but they say will play ATRAC advanced lossless, I would be interested to know if you think my interest in it is warranted especially at the rather high price or is the Fioo likely to be just as good I'm only interested in the audio side of the system.
    Sorry for droning on like this but I find your articles interesting and you have been very courteous and helpful in answering my questions.........Cheers Keith Tomlinson

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    1. You're very welcome, Keith.

      At first let me tell you that I don't know much about streaming since I don't use it myself. So there might be other sources better suited than me (I will start to use streaming the moment it's in HiRes and Open Source - but not right now).

      Two Bluescreens a day? Boy, that doesn't feel correct... your Vista installation might not be the faulty component here, have you considered that your hardware might be broken, perhaps your mainboard or your RAM? I recommend MemCheck for checking the RAM (might also point at mainboard errors).

      Regarding cooling I can warmly recommend coolers from Noctua. Bit expensive but worth their money.

      If you'd use a different headphone I might have recommended my Asus Xonar Essence STX... but your Grado is a low-impedance headphone and my Asus isn't suited for those headphones.

      The FiiO X3 I talked about is extremely suited for many headphones and it is not only a portable HiRes player, it's also a USB soundcard (that cannot record). You shouldn't get the Sony just because it's capable of playing ATRAC. ATRAC has been dead since 2006/2007 and it is not better than FLAC, APE or WavPack. Furthermore, as far as I know, ATRAC lossless is NOT capable of HiRes sound, it can only work with 16/44,1 (the same goes for ATRAC3Plus). Only the first ATRAC codec used for MD is HiRes (well, HiRes 'light'). I understand that you trust it but in my opinion you need to move on as many codecs from 10 years prior have been replaced by superior ones.

      Don't get me wrong: Sony certainly knows what they are doing - but those new gadgets you mentioned are very expensive and their support has been sloppy at best during the past years. I can warmly recommend FiiO as they take customers serious and provide updates often enough. The FiiO will certainly be more than good enough, just because I still listen to MD doesn't mean I'm not using more modern hardware also.

      About your Audigy card: have you checked the Creative website for the latest driver? It's from 2010 and should work perfectly with Vista 64 or Windows 7 64.

      If you have any more question, feel free to ask.

      Yours, Marlene

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