Sony NW-HD5 review

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It’s a sign of how ubiquitous the MP3 audio format has become that to call something a ‘digital music player’ simply doesn’t sound right. But, believe it or not, this is the first device from Sony that can actually play MP3s natively. Until now, the company has stuck rigidly to its proprietary ATRAC format, and as a result has lost a good deal of ground to the likes of Apple.

Sony NW-HD5 review

First impressions are good. The rugged metal casing manages to avoid being clunky: it’s a touch heavy, but it fits neatly into a pocket. Sound quality is good too, even with the supplied earphones.

Given Sony’s history in the market, it’s galling to see that you’re stuck with the proprietary SonicStage software to transfer music, although the player can be used as a standard USB storage device for non-music files. SonicStage isn’t bad, though. It’s slick and provides innovative ways of navigating your music collection, although it isn’t strong on the library-management side, editing metadata being more of a chore than necessary.

OpenMG, WAV and ATRAC audio formats are also supported, but any other format will be converted within SonicStage, hogging disk space in the process. And you can forget about DRM-protected files bought from Napster or similar services. You’ll need to stick exclusively with Sony’s own reasonable, if not exhaustive, Connect music store.

There are good points: battery life is excellent, lasting for 26 hours of shuffled MP3 playback, the battery is removable and the unit charges over its USB 2 connection, as well as coming with a tiny AC adaptor. It starts up in a flash, and the menu system is quick and intuitive to navigate, both when changing settings and moving between tracks. It also has an unusually comprehensive set of options to define shuffle and repeat options across individual tracks, albums or your entire collection. You can even set the unit to detect its orientation and flip the screen and transport button functions accordingly – a great touch.

Sony is still finding the right balance between pandering to the market and driving its own vision, but this is at least a step in the right direction. The HD5 is well engineered and, once set up, a pleasure to use. We’d like to see support for WMA and Windows-level music transfer, but that hasn’t stopped iPods from being outrageously successful. With a few extra tweaks, it may not be too late for the long-time market leader to get back in the running.

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