Holy flashback Batman. Retro IRL review of the Sony NW-HD5 and the NW-A3000. Not a full review of the NW-A3000 because it doesn’t work and I only own it out of nostalgia and luck. The NW-HD5 Walkman dates back to 2007 when the iPod was all the rage (particularly the iPod Nano which had just come out) and Walkman was a dying breed/brand. Sony was still trying to find relevance for its Walkman name in the digital music player market and it was severely struggling. Sticking hard to DRM had prevented ease of use for Sony customers and most customers switched to Apple after realizing what a pain in the ass Sony’s software management had become. The HD5 was amongst the first (right after the HD3) to allow MP3 playback without DRM and Sony released its very very unique designed player out on the market with little applause. Que a year (?) later and the NW-A3000 was released with also little fanfare. The following is my user review over the years of ownership
I first came across the NW-HDX series after scoring an awesome deal on an iPod 4th gen 20GB for free with my iBook G4 (in the background- the iPod Mini was a friend’s I was loading music onto). This was a very flat response DAP that I did not love in terms of sound- but I did love the massive (then) capacity and the ease of use for music management. I know some people hate iTunes, but it was the first music management software I used and I grew up on it, so it didn’t bother me. What did bother me was the lack of fun in the sound. I really wanted some more bass. Do you like how I didn’t understand how macro mode works in this shot?
I managed to try out the NW-HD1 Walkman for a while and it was UNREAL sweet- the build quality was just unreal- brushed alumnium and a very unique design made it stand out amongst the DAPs at the time. Unfortunately I made the unfortunate realization that unless I was using an iPlayer, nothing was compatible with Mac OSX. This meant the HD1 was a return to the store. I actually never got to try out its sound. ( I managed to find one brand new in box, heavily discounted in The Bay, but didn’t get it because this was limited to Atrac codec playback, and no price point would make me convert all my music library to a DRM format).
My big push for Sony was three fold- I wanted to have the classic Sony sound I loved from my minidisc players, I wanted the Sony design and I wanted access to use their LCD remote controls (specifically the RM-MC35ELK and RM-MC40ELK remotes as pictured above – image from internet). These used the propriety Sony remote plug in and I wanted to have this LCD remote fun experience all over again.
This is the RM-MC40ELK remote I eventually got from eBay in Japan. The remote was really cool with a jog dial and physical media control buttons- the jog dial allowed for full menu access to the DAP comapred to the RM-MC35ELK remote. It ended up being a bit of a turd because the remote wire was really flimsy and eventually it broke. The LCD was also really dully lit so it wasn’t good for visibility/contrast.
Design- Anyways- that all lead to my decision here- this is the original image shot with direct flash from one of my old digicams- it makes me cringe to look at these shots. Original unboxing shots indeed. I had gotten the device from a clear out from Fry’s Electronics in the USA for a decent price and I was absolutely floored to get it. The design was unreal to me- square was the name of the game with square control buttons and screens. I loved just how distinguished the DAP looked. Added bonus of red and silver color scheme and it just screamed unique/look at me. You can tell that design was a huge aspect of why I got it. I also loved the aluminum build- it wasn’t brushed aluminum alas. The buttons were plastic and the top flap/battery jack were also plastic- I really didn’t like the top flap- it was shiny fake chrome. I also loved the build quality- it felt premium and expensive. Compared to the iPod, it was also very very svelte- it still holds its size today and doesn’t look like an oversized gargantuan player from the past.
Sound quality- The sound was good – compared to the iPod, it had much better bass presence and not a flat response that I despised. It also responded well with EQing- I never understood why the iPod sucked for EQing- everything would turn to bizarre mush with EQing on the iPod. Compared to modern DAPs or my Sony XPERIA Z3, the NW-HD5 sounds positively flat. It just does not compare in terms of bass response or sparkle in the highs. It was also kind of weak in power output and hard to drive cans like my Beyerdynamic DT-1350s weren’t driven well by it. BUT at the time of its release, the HD5 positively sounded funner to listen than the iPod and that was what mattered and why I bought it. Its funny that at its time of purchase, my best cans were a pair of Sony NUDE MDR-EX71SLs which are pretty meh in this day and age.
Ease of use- I HATED THE SOFTWARE AND I STILL DO. I don’t understand how Sony always managed to screw up the software side of things and this one in particular….so badly. The Sonicstage software was a real pain in the butt to manage- frequent crashes and incompatibilty issues with things like my playlists I made in iTunes, it also managed to be a royal pain to navigate- it was simply unintuitive. I read that Sony updated the Connect software to amend SonicStage but that was pulled pretty quickly so I can’t imagine it being much better. I mean I have stability issues with Windows iTunes all the time, but not to this extent. And the compatibility issues- omg so many files it would refuse to put on my HD5. The absolute worst part- it was the only way you could manage playlists on the HD5 and Sony put some DRM magic in there that prevented the library from updating if purchased music was on there from other sources like iTunes music store. This means that I cannot use this software currently because the website it used to check DRM issues with is shut down- the HD5 is DEAD in the water because of Sony’s stupid choices in DRM management. Seriously annoyed with this. Perfectly usable item and its dead. The interface on this was neat- it could rotate based off how you held the player when it booted- it could be used in landscape or portrait. This would allude to the accelerometers that now dominate smartphones. The interface was easy to use – up and down, left and right through the control buttons. Who knew that in a few years, user interfaces wouldn’t differ so much with just two major OSes dominating the market like Android and iOS, vs. each model having a different interface. It also had an ability to invert the contrast and make it white on black or black on white. This was gimmicky and it made the screen lack contrast. Even for its time, it was a crappy screen and it was just black and white. What I hated the most though was the lag- the HD would have to spin up and down all the time and to save money it would shut off and store data in flash memory. This meant that it had to wake everytime- this may have helped it gain the huge battery advantage over the iPod but it certainly gave it a lot of lag. One last thing- it blwos my mind that this thing used miniUSB but didn’t trickle charge over it- it used a plug type connector that while not propriety, was still a pain to carry around. I LOVE microUSB charging on all my devices now.
Battery life– A huge reason I bought this player was for its replaceable battery that was and still is a rarity now. Not only was the battery replaceable (on a tiny device like this, it spoke highly of Sony’s engineers), but it lasted a LONG time. My iPod 4th gen 20GB would die after 7 hours of playback- this HD5 lasted me at least 30 to 35 hours in real time. UNREAL. Of course it didn’t really matter that batteries were replaceable because I didn’t end of replacing it (and only fake ones are available on eBay now). But it was a nice peace of mind to know it was a simple swap. I does make me nervous of my sealed battery in my XPERIA Z3. I think this was one of my favorite parts of the HD5- it looked like magic opening up the secret battery door.
NW-A3000 overview design- Bonus write up- the NW-A3000 was a bonus find from a friend of mine, J, who used to be into Sony like me. He had this stored in nearly mint condition for years and called me up and asked if I wanted it. Of course I did. The caveat though was there was no charge/data cable included and in 2013 when I got it, this was well out of production. I didn’t think that would be a problem, because I had my Walkman Z’s walkman cable. Wrong. I later learned that Sony created multiple versions of the Walkman cable- it couldn’t even keep consistency with its own propriety cable connections! SO STUPID. In a day and age where you have either micro USB or Lightning connectors, it seems absolutely asinine to make decisions like this. My only choice is to order a pricey cable from some random website I Googled. I’ve decided to hold off for now, because it is very likely that I still will not be able to get the software to run this device, given what happened with SonicStage and my HD5. So so so sad. Anyways, design wise I love the A3000- it was really bizarre that Sony’s next Walkman post HD5 would be much larger and heavier in design. However, it was just as unique of a design and the translucent screen was super super slick – I also loved the purple design (even though I hated it then, I have come to love the color purple and Sony). The back was aluminum again, but the front was a clear plastic that still felt premium. I really loved that clear screen design- it was supposed to make it look like the LCD was floating in the middle of nothing, but it was pretty clear where the LCD was.
Conclusions- In the grand scheme of things, the NW-HD5 was a remarkable player- it was still working quite fine to this day until I shunned it’s use when I found out Sony shtupped the SonicStage software forever. Compared to the other variations of Sony MP3 players that I use, the Xperia Z3 has the best sound overall (with much more color and thump). The Walkman Z is kind of meh to me now TBH but it sounded marginally better too. What really distinguished it and what continues to distinguish it, was the tactile media buttons that most media players (i.e. phones) lack. I HATE having to unlock and navigate to find the soft buttons to pause a song. I really wish Sony would put this on their next iterations of their phone. The most important part for me was the design and it still stands out today in a sea of generic black screened slabs. And considering how many times I dropped this on hard hard hard floors, it definitely stood the test of time, despite having a much more fragile spinning HD (compared to flash memory). What it doesn’t have, and what the smartphone has done, is bring a whole new manner of delivering that music to the user, that the Z3 has ; aptX bluetooth streaming, videos, Netflix, YouTube, stereo speakers….Despite all this, it still reflects the craptacular software support Sony has for its hardware- its still a royal pain to get music on my Z3 (sometimes I don’t even know if its transferred or not). Sony still is capable of great hardware and poor software and that holds through all generations of media players you see above. Pros- design, battery life, build quality, sound quality, remote control use; Cons– Software for music management, laggy interface
TL:DR- Really awesome hardware and design, great battery and sound. Piss poor software for music management.