start right off the bat saying i asked Sony for review samples and at first they
agreed to send the NWZ-A17, and soon afterwards came excuses and delays. They
did offer me other bits such as their headphone products and headphone
amplification, yet that was not of interest to Yours Truly as am more the IEM
guy. I do love the Audeze factory-made, limited edition 1 of 1 Steampunk LCD-3
planar magnetic headphones. So if Sony was not willing to come to me, the least
i could do is come to Sony. Specifically, since attending four shows in five
weeks last month-ish there was time to do a few comparisons. And yes Sony reps,
i understand your meeting at the NYAS
2014 and the words said plus the spreadsheet on the laptop
computer with your products as compared to the Pono Music Player. So what the
heck, let's add in the Pono Music Player into the mix too for this comparo.
Alas, no FiiO this time around and they also make some impressive portable media
With that said, you should ignore this entire review as it was
done at shows and not via official review samples as supplied by the
manufacturer. The music on said players were whatever they had on them, and thus
making direct comparisons were troublesome, as a manufacturer rep (Sony if you
must know) at TAVES 2014 gave
me the nod admitting they removed music from their player to purposefully
avoid such comparisons(!). Of course display units should have been up to
spec over the span of a few shows. Or, at least, one would assume that. Also,
all players were set 'flat', meaning no effects, no EQ... just pure straight out
as default as best i could find in the menus and submenus, etc. And this leads
The Graphical User Interface (GUI)
Sony's less expensive NWZ-A17 was a joy to use and my humble
admiration to the code monkeys who made the OS and hardware interface a reality.
It was intuitive, easy to use and fast to respond, unlike the NWZ-ZX1 from my
experience. For only $299, The Sony NWZ-ZX1 is less than half the price of its'
big brother and imho a far and away better value when it comes to GUI and actual
use. Ok, the screen on the NWZ-A17 was not its' strong-suit, yet for under $300
you get a nice little compact package that works extremely well from a GUI point
The Pono Music Player, which was a crowdfunding effort at $399 and had firmware 0.9.2 as i recall (those receiving their Pono Music Players in the past week or two have firmware 1.0.1), was equally as fast and responsive as the Sony NWZ-A17. The screen seemed about the same, basically. The Pono Music Player GUI was intuitive, easy to use, and inside the hotel at TAVES 2014, was easy to read. Something tells me in bright sunlight it might get washed out quite a bit yet did not have the opportunity to test that assumption (beware assuming as it makes as arse out of...). Remember, this is a non-review review so take all this with a grain of salt. Still, am intimately familiar with a wide variety of screen technology within more devices there than one cares, or dares, to count.
Listening to Rush on the Pono Music Player at Canada's TAVES 2014 show. Sometimes life just feels ever soooo right :)
Yes i did a full comparo listening sesh and my comments here reflect this and some listening sessions during other shows, too. So let it be said once again this is not an official review, yet my opinions are based on multiple listening sessions over a month-ish time at multiple shows using various headphones, with my mainstay being the Ultimate Ears 18 Pro Custom in-ear monitors that i've enjoyed for so many years of use. The UE18 Pros have been through three cables and a factory cleanings. So yes, i know them quite well both for their faults and their advantages. I would never try to run, say, the Audeze LCD-3 off the Sony players for obviously internal amplification shortfalls. i did try Sony's amplifier with their units a couple of times for curiosity sake, yet this review is strictly how all units perform with everything set 'flat' as best I can tell and as a stand-alone PMP devices.
Quality And Aesthetics
(Much humor follows) Baby got back! Sony's new Kim Kardashian model. Think about it Sony. You could license her name and profit off her like her APP developers are today. They're raking in truly massive money on that APP!!! And yes am kidding on the licensing bit, but i bet you someone from Sony, after reading this, might be doing mental gymnastics thinking to themselves about doing a marketing and profitability study.
admit i have mixed feelings about the less expensive Sony NWZ-A17. On one level
i see it as something trying hard to look futuristic in the photos, yet in
person it seems less-so. In the flesh, it reminds me of something seen on those
Chinese sites i visit when looking for inexpensive chachkies. You know, comical
USB thumb drives, stylish headband flashlights, good quality bulk refillable
lighters on the cheap, and yes 'weird' gadgets. Love those Chinese sites and it
is amazing how much the now-strong USD can buy you. Sure they're
Unless you've been living at a virtually defunct Radio Shack company store, you have already read about the Pono Music Player looking like a bar of Toblerone chocolate. It almost looks like a child's toy in yellow color. The blue, from the pics, gets the same comments. Then again if you wisely purchased one of the limited edition versions, visually it goes up to something far more special. Buttons? They took the Einstein approach of "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler". The yellow colored version feels solidly built and tactically is very nice. I'll avoid the whole packaging comment, as the Pono comes in a special wooden box while Sony's products come in the typical cardboard variety from what I've seen. Overall, the Pono Music Player earns top marks of all the players within this touch, feel, GUI and build quality comparo. It doesn't look expensive, though. Certainly not $400 worth in blue, yellow or black colors. On visuals only for the yellow, blue and black versions I'd peg it as a $150 accessory to some kind of TV or European audio device given the minimal quantity and shape of the buttons. The Pono Music Player is also lighter than you'd expect, which is a good thing when lugging around all one's toys and gadgets. It is also very sold and seems extremely well built. The screen is nothing to write home about, so about average there. Did I mention how very solid and durable it feels?
Now To The ?All-Important? Part Of This Comparo
Note: Upon re-reading the previous few
sentences during final editing... Wow, I can be really brutally
honest can't i? Daaaaamn!
The Sony NWZ-A17 is quite a little overachiever. Don't let the small size fool you, this baby sounds impressive for the size and money! The reason I bring up size is that you can only pack a certain quality level of specific parts within such a tight little package. The output is strong enough for the highly efficient UE18 Pros, yet Audeze planar magnetic headphones need not apply. My ears rarely felt offended by the Sony NWZ-A17 given the proper audio material. It sounds better than the Apple iTouch or their pre-5 phones to the best of my recollection. Haven't bothered with hearing the new Gen 5 models because Apple doesn't seem to really care about the sound quality built in their units from best I can tell. Microsoft did with their Zune and have one of them here if you must know. That's probably why virtually everyone I know uses an external DAC/amp with their Apple devices. Sony's NWZ-A17 had good pace and rhythm, fairly tight bass and some nice inner definition/details. Not the last word, yet for $299 color me impressed... again given its physical size limitations. It does seem to be on a bright side, like someone from Asia did the sound tuning (Steven ducks for cover). It is akin to how certain manufacturers know certain cultures prefer a particular sound profile and thus tune their product to that sound profile. I did use the NWZ-A17's sound adjustments and at this point I came away under whelmed sound-wise. The GUI was excellent, loved it! The sound was on-par with what I think would be a (lower price removed) player, but the again what the hell do I know? Maybe it is the whole currency devaluation being a killer thing? Since Sony is a Japanese company, have you seen the USD/JPY two year FX chart? YIPES!
Value of USD going up as priced in JPY as the JPY tanks spectacularly during only the past two years.
And for long term chartists...
So how is Sony (SNE) doing during this very long timeline? Let us take a look and see shall we? Would you invest in this company? What is the below chart telling you?
The headphone amplifier stage was quite strong, like a Bentley GT/GTC with 600 ft./lbs. or torque. I'd peg the Sony units at BMW Mini 200 ft/lbs level. To continue the car reference, because all my reviews seem to have those, we racers say horsepower is how fast you hit a wall, yet the highly-prized torque is how far you can go though it. Torque wins races on proper road course circuits where truly talented drivers race. The Pono Music Player can drive the demanding Audeze planar magnetic headphones. Ok, not to ear bleed levels, yet very usable. With my UE18 Pro custom made IEMs the Pono Music Player will reach ear bleeding levels with ease and have additional 'torque' to spare. There is an abundance of power (and torque)! Wonderful sounding too, great stereo separation and you can set the unit so that the dual headphone outputs, yes two headphone jacks, work like a balanced output so one jack is right channel and the other a left channel. The advantages of this are probably higher stereo separation, and thus increasing the chance of sound quality improvement. Alas, did not have the opportunity to test this on the unit during this non-review so that's all speculation on my part (uh oh, Steven does an unfounded edge-a-makated guessing). Bad Steven! Bad bad bad so forget everything I just said about the two headphone jacks except the fact you do get two of them and they can be employed for separate right and left channel operation. There is no doubt you can use them both in normal stereo mode and have fun while listening and sharing your music with a friend.
Very Long-Winded Conclusion-ish
Sony, you also do some truly outstanding work in the TV and movie / documentary department. I humbly bow to your movie / documentary department. Car audio, was impressive back in the day with the XES system. You were so far ahead of everyone else back then, but not today. You, and perhaps Mitsubishi and Hitachi, owned the CRT market back in the day imho. The XBR was perhaps the best money could buy, and yes I acquired a brand new one with matching stand. The true vote is when one puts their life's pleasures where their mouth is. The XBR was replaced by the Pioneer Elite plasma if you must know. Still use the Elite to this day because, so far, I am not fully convinced of anything truly superior for watching films is out there including the new 4k panels I have seen. If you build it and it is that good, I'll acquire it.
Have spent more time that I want to admit here debating exactly when Sony went sideways when it comes to audio. Please pardon my street language, yet Sony was the shit back in the day (that is a truly epic and great thing!). I remember building a DIY boombox in the early 1990's using your APM battery powered speakers, some industrial strength Velcro on the side of speakers, with other side of Velcro sewn onto a CaseLogic 30 CD case. The top section inside the CaseLogic held the D-10, or D-25 or D-555. It did not get loud, yet the sound quality was far better than any other boombox at the time imho... and I worked at retail and specialty stores for audio back in the day so had access to virtually anything I so desired. Guess who bought and used the first dual-driver 'Fontopid' ever made by anyone (Panasonic BTW)? Me! Note that Fontopid is actually a Sony trademarked name, but that became the term we all used back in the day; akin to asking for a Kleenex or Scotch tape today. I could go on and on of how much I love Sony, truly I do. And maybe that is the problem, I love you so much that it hurts to see what you're doing the past few decades. What a misuse (imho) of resources and losing billions in the Xperia cell phone sector (ouch, that is more than just a rounding error for your accountants and stock holders).
If I had to guess exactly when Sony went
sideways, it is during a New York show when your representative during a Sony
press conference said that Sony would never make an MP3 player. When I heard
your rep say that no MP3 player would ever be made I literally LOL (sorry, was
an automatic reaction. Ah the stupidity of youth). Other press members within
the room turned and looked at me, some with very forwney faces as how dare I
laugh. Funny how this review is about Sony MP3 players, which also handle other
digital audio media too. Can you taste
the irony? Wake me up when we can seamlessly edit multi-track DSD as engineers
do with 24-bit/352.8kHz (is that why you need DXD?). Then Sony made other mistakes
too. Proprietary memory cards? Why? No, really, why? And how about the...
One word... rootkit. If you don't know what a
rootkit is, think of it as packaging a product so it has purposefully coded
spyware to avoid detection from anti-virus software. That's right, Sony
purposefully made audio discs with hidden software, never telling anyone they
were going to install spyware on your computer. Learn more at Wikipedia.
You also opened up vulnerabilities within an already weak computer OS where
other malware writers could exploit things to their advantage it has been said.
To quote Wikipedia, "Sony BMG initially denied that the rootkits were
harmful. It then released, for one of the programs, an "uninstaller"
that only un-hid the program, installed
additional software which could not be easily removed, collected an email
address from the user, and introduced further security vulnerabilities."
So of course came the Class Action lawsuit accordingly. How did that make your
stock holders feel? How about the loss of faith from consumers, like Yours
Truly, who deeply trusted you in the past? Some of those consumers remember the
Sony BMG rootkit fiasco to this very day. Strike one is doing it. Strike two is
denying it. Strike three is... you're out!
And now as you own, I mean help with, The DEG (The Digital Entertainment Group) and you're about to make the decades old CD resolution technology and somehow try to warm it over so that you can convince people that the CD is Hi-Res Audio? Seriously kind readers, The DEG, with Sony as an important member, wants to make that decades old CD resolution, or upsampled CD, labeled as Hi-Res Audio? Can you believe this? It is true and fact. They also want another longstanding and reputable three letter acronym Society to lower their standards too to meet The DEG's own desires. And we all know upsampling has been effectively free within all CD players for decades. Would you pay extra $$$ to license CD-quality audio downloads or an upsampled CD digital audio download? How does it make you feel right now knowing that someone is looking to re-label the CD as Hi-Res Audio? Did you know that digital mix boards and mastering facilities have been far higher than 16-bit/44.1 for decades. If you're the thinking type, then yes the CD is a lossy compressed format as compared to the uncompressed original digital music file recording and mastering facilities have been able to use for decades.
Oh, and by the way for those still reading this... you never really own the digital audio download, because go ahead and try and sell it. Go on, try. You are paying what i consider to be full price to merely license the ability to rightfully play the music. You do not own it. Nope, not in the strictest sense with the ability to sell said digital audio downloads as you can do with the same priced CD, perhaps slightly more LP, or you once did with formats including cassette, 8-track, elcassette, reel-to-reel, wire recorder, Edison cylinder, etc.
So what perplexes me Sony is your decades of innovation and doing great things followed by decades of being one of the most (deleted words) on planet Earth imho. But there is a silver lining! Your brand name is still usable and has value. Furthermore, you have some great assets too. Designers, engineers, etc. Your audio sector leadership obviously leaves much to be desired on both leadership and visionary capabilities and am sure your stockholders have watched Apple stock rise with the iPod and the like to multiples while Sony stock.... Here, let me post that SNE stock chart again as a friendly reminder.
You're lucky I'm not adding the Apple stock chart
to the above. Are you getting it yet Sony? Do you realize where you went wrong?
Do you realize what you need to do turn things around, because you already have
as best I can tell all the proper assets you need to turn things around. It is
so painfully obvious to me. And no, I'm not going to tell you what to do,
because I am hoping that for quite some time you have realized Sony has serious
problems. Thus the next step is.... C'mon, think Sony, think!
Oh, and let's all avoid another Class Action lawsuit shall we? You've been down that road before Sony and it wasn't very pretty. We all know the only one who 'wins' are the lawyers.
It always amazes me how many people have e-mailed me over the years asking for help, advice, or just to 'talk'. They love how straightforward and honest i am. Ok, there is a lacking of, how shall i say, tact. Yet anyone who e-mails me or asks me questions at shows knows i deeply care and telling my truth as i experience this thing we call human existence. Have gladly, and selflessly, helped more people in more countries than i could even try to count. It is always nice to have close friends, too. Some seriously good ones both in this country and abroad who have impressive positions within their chosen field. Lawyers, highly influential government officials, famous people... and readers here would be amazed who are audiophiles within this glorious world of ours. Generally, all they desire is to enjoy the music to the fullest... and fine luxury goods too. i gladly 'speak' luxury goods :)
Did I mention I truly do love you Sony, and so am taking my highly valuable time, a commodity which is becoming extremely limited and perhaps the most valuable thing I have within what remains of my life, and trying to help you with this article. The real question is, does Sony have the guts to do the honorable thing and willing to take the appropriate actions and non-actions, what are in fact a type of action too. Can Sony's ?corporatocracy? handle a strong leader who happens to be a true visionary and give them the ultimate power to reshape an obviously broken and almost has-been audio company sector that today wields from force instead of desire like Apple does today. Sony has long lost its leadership role within the marketplace imho, plus losing billions in currency and lowering shareholder value.
Apologies for being cruel, yet sometimes you have to make a strong point by making a strong point. Here, let me type this out for you to see. Sony's Xperia division recently reported a loss of, get ready for it folks...
¥136,000,000,000 or on October 31 (2014) JPY/USD
value, $1,200,000,000 USD
"The net loss widened to 136 billion yen ($1.2 billion) as Sony took a 176 billion yen writedown at the Xperia phone business and cut its phone sales forecast for the second time this year" -- Bloomberg
I remember the day I took home the D-5, my very first CD player. I remember modifying the D-88 so the battery case had a shoulder strap screwed to it so when I was walking through the mall and using a 5" CD you could see the disc spinning on the outside while the music filled my soul. Hey, this was the late 1980's in South Florida and it looked sooooooo cool and sounded quite good too for the time. How about day after day of tanning on the Hollywood beach enjoying music through the D-10 / D-25 / D-555 and the Sony APM battery powered speakers because they sounded better than the Panasonic dual driver Fontopids and any commercially available battery powered boombox imho. I remember being in IASCA as a sound quality judge years ago with Bill Burton as a close friend and lusting for a Sony XES car audio system, as I 'only' had at that time a (now legendary) Alpine head unit and Nakamichi electronic crossover, Nakamichi four-channel amplifier and Nakamichi speakers as a car audio system.
Sony, thank you for the many years of musical
bliss during many years of my youth.
And by the way, my love for Sony extends far past just audio, photography and CRT TVs. Here are some pics of my 'pet' Aibo (Artificial Intelligence Robot, homonymous with aibō 相棒). For those unfamiliar, the Sony Aibo was a robotic dog you could buy additional 'personality' programs for, or we programmers (unauthorized) hack into it as our small online community did, and then alter its activity and behavior traits programming accordingly. As you interacted with this robotic dog, it would 'learn' and 'grow'. If you treated it well, it was nice. If you treated it less than wonderfully, well then, you had an unhappy robotic dog. The small pic above is from CES 2001 where the Aibo came with me to Las Vegas, whilst the larger photos below are from the NYC Aibo Fair at the Sony Store on December 16, 2000. Once I was at the Fair and seeing what the meet was about, i loaded up the appropriate (hacked) program to operate within Mr. Silver Aibo. Oh yeah, go ahead and just try to take me on Mr. Golden Aibo. i dare you!
The End What Really Matters...
PS: Writing this non-review is perhaps one of the
hardest things I've done in years. Yet when you love 'someone' so deeply and
for so many years they have been faithful and did you right, one can't help but
give back in a loving way in hopes
they stop being an 'alcoholic' and once again become a positive, productive
member of society that you grew to love and cherish years earlier. They
positively affected your life during perhaps also the toughest time of your
existence. They were always there for you. You could depend on them. They felt
like a close friend you could always depend upon to bring joy into your dark and
Sony, your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one. Please.
And don't go 'back to the future' of lowly, perhaps lossy compressed, Red Book CD 16-bit/44.1kHz digital audio resolution. We've already been there.
Pono Music Player