A Survey of Digital Audio Players Part 1 Sony NWZ-A17

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Sony NWZ-A17
Sony was a major player in portable audio back in the day, having essentially invented the category with their Walkman cassette player in 1979. They had a long, successful run as the top dog in their field, and along the way we got excellent portable players for various media including cassette, compact disc, and MiniDisc. Somewhere along the way Sony lost their dominance—by the time "MP3 player" was a term most people understood, Sony was no longer the defacto kingpin in the category. It didn't help that they did some obnoxious things like push their own proprietary formats—Memory Stick for storage and ATRAC as a lossy compression algorithm. The hardware was still good, but no longer did grabbing a Sony guarantee category-leading performance.

Following their steady decline from dominance, Sony has been trying to re-introduce the name "Walkman". They've actually been at it for a while—there were Walkman branded Sony Ericsson cell phones for those of you old enough to remember that era. The most recent push to revive the Walkman name was the NWZ-ZX1 which launched in late 2013—a $700 Android-based music player with the form factor of a smartphone. Sony already has a sequel out, dubbed ZX2, and I'll try to include it in part two of this article. For now I'll be discussing the ZX1's little brother, the $299 NWZ-A17.

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Size comparison of the A17 on top of the Calix M.

External Design
Aside from the Sansa Clip family, Sony's A17 is the most compact device in this roundup, by no small margin. It's just a bit larger than the original iPod Nano circa 2005 if that brings back any memories. Sony chose an interesting mix of metals on the front panel and plastic on the rear—it looks quite nice yet somehow feels a little cheap to the touch at times. Still, the plastic seems strong enough, and certainly helps maintain the light weight. The display is well done, having merely adequate resolution but great contrast and viewing angles. Buttons have a logical layout with a quality feel when pressed. Aside from the slightly disappointing plastic surfaces, Sony did a good job here.

Internal Design
The A17 is based around a proprietary Sony platform which they term "S Master." Less advanced versions of this technology have appeared in various Sony gear over the past few years, such as the older X and Z series DAPs, some of their tablets, and even a few Vaio laptops. The A17 gets the latest and greatest "HX" version as originally appearing in the more expensive NW-ZX1. You can read more about it here, here, and here. The resulting system is similar to what NuForce did with their DDA-100 integrated amp—Sony has their own version of a PWM amplification stage with no intermediate digital to analog conversion step involved. As such there is no actual DAC chip from the likes of Wolfson or Cirrus Logic, and the headphones are driven directly from the S Master chip itself with no further amplification stage required. The A17 handles material up to 24-bit/192kHz. It does not play DSD which is a little odd considering that format is Sony's baby.... I suspect this limitation has to do with processing power, or lack thereof.

User Interface
I really like what Sony did with the A17 user interface. It strikes a great balance between function and simplicity, offering all the essential features I want in a well laid out fashion. I felt right at home the very first time I used it, and within a few hours I was practically a power user. Even with a large amount of sound tweaking options, it's all very accessible. Other DAP makers should take note as Sony really nailed it here.

With everything being done so well, I only have two minor complaints to point out. First, the home screen is somewhat busy. I wish it could be customized to eliminate the icons I don't normally use. A minor thing I suppose, but I'm spoiled by the flexibility of Rockbox. More problematic is the somewhat limited playlist support. A17 handles existing playlists I imported with my music, but doesn't do much for creating new ones on the fly. We do get the "bookmark" function which acts as a dynamic playlist of sorts, similar to the "go list" from the Sansa players. We get 5 different "lists" to work with so I have one for classical, one for jazz, one for more aggressive music, etc. This works well enough for me though it only supports adding by song, not by album, so I could see it being frustrating for some people.

Connectivity
In addition to the 64GB worth of on board storage, Sony had the wisdom to allow for expandable memory, and thankfully they've gotten past their obsession with the proprietary Memory Stick format. That means MicroSD expansion for an easy 192GB (including the internal 64GB) at the moment and more in the near future as larger cards inevitably drop in price.

Unfortunately Sony chose a proprietary connector rather than MicroUSB, so charging and data transfer must be done using the bundled cable. There does exist a very small market for compatible accessories but it's not at all robust. Fiio's L5 line-out cable is around $10 and allows for adding an external amp, which can be useful with more difficult to drive headphones—the A17 output voltage is extremely low though, so care in choosing an external amp is essential. Sony's own WMC-NWH10 cable (~$40) gives a USB output which can feed certain portable DAC/amp devices such as the Oppo HA-2 or Sony's own PHA-1A (which I believe comes bundled with that same cable). That's certainly better than nothing, but nowhere near as broadly connectable as some others in this collection. The price we pay for compact size I suppose.

The A17 does include high quality aptX Bluetooth which helps alleviate the situation a tad. I'm sure Sony would prefer users pair it with their MDR-1RBT headphone—those are on the Wall of Fame already, and a recent update adds aptX to the mix...so it may sound even better these days. I don't have a pair of those but I did have good results using several other aptX enabled headphones and even some Bluetooth speakers. I'm a little surprised at how often I used this feature and how much I enjoyed having the option—none of the others in this article offer Bluetooth so it's something to consider. There's also a radio tuner which again is not common among the higher end DAPs.

Battery
The A17 has by far the best battery life here. Where several others might struggle to last the week if used for one hour per day, the A17 could happily last all month under those conditions. Activating the various sound enhancement features, using Bluetooth, or playing hi-res files causes a decrease but we're still talking 25+ hours of play time. Apparently using Sony's digital out cable puts the A17 in "data transfer mode" and cuts battery life to a mere 8 hours or so. Again, I think the main draw of the device is using it alone with easier to drive headphones or IEMs, so that issue doesn't bother me specifically, though it does seem rather unnecessary overall.

Sound Quality
As the smallest "premium" device here, and the one with the best battery life, you'd think something, somewhere, would have to give. And it does. Simply put, the A17 is a great little DAP with pleasing sound quality but rather limited drive capability. It does an excellent job with in-ear monitors and can do easy to drive headphones nearly as well. Grados, most Audio Technicas, V-MODA, Sennheiser Momentum, beyerdynamic T51p, etc, are all driven with plenty of authority and volume. Basically any headphone designed for portable use will probably be fine. The sound signature is neutral and clear, with a particularly well defined treble section. It isn't overly rich or thick so those looking for a warm coloration should look elsewhere. The far more expensive ZX1 may have the slight edge in a few areas, but honestly it's not immediately noticeable. I had to spend quite some time going back and forth before I could nail down any improvement in the flagship device. This speaks well for the little A17—packing nearly all of that quality into a smaller and more affordable product is a big win as far as I'm concerned. It feels quite at home in this collection, even along side others going for double (HiFiMAN) or triple (Calyx) the price.

The potential downside? That parity disappears when driving anything remotely difficult. Planar magnetic headphones such as the LCD-2 or HE500 are barely listenable in terms of volume levels, and nowhere near their peak in quality. AKG's K7XX sounds thin and a bit shouty. High impedance models from Sennheiser and beyerdynamic just don't have the dynamics or the impact they normally would, and they don't get very loud either. In short, the A17 is definitely NOT intended to replace your desktop amp. There's just not enough juice for anything beyond a simple load.... which seems perfectly fine considering the size and intended use. As long as you know this going in, there should be no disappointments.

The roughly three and a half ohm output impedance is just low enough to squeak by with most headphones, save for those picky IEMs which demand one ohm or lower. It's the same story with hiss—most headphones and IEMs are fine, but I was able to find a few instances where I could hear some hiss in the background. Typically not enough to hear once the music begins. Engaging any of Sony's sound enhancement options makes hiss more obvious, though it's still not an issue with the majority of headphones.

Speaking of sound enhancements—I don't usually bother due to the poor implementations in most devices. The A17 is an exception and I could see some of the options actually being desirable at times. "Clear Audio+" sounds terrible to me, like a typical DSP enhancement, but "DSEE HX" actually seems to improve the sound by a small degree—without fundamentally changing it or being too obvious. It's actually one of the best features of Sony's HAP-Z1ES music server which Kal Rubinson favorably reviewed last year. Sony describes the process in fancy terms, claiming it "accurately expands the audio signal bit-depth, in real time, to near high-resolution sound quality" among other things. Sounds like upsampling to me, which I've learned to take on a case by case basis as far as actual improvements go. In this instance it does seem to help by a small amount. We also get Clear Bass which can be fun to play with on some music, as well as VPT (surround) and Dynamic Normalizer which don't do much for me. Lastly, a reasonably well done custom EQ option is available if that floats your boat. None of this is mandatory but I gotta admit Sony does much better here than most of the competition. For those purists who want to stick with the "regular sound", rest assured that's still a very good choice.

COMMENTS
castleofargh's picture

cool to see something about DAPs.
I usually whine a lot when reading reviews as they always are too nice with the devices, forgetting to tell about the shameful side of a device. well I must say, this time the practical reports felt spot on for the stuff I own or could try(and I really don't say that often).

I also wondered about the hm802 not getting much love. it's too big for me, I'd rather have smaller and use an amp when necessary, but it seemed like a pretty good product.

John Grandberg's picture
If everyone writes fawning reviews and leaves out all the disappointing aspects, how will the companies making these DAPs ever learn?
Dopaminer's picture

Great review so far; really looking forward to Part II. I think you should reconsider your iBasso stance and include the DX90. Judging by the headfi threads, the DX50 and DX90 have been the `gateway` daps for many audiophiles who transitioned from smart phones or ipods, and then subsequently `moved up` to higher priced (sometimes MUCH higher priced) daps like AK240, etc. The DX50 and DX90 are highly relevant in any comparison, especially the DX90 with its power and dual sabre dacs, and its huge following.
d

John Grandberg's picture
I have to admit, I'm still sore at iBasso for blowing out my $750 set of CIEMs with their stupid volume bug. You're totally right about their relevance, but I'm just not sure I'm "there" yet.
tony's picture

Thank you for explaining the differences in all these players.

I'm reading and trying to imagine each player vs. my iMac/Schiit system.

Does anyone offer an iMac in shirt pocket size?

Anyway, nice bit of work here.

Tyll, Joker, Katz and Grandberg make a pretty strong group of journalists.

Tony in Michigan

potterpastor's picture

Tremendous survey so far! I love my Sansa Clip and my Sansa Clip+. By the way, I prefer the sound quality of the original Sansa Clip over the 2nd gen Sansa Clip +, but the original clip doesn't have a slot for micro sd cards.

John Grandberg's picture
I haven't had an original Clip in ages. No memory expansion = no go for me. But it's interesting that you like it more for SQ. I know they switched to a newer AMS SoC for the Clip+ and newer models, so I can see how it might be a little different. Personally I recall them sounding the same but I can't say I spent a lot of time comparing.
potterpastor's picture

The Sansa clip firmware is really sluggish and slow. It takes hours and hours to refresh the media every time you intentionally or accidentally move the microSD card. It is just not feasible.

You didn't review the iPod touch fifth-generation, but it probably is the best of all the players. It is so easy and fast to load music, and it sounds great.

Impulse's picture

I've been using a Clip Zip for running for a few years now, along with a pair of MEElec M6. Tempted to swap them for my Xiaomi Pistons but I like the fit of the M6 a lot when it comes to being active.

I used to take along the Zip when traveling but my Nexus 5 doesn't really burn thru battery much while playing music. I'm usually sending it via Bluetooth anyway to a Sony MW600 receiver (and my V-Moda XS or Ety IEM).

That's one category of devices I'd love you guys to survey, ClieOS tested some of the Sony/Samsung BT receivers on Head-Fi a while ago but it was not an exhaustive review. I feel like they kill two birds with one stone...

It takes the burden of output (DAC and amplification) off your phone or tablet, while also cutting down on wires, particularly when used with something like the XS with removable cables you can swap for short ones.

Impulse's picture

A BT receiver lets you enjoy the headphones you already have with a minimum of wires without getting pricey dedicated BT cans or a compromised set...

It's not something I use at home, at all, because I know BT is ultimately a bottleneck to what my cans are capable of (never mind my Asgard 2); but it's ultra convenient on the go...

As much as Tyll complains about how cramming batteries and BT electronics into a pair of cans tends to hurt their design you'd think these things would've come up in the conversation a few times.

John Grandberg's picture
I have a Noble BTS on the way, hoping it accomplishes just what you mention. From a design perspective it looks like just what the doctor ordered for a smartphone with high output impedance or just generally lazy sound quality. We'll see.
Impulse's picture

Looks kinda pricey compared to some of Sony's BT receivers with comparable battery life AND a display for track info, caller ID, etc... But if the sound quality is a cut above the rest it might very well be worth a look.

I'm definitely looking forward to your take on it. I don't particularly need the display on my Sony anymore since my smart watch accomplishes the same function. Being BT 4.0 that Noble unit might get better battery life than advertised with BT4.0 compatible phones.

I've heard great AptX BT devices as well as awful ones, not putting much stock that, the standard SBC codec seems decent enough if a device uses the highest bitrate... I've wondered whether AptX is more efficient but, no one tests for that kinda thing.

John Grandberg's picture

We'll see. The sub-1 ohm output impedance is promising. You don't typically see that spec on gear from other brands.

Which Sony model do you use?

Impulse's picture

I'm using a Sony MW600, pretty old unit, I think it's discontinued now but still widely available at close to it's original price. I believe they replaced it with the MW1 but that seems discounted too, not sure if the SBH5x models are their most current or what.

I get pretty good battery life out of it tho (over 7hrs still after a few years), I remember comparing it to my Clip Zip with my Ety hf3 but it's been a while... Now I'm curious to do so again.

Ended up settling on it basically based off Amazon reviews, a couple positive comments about it or the MW1 on Head-Fi, and just the fact that it looked better than a similar unit by LG. It's hard to find detailed specs like output impedance or DAC used, much less anyone that has more than one of these things for comparative purposes.

ManiaC's picture

Please if you can add Cayin N6 and Fiio X3 2-nd generation.

John Grandberg's picture
I have the Cayin N6 here now, as well as QLS QA360. Both are worth talking about. Should be able to get the Consonance Suzanne as well, but I'm not sure if the Questyle QP1 will be done in time.
Tyll Hertsens's picture
Yeah, but by the time the Questyle comes out you'll have a lot of great experience to evaluate it with. Thanks, John, great work here.
tony's picture

Another Wiki type of reference work.

You guys keep hitting home runs.

This portable comparison is doing Tons of work for me and probably for everyone else.

I'd buy a plane ticket to see a Seminar with all four of you lads.

You 4 are becoming a "Top Gear" type of experience, you might be able to do a weekly show ( remote kind of thing, like that TV guy does ). Betcha you'd be getting a huge following.

Tony in Michigan

elfary's picture

iPhone 6 output impedance is 2.3 ohms. Check your facts (or measurements).

tony's picture

Nice catch here elfary,

Tony in Michigan

John Grandberg's picture
And so did Ken Rockwell on his site. He got 3.18 ohms on the 6+, and I got a bit higher than that. Within margin of error/unit to unit variability I suppose. The point stands that it's pretty good as-is, but not perfect - there is some improvement to be found with a lower output impedance, when using certain IEMs.
Stefraki's picture

Have been increasingly falling in love with my Pono. Functionally speaking, it's very silly in several aspects... sound quality-to-price ratio? It's amazing.

John Grandberg's picture
Pono will be included in Part 2.
ednaz's picture

It's difficult in these online shopping days to do good research on your own. When I decided I wanted to step up from the iDevices, I couldn't find anyplace where I could listen to 2 or 3 alternatives with the IEMs and headphones I own. As fraught with argument as an exercise like this can be, it's a necessary tool (unless someone wants to order four or five units and sell off the ones they don't like.)

I agree on your assessment of the Fiio X5 sound, that's agreement from someone who enjoys listening to the device. But I think it's a problem with some earphones, but not at all with others. With my Westone ES5, it's edgy metallic for sure. But with other earphones or headphones - Xiaomi Piston 2, Ety custom sleeved, ACS T1 CIEMs, my AKG Quincy Jones portable headphones - it's not noticeable at all.

That's where the YMMV comes in - really seems to me that in a lot of cases you need to look at DAP/headphone combinations. Which makes for a combinatorial nightmare. Still, with good roundup reviews like this, and knowledge of your own headphones, it's possible to get to happy.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

I absolutely enjoyed this first collective look at DAPs.
Thank you very much John for compiling your thoughts and sharing them with the innerfidelity gang.

I share @ManiaC's interest in the Fiio X3ii as its been getting some pretty great buzz on other audio sites. However im guessing its sound quality wouldnt exceed the X5 and we have your review for that one.

Keep up the great work and keep sharing your thoughts and reviews. We headphone fans love our electronic toys..having more DAP reviews and wall-o-fame entries are a perfect fit for this site!

Peace .n. Living in Stereo

3ToF

PS: What about adding Zunes, Archos Jukeboxes, Creative NOMADs, Diamond Rios, or the audiophile-standard-setting coby usb player!?

tnelson's picture

I'd be interested to know more about the target users of dedicated DAPs with higher SQ than iPhones and other smartphones. I honestly am curious about this issue…I understand wanting the best possible source for an environment in which you can discern SQ clearly and maybe wanting a physically small personal source that can be moved from quiet listening site to site (home, office, etc).

However, I am skeptical that benefits of a high-SQ DAP can be heard if used as a portable player. On streets, planes, cars, in coffee shops…there's no way I'd be able to hear an enhancement beyond my iPhone, regardless of how good the source or IEMs. Too much isolation or noise-cancellation can be dangerous on the street, so there's always going to be ambient noise.

I would still need my phone for streaming (or lossless downloaded) TIDAL, internet radio, plus all the non-audio smartphone functions. Why carry another device? It would be interesting to evaluate a current iPhone and Android phone among the DAPs being compared for SQ, for folks like me who are skeptical about the audible benefits of carrying a second audio device. Doesn't fit my lifestyle, but what is the target listening market for these?

John Grandberg's picture
I definitely agree that any benefit is lost in a noisy environment. That almost goes without saying. But each situation is different - two people commuting to work might have vastly different ambient noise situations. One might not be a good candidate for anything beyond a phone and decent IEMs, the other might be well served by a nice DAP and higher-end IEM. So you have to examine your own scenario and go from there.
On Song Audio's picture

Hi I am the U.S. representative for the M. Please keep in mind that the M can play while plugged into a 5 volt USB supply. The 4 to 5 hour battery life applies when a power outlet is not within reach.

Laistrogian's picture

I'm wondering if it's possible to do measurement for these DAPs. While I can understand why some people would want to by DAPs, something like A&K240 comes across me as being "unnecessary."

You could call me objectivist or something like that but for me it's still physics, if the numbers are the same they should sound the same.

SixChannel's picture

2 years ago I settled on a Samsung Galaxy because it 1)has a true FM radio, 2)has open architecture for music player and 3)allows me to peruse the innumerable internet stations. Although I see FM a lesser draw these days, opening up to the internet swung the deal for me. The only unfortunate part is that the amplifying stage isn't the best for my big cans, but I fixed it by strapping it to an amp.

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