Sony’s NWZ-F886, 24-bit / 192 kHz, Android Walkman

The new Sony high-resolution Walkman models have been out for nearly half a year. People agree that it, along with the higher-end ZX1, has the most polished user interface of any high-resolution capable digital audio player on the market.

Mr. T bought one at launch.

Ready for your afternoon pour-over? Have the Sony and your favorite headphones on the side to go with a smooth cup of java.
Ready for your afternoon pour-over? Have the Sony and your favorite headphones handy, to go with a smooth cup of java.

With minimal lines and a very thin profile (8.2 mm), the Sony approaches the Apple iPod Touch is compact size, and also runs a smartphone OS.  Xperia users (and smartphone users in general) will be able to slide right into using this DAP. Measuring in at 4.3″, the TRILUMINOS™ touch screen is a bit behind the times with respect to resolution, but is still responsive and provides decent viewing contrast. This is an audio player at its core, so it’s understandable that they haven’t gone with the absolute best screen, especially if it’s going to be using more power.

The NWZ-F886 is the 32 GB version, but there’s also the 64 GB NWZ-F887 and the lower capacity 16 GB NWZ-F885 to round out the F880 series of Android-powered Walkmans, sold mainly in Japan. The luxury-oriented ZX1 provides a good 128 GB of memory, but none of the new devices provides an expandable slot. Cue the grumbles.

IMG_0036a_mini
The finish on the back of the NWZ-F886 is a bit too slippery smooth. Make sure you have a sleeve or case handy.

Overall, the form factor is quite attractive — pause/play and advance/return buttons line the right side of the body, right below the volume rocker. Unfortunately, the buttons are all made from plastic, and it’s easy to imagine these buttons ceasing proper operation a couple of years down the road. Those looking for a more robust chassis may want to consider the ZX1, which sports the same controls, but has them all in machined aluminum. The ZX1 also features a leather-rubberized back panel, which enables it to be held much more securely than the hockey puck slipperiness of the 880 series.

The interface is the bread and butter of the 886; it’s fluid and responsive, easy to get to all the functions any listeners need for on-the-fly sound adjustment. The one major area of oversight that would warrant complaint would be that the auto-sensing headphone jack doesn’t account for differing volumes between the on-board speakers (which most people probably keep closer to maximum volume), and headphones (which most would normally keep closer to the lower half of volume level). It’s a strange omission, seeing that many Sony Xperia models do have this feature, but yet the Walkman doesn’t.

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When it comes to sound quality, Sony decidedly had to make some sonic concessions in order to create a Walkman that was thin, light, and could still power Jelly Bean. They chose to go with their proprietary PWM (pulse-width modulation) technology, the S-Master HX. This choice forgoes the traditional DAC and I/V conversion route, instead going for a Class D-like,  switching capacitor bound digital-to-analog conversion methodology.

While PWM implementations for audio are very power efficient, using PWM principles to do D/A conversion is still questionable in the eyes of many insiders with regard to the sheer amount of resolution that can be extracted. Whereas the most high-end dedicated D/A converters top out at 21 to 22-bits of resolution, it’s unclear what the ceiling is for pulse-width modulated D/A conversion. Subjectively, the sound is decidedly less revealing than even the very affordable (but sonically competent) FiiO X3.

Does it provide better sound quality than an iPod Touch? Subjectively, yes. But hook it up to an AP SYS2722 measuring rig and it probably won’t return the prettiest numbers around.

So who is the Sony NWZ-F886 for?

It’s for users that value ease of use in a DAP, first and foremost, but also want to play the tracks that they’ve bought off HDTracks without having to go through tedious downsampling conversions (which can cause a loss of sound quality if the dithering and noise shaping isn’t done correctly). It’s definitely not for users that use a DAP as their primary device for listening to music and require top-of-the-line sound quality. Even the higher-end NWZ-ZX1 isn’t quite there in terms of sound quality.

However, in terms of ease of use, it’s the closest thing there is to an iOS device, so the 886 has permanently replaced Mr. T’s FiiO X3 as his go-to portable device. According to him, the environmental virtualization settings work great, and he uses the ‘Studio’ setting all the time to expand the vocal field.

From what it looks like, the new Sony Walkman models are winners. They have mainstream appeal and also give audiophiles practical reasons for using them. Those looking for the ultimate in sound quality need to look elsewhere, however.

PROS

  • Thin and light
  • Runs Android 4.1
  • Included active noise cancellation for casual use
  • Decent battery life (when Wi-Fi is disabled)

CONS

  • It’s still not as easy to use as an Apple
  • Sound quality lags behind the <$200 (street price) FiiO X3
  • Headphone jack auto-senses when a headphone is plugged in, but doesn’t differentiate between speaker volume and headphone volume.
  • No removable media storage
  • Soap bar-like consistency makes it much more slippery-feeling than its Xperia brethren
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8 Comments Add yours

  1. ovidiu says:

    This has definitely better sound than FiiO X3. Do you really listen to this and X3 before this review? F886 >>>>>>>>>>>>> X3!!!!

    Like

    1. CYMBACAVUM says:

      We had both together for a couple of months (before selling the X3), and came to the conclusion that the X3 performed better with regard to soundstage depth and details, as well as power/control. These findings are supported by current evidence suggesting that the F886 only has a maximum of 16-bits of resolution (~97 dB SNR), while the FiiO X3 approaches 18-bit resolution (~107 dB SNR). The X3 also seems to possess lower residual noise, lending to the perception of a “blacker background”.

      However, it is the author’s opinion that because the F886 possesses a far superior UI, a smaller form factor, and has feature support that currently outstrips those of the X3, the F886 is a more complete and better DAP overall.

      Ultimately, it probably depends on individual tastes, and neither player is perfect for any one person.

      Like

  2. If there is one thing the X3 gets right, it is sound quality. Everything else deserves the ridiculist. Your take on this Walkman is honest, scathing where it needs to be, and outlines the pole positions that audiophile players should be pushing for.

    Applause all around from Ω on this review.

    Like

  3. Bobby.K.L says:

    I have the F887 (64G version). I initially used the on board player. For some reason i couldn’t get it to sound as good as my Cowon D2. I then downloaded Poweramp. I was simply amazed at the overall sound improvements. The mids and highs were brighter with a wider sound stage. The lows were tight and powerful. I am now very happy with this player.

    Like

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