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Sony NWZ-F886

 

Unconnected

 

 

 

Sony's attractive new hi-res portable, the NWZ-F886, connects via wireless to the hi-fi, not cable. Noel Keywood takes it for a run.

 

Aha! Sony finally goes ‘Hi-res’ and you can even play Apple hi-res music files on their new portable digital player – sounds interesting. The sexily named new NWZ-F886 Walkman looks ready for the outside world: it boasts top quality replay of 24/192 WAV files, as well as compressed FLAC and Apple ALAC files no less – plus a lot more. 

But there were some ‘drawbacks’ we found. This isn’t a hi-res player to take on the Chinese or Korean opposition, (e.g. FiiO and Astell&Kern), but Sony’s own take on Digital Audio Player (DAP) functionality, audio quality playing second fiddle to other, more contemporary concerns, such as big, coloured Apps on a bright touch screen, web connectivity and video. 

Priced at £250 from Amazon the Sony is competitive by any standard; dedicated hi-res DAPs typically cost from £150 (FiiO X3) up to £700 (Astell&Kern AK100), and some even more –  and none have a screen as sharp and bright as Sony’s. 

When you look at what the NWZ-F886 does, the picture gets even rosier. It plays mpeg4, WMV9 and AVC(H.264) video, shows photos (jpeg, png) and has wi-fi, for connection to the internet. This makes a wide range of internet services available, including conspicuous access to Google’s Play Store,  so you can buy and download music on the move if you wish; web browsing is possible. 

Because the NWZ-F886 uses Google’s Android OS, Google services come loaded, including Chrome browser and Play Store, YouTube, Google Maps of course and constant requests to log into your Google account. Surprisingly, Sony’s music store is not loaded, nor is iTunes, which is less surprising.

Noise cancelling ear-buds come as standard but the player works only with them and no other, Sony say; noise cancelling can be switched off, reducing battery drain. The player has FM radio, using the headphone lead as an aerial, and it has a GPS antenna for location services.

Measuring 59mm wide, 116mm high and just 8.2mm deep the NWZ-F886 is iPhone size, if a tad slimmer. Weight on our scales was exactly 100gms, making it comparatively light. There’s an on-board loudspeaker – just don’t expect bass – a Bluetooth short range radio connection and NFC (Near Field Communication), for short range (1 cm) file transfer or music streaming to NFC equipped devices the player is placed against. 32GB of on-board memory is fitted, plus a non-user-replaceable lithium-ion battery charged over USB; no charger is supplied. It can play computer music files using DLNA.

Sony say file types supported at 48kHz max sample rate are MP3, WMA, AAC and HE-AAC – all the usual suspects. At up to 192kHz sample rate and 24bit resolution the NWZ-F886 will play FLAC, WAV, ALAC and AIFF. 

We checked this and 24/192s in the formats stated all played. Sony’s file selection is sensible: you need only FLAC and WAV in essence, for high quality, but Apple formats just have to be included these days and AIFF is equivalent to WAV (uncompressed) whilst ALAC is equivalent to FLAC (losslessly compressed). Sony’s own DSD format is not mentioned – I will come to this later.

 

 

 

The Sony's case is slim and easily pocketable.

 

 

 

 

The headphone socket (left) has no optical digital output.

 

So far so good – but there are some startling omissions from this otherwise impressive specification. Firstly, there are no external memory card slots: 32GB is the limit. Most players manage at least 64GB and the Astell&Kerns offer 3 x 32GB, or 96GB in all; you must buy Sony's top player, the NWZ-ZX1, for 128GB of storage. Storage of high resolution music files is limited to 120 or so; I loaded a 800MB 24/96 WAV of an entire LP and it played, so the OS will cope with big files (some peg out).

More surprisingly though, there is no digital output for an external DAC, no line output for a hi-fi, and no input allowing the player to be used as a DAC. This lack of connectivity is startling, because all DAPs have at least S/PDIF digital audio out, allowing them to be used with a hi-fi DAC like the Audiolab M-DAC I use, to feed hi-fi high resolution audio to the hi-fi. 

Seeing a ‘Digital’ logo alongside the headphone socket I still inserted an optical adaptor, just in case its mention had been accidentally omitted from the User Manual, website and everywhere else – but no luck! I even peered down the hole of the adaptor with a magnifying glass looking for the tell-tale glow of a red laser, but there was only darkness. This was a metaphor for Sony’s lack of understanding about DAPs and today’s marketplace, but I won’t go into that. 

The Digital logo alongside the analogue-only headphone output refers to digital noise cancelling, not digital output. But since this is possible only with the ear buds supplied, and since the headphone socket was intrinsically noisy compared to those of hi-res rivals, this was an ironically misleading label.

These omissions count the Sony out as a high resolution player able to feed a hi-fi, unless the headphone output offers superb analogue – and with the NWZ-F886 our measurements showed it does not. Quite the reverse, it lacks the special line output amplifiers that are a distinguishing feature of high resolution digital audio players, offering just one-tenth their output from a lacklustre headphone drive chip that provides just 0.32V. 

Directly related to this, the Sony exhibited 96dB Dynamic Range under measurement, against around 110dB of rivals – a massive 14dB less. Use of an external DAC would give a 24dB improvement, but the Sony is unable to exploit this as it cannot be connected to a good external DAC. Bluetooth (without aptX) is no alternative, because it imposes lossy compression to reduce data rate and compromises quality. 

A long list of signal processing ‘technologies’ are listed, such as Clear Audio, S-Master HX Digital Amp, HSSE etc., but they either made no measurable difference to high resolution test signals (as Sony admit) or, in the case of Clear Audio, increase noise and distortion! None had merit.

 

A five-band graphic equaliser and 'Clear Bass' slider can modify sound quality. 

 

SOUND QUALITY

Lack of grunt in the headphone drive chip meant I could get no more than ‘reasonable’ volume from insensitive Philips Fidelio X1 headphones, except with Rock tracks compressed right up to 0dB maximum level, typically from CD and MP3 (etc) – but such tracks generally don’t offer high quality. With quality 24/96 recordings where there’s enough dynamic range not to record up at peak level, volume was even lower; with a ‘quiet’ track like Amber Rubarth’s strummed ballad ‘Storms Are On the Ocean’ (24/96) volume was limited to say the least.

With more sensitive headphones, like the Jays V-Jays fold-ups I use when on the move, volume lifted usefully and I could back volume off from maximum. The Eagles ‘Somebody’, a typical Rock CD track compressed up close to 0dB (Audacity shows) played loud and sounded good, clear and crisp.  The V-Jays, being an open on-ear phone, have light bass and the Sony’s graphic equaliser helped here. However, turning to all the EQ settings, with pre-sets, graphic equaliser, Clear Bass slider, Clear Audio+ (this made hi-res sound worse!), DSEE, Dynamic normaliser, Surround sound, Clear stereo, xLoud and Clear phase illustrated what an ill thought out jumble of menus this all was. Read Sony’s User manual closely and they do say that most seek to enhance low quality compressed files; I found no benefit with hi-res files, or even good quality CD rips. 

With all this processing turned off, across a wide range of 24/96 and 192 material, quality was thoroughly respectable, but only as conventional portables go. This player lacked the punch, deep staging and general couthness of the Astell&Kern AK100 MkII that I reviewed in our last (March 14) issue, for example. I got the best result from Bluetooth, transmitting to Cambridge Audio Streamagic 6 network player with BT100 receiver. This put a good DAC and analogue output stage into the signal path and good recordings like Amber Rubarth’s ‘Storms Are On the Ocean’ came over as clear and couth, whilst Otis Redding’s ‘Dock on the Bay’ (24/192) sounded big and punchy, as it should. 

 

 

A beautifully crisp and clear display.

 

The Sony saw my Mac immediately with DNLA and played music from it without difficulty, through EyeConnect on the Mac.

In case you are wondering, I did load a DSD64 file, using Sony proprietary technology, but it wasn’t recognised at all! Oh dear – what on earth are Sony not thinking about, especially when DSD conversion to analogue is technologically simple, available in Wolfson and ESS DACs and breaking out everywhere, including in Japan under Sony’s corporate nose.

 

 

FM radio is on-board and tuned through this rolling digital display. 

 

 

CONCLUSION

If you want a portable device with internet connectivity, web browsing, music download and apps etc, equipped with a glitzy touch screen, then this is it. With video replay and photo display too, it’s great for general entertainment. 

Unfortunately, the NWZ-F886 is a low res audio player equipped to play high resolution audio files. Sony have given it none of the special parts, including top quality DAC and high performance line output amplifiers, that go to make up a true high resolution player. With no digital output able to feed an external DAC, it is severely limited audio-wise and not in the same league as rivals, as far as audio quality is concerned. It is streets ahead gadget wise though, and is great value if this is what you want. 

 

BATTERY LIFE SONY NWZ-F886

Considering it has such a bright screen, Sony quote a surprisingly long battery life for this player: “up to 35 hours” no less. That’s more than twice the life (16hrs) of the Astell&Kern AK100 MkII player reviewed in our March 14 issue. How do they do it?

Well, as Sony state in their Help Guide, this is to play MP3 music files, with Noise Cancelling and Bluetooth off. They don’t make clear that it is also with the screen off, as this consumes most current from the battery. As with all battery powered portables, it turns off automatically, although it can be set not to do so. I noticed the battery running down fairly quickly when running through menus whilst testing and indeed, with video, battery life is quoted as 5 hours, giving some idea of just how power hungry the screen is, like all high brightness screens.

Interestingly, playing top quality 24/192 FLAC files shortens battery life by 8 hours, Sony state, when compared to 24/96 FLAC where you get a generous 24 hours. So lower sample rate means longer battery life.

We ran a structured playing test, the Walkman being set to loop a 24/96 WAV file until it died – it lasted exactly 20 hours. As WAV runs at a higher data rate (x2) than FLAC, and battery life is sensitive to this factor, our figure tallies with that from Sony (Bluetooth and Noise cancellation were off). A warning appeared at 18 hours, saying 14% of charge was left and the player needed charging, the battery indicator turning red; it will play whilst charging.

Twenty hours playing time sounds good. However, battery life is made long through use of parts – particularly DAC and headphone drive chip – that consume little current, being designed for portables. The Wolfson WM8912 DAC is an example, with its Class W charge pump headphone driver and a current draw of around 1mA per section. By way of contrast, High Resolution players commonly use the Wolfson WM4740 that consumes 100mA, and on top of that a headphone/line drive amplifier must be used. 

So, in a nutshell, top quality parts draw one hundred times more current than ‘portable’ parts, because they are designed for mains powered players where current consumption isn’t an issue. It could be said then, that long battery life suggests lower quality and isn’t quite the good thing it may appear! 

 

 

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

Output from the headphone socket was a low 0.34V, typical for portable players but ten times less than the 3V or so from dedicated high resolution portables. There was no digital output nor a line output to drive a h-fi amplifier, so the headphone output is the only one available, ignoring Bluetooth and NFC.

Dynamic Range (EIAJ) from a 24bit file measured a low 96dB, against 110dB or so from high quality players such as the Astell&Kerns, or 100dB from a 16bit CD player. Against standard low res portables, however, with their low voltage headphone chips, the Sony was normal enough, since they manage 93dB or so. 

This clearly shows the NWZ-F886 is a low-res portable in its basic electrical topology, but able to play high-res files. It does not, however, either have the low noise or high linearity needed to exploit the quality of 24bit audio, falling short of CD by 5dB. 

Frequency response with 192kHz sample rate files did extend to a very high value of 80kHz, but this is no compensation for poor 24bit performance.

The NWZ-F886 delivers a measured performance similar to that of any portable, lacking the benefits of high resolution audio files other than wide bandwidth. NK

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frequency response (-1dB)

192k 4Hz-80kHz

Distortion, 24bit (%)

0dB 0.002

-60dB 0.3

Separation (1kHz) 90dB

Noise (IEC A) -95dB

Dynamic range 96dB

Output  0.34V

 

 

SONY NWZ-F886 £250

 

 

 

GOOD - worth auditioning

 

Audio much like that from any portable damns this as a high resolution player. It is good for general entertainment though.

 

FOR

- bright touch screen

- wi-fi  and web

- portable and light

- plays YouTube and video

 

AGAINST 

- limited 32GB memory

- no digital audio output

- low dynamic range

- no DSD

 

Sony

+44 (0)844 8466 555

www.sony.co.uk 

 

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