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  Sony Network Walkman NW-HD3 9/10. Date Posted 11/05/2005.

This is one of the first Sony music players to play MP3 tracks, without converting to Sony's special ATRAC format. As such it has been eagerly anticipated in the marketplace. At first glances, the NW-HD3 (maybe a snappy name would be useful!) looks extremely well put together, but at the same time it is extremely light for a 20GB MP3 player, and also quite thin.

Unlike the iPod, which uses iTunes, the NW-HD3 uses Sony's Sonicstage software to transfer music from your computer (via USB2) to it. The software's not great, but it does transfer your music very quickly, and the interface isn't too bad even if not quite as nice as iTunes. Although the NW-HD3 now supports MP3 natively, it does not support AAC (the protected format of this is used by iTunes Music Store), as such you won't be able to play stuff you've bought off iTunes.

It will however play music from the Connect Music Store, which seems to have a decent collection of tracks. To be fair to Sony, the iPod does not support any other music store's format (such as protected WMA or protected ATRAC). I think it will be a long time till we get a universal protected electronic music format that works with every MP3 player. At the moment, the only universal solution is to buy "real" CDs and rip them to MP3, which is pretty much 100% compatible!

Now the important bit, the sound quality! The ATRAC format has been used in various guises before including on Sony's Minidisc players (which still sound fanastic!) I did try encoding a track at 64Kbps ATRAC and playing it. The quality is pretty good given the amount of compression. However, I did prefer the quality of MP3s encoded at 192Kbps (not surprising given they take up 3x the disk space). To truly test the NW-HD3 I tried using it with a pair of Sony MDRV700DJ and the sound was great with good reproduction of bass and treble. In all probability, most users will opt for small in-ear headphones (rather than the expensive and bulky MDRV700DJ pair), which also offer reasonable audio playback. It's great that Sony now gives users the choice of using ATRAC or MP3.

In terms of ease of use, the iPod wins, since the NW-HD3 has no wheel, so it can take a while to go through your music collection. It's funny how something, can really transform the useability of an MP3 player. However, the NW-HD3's major trump card is battery life, claimed to be 20 hours worth. In use, I found I could use it for several days (for several hours) without needing to recharge it. The new NW-HD5 claims 40 hours battery life.

So in short the NW-HD3 is a great addition to the Walkman range. If you are choosing between this and an iPod, it's a tough call. If battery life is not as important go for the iPod, because of ease of use and because it uses iTunes (or the Winamp plugin). If battery life is your major concern, the Sony could be your choice.