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Sony NW-HD3 (full review)

post #1 of 859
Thread Starter 
After using MDs for the past five years or so, I finally decided to purchase a HDD MP3 player a few weeks ago. I was tired of carrying around a half dozen MDs with me, and thought it would be nice to have access to my entire music library when I'm on the go. One thing I really did like about my MD player was its size - since I wear a suit to work every day, it was nice to be able to slip my MD player into my suit pocket - it was thin and small, therefore unnoticable (no bulge, etc) ... With unit size/weight in mind, I narrowed my choice of HDD players down to the 4G 20GB iPod, the Sony NW-HD2, and the iAudio M3. I quickly scratched the NW-HD2 off my list due to its lack of MP3 support, followed by the M3, because I didn't want to be tied to a remote - I wanted the OPTION of an LCD remote, but I didn't want to be FORCED to use it - I wanted something with an LCD display on the unit itself. That left the iPod, which I ended up buying about three weeks ago.

The thing I like best about the iPod is the UI - the interface is great. I found it very easy to navigate through my music using the iPod's touch wheel, and it was kind of fun to use! lol ... But one thing that really bothered me about the iPod was the lack of bass - so when I saw on head-fi that Sony was due to release the NW-HD3 on December 10th, and that they were FINALLY adding MP3 support, I decided to pick one up. From my past experience with Sony, I figured the HD3 would have much better low-end than the iPod.

Well, today is December 10th, and I just bought the NW-HD3 about eight hours ago. Here are my initial impressions.

The HD3 came in a very simple package. The front of the box is entirely in English, which was reassuring for me (I had concerns about the unit/software being completely compatible with an English OS, for example, so it was nice to see Sony using English on the box itself).


Opening it up reveals the unit securely lodged in place, protected by some bubble wrap and underneath that, some foam-paper. The accessories just kind of hang out in the lower section of the box, but they were in fine shape when I took them out. No worries.


the unit
The unit is rather small - compared to the 4G 20GB, it is noticeably thinner and shorter. It feels very solid, and does not make any noises when you twist it - overall I'd have to say it is a well put together device.

The display is a bit smaller than that of the iPod, it's about as wide as the iPod's is tall - so, it can seem kind of cluttered at times. Also, the backlight isn't as bright as on the iPod, making it a little harder to read. In fact, even with the backlight off, the screen on the HD3 is still much darker than the iPod's. However, the HD3 allows you to reverse the display, which is a cool little feature - if you don't mind the screen being even harder to read with the backlight off, it looks very cool reversed.

(Edit, 05 May 2005)
I've found a nice picture which shows the readability of the screen quite well - thanks to Sphinx89 for taking this one:

As I mentioned earlier, I'm a big fan of the iPod's UI - it was very easy to learn, in fact I never bothered reading any instructions for it, just picked it up and figured it out - very simple. The Sony has some work to do in this area, here are a few things I've noticed so far.

1) When playing a song, if you switch back to the main menu (by pressing the menu button on the top of the unit) you can make changes to various settings (the display/EQ/etc) and then get right back in to the individual track display (the "Now Playing" display) by pressing MENU again. However, if you press the MODE button, which allows you to navigate through your music library, you have to wait about 30 seconds (not pressing any buttons, just waiting) for the unit to go back to the Now Playing screen. There is no "Now Playing" selection on the main menu (like the iPod has) - you just have to wait it out. Even if you browse through your library to find the song that you're currently listening to, and select it, the song will simply start over again from the beginning. Kind of a nit-pick, but nonetheless I find it annoying. lol

(Edit, 05 May 2005)
As has been pointed out by several HD3 owners in this thread, one can get back to the "Now Playing" screen by simply holding down the MODE button. Apparently this function is documented in the HD3's manual, as well. Of course, had Sony been so generous as to have actually made an English manual in time for product launch, I probably would've known about this function from the start.

2) The HD3 does not "remember" your location in the music library each time you start to browse. Meaning that if you browse through the library and select an artist (eg, TOOL) and then decide listen to a different artist (eg, Tori Amos, the very next artist on the list) when you press MODE and open up the library again to browse you'll always be back at the very top (and you'll have to re-scroll through your entire library to get down to that artist, even though you were JUST THERE).

3) There is no "time remaining" display on the HD3 (although you can see this information on the remote, which is not included with the player).

4) Scrolling through a large music library is VERY tedious. You can repeatedly press the arrow buttons (takes forever!) or you can hold them down. When you hold down the button, the unit will scroll through your artists/albums fairly quickly, but still slow enough to be able to read stuff as it passes by. After a few seconds, the speed will increase, skipping several lines at a time. However, it still takes MUCH longer to find what you're looking for than with the iPod. I timed the process on both devices, starting at the top of my music library (10,000 Maniacs) and scrolling through until I got to "BT" - on the iPod it took about six seconds, on the HD3 it took 13 seconds. Of course, I'm more familiar with the iPod's UI than the Sony's, but even after more practice, finding music on the HD3 will likely take much longer than on the iPod, due to the difference in design.

5) When you select an artist from your music library, there is no way to display a list of all the artist's songs. They are categorized by album, so you have to browse each album, one at a time, if you're looking for a particular track and can't remember what album it's on.

One good thing I should mention: response is pretty quick when browsing the music library, as is seek time (selecting/playing a new track) - the unit begins playback VERY quickly when a song is selected, much faster than the iPod does.

SonicStage 2.3
As a NetMD user, I already had SonicStage 2.1 installed on my system. However, I uninstalled it prior to installing version 2.3 (which came with the HD3). In retrospect, this was a huge mistake (that ended up having no effect on the HD3 after all, as I'll explain) ...

The SonicStage 2.3 CD that came with my HD3 only works with Japanese Windows. (!!) Yes, that's right - ONLY JAPANESE WINDOWS. I realize that I bought the unit here in Tokyo, but after seeing such great English support on the unit itself (the menus were all in English, straight out of the box), even on the packaging, I really thought it wouldn't be an issue - but, I was wrong. I even tried copying the CD to my HDD and editing one of the .inf's to allow English OS support - doing this allowed me to open the launch utility, but when I tried to actually install SS 2.3, my computer simply rebooted. Thanks to rauer in the forums, I was able to download the English version of SS 2.3, but unfortunately that version is merely an upgrade from 2.1 or 2.2 (and requires that the previous version be installed). So, I downloaded 2.2, and installed. After this, I ran the 2.3 upgrade launcher. According to the update utility, I had to download a 30MB update - however, even with my 30Mbps internet connection, this process took about an hour and a half (the updater crashed three times during the process). Once 2.3 had installed correctly and I rebooted again, I launched SS and connected my HD3. I was greeted with an error message telling me that 'this ATRAC player is not compatible with this version of SonicStage.' lol ...

I guess what I'm getting at is that if you have anything other than a Japanese version of Windows, you will be unable to use an imported HD3 (for the time being, at least).

Fortunately I have my wife's laptop at my disposal, complete with Japanese WinXP. So, as I waited for SS 2.3 to download/install on *my* computer, I installed it off the CD on my wife's PC. Installation was quick and easy, and after a quick reboot I launched the program and pointed it to my music library (which I had copied to my external HDD only a few minutes earlier). Once I told SS where the music was, it began to scan the directory. This took about 15 minutes to do. Since it took so long, I assumed that it was wrapping my MP3s with the neccessary information to facilitate transfer to the HD3, but apparently all it was doing was downloading album art for all of my music (I found this out later).

As for my music collection, it consists of about 2,100 songs - half of them I ripped myself (LAME 3.96.1 -alt preset standard) and the other half (ones I haven't bought yet) range from 128-320CBR. With my iPod, it took about 15 minutes to transfer all of it, so I expected the HD3 to take about the same amount of time. Unfortunately it ended up taking about an hour and a half to transfer everything. I guess there's a fair bit of overhead involved in wrapping the MP3s prior to transfer, to say the least. It is also worth mentioning that a number of songs didn't transfer at all, due to uncommon characters in the file name. For example, none of my Björk transfered, due to the "ö" I guess. All of my Tool transfered except for the Ænima CD, again due to the weird character.

(Edit, 05 May 2005)
Now that the NW-HD3 has been released for the non-Japanese markets (ie, the rest of the world) there shouldn't be any problems with installing a working version of SS for any users. SonicStage's functionality (or lack thereof) is beyond the scope of this review, but I'm sure a quick search of the forum or even Google would yield some interesting results.

sound quality
Despite the nightmare that SonicStage turned out to be, I was still excited to hear what the HD3 would sound like. A very large part of the reason I bought it was because I was dissatisfied with the low-end on my iPod, and I thought that a Sony DAP would do much better. The good news is, the bass IS much better. The bad news, unfortunately, put a damper on my high spirits.

I recently bought Shure E5c's and have been using them with my iPod for about a week. I understand that they're pretty sensitive phones, but I never really had a problem with background noise on my iPod - it was there, I guess, but it wasn't something I ever really noticed. Imagine my surprise when I plugged in the E5c's to the HD3 and was greeted with a WALL of background noise. I tried turning the volume all the way down while playing a track, and the noise was still there - it is quite noticable, and VERY distracting. Shockingly so. It reminds me of the sound Walkmans would make when you played a tape, you know, the sound of the lead-in tape (whatever it's called) ... ? Except, this noise is ALWAYS there, it doesn't stop when the music starts (unlike a tape deck). Fortunately it doesn't get louder as you turn the volume up, so you can crank the volume a little bit to where it's not really obvious (unless you're between tracks, of course). Then again, I usually don't like to listen to my headphones that loud - but, it's either that or the annoying background noise, so ... In any case, the background noise is most apparent with the E5c's, it wasn't *that* bad with my EX71's, so I guess you probably won't have to worry about it too much unless you've got really sensitive phones.

As for SQ - I will be the first to admit that I'm kind of a bass-head - I like my bass! I don't think of myself as an audiophile, so bear that in mind as you read this part.

Anyway, the sound on the HD3 is, well ... interesting. It has much stronger and deeper bass than the iPod, but it also seems to have a more defined high-end. Meaning, it sounds very hollow, for lack of a better word. It's like the mid-range is lacking - good lows and good highs, but not very balanced at all. If you use the EQ to drop the bass and the high end, it helps to balance it out a bit, but I really wish this thing just had a 7 band EQ so I could have my low end AND a balanced mid-range + high-end. Oh well. Due to the way the EQ works, it's one or the other - good low-end at the expense of mids, or good high-end at the expense of mids. That said, the bass is GREAT - tight and deep - I can hear all the low frequency beats and stuff that I really missed with the iPod. It's just not very balanced.

(Edit, 05 May 2005)
There was some initial concern when I wrote this review about whether the unit I had was defective or not, because of the "hissing" I reported. It turns out that my unit was NOT defective after all - apparently the hiss is present on all HD3s. Some users don't seem to mind it, although those with more sensitive headphones may have a reaction similar to mine. YMMV.

I'm not really sure how to end this, in terms of recommending the HD3 or not - I guess you can come to your own conclusion based (in part) on what my experience has been. I will say this though - if there was a way I could return this thing, I'd do it in a second, and I'd use the money to buy an amp for my iPod - I like the size of the HD3 and I'm looking forward to the good battery life, but there are so many little things which I find EXTREMELY annoying, I'd rather have the iPod with its anemic bass at this point. That might change once I get used to the HD3 a little more (the UI and stuff) and once Sony finally decides to grace the non-Japanese world with a working version of SonicStage, but for the time being I'd have to say I feel like I wasted my money. But hey, that's just my opinion.
post #2 of 859
thanks for taking the time to review that one, i'm sure it will be awhile before the NW-HD3 makes its way to the US!
post #3 of 859
Thanks for the detailed review. Please keep us informed if your impressions/conclusions change at all over time.

Just curious if the transfer times were any different for ATRAC files? Did you happen to test?
post #4 of 859
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by blessingx
Thanks for the detailed review. Please keep us informed if your impressions/conclusions change at all over time.

Just curious if the transfer times were any different for ATRAC files? Did you happen to test?
No, I didn't test ATRAC transfers - I kind of need my wife here for that (I can't really read Japanese) so she can translate for me ...
post #5 of 859
Sorry to hear about this disappointment, Mavis.
I got the NW-HD1 for two months, it replaced an Ipod mini and I strongly prefer the sound of the Sony; the Ipod had a kind of annoying flatness that really stopped me from enjoying the music.
I can listen to the Sony for hours and hours, usually on the move.
(Before Bangraman accuses me of being deaf I hasten to add I use a walkman for what it's made; rather casual, unamplified, on the move, with backgroundnoise and not too expensive headphones [PX100, E2, MDR33]. I Got a hifiset for serious listening at home.)
I do not hear the noise; might be my 40+ years. Might also be the player, the type, or the fact that I only use Atrac 3+ 256 Kbs, not MP3, and am very satisfied with the quality.
As for your criticism of the firmware and Sonic Stage; you're too kind, especially Sonic Stage is an incredible disaster; it odes things without saying so, doesn't things it claims to do, does things half, freezes, crashes.
Besides being irreliable it is also the most counterintuitive software made this century.

But, despite al this, once the little guy is doing what I bought it for, in my pocket playing music, I'm completely happy with it.
Batterylife, compactness, durability and style are impeccable.
Good luck.
post #6 of 859
Good review and very informative. Thanks!
post #7 of 859
thanks for the effort, a pity about the sonicstage compatibility though... or i might be tempted to get one right now...
post #8 of 859
thanks for this informative review.

It's a pity...there's still no perfect player

Some weeks ago, I bought the Sony VGF-AP1L...
and this device is....also interesting^^ but I sold it.
It was too big for me...but one of the bigger reasons was also
Sonicstage. If Sony just could give better software / firmware....

Tough your review, I'm still interested in this device....it's stylish and
attractively small...
post #9 of 859
hey thanks for your review...not quite what i was hoping for. we all know the ipod is an amazingly quick and simple device to use but short of stealing their wheel design, it will be hard to eminate.

i was kinda hoping for a better review cos this device seems like the one for me. im gona wait for a UK model to reviewed first before i write it off. but thanks for review
post #10 of 859
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by eddycha
i was kinda hoping for a better review cos this device seems like the one for me. im gona wait for a UK model to reviewed first before i write it off. but thanks for review
Yeah, if I had read this review prior to purchasing my HD3, I would have been rather disappointed too - I was really excited about getting this thing!!

Although, I'm anxious to see other reviews pop up on the internet, too - I'm wondering if anyone else will have the same kind of negative experience I did ... In particular, I'd love to hear if other people are getting the background noise to the extent that I am (ie, maybe my HD3 is defective or something) ...
post #11 of 859
have anyone here tried real player? they have a plugin to transfer atrac files to sony players.

much better and straight forward than sonicstage
post #12 of 859
About the background noise, could your HD3 be defective? If "yes" it might be a good news for all of us, if "no" we still need to wait for a perfect player.
post #13 of 859
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by indianripper101
have anyone here tried real player? they have a plugin to transfer atrac files to sony players.

much better and straight forward than sonicstage
Well, until a new plugin is available, it wouldn't work with the HD3, because the files no longer need to be converted to ATRAC ...
post #14 of 859
Did you try ripping a CD to ATRAC, Mavis?
I'm wondering if the disappointing sound quality is an MP3 thing, or a general playerfault.
post #15 of 859
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by dura
Did you try ripping a CD to ATRAC, Mavis?
I'm wondering if the disappointing sound quality is an MP3 thing, or a general playerfault.
There are two 256K ATRAC files already on the unit (sample songs) ... The background noise is still there when playing them ...

It works like this: if you plug in the headphones while the player is stopped, you won't hear anything. As soon as you press play, however, the background hiss begins. It does not get louder as you increase the volume, in fact it becomes less apparent as the music volume increases. However it is still audible during quiet parts of songs, and between tracks. It is most obvious with the E5c's although it is present with the EX71's as well (although, not even close to the same level) ...

Due to the problems I had with the SonicStage software, Sony has offered to contact the store where I puchased the unit, and instruct them to accept a return for a full refund. I intend to take them up on the offer, but not because of SS. I can live with transfering songs using my wife's laptop, I can even live with a difficult user interface. What I CAN'T live with is that incessant background noise, that hiss. It's a deal-breaker, to say the least.
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