For most of us growing up in the ‘90s in India, the Walkman was probably our first tryst with the Sony brand. Through the ‘00s, the cassette-playing Walkman went digital, and it was something of a debate among many in class, when we would square off on a debate about Apple’s new-kid iPod Shuffle versus the Walkman’s digital baby, the iconic, clippable B-series players. It was all a lot of fun, and spurned off a massive industry of Chinese portable music players, many of them being brands that you may have never heard of them, and won’t hear of now.
Cut to 2020, and we live in a world where the smartphone changed everything. It became the ubiquitous device to own, the magic one-for-all formula put in motion by the legendary Steve Jobs and pushed further by the popularity and affordability of Android. Naturally, with ever-increasing storage space on our phones, plenty of mobile data on our hands and streaming services aplenty too, we took to first storing offline music on our smartphones, and today, streaming whichever track we fancy from the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and more.
In such times, many would wonder whether it makes any sense at all to use a dedicated device to just… stream music. But then, the Sony Walkman NW-A105 hasn’t been built for those who would think that.
Before all of that, how exactly is it?
TL;DR: It is great.
The Sony Walkman NW-A105 is the Walkman for today’s day and age, proof that the 41-year-old ‘Walkman’ brand still hasn’t lost any of its charisma. The A105 is a sleek little device, slightly taller and much less bulkier than, say, OnePlus’ fast charging adapter. It’s built just the way a Sony device has always been – sturdy but not overly tank-like, with a casual, nonchalant air about it that makes it fit seamlessly in anyone’s pocket. It won’t draw attention and quizzical frowns if you take it out in public, but those curious about gizmos would give you the occasional side glance. Despite all the overdose of smartphones, gadgets, you see, are still cool.
The Walkman A105 has a tidy, 3.5-inch display with sufficient pixels to keep things sharp. It runs on Android 9, so you’d be immediately familiar with it from the onset. Think of this as an Android phone, minus the phone bit. You get a full-blown Play Store, from which you can download whichever app you please – even games, should that be your thing. It has three native, pre-installed apps – the Walkman player, the second is for adjusting your audio, and the third for noise cancellation and ancillary functions (more on these two later).
The Walkman app interface looks similar to what it did with the NW-A35 that I had used about three years ago. However, it is sleeker now, and looks like it’s had a neat makeover. You can now swipe left from the central player screen to bring up the presently playing list, swipe down to bring up your library, swipe up to reveal the audio settings, and swipe right to access your favourites. There’s no fuss about the app, and no fancy trick you’d need to learn to discover hidden features.
There are, however, a few puzzling choices made by Sony here – things I wish they’d thought of. As it so happens, you can only access your audio settings app if you’re using a pair of wired earphones. While that would be understandable as most audiophiles unanimously prefer wired gear for the best sound, the A105 only has a standard, 3.5mm unbalanced port. For audiophiles, the absence of a 2.5mm balanced port for plugging in their very best earphones would certainly be missed. This is perhaps the biggest criticism of the Walkman A105, since even less expensive hi-res music players like the HiBy R3 (review) feature a 2.5mm balanced port.
Users would also find the presence of the noise cancellation app rather puzzling, since it did not seem to do… anything at all. After some time, I learnt that this particular mode of controlling noise cancellation on your headphones through the in-Walkman app is only possible on a select range of Sony headphones that are sold in Japan only. That’s not the only annoyance – switch to the music player Walkman app, and you’d realise that swiping down to bring up the library always takes you back to the central library screen, and not the album/artist you last accessed. This can get really annoying if you’re album hopping with The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Why break the groove?!
The last and most obvious point to note is how the Walkman lags – touch inputs to pause the track often take up to two seconds to work, which is unthinkable in today’s hyper-active smartphone world of 240Hz touch latencies. In fact, this creates oodles of confusion, for you tap the pause button again, thinking you missed the first tap, and then you actually end up resuming the track you wanted to pause. It is a ridiculous mess to get into, and is rather surprising, because otherwise, the A105 is a fine device. You can connect to Wi-Fi to stream music, Bluetooth to pair lossless headphones (with limited customisability), and more. You can also download headphone companion apps (since you get the full Play Store at hand), thankfully.
So, who is it for?
Simply put, the Sony Walkman NW-A105 really is made for those who really like their music. Ideally, this places the buyer as a casual audiophile, since the lack of a balanced audio input takes the hardcore audiophile out of the equation. If you really want the Walkman to be a perfect fit for you, you are either a hobbyist who is enthusiastic about music, or a budding audiophile who wants discernible better sound than your average smartphone is capable of. This actually does open up an interesting market space for Sony, but it fails to deliver the one thing that would have made it instantly recommendable. In fact, it would’ve even made for a very good purchase.
Great, but does the sound justify the enthusiast’s attention?
Truth be told, paired with the right headphones, the sound would justify even a skeptical audiophile’s attention. You can literally play anything on this, up to 320kbps HBR mp3 files, FLAC, WAV, HE-AAC, DSD and anything else that your garage mixer friend can throw at you. The effect is momentous, and not to stop at this, Sony actually gives you plenty of tools to play around with. You can turn on direct source if you’re plugging this into a Stax (with a pre-amp, of course).
If you want Sony to do its thing with its digital upscaling, lossless and high resolution playback algorithms, you have the standard frequency-band equaliser that’s easy to manually operate, DSEE HX (to upscale and optimise the mids, upper mids and lower highs), DC phase linearizer (for a more analogue response from the entire range of the low frequencies), and even a rather interesting vinyl processor.
The beauty of the Walkman A105 is in how it attempts to reproduce the sweet, clean, rich and warm audio properties of analogue audio gear. It brings together the musical ensemble of live concerts in a rich, true to source fashion, while preserving the lossless fidelity of studio recordings to offer you far superior and more detailed music than any portable device within this price would. It offers you plenty of tools to fiddle around with for every frequency range, until you find the perfect balance of sound that you would prefer. It is this that makes it suitable for discerning audiophiles, and makes it even more of a shame that it does not support balanced audio sources.
What else should I know about it?
Thankfully, Sony now offers USB-C charging for the Walkman A105, and there’s no proprietary port hassle to go with. It also supports large enough microSD cards for you to plug in, which you’d have to since internal storage is too limited. Lastly, the battery on the Sony Walkman NW-A105 appears to deplete a bit too fast, even when on idle and not in use. It charges up at a normal speed, but also heats up quite a bit every time, during charging. It serves well for about two days of commute time on a single charge, if you travel for about 45 minutes each way for work.
To sum up, while the Sony A105’s audio credentials truly make it a delight for every audio hobbyist, enthusiast and audiophile, a few peculiar choices made by Sony with the product takes away some of the shine. But, that still does not stop it from being a Walkman that many would still love to own, even with its limited use cases.