Since smartphones took over our life five or so years ago, there has been little interest in something that seemed to be the very future of technology just ten years earlier. Back in the day, Apple’s iPod was regarded to be the most astonishing invention of the millennium. Generations after generation were smaller, cuter, and/or capable of storing more music. The iPod Classic was perhaps the best, with the ability to store up to 80GB of music on its own little hard drive within. Never before had consumers been able to transport their whole CD collection in a single portable device, and the lives of many music fans were forever changed…
But now it’s as if none of that matters. First, the iPhone and its knockoffs arrived and rendered the iPod obsolete — since they could perform the same function, as well as several others. Then cloud-based storage came along, and the concept of ripping your whole music collection to put on something when you could just stream it became comical. For most people, the iPod was now about as helpful as an ashtray on a motorcycle; technical development had rendered it entirely obsolete.
So, why is Sony still manufacturing items like the NW-A45? It’s essentially a modern-day iPod, a purpose-built, old-school music player with no other functions. Those of us who have been around the block a few times may recall the decade of the 1980s, when Sony Corporation reigned supreme. Among many other excellent items, it created the Walkman, which forever imprinted the idea of music on the go on an entire generation. The iPod was little more than a more handy Walkman that didn’t use physical media and instead relied on digital audio files. As a result, the NW-A45 you see here is simply Sony recovering the portable music player market for itself, rather than trying to ride on the coattails of someone else.
It’s a lot of money to pay for something that offers essentially nothing more than your existing smartphone in terms of music playback, costing roughly £130 for the base black device with 16GB of storage — gold and blue models are also available. There’s more to it than that, though. First, at 55.99.510.9mm and 98g, it’s small and portable, allowing you to carry both. Second, it features a micro SD card slot, allowing you to store a lot more music than the original iPod Classic’s 80GB of media. A 200GB memory card costs just £45 at the time of writing, and prices are dropping every week; it comes with a ‘get you started’ 16GB card. Third, it supports real high-resolution audio, allowing you to play 16 to 24-bit PCM at up to 192kHz and 1-bit DSD at up to 11.2896 MHz. It can play FLAC, WAV, Apple Lossless, AAC, WMA, and MP3, in other words, pretty much anything.
That’s a lot more music-playing capability than the ordinary smartphone, and there are a lot of other features as well. It has Sony’s ClearAudio+ and Clear Phase, as well as a defeatable six-band parametric equaliser, a DC Phase Lineariser, a Dynamic Normaliser, and a DC Phase Lineariser. These all provide different ways to alter the sound, but they are all defeatable if you so desire. Sony’s own headphones – which are not included – are also equipped with digital noise cancellation. There’s a built-in FM radio, as well as the option to stream music over Bluetooth. It features a variety of play options, such as repeat and shuffle, and allows you to search by artist, album, genre, composer, and file format. It has a normal stereo mini-jack for headphones and Sony’s proprietary 22-pin WM-PORT (multiple connection terminal) for connecting to your Mac or PC; files are transferred using simple ‘drag and drop,’ just like any other file. It can even act as a digital audio converter (DAC), playing music from your computer rather than from its own memory card.
The brushed aluminium case feels solid and sturdy, and the 7.8cm 800480 pixel TFT color display with white LED backlight capacitive touchscreen is sharp and easy to operate, though not as simple as the classic iPod. It has a fantastic battery life of roughly 32 hours, though this can vary depending on the files it is asked to play and can be much longer. Sony claims a 35mW per channel output (based on JEITA 16/MW testing), and the device is compatible with Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 7, and MacOS v10.8–10.12.
The NW-A45 sounds great, but there are a few drawbacks. The biggest issue is the output power; it is unable to drive headphones with low sensitivity to usefully high levels, and even with more efficient headphones, it is anaemic and lacks true grunt. It does, however, generate a decent noise when paired with the right headphones or phone. It’s quite precise, clean, and detailed, with nice texture and tonality; there’s no roughness or hardness, and its main flaws are omissions; it’s a touch opaque when compared to a truly high-quality source. It gives individuals a portal into a musical world that their cellphones don’t provide; users can store large amounts of hi-res music on it and listen to it in higher quality than they can on an iPhone or similar device. Then it comes highly recommended.