Since smartphones took over our lives, five or so years ago, there has been relatively little interest in something that once – just ten years before that – seemed the very future of technology itself. Apple’s iPod was once thought to be the most incredible invention of the millennium, back in the day. Successive generations got ever smaller, and/or cuter, and/or able to store more music. The iPod Classic was arguably the ultimate, being able to carry [what we then thought] was a staggering 80GB of music on its own tiny hard disc drive inside. Never before had people been able to carry around their entire CD collections in one portable player, and many music lovers’ worlds were never the same…
Now though, that all seems irrelevant. First, the iPhone and its imitators came along and rendered the iPod redundant – because they could perform the same trick, and several others as well. Then came cloud-based storage, and the very idea that you would rip your entire music collection to store on something when you could simply stream it, became laughable. For most people, the iPod was now about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike; it was rendered completely irrelevant by technological progress.
So what then is Sony doing now, producing products such as the NW-A45? It is essentially a latterday iPod, a purpose-designed, old school music player that does nothing else. Well, those of us who have been around the block a few times will remember the nineteen eighties, when Sony Corporation was king of the world. It made – amongst many other great products – the Walkman, which indelibly stamped the idea of music on the move upon an entire generation. All the iPod was, was simply a more convenient Walkman that didn’t play physical media, but worked instead with digital music files. So the NW-A45 that you see here is simply Sony reclaiming the portable music player market for itself, rather than trying to jump on someone else’s train.
Costing around £130 for the standard black model with 16GB of storage – gold and blue are also available – is a lot to pay for something that does almost nothing more than your existing smartphone in terms of music playback. Yet there’s more to it than that. First, it’s small and compact at 55.9×97.5×10.9mm and 98g, so you could carry both. Second, it has a micro SD card slot which allows you to carry vast amounts of music – way more than that 80GB of tunes that the old iPod Classic provided. At the time of writing, a 200GB memory card costs just £45 and prices are falling every week; it comes with a ‘get you going’ 16GB card. Third, it gives true hi-res audio capability, meaning that you can play 16 to 24-bit PCM at up to 192kHz, and 1-bit DSD at up to 11.2896 MHz. It plays FLAC, WAV, Apple Lossless, AAC, WMA and MP3, so pretty much anything, in other words.
That’s a lot more music-playing functionality than your average smartphone, and there are other goodies built-in too. It has a defeatable six-band parametric equaliser, a DC Phase Lineariser, a Dynamic Normaliser, Sony’s ClearAudio+ and Clear Phase. These all offer various ways of tweaking the sound, but are all defeatable should you so wish. Digital noise cancelling is also fitted, for use with Sony’s own headphones – which are not supplied. There’s an FM radio built in, and the ability to play out its music via Bluetooth. It has various play modes – including repeat, shuffle, etc. – and lets you search via artist, release year, album, genre, composer and file type. It sports a standard stereo headphone mini-jack and Sony’s bespoke 22-pin WM-PORT (multiple connecting terminal) for connecting to your Mac or PC; files are transferred by simple ‘drag and drop’, as you would any other file. It can even function as a DAC, playing out music from your computer rather than its own memory card.
The unit is a lovely thing to have and to hold; the brushed aluminium case feels a quality item and is fairly robust too; the 7.8cm 800×480 pixel TFT colour display with white LED backlight capacitive touchscreen is crisp and easy to use, although not as simple as the iconic iPod of old. It gives a superb battery life of around 32 hours, although this depends on what files it’s asked to play and can be even longer. Sony quotes an output power of 35mW per channel (via JEITA 16Ω/MW measurements), and the unit works with Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 7 and MacOS v10.8–10.12.
The NW-A45 sounds excellent, although there are some caveats. The main one is the output power; it cannot drive headphones of mediocre sensitivity to meaningfully high levels, and even with more efficient ones is a little anaemic and lacks real grunt. But with well matched earbuds or phones, it really does make a nice noise. It’s very precise, clean and detailed with a good texture and tonality; there’s no harshness or hardness and its only sins are those of omission; it’s a little opaque compared to a true high quality source. For the price, it gives people a window into a musical world that’s not offered to them by their smartphones; users can store vast amounts of hi-res music on it and enjoy it in a higher quality than is possible via an iPhone or similar. Highly recommended, then.