Hands-on review: Sony Walkman NW-A55L
Image credit: Sony
The Walkman lives on in 2020, with the classic brand now badging portable high-resolution audio players.
For any music fan of the last four decades, the word 'Walkman' is iconic, summoning up any number of devices over the 40 years since the first classic TPS-L2 appeared in 1979.
Cassette players, CDs, MiniDiscs, mobile phones - all kinds of music-oriented devices have borne the Walkman name. Most recently, Sony has kept the Walkman flame alive with a series of well-received, high-resolution audio digital players, of which the NW-A55L is the Japanese company's latest iteration.
Not that this model is the only Walkman game in town for Sony. It offers a range of high-resolution players catering to all pockets, from the (relatively) budget-friendly model reviewed here, via the £300+ NW-A105 (with Android OS onboard), peaking in the consumer stratosphere with the WMZ1, which retails for approximately £2,000. Oof.
Back on Planet Earth, we've spent some quality time with Sony's entry-level high-resolution audio Walkman, the NW-A55L. Happily, at no point have we felt like we've been cheated on the sound, the features, the flexibility or the price. It's a really cool device. If you want to hear your favourite music in a dazzling new light, a high-resolution player such as this Sony could be just the ticket.
This Walkman is the latest in what Sony calls the A50 series, which follows in the wake of its popular predecessor, the A45, and builds on that player's functionality in some key areas.
The A50 series has been given subtle cosmetic reshaping, with an ergonomic curve to the aluminium body and a rounding and separation of the control buttons on the side. This does give the A55L a more contemporary look and feel.
The size of the device is near-perfect, fitting neatly into the palm of the hand. It's approximately the same size overall as just the screen alone of the new iPhone SE 2 (already one of the smallest smartphones around), which should give you some idea of the A55L's compact nature.
The minimal no-fuss design aesthetic puts all the useful buttons on the right-hand side where your thumb or fingers naturally fall: hold (to disable the touch panel); track skip back; play/pause/; track skip forward; a rocker switch for volume up/down, and the on/off/power button. It's easy to control the player with one hand just by feel alone.
On the left side of the device is the Micro SD Card slot, to expand the unit's meagre 16Gb memory. The bottom edge of the device hosts the 3.5mm headphone jack, the WM-Port charging slot and a lanyard loop. There's nothing on the top edge. Body colour options for the A55L are the same as for the A45 (Grayish Black, Moonlit Blue, Horizon Green, Twilight Red, Pale Gold).
Inside the device, a few technical tweaks improve on the A45's already solid build. Sony has consistently sold these Walkmans on the premise that they are "precision-engineered for superior sound". Where the A45 got high-quality, lead-free solder which supposedly enables purer audio playback, the A55's rigid aluminium milled frame now has even-more-advanced solder containing gold for an even clearer sound. Gold is an excellent conductor, so this should help minimise signal loss. There's more gold in the plating of the circuit board and contact springs, for low impedance, again offering some positive improvement to sonics across the board.
The screen on the AW55L is good quality: nice and bright, text is sharp and distinct and the colour and detail of album artwork really pops. The screen can be made impressively bright although we found around 50 per cent brightness was more than sufficient. You can also view song lyrics, if available in the file, as well as metadata information such as file type and bit/sample rate.
Navigating the device is a breeze, as this Walkman is a relatively straightforward affair. On the home page are icons for the DAC and Bluetooth functions (more on them shortly), a collection of icons in the middle relate to music selection (All Songs, Artist, Album, Recent Transfers, direct access to all Hi-Res files only), while the bottom row has a back icon, as well as buttons for the current song, library and settings. The GUI has been well thought-out and you can always jump back or swipe from any screen, saving you from becoming mired in sub-menu Hell.
The launch splash screen delightfully declares that this Walkman is "For and by music lovers" and the comprehensive list of supported files (from low to super-high bit depth and sample rate) bears this out: AAC, AIFF, APE, Apple Lossless, DSD, FLAC, MP3, MQA, WAV, WMA, up to 32-bit/384Khz where appropriate (that is extremely high-resolution audio). No OggVorbis, sorry. The small Sony print declares that "Copyright protected files cannot be played back", which seems legally reasonable, but at least "Non-standard bit rates or non-guaranteed bit rates are included depending on the sampling frequency".
Certainly, from our test experience, throwing a huge jumble of file types, formats and conversion qualities at this Walkman didn't cause it to bat a single digital eyelid. It just played on from one file to the next without hiccup.
The Walkman, like a thoughtful audio butler, offers to unobtrusively help out when playing a mix of different audio qualities: its 'DSEE HX' function performs some sort of upscaling voodoo on lower-quality files, going some way to redressing their compressed nature and giving them a degree of their sonic fidelity back. Obviously, you can't restore audio data that has already been lost in the original conversion process, but the DSEE HX function does seem to have a noticeable impact. We found ourselves leaving this on at all times.
We can't say the same for the 'Dynamic Normaliser', which is designed to level all files to be at the same volume. Some people will love this: we didn't, so we left it off, preferring to manually adjust the volume whenever necessary.
The same goes for Sony's own ClearAudio+ EQ preset, which is a bit like a modern take on the 'Enhance' button often found on old-school analogue stereo separates. This preset noticeably kicks the sound up a notch, particularly in the low-end/low-mid range, which works well for some styles of music and file types. It is a big, phat, hyped sound, although it can become fatiguing to listen to if left on for everything. Some people will love it, as it's effectively a one-button butt-kicking boost for every song. Rather than fiddle with toggling it on and off all the time, we preferred to leave it off and only used it occasionally. Selecting ClearAudio+ also disables all other sound-shaping controls on the device, which is a shame.
What we did leave on were some of the more subtle EQ and tone-shaping controls, which had more intangible but musically pleasing effects. The DC Phase Lineariser adds a low-frequency response curve similar to listening through an analogue amplifier, while the Vinyl Processor is designed to "recreate the warm, rich playback of a record on a turntable". The difference with both on or off is very subtle, but subjectively "better", so we left both of these on and never looked back.
For more dramatic sound design, there is also a user-configurable six-band parametric EQ option and the 'VPT Surround' section, which offers new reverb spaces (Studio, Club, Concert Hall, Matrix) in which to frame your music.
Anyway you slice it, there are lots of ways that this Walkman can enhance or transform the sonic integrity of any original recording. You'll find some combination you like - and if you can't be bothered with any of this, no problem. The A55L sounds great with no extra fairy dust applied.
All of these options can be accessed by flicking the screen in one of the four two-dimensional directions. While playing a track, swipe left to add the track to a playlist. Swipe right to see the 'Play Queue' (e.g. album track listing). Swipe up to access EQ options. Swipe down to return to the home screen. It's a very easy device to navigate.
You'll really hear all the difference that these EQ sweetenings make if you're using a wired set of headphones, which are the way to go with a high-resolution player such as this. Bluetooth simply doesn't offer the bandwidth to support high-resolution audio playback. You can get close with Bluetooth headphones expressly designed for some degree of HD playback, but these are not yet commonplace. A good pair of wired headphones will always serve you best, no question.
Nevertheless the A55L does have Bluetooth functionality - this Walkman is nothing if not flexible and accommodating. You can also stream music wirelessly to any speakers you already own, albeit with the same "it's not really high-resolution audio any more" caveat.
All of which serves as a neat riposte to anyone who wonders aloud why anyone would bother with a standalone music player in 2020? "Why don't you just use your phone?" As it turns out, the appeal of that original Walkman from 1979 is gifted us in equal measure by 2020's digital descendant: with no apps or messaging services, email or web browser onboard, this is strictly a music playback device. If you want to surrender yourself to beautiful-sounding, high-resolution music, to give all your attention and focus to revelling in only the individual layers, tones and notes of your favourite music - the gorgeous whole of all those excellent parts - you don't want the constant pinging, ringing and vibrating of notifications shattering your reverie.
This has in fact been one of the criticisms voiced of Sony's more expensive NW-A105, which runs on Android 9.0 - many users choosing a standalone music player simply don't want to be distracted by a smartphone-style OS. There's also the question of battery life. If a device is doing double-duty, it's going to drain faster. With the A55L only doing one job - and doing it well - the battery should last for several days' worth of playback (not running constantly for days on end: real-world use, a few hours at a time throughout each day).
Talking of battery life and charging, the A55L still uses Sony's proprietary WM-Port cable. This looks a bit like the old Apple iPod/iPhone 30-pin connector and it works one way up only (the Walkman logo is helpfully debossed on the upward-facing side). This is the only way to charge the Walkman, so don't lose it! The battery charging icon on the Walkman itself reads 'Full' when done, which is a cute touch. You're not left guessing if it's finished, which is helpful.
The WM cable also works for data transfer - you can drag'n'drop files or folders from your computer to the appropriate 'Music' folder that shows up when you connect the Walkman.
People thought perhaps Sony would move to USB-C with the A50 series, but it hasn't happened yet. USB-C is used for some higher-priced Walkman devices, so presumably Sony is still using USB-C as a price-point differentiator.
If you're using the Micro SD Card for music storage (as you almost certainly will be at some point, given the paltry 16Gb device memory, which Hi-Res audio files will chomp through in little more than a dozen 24/96 albums), you simply format the card on the Walkman before use; slap that into your computer however you normally read SD Cards; then, again, simply drag'n'drop files onto the Music folder; before transferring the card back into the Walkman.
The device does need to rebuild the database every time you add any new music - effectively like starting from scratch each time - and the bigger your library becomes, the longer this process takes. Some users have complained about taking several minutes to restart their devices from a powered-down state. From our test experience, a full 16Gb device plus a full 128Gb SD Card took less than 120 seconds to boot up from cold. That's acceptable - an Xbox One S takes longer than this to get started, for example.
The Walkman A55L is a well-designed, eminently portable, great-sounding, high-resolution audio player. As a standalone device, it's already a winner. What might push anyone teetering on the brink of purchase over the edge are two features that make this Walkman a very useful companion to your smartphone or computer.
Firstly, in Bluetooth mode (4.2 supported, not 5.0), there is a Receiver function. In this state, your Walkman becomes a play-through device for any audio apps on your phone. Use the superior audio processing options on the Walkman to listen to the audio stream coming from apps such as Spotify and YouTube running on your phone.
This feature is also very helpful for any iPhone users still mourning the loss of the 3.5mm headphone jack. Not everyone wants to use rechargeable wireless headphones and if you use the tiny Lightning cable adapter to connect wired headphones, the resolution of audio output here is capped nowhere near the best-sounding high-resolution numbers. Frustrating!
Secondly, when connected to your computer by its cable, the Walkman can act as a portable DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter). As above, you can now enjoy the sound conversion quality of the Sony for any audio playing from your computer. It took a bit of fiddling to get this to work on our test Mac (we found that 'forgetting' any other pre-existing connected audio devices, such as speakers, fixed the conflicts), but this is another little ace up the AW55L's sleeve, as for many users it does away with the need to buy another DAC box just for that function.
Naturally, other dedicated (and accordingly much higher-priced) devices are available for these functions, but it's neat to have everything, of very good quality, in one sweet-sounding little box. This Walkman's diminutive size also makes it an easily portable, convenient high-res audio device to carry with you, so it's never a hassle to always have it in your pocket or on your desktop. That's some neat engineering right there.
We really like this Walkman. It sounds great, has a lot to offer (there's a ton of peripheral stuff we haven't touched on here), and comes in at a fair price. Drawbacks are few: USB-C would have been preferable, as would Bluetooth 5.0. 16Gb internal memory is weak. The unit's capricious power-saving feature of shutting down completely if left ignored for a day or two means it has to rebuild the your song library/database again, so you're both left hurting for a minute or two. When it does restart, the volume is always reset to 50, which is nowhere near as loud as it sounds - the maximum volume, oddly, is 120 (we did most of our listening between 70-100, depending on file quality), so you have to crank it up again. The FM radio tuner from past models (e.g. the A45) has been dropped, a move Sony explains as being necessary because of EU regulations about DAB. Maybe. You also can't use the inline volume/playback controls on any headphones that have 'em, like you can with a smartphone.
There are also no headphones of any description in the box and definitely not the lovely colour-matched, noise-cancelling Sony IER-NW500N earbuds advertised everywhere across the immaculately assembled marketing material online for the AW50 series. In other territories, headphones have previously been included. To rub a little extra salt into this wound, the Sony buds aren't readily available in the UK and even if you can find a pair, the price is heading north of £70. When you've just shelled out close to £200 for the player, you might not be in the mood to spend another chunk of your hard-earned just to get the matching earbuds.
It is a shame the IER-NW500N buds (or the similarly appealing MDR-NW750N) are not more readily available, especially when the Settings menu on the NW-A55L essentially taunts you by listing three options: the above compatible two pairs from Sony and then a generic third 'Other headphones' category for every other pair of headphones in the world.
The reason for this is that if you can find one of the above Sony pairs, their noise-cancelling feature is activated by a menu option on the Walkman player itself, so the earbuds don't require separate charging to power this functionality. File this under 'nice to have', if not essential.
Still, AWOL headphone gripes aside, the Sony NW-A55L is a great option for anyone interested in exploring and enjoying high-resolution audio without dropping a monthly mortgage-sized amount on a really high-end player. As with a lot of consumer technology, there can be a sense of diminishing returns and only minor gains the more you spend - that final 5 per cent of quality might cost you 10 times as much - but this Walkman exists in a sweet spot where its price and performance deliver both good value and genuine aural pleasure.
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