*Sony NW-A105’s review sample is provided by Stars Picker Audio Library, they are official distributor Sony audio products in Malaysia too.
DAP is getting hotter and hotter, offering a whole lot of features and more powerful in a portable form factor. Astell & Kern, iBasso, Shanling, Fiio, Hifiman, Activo, Apple iPod, Onkyo, Pioneer, Questyle, etc are all coming and showcase their latest DAP range, however, if it is not Sony that launching their first Walkman, TPS-L2 in 1979, portable audio will not be as hot as it is now. Sony launched the A100 series in 2019 September, they even make a limited version called A100TPS (come with a unique casing to looks like the TPS-L2) to resemble and tribute for their first Walkman, it is a nice tribute and quite creative.
Here I am reviewing the Sony A105 Walkman, the reason why I am doing a DAP review is: First, I am going to travel next week and I can’t live without my music, my Soundaware M1 Esther has problem with the battery, my Huawei Mate 20 make super shitty sound out of the 3.5mm audio jack. And second, I really want to see how far DAP has come to. It is 2020 now and I will not accept if the DAP cannot support DSD and streaming Tidal Master, the A105 immediately caught my attention, Android DAP, WiFi capability, Bluetooth Audio and a lot of other features that I will try to explain in this review.
Sony NW-A105 (16GB)
A105 is a feature pack DAP running on almost stock Android 9 system, being a Sony it supported HighRes Audio and High Res Audio Wireless (the Bluetooth supported Qualcomm aptX HD and LDAC). Running on Android System means we can install music streaming app such as Tidal and Spotify on it and stream music through Wifi directly, this is very convenient and practical for most of the audiophiles and consumers, although I do have TB of lossless music in my collection but I love to stream music (and it is good way to explore good music) with my Tidal Master, good news for those who listen to Tidal Master, A105 supported MQA as well! Now you can ensure that your hardware is compatible with your MQA files.
Sony has implemented a lot of their in house technology in the A105, the very famous S-Master HX, which they claimed amplifies digital signals directly without converting to analog first to maintain the purity and more faithful reproduction. DSEE HX, which is Sony’s unique upscaling technology that upscale the original compressed or CD-quality audio to the equivalent of High-Resolution audio. IF you dive into Sony Sound Adjustment App, there is even more to adjust, DC Phase Linearizer which Sony said makes the low-frequency response more like an analog amplifier. Dynamic Normalizer which minimize volume differences between songs. Vinyl processor which Sony claimed can recreate the warm, rich playback of a record on a turntable. Clear Audio+ which applies advanced digital signal processing in a single-step operation. If you think this is all, we are not through yet. Sony also claimed that they use film capacitors in the amplification stage, realize transparent, expansive high and natural sound. Fine Sound Resistor is mounted to ensure even, effective distribution of power to the circuit components. Sony also, for goodness sake, separate the audio block and power/digital blog in the circuit board layout. Soldering work is done by using advanced solder containing gold for clearer sound. Damn, now that is a long list!
These are not all, if you go into the built-in ‘sound adjustment’ app, you can set direct source (which bypass all the enhancement and disable sound enhancement), there is an Equalizer that you can set too (manual or 8 preset to choose from), there is a DSEE HX (which upscale the original compressed or CD-quality audio to the equivalent of High-Resolution audio), DC Phase Linearizer (Makes low-frequency response more like an analog amplifier), Dynamic normalizer (which can minimize volume differences between songs), Vinyl Processor (which recreate the warm, rich playback of a record on a turntable) and Clear Audio+. One thing though, there is no way for you to drive your headphone with balanced output, weird because Sony is so pushing the balanced technology and A105 is not really super cheap too, I think they have should include the balanced connection feature.
Performance, in-use, Power and battery life
I have upgraded the firmware to V1.20.02, which Sony has to remedy the issue that always shows error for SD card unless you reinsert the micro SD card every time you turn it on, and set an auto-off feature to save battery life. There is a 16GB built-in memory which sounds a lot but you will only have less than 4GB after you install Spotify and Tidal, for those who think you can install a lot of Apps to use might need to think again, of course, there is a MicroSD card slot for you to store your music, including downloaded Spotify and Tidal music, but I think 16GB is so pathetic, should at least have a built-in of 32GB of memory.
Using the A105 is like using an Android device, it requires close to zero learning curve and pretty easy to use, the screen is quite small by today standard, and can’t even fully display some song titles, the screen is good although still nothing extraordinary (it is too bright even if you turn down all the brightness level, especially in a dark room). A105 is so impressively small that you can easily hold it and has a nice built quality, it is quite solid and although I think the edges could be more refined/rounded (I expect more from Sony), but majorly I don’t have anything to complain, it is a neat and compact device that I found little to no problem in use. Speed-wise it is good for what it is, I don’t installed Angry Bird on it to test the gaming performance (it is no fun too to play in such a small screen, screen latency is not great too), for daily tasking and music scrolling it is adequate (although not speedy, only a little lag some times, just don’t stress the processor too much), personally think that the start-up process is quite long but still, nothing to complain. The music app itself is straight to the point and supported the majority of files types, although I found that the app itself is not supporting .cue files and this is quite troublesome for me, this is also a ‘shouldn’t be an issue’ for a DAP built for audiophiles.
Power-wise is adequate but doesn’t expect abundance from this tiny device, enough for a hard to drive Tin Audio P1 (need about 100 out of 120 maximum volume level) and good enough for my X2HRm but just don’t expect a lot of vibes and raw power under the hood. In my honest opinion, I believe A105 is well suited for IEM, although there is some hiss on my KZ AS10 when music is not playing.
Battery life though is a little letting down. Before the V1.20.02 firmware the battery life drop even when you are not using it (switch on though), drop approximately 30 percent if you put it 24 hours without using, now at least they introduce a firmware update for you to set an auto-off time (automatically power off when the screen is off and there is no activity). While listening anyway, still consume quite a lot of battery life, I listened to 3 albums and battery life drop about 30 percent, which is quite a lot in my honest opinion, even just when in regular use, you will see the battery percentage keep dropping, in another word, battery life just isn’t A105 strength (might be A105’s weakness too), fitting a large capacity battery in such a small device is challenging anyway.
I have paired Tin Audio P1 and T4, Philips X2HR, ZMF V1 Classic and KZ AS10 with A105. Turned off all the digital enhancer. Streaming Tidal Master and Spotify. Most of the listening is through high-resolution music through the embedded ‘Walkman’ apps.
I have turned off all of the digital enhancement because I found that just sound too fake and do more harm than good sometimes, from a pure audiophile standpoint too I decided to bypass all of them. So how is the sound quality of the A105, A105 is clean sounding, rounded(little edge to the sound) and let me say it in a more metaphorical way, “digital sound’. No, don’t always relate ‘digital sound’ to something that is edgy and brittle sounding because A105 is not, the sound is round and has little edges, there is a good dark background and I dare to say it is a little laid back too, the way it sounds is quite good honestly, I believe majority of the beginner and youngster will absolutely love the sound, I have always found that Sony’s house sound is a ‘new generation sound’, which is always clean and round and clear, many will love them if you are not 32 years old and above, I bet you will largely love them.
The sound is mostly balanced and neutral. The listening session with the A105 is quite easy-going, the sound never really go harsh and sterile to make your ears suffer, the tuning is good especially for those who appreciate ‘new generation of sound tuning’ type of people, sound quality is century ahead of my Huawei Mate 20 and significantly outperformed the iPhone 6s, it is kind of sound quality that you can easily listen to for hours but I don’t think it is so well suited for critical listening, the sound stage is quite small and instrument separation is not good enough too, not a problem if you are not listening to Classical and Jazz music, the inability to ‘craft the shape’ of instrument make A105 not well suited for Classical, Jazz and critical listening.
However, the nature of the sound tuning makes it quite sweet for a vocal-oriented album and some R&B type of music, I dare to say the vocal even has a certain degree of sweetness and I enjoy them nicely on the A105. That is why I said youngster should love the A105 sound tuning, because to my ears it is not an audiophile DAP at all, instead it is a portable music player for majority of the people out there, just, to be frank, we old people seldom listen to music when outside of our house anyway, personally I think Sony has made a great choice here to make it suited to a specific target client.
So is the sound quality good or not? It depends on how you look at it. It is way better than my phones and it is not a small difference, the differences are noticeable even without comparison, and the sound quality is generally good enough and very well suited for majority of the music listeners, dare I say 90 percent of music listener will like the tuning, but the 10 percent of audiophiles out there might need to search for alternatives if they intended to have audiophile sound on the go. Between, who listen to Brahm and Mozart while on the go? It is a better chance people listening to Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez when on the go, which I say again A105 is a very good and feature-packed product for the intended target client, but it is just not an audiophile DAP.
If you are those who are just entering the game and dislike the idea of external DAC/dongle for your phone, I think A105 is a good choice especially running on the Android system is very convenient, the features are plentiful too. However, if you are long in the game and what we called old school audiophile then maybe you should keep exploring other alternative for the price, if you are an audiophile I afraid Sony is not even making this device for you, there is some upper-class DAP in their line up, the A105 is for 90 percent of music listeners out there, and it is an absolutely appropriate product in this sense.