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Sony’s NW-A306 is a more affordable ‘New Walkman’

  • Sony has this week announced a new audio portable player (aka DAP) in the form of the NW-A306. Think of it as a fancy iPod substitute or a 21st Century Walkman but don’t be distracted by Sony’s talking up of hi-res audio support – a half-truth with Bluetooth. Build quality, audio circuitry and software UI are what determine a portable player’s fun factor.

    The NW-A306’s aluminium shell hosts a 3.6″ touchscreen and clickable playback control buttons down the right-hand side. What type of glass is used on the screen? Sony doesn’t say. What the spec sheet does tell us is that it’s a “TFT color display with white LED-backlight”.

    Sony has loaded an AI-assisted version of its proprietary DSEE software into the NW-A306’s Bluetooth playback engine, which aims to restore lossy compressed audio files (like MP3) to their former lossless glory: but a reality check reminds us that whatever DSEE returns to the sound, it’s only a best-guess of was stripped out in the first place; and that even the highest bitrated Bluetooth compression – Sony’s own LDAC – is lossy. My own past experiences with DSEE in other Sony Bluetooth audio products tell me that DSEE’s audible lift is minimal (if at all audible).

    Audibly impacting the wired headphone listening experience will be the NW-A306’s signal path and amplifier stage. Like (all?) Sony portable players past and present, we note the absence of an off-the-shelf DAC chip, as favoured by many rivals. Instead, the digital audio signal generated by the source file/stream drives the S-Master HX headphone amplifier directly. It’s a digital amplifier whose sound quality will largely be determined by the nature of its power supply (which remains unknown). One major upside of using digital amplification in a portable player is longer battery life. Sony rates the NW-A306 as capable of up to 36 hours: that’s double the runtime of even the best of the competition.

    With Sony’s penchant for proprietary connectors long gone, battery recharge comes via a USB-C socket found on the bottom edge, next to which sits a flip-doored micro-SD card slot. The latter will become an essential ally for anyone wanting their Sony portable to hold more than 18Gb of music at any one time. The internal memory chip is nominally rated at 32Gb but it would seem that over half of that is eaten up by the NW-A306’s Android 12 operating system.

    And that operating system is where the rubber really meets the road for the NW-A306. I had to go beyond the press release to find a screenshot that shows the presence of the Google Play Store which, in tandem with the unit’s IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac wi-fi module, opens up the Sony portable to the world of native music streaming apps and their offline storage potential.

    All that is left to ask of Sony is this: for how long will the NW-A306 receive over-the-air software security updates? The Japanese giant’s policy for its Android-powered smartphones is a meager two years. Such an uncertain future is one reason why, last year, I didn’t spring for Sony’s flagship portable player, the NW-WM1ZM2 (€3372), which runs Android 11.

    At €399, the NW-A306 will come in at one-tenth the price of its bigger bro when it goes on sale in Europe sometime later this month.

    Further information: Sony

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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