Music

Sony NW-A36HN Review: Digital Music Player Walkman with Hi-Res Audio

Sony has announced new Hi-Res Walkman products during the IFA 2016 event in September. The top-line NW-WM1Z that is priced more than US$3000, the premium-line NW-WM1A that is about US$1200, and the entry-level NW-A30 series.

Sony NW-A36HN unboxing by musicphotolife.com

The latest A30 series is a revamp of the A-series. It is a lot more premium than the A10 and A20 which are identical in design and user interface. The new A30 has a new user interface similar to the other 2 premium Walkman models, and the overall design also draws inspiration from the pricier audiophile Walkman series, with aluminium body, curved sides, touch screen navigation. Internally, the A30 is equipped with five POSCAP™2 capacitors that strengthen the power supply for the S-Master HX™ digital amplifier, cutting distortion and noise across a wide range of frequencies.

The A30 comes with 2 models for Singapore market: the A35 has built-in 16GB storage while the A36HN is a 32GB model with MDR-NW750N earphones which supports digital noise cancellation. Available storage is 26.81GB. A third variant, A37HN in 64GB, is available in selected countries.

Differences with A10 and A20

The new A30 has the following new features:

– touch screen operation
– supports concurrent internal storage and micro SD storage access when plugged in to computer
– supports DSD file format, which is converted to PCM for playback
– 35mW power per channel means it can drive more demanding headphones
– able to operate music using the hardware buttons without turning on the display
– able to delete songs and folders
– able to manage M3U playlist (up to 999 tracks)
– music auto pauses when headphones is removed from the audio port
– dedicated Language Study screen

Sony NW-A36HN compares with NWZ-A15 - review by musicphotolife.com

Features the A30 lacks compared to the A10 and A20:

– does not play video files
– does not open photo files, and no option to select wallpaper
– does not have option to transmit sound effect over Bluetooth
– does not support aptX audio codec
– songs cannot be analysed for SensMe channels on the A30 unit. It requires the songs to be analysed using Media Go software
– slightly shorter battery life, ranging from 22 hours (DSD + noise cancellation) to 45 hours (MP3)
– no auto power-off feature
– existing music files cannot enable dance/karaoke/language mode

I was a tad disappointed that the A30 continues to lack the ability to read audio files (DSD, FLAC, etc.) with 5.1 channels. The LG G5 could do that.

Getting Started

Out of the box, the Sony NW-A36HN does not power up, I guess due to the flat battery. Upon plugging to a charger, the screen display starts up after about 10 minutes. First-time on-screen guide helped me to familiarise with the brand new UI.

The player comes with 3 pre-loaded Hi-Res digital audio in DSD and FLAC format to demonstrate the highest-quality audio the A30 can achieve. To prep myself for a listening experience, I plugged the A30 unit using the enclosed proprietary cable, which is the same for all Sony digital Walkmans, into the computer. The internal storage mounts as a drive and I simply dragged my files into the player. And yes, I can copy any files in it.

Sony NW-A36HN microSD slot - review by musicphotolife.com

Hardware Control Buttons

At the sides of the A30, there are a row of buttons to access the device. The power button turns on the display, followed by the volume buttons, the next-forward button, play-pause button, previous-reverse button, and lock switch. To power down the A30, hold the power button until an on-screen prompt appears. Hold it for 8 seconds and the device will restart.

Sony NW-A36HN hardware buttons - review by musicphotolife.com

When operating the playback buttons, the display does not turn on, which is great for saving battery as well as preventing accidental touches when operating in the blind.

Touch Screen User Interface

The first screen that appears when the device boots is the Library screen. This is where you search for the songs to listen to, by artist, album, or folders. After selecting the song, the Playback screen appears with the album art and song information. You can re-arrange the items on display or remove them.

Sony NW-A36HN help screen - review by musicphotolife.com

The Playback screen is the centre to the rest of the screens. Swipe down and you will return to the Library Top menu screen. Swipe up and you will access the Sound Quality Settings screen, from where you can browse all the available sound settings (like Equalizer, DSEE HX, VPT, Clear Audio+) by swiping horizontally.

Back to the Playback screen, swipe left to access the Bookmark List. Swipe right and you will come to the Lineup view. This is basically the list of songs that you have played and will be playing. This list is dynamic and changes according to what you select for the play options. For instance, if you choose to play by artist, then the list will show the sequence of the songs from the artist. If you choose to play the tracks in random, you will see the list changed to reflect the new sequence.

Sony NW-A36HN main screens - review by musicphotolife.com

On the whole, the touch screen has a response lag in everything you do. It is also not highly sensitive like what you expect from premium smartphones. I think this is done on purpose. Even the hardware buttons at the side does not react as instantly. When pressing the play-pause button, it takes a heartbeat to stop the playback, but resuming play is instant. Similarly, the fast-forward and rewind is less predictable compared to the A10/A20. Fortunately, it is easier to jump to the desired time by using the on-screen timer bar. Drag the bar to the desired point before releasing.

Notice there are 4 small icons at the bottom of the screen. They are the Back, Playback Screen, Library screen, Option menu. The icons may be greyed out when selection is not valid. The Option menu provides various options to access and manage features related to the screen.

Sony NW-A36HN options menu - review by musicphotolife.com

This is also where you can access the Settings page.

Sony NW-A36HN settings menu - review by musicphotolife.com

Managing Bookmarks and Playlist

With A30, it is easier to manage bookmarks and playlist dynamically. Here is what you can do:

– add song to 1 of the 10 predefined bookmark list
– add entire lineup of songs to bookmark list or playlist
– add songs from one bookmark list or playlist to another bookmark list or playlist
– edit song orders

Sony NW-A36HN bookmark playlist - review by musicphotolife.com

If you copy files directly into the A30 using the file explorer, you will find that the playlists show “not editable”. This is because only playlists stored under the “\MUSIC” folder can be edited. But if you simply drag the playlists from your album folders to the \MUSIC folder, the path to the files will be incorrect. The best way is to import files using Media Go software, which creates the playlist with the correct path.

While it is not possible to create new playlists or rename from the A30, one workaround is to pre-load empty playlists to the \MUSIC folder. This method lets you customise play lists similar to bookmark lists without the limitations of 10 bookmark lists. This method also allows you to backup the playlist on your computer and transfer to another device. Here is a link to download an empty playlist. Just duplicate it, rename it, and save to the \MUSIC folder.

Whenever you are listening to a song, you can easily add it to a playlist or bookmark list by opening the Option menu at the bottom right. You can also add when browsing songs by clicking the 3-button icon […] next to the list.

Media Go software

Initially, I could not get the software to work on my Windows 10 OS. After completing the installation and starting the app, the error message appeared “Missing VCOMP411.DLL”. The reason: Media Go is a 32-bit software, so you have to install the Visual C++ Redistributable for Visual Studio 2015 x86 version.
https://www.microsoft.com/en-sg/download/details.aspx?id=48145

The first time the software starts, it takes some time to scan all your media files, retrieving data from Gracenote, classifies each song for SensMe channel. Depending on the size of your music library, it could take several hours.

When you plug the A30 or other Sony device to the USB port, Media Go will recognise and show the device at the top of the side bar. Music can be easily added by selecting either the songs or the playlist and then add to device. There is an option to auto-convert the music files before uploading if the device is detected not to support them.

I will not dwell much into the software since it is an existing companion software for all Sony media products. If you do not have a media management software, it is worth using Media Go as the portal for all your photos, video, and music.

Media Go Online Help: http://cdn.mediago.us/mediago/webhelp/3.1/enu/Welcome.htm

Audio Quality

How exactly does the new A30 Walkman sound compared to the earlier versions, and even the other digital audio players?

Compared to the A10 (I have the NWZ-A15 on hand), the A30 almost does not sound anything vastly different. But when playing certain songs, the differences begin to surface, albeit so slightly. The vocals appear to sound clearer, slightly less warm. The mid bass sounds slightly tighter and less bloated. The tweaks appear to bring out subtle clarity to the music and prevent any muddying of certain frequency range. Generally, the A30 is more pleasant to listen to yet without too much emphasis on the highs or lows that many DAP tries to tweak to give false pretense of quality.

Compared to the NW-ZX100 which I reviewed earlier this year, the A30 appears to have similar sound signature. Since I do not have the ZX100 with me for A-B comparison, I had to rely on my blog review to come up with the conclusion. The ZX100 has other hardware benefits, like the single aluminium block construction and thicker copper 3.5mm plug to reduce external interferences.

I also compared with the LG G5 HiFi Plus module by B&O. The A30 delivers a little bigger bass, while the treble clarity sounds similar.

The volume can be adjusted in 120 steps, compared to A10/A20 in 30 steps. When I tested with Philips Fidelio X2, I had to go to the max 30 on the A15, but I only needed 110 on the A36HN. The moderate level of listening on the A15 is 14-20 while the A36HN is 60-80.

Despite the lack of aptX audio codec, the more common SBC codec seems to work well. I experienced excellent wireless audio quality without compression artifacts. I made sure I selected “LDAC Sound Quality Preferred”, even though LDAC only works on selected Sony wireless products.

Sony NW-A36HN wireless audio quality settings - review by musicphotolife.com

Sound Settings

The A30 continues to feature the same set of sound settings on earlier A-series, like ClearAudio+, DSEE HX, VPT (Surround). The Equalizer setting now allows adjustment on 6 bands, with +/- 10 steps per band.

One new sound feature is the DC Phase Linearizer. The DC Phase Linearizer a slightly more warm and resonating low frequency, so I leave it on as default. Sometimes I would also use ClearAudio+, but only on selected instrumental tracks where I find the effect improves the clarity without sounding too fake.

Language Study Mode

Unlike earlier A-series, the existing music files cannot be enabled with language study mode. Only files stored under \LEARNING folder can be accessed from the Language Study screen, which has its own set of playlists and lineups. The benefit is that the Language Study screen has additional on-screen buttons and tabs to facilitate learning. It is easier to set A-B repeat, change speed, and quick replay.

This separate mode takes away the convenience of enabling this mode for any audio file on my current collection, but I rarely use this feature in my A15.

Battery Life

The A30 has a battery life ranging from 22 hours – when playing DSD files and noise cancellation on – to 45 hours when playing MP3 files. I left the device on standby most of the time, and during the review period, I find myself charging the A30 twice when I saw the battery indicator reached 2 bars, instead of hitting battery low. Under the Settings, I can actually see the total audio played on the A30, and this number does not reset even when I power down the device. Within the 2 weeks, I only played about 12 hours of audio. Like smartphones, the A30 suffers from battery drain when there is excessive use of the display. In any case, I am not that worried that the A30 has slightly shorter battery life compared to A10, since I am not a marathon user and have access to charging facilities when required.

Full charge requires about 4 hours, and uses the proprietary cable used by all Sony Walkman models.

Sony NW-A36HN data port - review by musicphotolife.com

MDR-NW750N Included Earphones

I have previously reviewed the NW750 earphones on the ZX100 review. Sony continues to issue the same earphones for the A30. I’m quite pleased with the audio quality of the NW750N, with sufficient clarity and bass response. The digital noise cancellation merely removes the floor noise but does not suppress the chatter.

Verdict

The Sony NWZ-A10 and NW-A20 series are affordable digital audio players, but the NW-A30 is designed for the new generation of consumers who are more at ease with touch screen interaction. While the touch response is not as instant as smartphones, it is certainly more intuitive than the non-touch Walkman series. I appreciate that Sony has continued to include hardware buttons at the sides to allow traditional users to operate the device with fumbling on the touch screen.

In terms of audio quality, I do not experience any significant differences that pushes me to upgrade my NWZ-A15. For consumers with more sensitive listening qualities and find any audible deficiencies on their A-series Walkman, the new A30 should satisfy them with an improved audio processor, more powerful amplifier, and a modern minimalistic block design.

The NW-A35 and NW-A36HN will be available at all Sony Stores, Sony Centres and selected Sony authorised dealers from mid-November 2016 in five eye-catching colours: Viridian Blue, Cinnabar Red, Charcoal Black, Lime Yellow, and Bordeaux Pink.

Official product website: http://www.sony.com.sg/electronics/walkman/nw-a30-series
A30 Online Help Guide: http://helpguide.sony.net/dmp/nwa30/v1/en/index.html

NW-A30 Specs

Memory size: 16GB (NW-35), 32GB (NW-36HN)
External memory: micro SD, microSDHC, microSDXC, max 128GB
Display size: 3.1-inch, 800×480 pixels
Output power: 35mW per channel for balanced audio signal
Audio formats: MP3, WMA, FLAC, Linear PCM, AAC, HE-AAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF, DSD 2.8224MHz
Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.2 (SBC, LDAC)
FM Radio: Yes
USB charging time: 4 hours
Weight: 98g
Full specs: http://helpguide.sony.net/dmp/nwa30/v1/en/contents/TP0001154785.html

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Sony NW-A36HN Review
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6 comments
  1. WACON-images

    Thanks for this review! Probably one of the firsts for this new Sony audio player.

    Question; Is it possible to control the menu with an App? So I connect the NW-A30 with the Sony dock to my audio set(NAD pre-amp) and control it with my iPhone/iPad?

    It seems this is not possible? Do you know any other player/brand who will?

  2. Alexis

    Good review! I just got an A35 and I gotta say I’m a little bit disappointed on the Bass. I had an A17 and I thought it would be an upgrade, but the A17 sounds way more powerful with the equalizer configured, than the A35. Also, I found some differences on the clarity of the sound for some songs, like instruments sounding clearer on the A17. This not only helps getting the sound better, but it also makes music way less immersive. So, I’m not sure I’ll be keeping it.

    1. Alexis

      Oh, and the other thing I hated was that the A35 can not analyze songs itself to sort them into the SenseMe Playlists. That was such an amazing quality that not even Apple has on their devices anymore, and it was so helpful not having to create playlists manually, and now it’s gone.

  3. Simon Long

    You missed one of the most important differences between the A30 and and A10/A20 – the A30 does perfect gapless playback on lossy (AAC and MP3) files which have just been dragged and dropped onto the player. The A10/A20 could only do gapless playback with AAC files that had been ripped from CD and transferred in MediaGo – this made it next to useless for someone like me who had already ripped all their collection many years ago and had no intention of doing so again…

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