Sony Walkman NW-A306
The Sony NW-A306 not only packs in hi-res support and many of the advanced features of the company’s flagship NW-WM1ZM2 player, but it also does so at a tenth of its price. At $499, the A306 is a rare breed of music player these days, undercutting the FiiO and Astell & Kern offerings by healthy (and very healthy) margins.
BUILD & DESIGN
As a portable music player, the NW-A306 fits the brief perfectly — compact and able to fit in either palms or pockets with no fuss. It’s pleasant to look at and hold thanks to its curved edges, light weight and a scalloped textured back that offers a good grip, but it doesn’t feel too precious that you feel obliged to wear white gloves to handle it. This is a music player that’s meant to be used more than admired, and it is built as such. After a month of the Walkman sharing space with keys, cables and mints in bags and pockets, it didn’t pick up any scratches or knocks. It feels pretty sturdy in everyday use, and a ‘Hold’ slider which locks functions to prevent songs from skipping or pausing accidentally when the screen is swiped proves pretty handy too.
The 3.6-inch touchscreen dominating the front is crisp and sharp and shows album artwork in full colour, with a decent contrast even in bright daylight. And the connections you get are appropriately minimal — a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, a USB-C port for charging and transferring files (a short USB-C cable is provided), a microSD card slot, and a hole for adding a lanyard loop.
So far, so practical. Turn the NW-A306 on, however, and suddenly everything becomes a little bit more complicated. As with the FiiO, you’re greeted with the process of setting up an Android device (the player runs Android 12) — and again, I find myself questioning the value of a full Android experience in a dedicated music player. You can, of course, turn off every notification and alert that might distract you from enjoying your music on the Sony Walkman if you like, but the interface is still clunkier than it should be (of the three players, the Astell & Kern is far more seamless in use), and the pre-installed Google apps (which include the Sony music app) eat up just under half of the 32GB onboard storage.
After loading up the player with about 20 albums — the majority in hi-res FLAC and CD quality, with a handful of MP3s and DSD tracks thrown in — all that remains is just 4GB. As with the other players, there is of course a microSD card slot for expanding this storage. And it’s safe to say you’re going to need it here.
There is an upside to having the Android OS integrated that you might benefit from if you listen to music from a variety of sources. Access to wi-fi and the Google Play Store does mean you can download any music app — Tidal, Apple Music, Qobuz — to stream your favourite tunes alongside your hi-res files. You can also use the player as a USB DAC in your system, such as connected to your laptop. Elsewhere, it has Bluetooth 5.0, with aptX HD and LDAC codecs supported alongside vanilla SBC and AAC.
Naturally, battery life varies depending on the file type and which app is being used to play music, but you can expect around 30 hours of 24-bit hi-res FLAC playback via the player’s bespoke Walkman app. That’s pretty darn generous, though note that this plummets to 14 hours if you’re exclusively playing DSD256 files.
You also get the same sound modes as Sony’s flagship NW-WM1ZM2, including the ‘Vinyl Processor’, which tries to emulate the warm analogue sound; ‘DSEE Ultimate’, which upscales and enhances low-res compressed files to hi-res quality; and a ‘Direct’ mode which disables any extra processing and keeps the original file playback as pure as possible.
With my excellent Grado SR325x headphones plugged into its 3.5mm jack, the A306 delivers an impressively pristine-sounding performance, with edges of notes crisply drawn and detail shining through to the fore. Elliott Smith’s guitar strums and soft vocals throughout his ‘Either/
Or’ album sound delicate yet stark against a low-distortion, pitch-black background, while Frances Quinlan’s raw, shimmering vocals rip through in Hop Along’s breezy, jangly pop tunes in How Simple. There’s an even balance across the frequencies, with no spikey edges or flabby bottoms in sight. It’s a nice, easy listen — wonderfully clean and composed.
The Sony is adept enough to turn its hand to various genres and even discern the differences in file qualities, but it doesn’t make a meal out of that at all. In fact, there’s a familial throughline from the high-end NW-WM1ZM2 to the A306 in terms of just how mature and capable it is able to sound. There’s the same sound signature, even if the detail resolution is at vastly different levels. Where the A306 has the (only) upper hand is with volume: it had no problem driving the Grados and played more than loud enough.
An ounce more dynamic punch and drive wouldn’t go amiss, mind. The NW-A306 could sound a whole lot more fun and immersive if it let its metaphorical hair down and stayed up past its metaphorical bedtime. While comparing the Walkman to the more than twice the price Astell & Kern hardly seems fair, it does hit home what exactly is between these two very different price points — and that turns out to be canyons of detail, depth and dynamism. As price does sensibly dictate on this occasion, the FiiO does sit somewhere between the two with regards to sonic ability.
Still, the Sony NW-A306 is a very likeable player at its much more modest price point. I would have preferred it if Sony had gone for a more purist approach, but some people might like the added functionality, and it’s easy to ignore it (after set-up) anyway. All in all, a solid and affordable upgrade on smartphone sound.