Sony NW-A25 Review – Dead Media or Niche Luxury?

Introduction –

Sony took a risk with the A25. It bears no touch screen, no smart features and really, no particularly standout features at all. What the NW-A25 is instead, is a very refined, streamlined take on the classic audio player. With a full focus on audio quality and as a pioneer of the new Hi-Res audio standard, Sony panders to a large but very specific audience. Does the Sony bring enough new features and audio performance to the table to compete with Apple’s iPod Nano line-up and is it a companion or replacement for smartphone listening? Let’s find out.

 

Accessories –

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The A25 is well packaged, the light coloured box showcases the A25 in corresponding colour on the front along with some basic specifications on the rear. Two trays slide out, one containing the A25 itself and the other containing the USB cable and manual. It’s a pretty barebones setup, even Apple provide more accessories. Though I rarely use the included earphones, Sony does include some decent noise cancelling in-ears in certain regions, however mine did not come with any.

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The included cable is of average quality, it’s not as bad as Apple’s rubbery cables, but it doesn’t help that Sony employ a proprietary connector as well. Sony is pretty renowned for their proprietary standards, for instance, Sony’s $150 64GB Vita memory card… In all fairness, the Walkman port is a decent connector, it’s sturdier than micro-b whilst remaining slender, but finding replacement parts is very difficult, especially line-out and otg cables.

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I would have liked Sony to include some kind of case or pouch with the A25, maybe even a screen protector and Walkman cables should be easier to purchase. As it is, you’ll have to go down to a Sony store or e-mail them directly to order in a replacement, and I’m guessing it won’t be cheap either.

 

Design –

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The A25 is a super sleek and attractive player, I think Sony design some really nice products. The form factor reminds me of a shaper 4th generation iPod Nano, it is a little larger than the Nano range, especially the newer touch-based 6th and 7th generation models, but the Sony still fits snugly within my running shorts and I often forget it’s in the pockets of my regular trousers.

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This is partly due to the A25’s very light weight, weighing in at only 66g, making for easy handling. It’s also not too cumbersome when jogging but the smaller Nano’s and Shuffles are still more ideal. One thing to note for active users, is that the A25 does not support remote commands, making track and volume changes cumbersome, especially since the buttons are quite flush with the front of the player. Otherwise, the A25 is an intuitive player, it only took me about a minute to figure out the controls and UI.

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Whilst the majority of the build is plastic, the entire front face is metal and the A25 actually feels very nice in the hand. The rear has a nice soft touch finish whilst the front carries a subtle concentric texture that radiates in the light. The hybrid metal/plastic build feels solid enough, there are no creaks with torsion and everything is well joined in general. That being said, there is a lack of reinforcement around the back button that results in a terrible flex and creak whenever the button or housing around that area is pressed, it also doesn’t help that the back button is incredibly stiff. Other than that, the build is solid and ergonomic, the A25 is easily used with one hand.

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The screen quality is also pretty decent considering that the player is dedicated towards audio playback. It’s a 2.2” 320×240 LCD panel, definitely not IPS or OLED, but colours are accurate and well calibrated, whites are white and contrast is above average. I would put it on a similar level as the iPod Nano 7G, it’s more saturated but the nano does benefit from a slightly higher pixel density. Of course, the small screen is not ideal for watching videos but will do in a pinch, album art looks nice and crisp and text is plenty sharp. Wallpapers can be changed from the in-built photos app, adding just a touch of personalization to the player.

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Instead of a click-wheel, Sony have implemented a diamond rocker which functions mostly identical but takes some time getting used to. Otherwise, there are the usual back and option buttons which function well, even if they feel a little stiff and holding these buttons down allows for some shortcuts around the UI; holding back returns you to the home screen whilst holding the option button powers the player off. Of note, the A25 never really powers off, it just goes into a sleep mode. The player wakes very quickly when any button is pressed and barely drains the battery when off. All of these front facing buttons feel a little off, they have very shallow travel and a hard press. The back and option buttons are especially firm and only press in the middle, making them feel mushy when pressed on the side.

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The volume buttons on the side are nice and clicky, however, and the volume up button also has a little protrusion for easier differentiation. The right side also houses the hold button (prevents accidental button presses in pocket) along with the micro sd card slot to augment the 16GB of internal storage. The A25 will accept even the largest cards out there, I’ve been using a 128GB card without issue.

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Down the bottom is the proprietary walkman port with the headphone jack adjacent on the left. Again, the A25 will not accept remote commands and music does not pause when headphones are disconnected, two small but very aggravating omissions.

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So all in all the A25 has a very nice form factor. It’s portable and light-weight, a solid alternative to the iPod Nano. While the iPod’s all metal body does feel more solid (Apple really nail the build quality), Sony’s more extensive button array does allow for more fluent navigation. The Sony player is just as eye-catching as the Nano if not more so, it’s slightly larger size also makes it more manageable; I often drop my Nano because it is so slim (a positive and a negative). The Sony is therefore best for commute, better than the Nano in my experiences, but is on the periphery of what is acceptable for use whilst exercising, where the Nano tends to be a better bet. The A25 can also be easily operated from within your pocket, something we’ve lost with touchscreen interfaces.

 

Usage – 

Sony’s UI is very good, it doesn’t quite have the same level of polish as Apple’s Nano line-up, but is mostly comparable to Android players such as Poweramp if less feature rich. For a dedicated audio player though, the A25 is up there with the best, it’s immediately more refined and mature than Fiio’s players and mostly any Chinese DAP for that matter but is still missing a few essential features that would make it that much more convenient. The UI is very smooth for one (even with a large library), and animations are super slick. The UI is also very visually pleasing with a dark/gold colour scheme that sounds gaudy on paper, but looks great on my black A25. In addition, albums don’t split, tags are mostly well read and the text is all correctly scaled considering the size of the display. The navigation system is also intuitive; since the A25 doesn’t use a clickwheel, users can instead press the left and right buttons to scroll through the albums via their starting letter/year rather than manually scrolling through each and every one.

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There are a few connectivity options as well such as Bluetooth, which enables you to discover, pair and connect to paired devices. You can also receive files which is a nice added bonus. Sony allow users to decide which Bluetooth codec they wish to use, from Sony’s own LDAC to Apt-X and SBC. The device will automatically choose one for you, but you can manually set which one if you experience stuttering or signal loss with a particular codec. Strangely enough, despite all of these options, connecting to my Bluetooth earphones (Syllable D900 Mini) took much longer than usual, it’s a little less streamlined than most newer devices. But once connected, the Sony actually produced a very strong signal, with much more range than my Laptop, iPod Nano or HTC. Still, the connection process is not ideal, my iPod Nano paired to my earphones about 3x faster.

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SD card settings are simple as described, allowing you to unmount the micro SD for removal, format and to choose the source for USB connection; essentially you can only access either the micro SD or internal storage of the A25 when connected to a PC. The player mounts like a flash drive, allowing for simple file management, you also don’t need to install any software to use the player, it’s very much, plug and play.

Otherwise you have your basic settings menu, a notable feature includes an option that decides whether to auto connect to Bluetooth devices or allow the user to manually decide, very handy. Sony include their usual plethora of audio settings and enhancements, some of which are useful, some of which do nothing and some that thoroughly ruin your music entirely. Sony’s DSEE HX technology is probably the most controversial, basically said to upscale MP3’s to lossless quality, which is technically impossible. And honestly, if Sony are saying things like:

  1. Listen to the same part of that source with DSEE HX™ on. Do not switch DSEE HX™ on / off while listening to the source!

Then it probably doesn’t do much at all, they’re practically saying, it makes a huge difference just don’t directly compare with the setting on/off. So what it does instead is add just a hint of sparkle to upper treble notes and perhaps a little more clarity to upper mids. It’s okay but it really doesn’t affect listening that much. Clear Audio+ is similarly just an eQ, though it also has some soundstage effects. With Clear Audio+ turned on, I find bass to become boomy and overwhelming so I prefer to keep this turned off too. Onto the more useful features, the Dynamic Normalizer is actually pretty good, it basically scales all your songs to the same volume which is great since the A25 doesn’t support Replaygain. It works well but you can tell it only adjusts within a specific range as some of my quieter song are still about 1 volume notch softer than my louder/more modern songs.

Sony also implement their signature 5 band eQ. There are a few presets along with 2 custom options that the user can set. The eQ works well, the additional clear bass slider is a great bass boost which adds body to the bass without distortion, though I would have liked to be able to reduce bass as well. There are also a few more soundstage effects that simulate being in a studio, club and concert hall, they’re fun to play around with but again, I wouldn’t use them in normal listening. In addition, Sony have a feature called clear stereo which is said to analyze the right and left channel and accentuate the differences between them, more or less enhancing the soundstage. Whilst it does make a subtle difference, I feel that this setting is best left off too.

In daily usage, the UI is perfectly fluid, though it does take some time to reconstruct your library when you copy new songs over to the device. Stutters are rare and the player does well to keep up with my rapid button presses. I did not experience any crashes or freezes, the A25 is every bit as reliable as an iPod. Battery life is also great, rated at 50 hours for 128kbps MP3’s and closer to 40 for FLAC’s. In my testing, I got around 42 hours of battery life from mixed FLAC/320kbps MP3 playback at low to medium volumes which is very, very good. Battery life is about twice as good as my iPod Nano 7G, especially at higher volumes where the A25 will get closer to 3x the battery life. File support is also a lot more flexible than the iPods which don’t even read FLACs (have to convert to ALAC). The ability to drag and drop music is convenient; I usually use Anytrans with my Nano, but Sony’s system is that much easier. Sony’s MediaGo software works surprisingly well, it pretty much just compiles your music library, allows you to alter tags and download album art and otherwise functions a lot like itunes, only it’s much faster.

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I would rate the software and daily usage experience of the A25 as comparable to an iPod. Whilst the UI is a little less slick and I do sometimes miss the touch screen, the more flexible file support, drag and drop file transfer and ability to use a micro sd more than redeem the minor software stutter or missing album art (over 1000×1000 art is not supported). The player also remains swift even with a large sd card and library, something that plagues most Chinese players though it does take a while to build the library when copying new songs.

 

Sound –

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So sound is where it all comes together, especially for the Sony which bets so much on its superior sound quality. Listening through my Sony MDR-1A’s and Sennheiser IE800’s, I can tell you immediately, that the A25 sounds good for a portable device, and is definitely one of the better players priced around $200 AUD. When compared to other consumer players such as the iPod Nano 7th Gen and iPod Nano 3rd Gen (which uses a Wolfson DAC), the A25 sounds noticeably better. The iPods, whilst pretty clean and clear sounding, tend to lose composure with complex tracks; they lack the refinement and detail retrieval of the Sony player, the 3rd Gen Nano to a lesser extent, but the difference is appreciable. The 7th Gen Nano, in particular, does get a little grainy in the highs and the soundstage is quite intimate. It’s also quite a bright sounding source, certain tracks can sound overbearing, whereas the 3rd Gen Nano is more balanced, even slightly dark with a larger soundstage. The A25 is in between, combining the fuller low end of the 3rd Gen Nano with the clear, crisp high end of the Cirrus powered 7th Gen then adding a layer of refinement on top. The A25 also has both iPod’s bested when it comes to output power, the A25 gets louder than both and also provides more current to my portable headphones. Sound staging, in particular, is a lot better on the Sony, with more space and much more accurate imaging, in fact the imaging is some of the best I’ve heard from any source. This is an achievment since the iPod Nano’s sound as good as most non-audio orientated premium smartphones. My HTC M8 for instance, whilst more powerful than the iPods, was also less composed, darker and far less detailed.

But things get a little more competitive when comparing to modern smartphones which have such a focus on audio quality. My newer, much more expensive, but also much more fully featured HTC 10 often sounds better and rarely worse than the A25. The 10 immediately has a lower output impedance, my sensitive Hybrid Oriveti Primacy’s sound tighter and more coherent from my 10 and Oppo HA-2. They still sound great with the Sony, but not quite the same. The 10 also has the better amp section, it seems to be providing more current, though I can’t objectively quantify how much, whilst producing less noise (the 10 is essentially silent). The A25, whilst very quiet is still noticeable in quiet passages or when no  music is playing. On very sensitive monitors this is something to consider, but the A25 does still produce slightly less noise than the Oppo HA-2. While the NW-A25 is a super clean sounding source, the 10 sounds even cleaner and more refined. The Sony retrieves a lot of treble detail without sounding too thin or crystalline; the 10, by comparison, is a little smoother in the high end but can glance over these micro details. The upper midrange on the 10 is more detailed than the A25 which is strangely lacking a bit but the lower midrange is more comparable; The 10 just being fuller than the A25, otherwise both are similar in resolution and definition. Bass is also slightly fuller on the 10 but slightly more textured on the A25, it’s a fair trade-off. I suppose this is why Sony’s headphones have such great synergy with the A25 as the tighter low end somewhat offsets the looser bass responses of Sony headphones such as the MDR-1A and Z7, whereas the MDR-1A tended to sound too full on my HTC 10.

Considering that the 10 is a very good sounding source and that the A25 is mostly comparable at a much lower price, I’m inclined to say that the A25 is pretty good value. It’s a large improvement over the iPod Nano’s for sure, even the older Wolfson models though to a lesser extent. Compared to the Fiio X1 or Fiio E17K, the Sony doesn’t quite compare as favourably, though I don’t think the Fiio players are that much better either, they just have a lot more output power. That being said, the UI on the Sony is that much better and the form factor is similarly much more versatile, it’s a fair trade-off. Whilst the A25 doesn’t possess amazing value, in the luxury world of audio it is a good buy, and users with a weaker sounding smartphone or those who need a small portable player for exercise or travel will not be disappointed with the Sony A25.

 

Verdict –

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So whilst one could complain that the A25 lacks features and is overpriced for what it is, the reality is that the A25 was never intended to compete with smartphones and other media players such as the iPod Touch. It is, at its core, a luxury product, something intended for those with enough disposable income to own both a smart device and a dedicated audio player. It’s no more expensive than an iPod Nano and sounds better whilst being much more feature rich. But therein lies the problem, because as I’ve found through extensive comparison to the HTC 10, premium smartphones are now sounding better than the A25 anyway and such devices are more feature rich and convenient, omitting the need for any kind of audio player like this. While Sony’s UI is very good for a dedicated player, it still does suffer from the occasional stutter and tagging is not perfect. Poweramp is also much more feature rich, though what features are on the Walkman, function pretty well. The form factor is definitely appealing, but it is still on the larger side compared to the Nano’s and Shuffles of the world. In the outdoors, where minute sound differences and details are lost, the considerably more compact iPods are an easier listen, they also support remote commands and the Bluetooth system is a little less clunky.

 

Accessories – 2/10, Appalling, Sony only include a proprietary cable which is only of average quality. Would be nice to receive a case or screen protector, preferably both for the price. Some players come with noise-cancelling earphones.

Design – 8.5/10, Lightweight and visually pleasing. The controls work well but are a little shallow and stiff (might loosen up over time). The screen is bright and colourful enough. Battery life is class leading, the hybrid metal, plastic build feels very nice in the hand. Creak and slight flex when pressing the back button only.

Usage – 8/10, Fluid, refined and visually impactful UI. Dynamic normalizer and eQ function well. Wide file support, drag and drop file transfers. Supports many Bluetooth standards. Has a few extra features besides pure audio playback. Can’t delete files or make playlists from the device.

Sound Quality – 7.5/10, Very clean extended in either way. Very accurate imaging, great separation and soundstage size. Bass is super tight and defined, lower mids are slightly thinner, upper mids lack that last bit of detail but treble has great resolution in return. Slight hiss, not very powerful. Output impedance is low, but higher than most other dedicated sources.

Overall – 8/10, If you have a premium smartphone and are looking for better quality, you won’t necessarily find it here. But if you are looking for a nice sounding, portable dedicated audio player, granted that you have a relatively easy to drive earphone/portable headphone, the A25 almost provides the best of both worlds between the slick UI of the $200 iPod Nano and the audio quality of a $200 Fiio player.

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