Sony Hi-Res Walkman Digital Music Player and Premium Hi-Res Headphones Arrive for Review


The current holy grail in audiophile circles is high resolution (hi-res) audio.  Among hi-res audio’s many promises are better sound, less noise and distortion, and increased dynamic range over traditional CDs.  Several high end audio companies have championed this cause for hi-res audio.   Chief among them has been Sony.

Sony Electronics reached out the Poor Audiophile and asked if we’d be willing to review the NWZ-A17SLV, their 64 GB Hi-Res Walkman Digital Music Player, and the MDR-1A/B, their Hi-Res Stereo Headphones.  Unlike many companies, Sony has thought through the entire high-res playback chain—not simply the source.

Sony Electronics supplied us with with the review products and the necessary resources to review them but as with all our reviews, the sentiments and opinions about the NWZ-A17SLV and MDR-1A/B are solely ours.

While I was certainly excited to be able to get my hands on this latest generation of high fidelity products from Sony, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was too little, too late.  With the incredible success of the iPhone and Android smartphones is there really that much of a strong market for yet another device that people need to carry around?  Any such thoughts were dealt dose of reality with the incredible success of the crowd-funded Pono high resolution music player.  Over 18,000 people pledged over $6.2 million dollars on Kickstarter to support this effort.  Don’t think that there’s a thirst for high-res?  Think again.

Not to be outdone, this past September at the IFA electronics show in Berlin, Sony unveiled the NWZ-A17 walkman and MDR-1A headphones.  In contrast to the Pono, which is just a high resolution music player, Sony announced a complete end to end system that included both a high resolution Walkman and high resolution headphones capable of delivering the audiophile quality of Hi-Res music.   Unlike the Pono’s, bulky and awkward form-factor, the new hi-res walkman is sleek, light and packed with features.

On paper, both the hi-res digital walkman and hi-res headphones are impressive. The 64 GB Hi-Res Walkman boasts broad file support including MP3, WMA, FLAC, L-PCM, AAC, HE-AAX, ALAC, and AIFF. There’s also an FM tuner and audio modes including ClearAudio+/DSEE HX/5-band EQ/VPT/Dynamic Normalizer/DPC.  You can also expand the internal 64 GB to a larger capacity via a MicroSD card slot.

For my part, I know I’m very much looking forward to taking the  Sony Walkman Digital Music Player and the MDR-1A/B, their Hi-Res Stereo Headphones for an extended trial.  At first glance, the build quality and portability of this pair seems superb.

Holding the new Walkman reminds me of Apple’s original iPod Nano. It’s a very slim, rectangular design.  Ironically, even though the Sony Walkman is brand new, the original nano was still lighter and slimmer than the new Sony. Nevertheless, in contrast to other players currently on the market, The Sony feels incredibly light in your hand and it’s easy to forget you even have it in your pocket. Sony did an excellent job of producing a sleek form factor. In today’s market it still would have been nicer for the Walkman to have been a tad bit thinner.  It seems to me that Sony’s insistence on including additional ports such as the MicroSD input ended up forcing them to compromise what they could do.

Synchronizing media with the new Walkman requires Sony’s proprietary computer software.  You’ll therefore need to re-adjust your music workflow if you’ve become accustomed to using JRiver or iTunes or whatever your current source is.
The new Sony Walkman features Bluetooth—a very nice feature.  According to the specs, you can either pair the new walkman with Bluetooth wireless headphones or synchronize it wirelessly. It also includes an FM antenna in the ability to show videos and photos, although given the small screen and form factor this doesn’t seem to be a great practical use for the device.
Let’s face it, this new high-res walkman isn’t about multimedia.  It’s all about high-resolution audio and its ability to play high-resolution audio files in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec).  [See our article on the differences between FLAC and ALAC here and the question on whether or not all high resolution audio is the same].

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be DSD support for those die-hard audiophiles who remain staunch proponents of the format.

The MDR-1A circumaural, closed-back headphones are luscious.  The Sony MDR-1A headphones are a spa for your ears. The headphones feature pressure-relieving urethane cushions that wrap entirely around your ears.  I can attest that they are wonderfully comfortable and the acoustic seal is excellent.  In addition there is a silicon ring around every moving axis that gives you silky-smooth and silent earcup movement. In short, there was nothing at all I found sub-par or that I could complain about when it came to the build quality.

The removable cable is not your run of the mill cable.  Sony states that it is a silver-coated oxygen-free copper (OFC) cable that “ensures minimal signal transmission degradation for pure audio response at the driver.”  The cable uses a  4-wire architecture with a separate ground and signal connection to each driver that Sony claims provides enhanced separation, expanded sound and tight bass.

There’s an included smartphone control cable, but alas, it’s for Android only.  If you want to use these with an iPhone with full control, you’ll need an adapter.

But comfort, high build quality, and a removable cord are only some of the features that highlight these new cans from Sony.   Sony claims that they will reproduce frequencies up to 100kHz, which Sony claims is ideal for high-res audio. The diaphragm used is a 40 mm, dome type, Aluminum-coated Liquid Crystal Polymer Diaphragm. The Sony cans can handle 1500 mW (IEC) and have a rated frequency response of 3Hz – 100 kHz.

At first glance, this Walkman-headphone combo looks like a high-quality, promising solution from Sony.  The MSRP for the NWZ-A17SLV 64 GB Hi-Res Walkman Digital Music Player and the MDR-1A premium high-res stereo headphones is $299.99each or $599.98 for the pair.  Stay tuned for our full review.

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