Sony recently set me up with a couple of pieces of audio gear from their Hi-Res Audio line, so I could hear first hand the differences between typical digital music players and the higher quality sound one can expect from their product line.
The two pieces of gear that I tested out work hand in hand, but can also work just fine on their own. For starters, there’s the MDR-1A headphones. These cool black over-the-ear cans offer excellent sound and very good ambient noise isolation in a lightweight and comfortable package. Powerful 40mm drivers help reproduce even the deepest bass notes without distortion, and offer tremendous punch. High-quality audio cables with silver-coated, oxygen-free copper help keep the signal clear and crackle-free.
I connected these to several different devices, including my iPhone 6 Plus, my iMac and the Walkman NWZ-A17. In all cases, the headphones offered very satisfying audio quality, with a nice, open soundstage and very good dynamic range. I did find that the sound was somewhat biased towards the low end, but overall my ears were happy with what they heard. Running through tracks in a variety of genres, I’d say they’re best enjoyed with rock, rap, jazz, electronic and other modern music, and just a little less so with classical tunes.
Combined with the Walkman A17, the headphones performed even better than with the other devices I tested, likely because the D/A converter and amplifier in this little player are better than the ones in multipurpose gadgets. Dynamic range seemed significantly better to me, as did the maximum volume and the openness of the soundstage. In terms of audio quality, the NWZ-17 really shines. Even with identical 44.1 kHz AAC tracks loaded from my iOS library, the NWZ sounded significantly better than my iPhone 6 Plus.
The form factor of the A17 is one of the things that I really like about it. At just 1-3/4″(w) x 4-3/8″(h) x 3/8″(d), it’s smaller than a candy bar, made from die-cast aluminum and weighs next to nothing – just 2.4 oz. The 2.2″ QVGA screen is clean, easy to read, and navigating through its menus is simple – using a D-Pad with a play/pause button in the middle as its primary input method.
One of the big selling points of the $300 Walkman A17 is its ability to play “Hi-Res” Audio tracks. In this case, that means it can play tracks sampled at up to 24-bits at 192kHz. These tracks provide even cleaner sound and better overall frequency response than typical digital tracks which usually come in at 16-bits, with a 44kHz sample rate. More data means higher audio quality, and less signal loss.
The biggest challenge with Hi-Res audio files is the process through which you buy tracks. Rather than offering any sort of integrated Hi-Res music store, or the ability to purchase tracks from the device, Sony suggests the SuperHiREZ audio shop, which offers a very dated shopping experience in which you must dig through their relatively limited track library to find specific albums you want in Hi-Res formats. Not only are prices higher for these albums (around $18 to $25), only a small percentage of them are available in the 192kHz file quality, and you can’t buy individual tracks. Also, the gold standard DSD format for audio isn’t supported by the A17. For that you’ll need to go for the much pricier Walkman NW-ZX2, which runs a whopping $1199.
Once you find the album you want to buy, you need to install SuperHiREZ’s music downloader app on your system, and then use another app from Sony to transfer songs to the player. And in my case, I could never get Sony’s Content Transfer app to recognize the music player on my Mac. The workaround is fairly simple – just connect the player via USB, and drag your music files to the “Received” folder on the Walkman. It’s old school, but it works. I managed to move over a variety of tracks in low (44kHz), medium (96kHz) and high (192kHz) formats and they all played flawlessly, and were automatically organized by artist, album, and genre. The A17 supports music files in MP3, WMA, FLAC, L-PCM, AAC, HE_AAC, ALAC and AIFF formats. Files can be transferred via USB or Bluetooth.
Once you do manage to get all the tracks you want moved onto the Walkman, storage on the A17 is plentiful. Not only does it have 64GB of on-board storage, it’s got a MicroSD slot which can accept up to 128GB, so you can carry around up to 192GB of music. And you’ll want as much storage as you can get – a typical 192kHz FLAC file weighs in around 150 to 200 MB.
That all said, once you get your music transferred to the Walkman A7, it sounds great. Regardless of file format, I found the player to offer a much more pleasing and vibrant listening experience than my other digital audio devices. In addition to playing audio files, it’s also got an FM tuner on board, which increases your listening possibilities.
This leaves me torn. The MDR-1A headphones are unquestionably very good – especially if you like clean, well-isolated sound with a big, punchy low end. The Walkman A7 sounds fantastic, offers tons of storage, and its hardware is well designed, but is hampered by a convoluted, dated and time-consuming music purchase and transfer process. I’d love to see Sony offer their own Hi-Res audio store at some point – preferably one that can wirelessly send tracks to the player. After all, Sony is one of the biggest music publishers in the world.
Disclosure: Sony provided the products for review in this article. However, all reviews are the unbiased views of our editorial staff, and we will only recommend products or services we have used personally, and believe will be good for our readers.