Sony's Strange, Noble Gamble on High-Resolution Audio

Sony's new High Resolution NW-ZX2 Walkman player works in conjunction with the PHA-1A headphone and a DAC/amplifier. The whole setup runs $2,840.

The Walkman, you may have heard, has risen from the dead. Last year, Sony reimagined that noble, iconic device as a dedicated digital music player. You would be forgiven for thinking this a strange decision. Of all the gadgets that the smartphone has left decimated in its wake, the digital music player was arguably the first to go. In other words, Sony is bringing one bygone class of device back, in the form of an entirely different, but equally dead tech. That may be a little hard to fathom. But you don't know the half of it.

Last night, at the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony unveiled another iteration of the Walkman at a press conference in Las Vegas, a hefty, aluminum-clad device aimed at audiophiles, with 128GB of built-in storage, double that of its predecessor. But that product is just one part of a wide-ranging campaign unveiled here at the Consumer Electronics Show, to make the buying public understand something called high-res audio, and then fall in love with it.

High-resolution audio contains more data, and is of a higher overall quality, than both MP3 files and CDs, as well as the further degraded files streamed through services like Spotify and Pandora. The technology has existed for years, but Sony is now pushing a full lineup of devices that play high-res files, including some that can upgrade the quality of standard MP3s.

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So far, so good, right? If Sony wants to spruce up the current, sorry state of digital audio quality, more power to them. But here's where the situation turns surreal.

At Sony's booth in the Las Vegas Convention Center, the new Walkman NW-ZX2 was paired up with two high-res audio products that were announced in 2014 — the high-end MDR-Z7 MDR-1ABT headphones, and the PHA-3 Portable DAC/Headphone Amplifier, a brick-like device that connects to a music source with USB, and optimizes audio. This is a substantive setup, with a cascading series of audio quality enhancements. It's also physically substantive: the Walkman is at least three times as heavy as most smartphones, and the headphone amp could fit in a cargo pant pocket, but might drag the pants down to your ankles. The cumulative effect of using all of these devices and algorithms sounds fantastic. As it should, considering that it's a portable audio setup that runs for $2,840.

To break that down, the headphones are top-of-the-line, and priced at $700. Then the amp is $1,000. Finally, the new Walkman is $1,140. That's more than a grand for a device that only plays music, and nearing three grand for what might be the best way to listen to audio outside a lavishly-equipped home entertainment bunker.

Sony doesn't seem to be flinching. The reps working the high-res audio portion of Sony's booth rattled off prices without a moment's hesitation, or the subtlest hint of a cocked eyebrow. They were anxious for us to demo the products, and to hear how much we liked them. The products aren't aimed at musicians or other audio professionals, they say, but anyone who appreciates music.

From a business perspective, this could well be the most ill-fated family of product launches in years. Sony is charging luxury prices for high-quality audio products at a time when consumers couldn't be less interested in audio quality. Just as CDs were usurped by MP3s, stored digital music is rapidly losing ground to Spotify. And Spotify, convenient as it is, sounds terrible, at least compared to MP3s and CDs. Sony not only wants to slow the trend towards portable music as an app, but reverse history, and convince the public to expend more time and money to listen to the best audio possible.

Pushing for high-resolution audio, at a moment when it makes little obvious market sense, is a strangely noble thing for any company to do. It's also cool, in the way that only elegantly self-destructive acts can be. What could be interpreted as corporate hubris seems, to us, like exactly the sort of thing more industry giants should attempt. 

Sony is right, after all, about audio. Supposed music lovers are listening to degraded files over good-enough streams, and losing yet more quality in the wireless gap between phone and Bluetooth headphones. These aren't windmills that Sony is tilting at, but real dragons. Then again, dragons also tend to devour heroes in droves. Bringing high-res audio audio to anything resembling a mainstream audience — without substantial cost-cutting — may well be a hopeless cause.