Sony’s Walkman reinvented for the best sound yet

Apparently, the music we’re listening to isn’t high quality enough, and if you’re over the truncated fuzzy limits of MP3, Sony would like you to know it’s thinking of you, with a fix on the way.

The solution to the problem of low-end audio is one Sony is called “High Resolution Audio,” or “HRA” for short. It’s nothing new, mind you, though giving it an official term is, and anyone who has ever heard of a FLAC or “Free Lossless Audio Codec” is probably aware of the concept, as FLAC can provide more detail and sound range beyond that of MP3’s reliance on the 16-bit/44.1kHz, which is what CDs use.

With digital recording techniques, sound quality can be better, and recording can encompass more, with extra layers of instruments and more detail and information.

Unfortunately, MP3 isn’t the solution for this, as the format crunches down the audio way too much and removes this extra information. But there are multiple formats that can be employed here, including the aforementioned FLAC format, as well as WAV, ZIFF, the DSD format used with Super Audio CDs (SACD), and even one from Apple called “Apple Lossless” or ALAC for short.

Because MP3s aren’t high resolution, you may need a new media player if you plan to partake in this new audio revolution, as most smartphones and portable music players just won’t cut it, and don’t have the technology on board to make this work.

Even Sony’s current crop of phones can’t do this, which is why the company is launching a new media player in Australia called the NWZ-ZX1.

One of the men responsible for this has often been called “the man with the golden ears,” and is one of Sony’s chief sound specialists. He is Koji Nageno, and when he talks about the products he has a hand in, you can see with the smile on his face that he is immensely proud of what he’s achieved.

The technology at play here takes a small Android handset and makes a media player out of it, adding the technology needed to play back any of the lossless high resolution audio formats, as well as a bigger and better built audio jack, and some more pronounced headphone application technologies, making it possible for you to bring good headphones out when you go walking, and taking that high quality music experience where ever you go.

The player is well built, and carries Bluetooth, Near-Field Communication, WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n, and 128GB storage under a 4 inch screen, as well as the technology to play back both the high resolution formats and your other MP3s, too. Android may well be the operating system, but it looks nothing like the overlay used on Sony’s Xperia handsets, sticking pretty close to what Google envisioned Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean” to look like.

So don’t think of it as an Xperia device. Rather, think of it as a Walkman, a very very high resolution Walkman that acts as a true replacement for the high quality that Mini Disc once offered, even though this Walkman (ZX1) can’t be recorded to like portable Mini Disc recorders could.

You’ll also need high definition audio tracks for playback, and this isn’t like when Mini Disc first came out. Sony isn’t selling a proprietary technology here, and since support has been extended to a variety of lossless audio formats, any place that sells the higher quality music can be your marketplace.

But beyond there tracks and the media player, there’s also a requirement for new speakers and headphones.

That last one is being handled with headphones carrying the “Hi-Res Audio” stamp from Sony, designed to reproduce sound better and more consistent with what the higher definition stuff requires. In Australia, these headphones include the in-ear XBA H3, while the on-ear headphones are taken care of with the MDR-10 models missing active noise cancelling, all of which feature responses of up to 40,000Hz and large air vents at the back of drivers to make the bass more accurate.

“The new XBA-H and MDR-10 range of headphones represent Sony’s commitment to build on our product and technological achievements to create unique devices meant to expertly reproduce music just as the artistes had truly intended,” said Abel Makhraz, Marketing Manager for Personal Entertainment at Sony Australia.

“The superb audio reproduction and a comfortable fit in a beautiful attractive design for maximum music enjoyment are testaments to our engineering and innovation efforts since 1960.”

Full-size speakers and amps will also be made available to bring this higher standard of audio to living rooms everywhere, though you may need as reasonable amount of money if you want to take this route to begin with.

Sony will have a few set-top playback devices with big hard drivers that will be controlled with phones and tablets, and will work with amplifiers, while needing some pretty big stereo speakers to play back the sound the best way possible. We heard from a pair of $10,000 speakers yesterday and came back wishing we were rich, which is the default way one feels after hearing audio from speakers designed to make you feel like the musician was in front of you the entire time.

While the idea of higher resolution audio is a good one, we’re not sure how many people will invest in it beyond the living room, especially in a dedicated portable player.

We like the idea of brilliant music quality where ever we go — we really do — but we get that result from amazing quality headphones that deliver the music stored on our phones and through services like Pandora or Spotify as we’re walking through the streets, and that leads us to one other issue: our phones.

If you own a smartphone, there’s a very good chance that you’re using it to store and play your music, instead of relying on a dedicated music player.

With this in mind, it makes more sense for Sony to take this high-resolution audio technology and throw it into its phones, which is exactly what LG did last year.

In the LG G2 and G-Flex handsets reviewed recently, support is already provided for 24-bit high-resolution audio, making it possible for you to have your cake and eat it too, and forgo the need for a dedicated music player capable of playing these high definition files. LG does need more storage in these units, and expandable storage slots would have been nice to see in them, but these phones have already combined the two technologies, which is something Sony needs to do.

When we asked Sony about this, representatives of the company told us it was something that was possible, and we could see it down the track.

Right now, though, the technology is available from Sony in a dedicated portable player only, with it and the headphones hitting stores soon. Speakers and amps are also on the way, and if you’re flushed with cash and have to have the best, it might be worth checking these out when they land.