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There’s a new tech buzzword in town, and it’s taking the audio world by storm: high resolution, or hi-res for short. If it feels familiar, it’s probably thanks to the video equivalent, high definition (aka HD).

The hi-res phenomenon has been an underground movement for years, but 2014 marks the moment when it came out of the basement and into our living room, thanks to the backing of companies like Sony, which has released a full suite of hi-res products.

But let’s slow down for a moment and do a quick 101 on what hi-res means, and then we can discuss the NWZ-A17, Sony’s new hi-res audio player.

Hi-res, lossless, and MP3s

In the post-CD world of digital audio, there is a type of good-better-best comparison that can be made between the current set of technologies, to wit:

GOOD: Lossy, compressed audio, which usually means MP3 or AAC files. This type of digital audio dominates the consumer landscape. Designed to produce a small file size by only preserving most (but not all) of the audio information available in the source, such as a CD, MP3/AAC files are almost universally supported by consumer audio players, smartphones, and every online music store.

BETTER: Lossless, compressed, 16-bit audio, typically encoded into ALAC (Apple Lossless), FLAC, WAV, or AIFF formats. These files are considered CD quality because although they compress the data, they nonetheless preserve all of the audio information available in the source. File sizes are up to 10 times larger than the equivalent MP3/AAC format. Support for these files varies by device, though computers and smartphones can typically play them through the use of third party software. If you want these files, you’ll have to encode them yourself from a CD, as very few online stores offer them.

BEST: Lossless, compressed, 24-bit audio. These use the same codecs as their 16-bit cousins, but their use of 24-bit sample sizes means that they actually deliver better-than-CD quality audio, with the caveat that the original master recording must be used to create the file (you can’t create better-than-CD if a CD is your source). As you no doubt guessed, file sizes are larger still, and playback support is limited to just a few devices on the market. But, as with 16-bit lossless files, computers can handle them with the right software. If you’re a real stickler, then technically, 24-bit uncompressed files such as DSD, AIFF, WAV, and PCM are even better, but honestly, there’s really no need for these at the consumer level.

In this graphic created by Sony, you can see a comparison between the original analog wave of a sound recording (left), the sampling performed of that sound for CD-quality digital (middle), and the higher-resolution sampling performed by hi-res 24-bit digital files (right).

Above: In this graphic created by Sony, you can see a comparison between the original analog wave of a sound recording (left), the sampling performed of that sound for CD-quality digital (middle), and the higher-resolution sampling performed by hi-res 24-bit digital files (right).

I’ve simplified the information above to keep from getting bogged down in technical details (such as bit rate and sampling frequencies), which the audiophiles among you will have noticed, so here’s a great resource in case you’d like to learn more. But suffice it say, when companies like Sony refer to “high-resolution” audio, they’re talking about support for the best, 24-bit category of audio file.

Why Hi-Res?

Sony isn’t the only company to jump on the 24-bit audio bandwagon. That honor is shared by many including Neil Young and his peculiarly-named Pono Player. It became a smash hit on the crowdfunding scene earlier this year, despite its Toblerone-shaped body and $399 price tag. LG’s smartphones have been 24-bit capable since the G2, as have Samsung’s Galaxy Note series since the third generation. But Sony is so far the only company go all-in with the hi-res format, offering support across a broad array of devices including smartphones, tablets, tabletop units and wireless Hi-Fi speakers.

Clearly these companies hope to sell more products based on the promise of better sound. For them, more product sales is good. More music sales would be even better.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Apple. Apple hasn’t announced any plans for hi-res hardware or music downloads from iTunes, but can such a move be far off? With its recent Beats acquisition, it has the perfect platform and marketing vehicle for hi-res audio. It would not surprise me to see a “Beats” section within iTunes by the end of 2015, catering specifically to the hi-res crowd.

Ultimately, hi-res represents a huge opportunity for record labels and online stores alike, as music lovers seek to re-buy their favorite albums the same way movie buffs have done for DVD and Blu-ray formats.

Now let’s take a look at Sony’s new device.

Apple's iPod nano (left), an older Sony NWZ-S736F Walkman (middle), and the Sony NWZ-A17 Hi-Res Walkman (right). Photo by Simon Cohen.

Above: Apple’s iPod nano (left), an older Sony NWZ-S736F Walkman (middle), and the Sony NWZ-A17 Hi-Res Walkman (right). Photo by Simon Cohen.

Sony NWZ-A17 hardware

Sitting somewhere between an iPod nano and an iPod Touch in size, the NWZ-A17 is a slender black slab that eschews a touchscreen design in favor of physical buttons, a move that some might find backward, and yet it works perfectly.

Keep in mind that this is a music device first and foremost, in other words: a Walkman. One of the hard truths is that, with the exception of line-mounted headphone controls, there’s no easy way to work a touchscreen device while it’s playing music in our pocket. Having tactile buttons makes blind pocket operation possible.

Sony NWZ-A17 Walkman, right-side controls. Photo by Simon Cohen.

Above: Sony NWZ-A17 Walkman, right-side controls. Photo by Simon Cohen.

On the side sits the mandatory volume rocker, plus a handy “hold” switch that locks the device and prevents accidental button presses — a mainstay feature of Walkman design. You’ll also find a small door that conceals the microSD card slot, a welcome addition that has become a rarity in a world so heavily influenced by Apple designs. The door itself doesn’t snap cleanly into place, however, and might present a snag problem for some people.

The front of the Walkman features a fairly standard D-pad arrangement of navigation controls with a central play/pause/OK button. Back and option buttons are easy to reach. This configuration has remained the same on the Walkman line for years, and it works well.

The micro-SD card slot's cover is flimsy and doesn't sit flush to the body when closed. Photo by Simon Cohen.

Above: The micro-SD card slot’s cover is flimsy and doesn’t sit flush to the body when closed. Photo by Simon Cohen.

At 320 by 240 pixels, the 2.2-inch screen is nothing special, but it’s capable of displaying photos and videos if that’s what you really want. Frankly, though, the screen is too small to enjoy those types of media — best to stick with music.

The good news is that the NWZ-A17 is packed with 64GB of flash storage, an enormous amount compared with other mostly-music devices like the iPod nano, which is only available in a non-expandable 16GB size.

The Walkman features both Bluetooth and NFC, which means it’s compatible with various types of wireless speakers and headphones. If those accessories support NFC pairing, creating a connection is as easy as tapping the two devices together. However, hi-res sound is not supported over Bluetooth because that standard simply can’t support the necessary data rates.

Sony claims the battery life is 50 hours of MP3 playback and 30 hours for hi-res FLAC playback. While that might be a tad optimistic, it’s pretty close. I loaded it up with about 60 hours of music (a combination of hi-res and MP3 files) and after roughly 20 hours of continuous use, the battery indicator stood at the 1/4 mark.

The one glaring omission from the NWZ-A17 is the lack of included earphones. For $299, all you get is the Walkman itself and a proprietary USB cable (seriously, Sony, what’s up with that?). Granted, with 64GB of storage, that’s not a terribly steep price, at least not by Apple-math standards (Apple’s 16GB iPod nano is $149) since a doubling of that price gets you way more than double the storage. And it’s not unreasonable to think that anyone interested in a hi-res audio device probably already owns a very good pair of earphones or headphones. But still.

Sony's superb SensMe Channels groups songs by mood, time of day and tempo. Photo by Simon Cohen.

Above: Sony’s superb SensMe Channels group songs by mood, time of day, and tempo. Photo by Simon Cohen.

Software

There’s little to be said about the Walkman’s software; it’s the same super-intuitive design it’s been refining for years. It has everything you could ask for in a portable music player, including the superb SensMe Channels feature, which automatically categorizes your music collection by mood, tempo, and time of day, making for a dead-simple way of curating your tunes instead of relying on playlists.

Another neat trick is the ability to adjust the tempo on MP3 files. Your favorite song isn’t quite fast-paced enough for your high-intensity spinning routine? Increase the tempo by 1.5x and magically, the song runs faster without turning into a performance by Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Sound performance

This is what you really want to know, isn’t it? Can a hi-res Walkman deliver sound that is noticeably better than an iPod or even a non-hi-res capable Walkman?

I was determined to give you a reliable and quantifiable answer to that question, so I subjected the NWZ-A17 to as near a scientific comparison as I could perform.

The NWZ-A17 can display lyrics overlayed on album art when a compatible .lrc file is uploaded to the Walkman. Photo by Simon Cohen.

Above: The NWZ-A17 can display lyrics overlayed on album art when a compatible .lrc file is uploaded to the Walkman. Photo by Simon Cohen.

The first challenge is getting your hands on a true, 24-bit, lossless file that has been encoded from a 24-bit studio master. While there are a few online stores that provide them, the selection is abysmal (who knew there could be such a strong demand for hi-res KISS albums, yet not a single U2 or David Bowie file to be found!).

I made do with The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ What Hits album from 1992 and the much more recent Meteorites by Echo and the Bunnymen (2014). I downloaded both from ProStudioMasters.com in 24-bit FLAC, but the Chilis were sampled at 96 kHz while the Bunnymen were encoded at 44.1 kHz.

I then, ahem, acquired MP3 versions of the same albums, encoded at 320 kbps — the practical upper limit of quality for the MP3 format. In case you’re curious, the hi-res version of Higher Ground takes up 129.4 MB, while the MP3 comes in at a puny 8.4 MB.

I loaded both versions of both albums onto the NWZ-A17 Walkman, and loaded the MP3 versions onto an older Sony NWZ-S736F Walkman as well as Apple’s current-gen iPod nano and an iPhone 5s.

I plugged a pair of Sony’s $299 MDR-1A headphones into all three devices and, for comparison purposes, also tested them with Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50X cans and a well-used pair of Apple’s Earpods.

Sony reminds us that Apple isn't the only one who uses proprietary ports on their portable media players. Photo by Simon Cohen.

Above: Sony reminds us that Apple isn’t the only one that uses proprietary ports on its portable media players. Photo by Simon Cohen.

The verdict

Yes, you can hear the difference between the hi-res files on the NWZ-A17 and their MP3 equivalents. However, I caution you that this difference isn’t as dramatic as the move from standard definition to HDTV. If that’s what you were hoping for, you’re going to be disappointed by hi-def audio.

Instead, it’s a subtle difference. I might liken it to how a wine poured through an aerator tastes compared to the same wine poured straight from the bottle. Or, using a driving analogy, it’s like upgrading your tires from decent all-seasons to Z-rated ones (assuming you’re driving a normal sedan on city streets).

We’re talking about very small improvements to a variety of audio elements. Bass is a tiny bit smoother, vocals ever so slightly better rendered against the instruments, and a sound stage that could be described as better defined. In order to hear any of this, however, you need to sit in a very comfortable chair, in a quiet room, with your eyes closed and every iota of your attention focused on the sound. I found that the moment I left this carefully controlled environment, the improvements became virtually indistinguishable.

What is very noteworthy, on the other hand, is just how good the NWZ-A17 is at producing wonderful sound — from any file type — compared to the other three test devices. The difference was noticeable even when using the Earpods, but it was particularly acute when listening with big-driver headphones. I attribute this to three elements: digital-to-analog conversion (DAC), digital signal processing (DSP), and amplification.

In each of these areas, the Walkman brings higher performance than the iPod or iPhone. The combination of the three is not just noticeable — it’s astonishing.

Sony has packed some of its top-tier sound technology into the Walkman, including:

  • S-Master HX, which is Sony’s DAC/amp combo
  • DSEE HX, a technology that Sony claims can upscale non-hi-res audio to “near hi-res” quality
  • and ClearAudio+, an audio settings optimization scheme which I completely fail to understand

What I do understand, is that the effect of these three elements on non-hi-res audio is similar to how a top-notch HDTV is able to upscale a DVD movie to 1080p resolution and have it look way better than on other TVs. It may be a collection of Sony-speak, but there’s no denying they work.

So while I am unconvinced that hi-res music or hi-res devices provide an improvement in sound quality that the average person will notice, I do believe that Sony’s mix of audio technologies make the Walkman one of the best choices for people who want a top-quality portable music experience — regardless of what kind of file formats they’re using.

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