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Old school meet new school: Sony’s Walkman ZX1 pushes hi-res audio to mainstream

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Don’t look now but the venerable Sony(s sne) Walkman is attempting to make a comeback. The company’s newest portable audio player, the Zx1, plays high-resolution audio files, which offer better-than-CD sound quality due to higher sampling rates. While the music will sound better to some ears, there’s a steep price to pay for admission to this concert: The ZX1 is priced at $700 or more.

walkman zx1

The small device actually debuted in Japan in December, where it is selling well according to the Wall Street Journal. Other regions saw the product launch in February and you can purchase one on Amazon(s amzn) in the U.S. from third-party sellers right now for $750. No such luck at the U.S. Sony Store online: A search for “walkman” turns up 53 products, but none of them are the ZX1.

The Walkman ZX1 is just one example of new portable high-resolution audio players. People might be more familiar with Neil Young’s Pono Player, which raised $6.2 million on Kickstarter earlier this year; the $399 player is expected to launch later this year with a digital music store. And a few weeks ago, I spent $350 on the Fiio X5, which also plays higher sound quality files all the way up to Direct Stream Digital (DSD) files; the equivalent of the old Super Audio CD format.

Sony’s new Walkman differs in that it has a 4-inch display with 854 x 480 resolution, so it can show detailed album art. Both the Pono Player and my X5 have smaller displays. Make no mistake though: These products are meant more for the ears than the eyes.

high res audio sampleThe Walkman and Pono Player for example, can play standard lossy MP3 files but also music stored in compressed lossless formats — think ALAC and FLAC — up to 192kHz/24 bit. The first figure is the sample rate, i.e.: how many times per second the audio file is sampled for data, and the second number is the amount of information in each sample. By comparison, CD’s are recorded in a 44.1kHz/16 bit format. I opted for the Fiio X5 because it can play back audio in even higher resolution: Up to 64 times more sampling than a CD with the DSD format. Expect to pay for that sound quality though.

Boston on Fiio X5

The challenge for a Walkman comeback isn’t just the price of the player; the cost of high resolution audio files is relatively expensive. I’ve already spent $24.95 on a DSD version of Boston’s first album, for example. You can get a compressed MP3 version for less than half that price. And the higher the resolution of the audio file, the larger the files are. That Boston album takes up 1.61 GB of storage space. Sony’s Walkman comes with 128 GB of internal storage by way of comparison.

Still, there’s potential here for such portable audio products. If your ears call tell the difference between a lossy and a lossless audio recording, you’re in for a treat, provided you’re willing to pay the price and have a limited selection of albums to choose from. For it’s part, Sony is pushing high resolution audio formats with a dedicated web page to educate consumers and point them in the direction of compatible products and storefronts.

13 Responses to “Old school meet new school: Sony’s Walkman ZX1 pushes hi-res audio to mainstream”

  1. Ed Zap

    As a recording engineer who routinely records and mixes 192khz/24bit files and and then resamples to cd resolution for release, I have several observations. First of all the $700 price tag is ridiculous. The technology just isn’t that expensive. Secondly, hardly anyone can tell the difference. Headphone and speaker quality is much more important. Thirdly, the exorbitant prices for the program material are ridiculous. Any digital recordings made since the very earliest days were recorded and mixed at high resolution and then down sampled. Higher Rez actually takes a step out of the process. High Rez distributions are inevitable, but the hardware and software prices quoted in the article are absurd. Wait till the prices come down.

  2. In 3 years you will be seeing memory at a Terabyte and the cost of the Sony at less than $100. Just wait a couple of years until most albums are in the new 24 bit high resolution. As a metalhead, doubt Slayer’s South of Heaven will be available anytime soon. Remember when VCR’s were $1000. Wait and you will get a better deal.

  3. I would like to see a study done with 10 people who sit and listen to the Sony verses a iPod and see how many could actually hear the difference between the two audio quality samples. Then even if they could tell the difference ask them if it’s worth the extra $ and 1.2 GB per song data storage space. Then ask them if they would pay double for that song on iTunes or amazon. I think we all know what the result would be.

    Somehow I think this will end up being a huge bomb reminiscent beta max. I wish Sony would invest their research money into better quality headphones of all styles that don’t cost a monthly paycheck for some folks. Now that would be a good RD money spent!

  4. Barry Cole

    Where is the great “SONY”. SONY should come out with the best smartphone music player ever seen or heard.
    It is time for a new player to knock out “apple and samsung” Why not “SONY”
    Give us what we really want in a smart phone instead of what we have to settle for.

  5. Michael Teal

    I don’t get it. Just about all mp3 players support FLAC. Even the iPod supports FLAC audio. Why would anyone spend $700 on that device?

    • iOS devices don’t actually support FLAC, at least not natively. They support Apple’s version of FLAC, which is ALAC. Subtle but important difference. It’s true that you can add third party iOS apps that do work with files encoded in FLAC format, however.

      Digital file format alone isn’t the whole story though. Most audio players and the iOS device line can only playback files up to a certain resolution. That headphone jack on the iPhone, for example, will only playback sound files up to 44.1kHz/16-bit resolution, i.e.: CD quality. Higher resolution portable audio players can output the high-res audio files I mentioned in the article natively; an iPhone would simply downsample them in a best case scenario.

    • Qualia? Thankfully for Sony you are not in their marketing and sales department as that would be a stupid idea. They can get away with pricing it at $700 because it is a “Walkman”. Everyone knows about the Sony Walkman. “Walkman” has strong brand name recognition. Back in the 80s and 90s, “Walkman” was pretty much a generically used moniker for any portable music player. The “Sony Qualia” even if it is from Sony’s high quality product line doesn’t have the name recognition. At the end of the day, sales are all the matters and “Walkman” sells way more then “Qualia”.

  6. Sathish Rao

    Hard to believe that $700 Music player is ‘selling well’ in Japan – This news is ‘Music (a High Res one) to Sony’s ears too’ !

  7. brown_te

    Could be completely wrong here – but I’m guessing that upgrading your headphones (arbitrary threshold: $250+) would do more for audio quality that any player/file format would.

    • If your music files are incredibly detailed but you’re playing them out of stock earbuds, don’t expect much. Same goes for $1500 or more headphones! They can only transduce the signal you supply to them into sound. If the signal is low resolution junk, guess what’s coming out of those fancy headphones? They will very accurately reproduce even the finest garbage! :D