As someone who was born when The Beatles were still together (just barely!), I’ve witnessed much of the modern music revolution: From vinyl to 8-tracks to cassettes and then to digital formats. But one of the biggest turning points for me was my first Sony Walkman. I don’t recall the year I bought it — definitely in the early eighties — but I thought I was something special, able to listen to cassettes on the go. Here we are in 2015 and I just bought another Sony Walkman.
My new $299 Walkman, the forgettably named NWZ-A17SLV, which I’ll call the A17 for short, doesn’t play cassettes. Nor does it play CDs, for that matter. Instead, it’s a flash-memory based digital audio player (DAP), capable of playing back those high-resolution audio files you might have heard about recently.
In a nutshell, these files are larger in size as they have more audio data. A CD, for example, plays music sampled at 44.1 kHz using 16-bits for each sample. The A17, and players similar to it, can play audio files up to 192 kHz and 24 bits, and support various file formats: MP3, ALAC, FLAC, AIFF, WAV and more. Some of these are compressed formats, while others are lossless. (Note: For those who are interested in buying high-resolution audio files for this or other players, Sony lists six online stores that sell such music. There are others, but those will get you started for whichever high-res DAP you use.) The A17 also attempts to enhance MP3 files; my ears aren’t yet sold on that feature as I’m hearing minimal difference when enabling this but songs appear to benefit.
I wouldn’t consider myself an audiophile by any means, but my ears do enjoy the high-resolution formats. Note that we all have different hearing capabilities — which actually start to diminish a few years after we’re born — so I’m not suggesting that you’ll hear a difference between uncompressed high-resolution music files and well-encoded lossy MP3 songs. You might or you might not: It depends on your ears, the headphones, music player circuitry (ranging from amplifier to DAC, or digital analog converter, chip), the source files themselves and many other variables. But I like what I hear out of the Sony Walkman A17: Crisp, clear sound and nice separation of the various instruments and voices in songs.
I actually already had a high-resolution audio player that I bought in the middle of last year. Sorry, Neil Young, it wasn’t your $399 Pono Player. Instead, I spent $349 for a FiiO X5 portable DAP. By comparison, I like the sound out of the X5 a smidge better than from the new A17, but it’s a close call. The X5 seems to have more power as well, driving higher-end headphones with a little more volume than the A17. I may invest in a portable headphone amp in the future; for now, I use a vacuum tube headphone amp for home use with the new Walkman.
So why did I replace the X5 with an A17? A few reasons come to mind. First, I spend some time listening to the A17 last week at the Consumer Electronics Show.
That was my first step and I recommend it to be yours with any DAP you’re considering: Get some “ears-on” time, because our indivitual listening capabilities are all different. Since I judged the sound quality to be on par or close to what I already owned, it came down to a few subtle but important differences. As nice as the X5 sounds, it’s bulky by comparison to the A17 and doesn’t last as long on a battery charge. The user interface is mediocre at best, even though I’ve seen improvements from the FiiO team over time. Sony’s UI is fairly simple and easy to use.
The Sony Walkman A17 has a few other nice touches, too. One is an FM tuner, which is not necessary, but nice to have. Second, the A17 has 64GB of internal storage with a microSD card slot for more. By comparison, my X5 has a pair of microSD slots but no internal storage at all. And you’ll need device storage if you listen to high-resolution audio files, which can easily be ten times larger than their compressed counterparts. Bluetooth with AptX support is also included with the A17 — handy, since I bought a Marshall Bluetooth speaker last year to pump out the tunes.
Sony’s A17 Walkman also plays back video and supports photo viewing, but I’m not interested in either of those features. That experience is better on my smartphone with its larger, higher-resolution display.
All in all, I’m happy with my new Walkman. I ordered it right from the CES show floor and it arrived when I got home from Las Vegas. I’ve only had it for a few days, but I’m enjoying immersive, clear audio from a very light and small package — the A17 weighs a scant 2.4 ounces — capable of playing high-resolution audio files for 30 hours or more on a charge. Switch to MP3 files and Sony says the battery will last for 50 hours.
To me, the music sounds much better than what I hear on my phones and tablets, and as someone who listens to hours of music each day, that’s a win. Right now, the A17 brings me back to that Walkman nostalgia from the 1980’s while providing a sound experience for 2015 and beyond.