Sony's New High-Res Digital Musical Player

Jason Victor Serinus on October 19, 2014

The Walkman is back, but in a different form. Even as the music world awaits PONO, the hi-resolution portable digital music player spearheaded by rock legend Neil Young, Sony has jumped the gun. It’s now accepting pre-orders on its own lightweight, 64 GB, Hi-Res Walkman Digital Music Player (model NWZ-A17), which is due out in November at a list price of $299.

Designed primarily for headphone listening — it only has a mini-plug output — the diminutive player measures approximately. 1 ¾” wide, 4 ¼” long, and 5/16” wide, and weighs considerably less than an iPhone. It also plays back a host of video and audio files, the latter ranging from sonically eviscerated mp3 up to 24/192 hi-resolution FLAC, Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF, and other formats. It even boasts Bluetooth capability and an FM radio. I just tuned into Seattle’s classical radio station, and the sound is quite nice, if not as full-bodied as my car radio’s.

Even without its memory expanded via an optional microSD card, this player can easily hold a host of your favorite symphonies, concertos, recitals, chamber music recordings, and complete operas. Copying music from your computer or other storage device, or downloading directly from sites such as HDTracks via Sony’s proprietary USB cable interface, is a snap. Although the Walkman doesn’t offer touch screen navigation on its little 2.2” screen, its scroll, play, and pause features are extremely easy to master.

When playing compressed digital files, (mp3, AAC, and WMA), Sony claims to raise sound quality to near hi-res levels. Battery life is up to 30 hours per charge with 24/192 FLAC files and Bluetooth off.

How does it sound? Playing 24/88.2 WAV files of pianist Sarah Cahill’s recently released, mesmerizing Patterns of Plants, as well as the Walkman’s preloaded album of classic American Songbook duets between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, the NWZ-A17 produced distortion-free, exceptionally clear sound. What I hear through my high quality earbuds isn’t as full, rich, and detailed as that from Astell&Kern’s larger AK100, which lists for $699 and is about to be replaced by the AK100II, which lists for $899 ($799 online). But for a little mass market player that you costs $299, it’s pretty wonderful. Note as well that the release of PONO’s $399 competition has been delayed until the first quarter of 2015.

Yes, this is the first of many from Sony. They’ve just announced new hi-res portable headphones and earbuds, and a higher grade portable headphone DAC. They’ve also given hints that, come January, a second Walkman (Walkperson) that can play back hi-res DSD files and offer better sound quality may be announced. But for now, this little Walkman is not only within many music lovers’ budgets, but also offers far better sound than you’ll hear from your iPhone, Android, and, with the right headphones, your desktop or home audio system.

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