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

by tech on July 21, 2014

Don’t look now but the venerable Sony 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 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.

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