Not too long ago at IFA 2013 in Berlin, Sony announced that they are getting back into audio. Not only audio, I might add, but high resolution audio and for this Sony has announced a complete new product range of hi-res audio products and an HD music downloads store. This is a truly one-stop solution from music player (HAP-Z1ES), an elevated standard stereo amplifier (TA-A1ES), a pair of sonically matching floor-standing speaker system (SS-NA2ES) all of which Sony graciously enough to have them to be reviewed at my location where the electrical signal is filtered through Torus Power AVR2-20 and all the wires used are from Kimber Kable’s top of the line offerings.
Cosmetically, this entire line is beyond gorgeous. No plastic anything anywhere. It’s full-on metal faceplate, chassis, cover, and they are all of very thick gauges too. The TA-A1ES stereo amp is a true 2 x 80w integrated amplifier with “all-discreet preamp stages and audiophile-grade components throughout” and set in dual mono configuration. There is no other control beyond input buttons (one pair is a balanced XLR input) and a volume knob. The speaker terminals are HUGE and can fit both spades and banana plugs. To nitpick, unfortunately, the left channel speaker terminal can not be inserted with spade connector from the bottom because the power plug is blocking the cable (hence the weird speaker cable connection you see in the picture I took from my review unit). However, as I mentioned earlier, it is just a cosmetics nitpicking as the sound of this receiver is very lush, dynamic and hyper accurate. If you’re looking for “warm sound”, or “organic sound”, look elsewhere. This is all about accuracy, no colouration, garbage-in-garbage-out…the way any amplifiers are supposed to be designed (yet somehow so many companies fail to do, some high-end amp companies even failed miserably). And by the way, the rating of 80w per channel is a true rating. Measured with full spectrum 20 Hz to 20 kHz signal, both channels driven, this integrated amplifier albeit being a prototype, maintains near-83 watts per channel. Higher than advertised and at the planned $2,000 price, you get more than what you paid for.
As most of you may have realized, I have never been a proponent of media players. I like to hold a tangible vinyl and CD (and even my 2” reel-to-reel tapes from my studio recording era) media. That reason above plus the sound quality being no improvement than the original media itself gave me no impetus to use a media player at all. Therefore when I was requested to write the review on the media player section, I was a bit nervous as I have no “nice-filter” when it comes to writing a review.
I’m so very glad that it is not the case for the HAP-Z1ES. With the same cosmetic simplicity and beauty as the TA-A1ES, plus the highly logical and ergonomic user interface, one does not need to even crack open the manual to master this unit. In fact, there is not even a manual included for this unit at all. It is that simple! Even moving files is literally only drag and drop into its 1 Tb internal hard drive. No need for iTunes or Windows Media Player. And with the Gracenote CDDB synchronization capability via its Wi-Fi connection, the unit can grab the album art to be shown in great clarity on its relatively large screen. Need extra space? Just grab an external USB hard drive with your song collection and plug it into the rear USB jack and now you’ll have a total of 5 Tb of music. That’s a LOT of music!!
Just like any media players out there it plays everything you throw at it such as including AAC, FLAC, LPCM, MP3, WAV, and WMA. Unlike any media players out there, however, this unit also plays DSD files natively. Better yet, this unit also includes a DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) algorithm technology developed by Sony, to enhance the sound quality of compressed audio files by restoring high-range sound removed by the compression process.
Unlike most compressed music enhancers, DSEE actually analyzes the sound source and apply the appropriate amount of sound enhancement as necessary. Therefore, when you set DSEE to automatic, when the media player detects that the soundtrack it’s playing is not compressed or a lossless compressed file, DSEE will automatically shuts off so there won’t be any over-processing. Furthermore, the media player also up-converts anything you put into it into DSD (Direct Stream Digital) stream before turning it into an analog signal.
I have listened to a slew of sound enhancement engines such as “MP3 Remaster”, “Automatic Sound Retriever”, “Compressed Music Enhancer” and many others. Some, such as “Automatic Sound Retriever” works quite well. However, they all do something to the equalization and sound level which changes the characteristics of the music itself. With DSEE and the player’s conversion to DSD, I don’t hear changes is equalization and sound level but I hear the sound to be more lush and less gritty. In fact, a 320 Kbps MP3 of “So What” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue sound convincingly similar to its DSD counterpart. The same goes with “Blue Rondo A La Turk” from Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out album. Also from my HDTracks purchases I played Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” from the album “BAD” and comparing it to the actual original first CD pressing also to the 16-bit 44.1 kHz WAV version upsampled to the DSD. Even using my trusty Pioneer PD-D9 as a transport, Parasound Z-DAC as the DAC, level matched to the extracted file upsampled to DSD, the difference is far from slight. You must have a really bad hearing to not notice the difference between the two. Amazingly however, the difference between 16-bit, 44.1 kHz file vs HDTracks’ 24-bit, 88.2 kHz file after being upsampled to DSD, the difference is almost none unless I take special care in listening to their individual instruments (more on this later). This is not to say that there is hardly any difference between the two files, but what I’m trying to convey is that the DSD upsampling process is extremely effective to make it extremely difficult for me to distinguish the difference between the standard file against the high-resolution file.
It was a little bit easier distinguishing the difference when listening to “Thriller” from Michael Jackson’s album of the same name. This is not due to the deficiency of the DSD upsampling algorithm but because of the master tape itself. The extensive use of Yamaha DX-7 keyboard in the recording allowed me to hear the difference between the two tracks just from the characteristics of the synthesizer’s noise (no popular musician in the 1980’s do not use Yamaha DX-7 due to its versatility and programmability although the DX-7 is notorious for the hiss noise which forces everybody to use a noise gate in the recording process). What I’m trying to say is that the only reason I can hear the difference more on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album (also the same comparison done with Madonna’s “True Blue” album) is because I know the Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer extremely well (I even used to own TWO of them in my recording studio).
Once I get to Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Brandenburg Concerto performed by the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Richard Egarr, I got lost in the music. I can no longer concentrate in doing the review other than just sitting there listening to the recording in upsampled DSD glory and enjoying it. I can no longer nitpick anything. I have always known that DSD is the future and thanks to Sony’s DSD upsampling algorithm, the future is now, be it natively or upsampled.
It is safe to say after listening to about 25 songs or so, I can truly say that for the first time in my life, I fall in love with a media player for its sound quality. If only all media players can be of this quality, I would stop using my CDs other than for archival purpose. In fact, even at the $2,000 estimated suggested retail pricing, this media player / DAC is a bargain! I only wish that considering the low cost of hard drives, Sony includes a 2 TB drive as opposed to a 1 TB… but again, I’m just nitpicking.
Of course none of the above is possible without using a properly designed pair of speakers. In this case, the Sony SS-NA2ES floor-standing speakers. Yes I know, these speakers pricing is not a match for the amplifier ($2,000) and/or the music player ($2,000) due to the price of $10,000 a pair. However, because of the unique quality and craftsmanship of these speakers, I feel that I need to include these speakers as part of the review.
Unlike the regular speaker design approach of wanting to create the stiffest enclosure possible, the designer at Sony use an acoustic musical instrument approach where the enclosures are tuned to the speakers in order to enhance the sound reproduction. Reportedly, the SS-NA2ES cabinet/enclosures are made of Scandinavian birch, a type of wood highly regarded for its acoustic resonance and performance. Within, the woofers are isolated from other drivers by two distinct separation boards to preserve the critical sonic purity of the midrange frequencies. By looking at the speakers, I can easily see that Sony’s expert craftsmen trained in the traditional Japanese methods of woodworking meticulously craft each precise enclosure to a degree of perfection that’s aesthetically pleasing to the eyes.
From the technological standpoint, Sony re-invented d’Appolito speaker array into I-Array tweeter system to achieve an extremely wide dispersion which results in a highly accurate ambience reproduction of the original recordings without adding any unnatural artefacts to the sound. The overall result is an astonishingly smooth high frequency reproduction with increased resolution, a broader soundstage and a delicate but precise sound image.
It is very hard to describe how pleased I am with this Sony ES line up. Growing up with Sony loudspeakers, Sony cassette deck and integrated amplifier, this line up does not only ignite my interest in the future of media players but at the same time evoked the sense of nostalgia and wonderment. I’m glad that Sony is finally going back to their roots… high quality audio equipments at decent pricing.
Equipments used in this review (other than the reviewed equipments):
Torus Power AVR2-20 Studio-grade Power Conditioner
Kimber Kable Select Series Silver Conductor Speaker Wires and Balanced Interconnects
Pioneer PD-D9 CD Player (as a transport)
Parasound Z-DAC (as a DAC for the Pioneer transport)
Hi-Resolution Albums used for this review:
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out
Michael Jackson – Bad
Michael Jackson – Thriller
Madonna – True Blue
JS Bach – Brandenburg Concerto – Richard Egarr