Sean Killebrew began his writing career in the '90s, covering football for UCLA (his alma mater). His first foray into publishing was in 2000, with the below-the-line film- and TV-production guide books LA 411 and NY 411. For the past decade, Sean's passion for audio/video has been poured into writing for HomeTheaterReview.com. When not chasing A/V deals, Sean spends time skiing and losing to his son in basketball.
In case you haven't noticed, Sony's been enjoying a bit of a resurgence of late. Back in the day, Sony was the unquestioned leader when it came to cool electronics. Products such as the Walkman, the seemingly endless line of yellow (read waterproof) gadgets, the must-have 8mm camcorders and, of course, those epic and incredibly heavy Trinitron televisions, albeit in more recent memory, it has been companies such as Apple and Samsung that have been dominating headlines and lightening people's wallets. Thankfully, Sony hasn't been asleep. Rather, the company has been reminding us of its technological prowess with game-changing products such as the SS-AR1 loudspeaker, which proves that Sony can play ball with anyone when it comes to speaker design. You might have also noticed some of the headlines regarding Sony's new Playstation 4, which is punishing rival Microsoft's Xbox One in sales. The subject of this review, the HAP-S1 High-Res Music Player ($1,000), is not only another game-changer from Sony, it just might help pull high-res audio out of semi-obscurity and into the mainstream. This is a bold statement, I know, but I'll explain in detail how Sony has managed to get it right on just about every level with this product.
The HAP-S1 comes intuitively packaged and is a revelation to connect, especially when compared to the typical audiophile's high-res capable rig. While the full list of specs and compatible file types can be found on Sony's website, I'll go over the highlights. The shelf-top music system is a compact square box, weighing 12 pounds, measuring about 10.5 inches on each side and standing 3.5 inches tall. The face of the unit features an attractive 4.3-inch display, a one-quarter-inch headphone jack and basic navigation and function controls. The rear of the unit features two sets of analog inputs, one set of analog outs, an Ethernet input, optical and coaxial inputs and one USB input. Oddly, this USB input can only be used to expand the storage capacity of the HAP-S1, not to play music files. In terms of connecting to your home network, the Sony features built-in Wi-Fi. Internally, the HAP-S1 features an expandable 500GB hard drive and a 40 watts per channel Class AB amplifier. It will play back just about every file type currently available, including increasingly popular DSD files. In case you decide to load it up with files of lesser quality, such as MP3s, the Sony has a feature it calls DSEE, which stands for Digital Sound Enhancement Engine. This is said to restore some of the high frequency information and detail lost in an audio file when it's compressed. I found it to be a welcome if subtle enhancement.
The HAP-S1 is available in black or silver and, aesthetically speaking, the unit and its display are gorgeous. Also, save for the remote, Sony didn't bring too much plastic to this party. Speaking of the remote, don't expect much, as it only handles basic functions. Thankfully, Sony has created very capable Apple and Android apps that are full-featured, especially as it relates to choosing music files and changing settings.
I plugged the Sony in and connected my reference Focal 836W loudspeakers, using WireWorld Oasis 6 speaker cables. So there it is: no tweaking, no cursing, and no sweating. I pulled the speaker cables out of my amp, popped them into the HAP-S1 and, thanks to built-in amplification and pre-loaded music, I was, save for transferring my own files to the unit, ready for high-res bliss. By comparison, my reference high-res rig consists of a processor, an amp, a DAC, a USB to SPDIF converter, a MacBook Pro, more cabling than you can possibly imagine and finally, in order to really do it right, playback software. In case you're curious, I use both Decibel and Amarra. Does my reference setup sound great? Without question. Is it a hassle? When compared to using the HAP-S1, the answer is, unequivocally, yes. Of course, I can streamline this process in a number of ways, the simplest of which is to pop an SACD into my Oppo Blu-ray player, thereby skipping several components. But the process still goes well beyond simply hitting the power button on a single unit. Not to mention the general fuss of whether or not you have everything properly tweaked on your processer - channel level, crossover level, distance to the listener and so on. Or how about your laptop? If you're a discerning audiophile, there are numerous tweaks you can make to your laptop to ensure a cleaner signal path. All of that assorted obsessive-compulsive (but ultimately necessary for truly high-end sound) tweaking is alleviated with the HAP-S1 and let me tell you, it's a revelation.
Click on over to Page 2 for the Performance, the Downside, the Competition and Comparison, and the Conclusion . . .
Once the HAP-S1 was properly broken in after a good 24 hours of playing time, I sat down with a notepad and started critical listening. On the plus side, the process of transferring music wirelessly from your computer to the HAP-S1 is relatively painless using Sony's dedicated software. The rub is that it takes a long damn time, mostly due to the fact that high-res audio files are plump. Thankfully, you can basically set it and forget it overnight and come back in the morning to a fresh, steaming hard drive, chock full of high-res goodness. Of course, if you want to speed things up, a direct connection via Ethernet is certainly an option.
For my first listening session, I decided to start off with the powerhouse track "Madness" by Muse. It's a 96kHz/24-bit high-res version of their album The 2nd Law (Warner Bros.) downloaded from HDtracks. To put it simply, I was blown away by the sound quality. I'm familiar with this track as I've listened to it multiple times, on several different systems, as well as live at the Staples Center early last year. To be honest, considering the cost of my reference system, I was expecting to be let down a bit. On the contrary, I was struck by the tonal balance and overall degree of detail in the sound. Not to mention the compelling soundstage, which threatened, but did not quite equal, my reference rig. This is noteworthy, as we're talking about a price difference of (once you've added up all the assorted components and necessary cabling) roughly $8,000. Back to the song, closing my eyes, I was able to really appreciate the clarity and pop of both the vocals, and the guitar play - especially the compelling solo on this track. I'll say it again: I was a bit stunned by the sound quality of the Sony.
Moving on to something a bit more subtle, and also to get a sense of the HAP-S1's prowess with female vocals, I cued Cara Dillon's "Black is the Color" from the 48/24 FLAC version of Live at the Grand Opera House (Charcoal Records), downloaded from Bowers and Wilkin's subscription based Society of Sound. The first thing I noticed was that the Sony did an admirable job of conveying both the range and subtlety in Dillon's voice. I didn't notice any roll-off in the upper frequencies and her stunning vibrato was conveyed with a high degree of detail and transparency. Closing my eyes, and increasing the volume to the proper level, it was easy to imagine sitting in that opera house during her performance.
Feeling confident with the performance of the HAP-S1 on vocals and powerhouse rock, I decided to fire up the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Blue Rondo à la Turk," from their album Time Out (Columbia). This is one of the pre-loaded 2.8MHz DSD files on the Sony and it's a wonderful showcase. The strikes from Brubeck's piano were bright and full of life, with no cringe-inducing etch. The sound of air rushing through Paul Desmond's sax was lively and visceral. Despite the relative chaos of this track, the Sony kept its composure and displayed remarkable cohesion. Also, it's clear that the Sony designers did their homework in terms of choosing files that are not only well recorded, but that give a solid sampling of the HAP-S1's capabilities in handling multiple genres of music.
I decided to save the best for last, as there was one song I kept coming back to for several reasons. Prior to playing Sting's "Practical Arrangement," another pre-loaded gem of a 96/24 WAV file from his album The Last Ship (A&M), I was already a believer. Playing this track, which I must've done at least 10 times, is what took the experience to another level. This is where the soundstage began to approach reference quality. I'm not even a Sting fan; I love The Police, but Sting's solo work never lit my fire. Did the combination of the HAP-S1 and this astoundingly well-recorded track convert me? I'll admit that it did. If you're considering the HAP-S1, or its bigger brother with its larger hard drive and DSD re-mastering engine the HAP-Z1ES, and you're able to audition them, ask the dealer to play this track. The haunting rasp of Sting's voice was conveyed with stunning detail and warmth. Whether listening to the track at high or low volume, the sound enveloped the room and brought a smile to my face. Aside from the stunning vocals, this track features some weighty low-frequency material, which the Sony put forth with authority. It's also interesting that, despite the buzz surrounding DSD files these days, it was a WAV file that garnered most of my attention during critical listening.
On another note, you might be wondering if, at 40 watts per channel, the HAP-S1 is underpowered. While this is a subjective issue, I'll say that the Sony played plenty loud and never broke a sweat in my 400-square-foot listening room. As companies such as NAD have been illustrating for years, it's a mistake to pay too much attention to the wattage, as the proof is really in the performance.
I've never reviewed a product that didn't have a few issues and, despite the fact that I'm clearly enamored with the HAP-S1, this is no exception. First and foremost, the USB input should allow you to play music files from a USB drive. Most of the audiophiles I know, myself included, have USB drives loaded with music. This is an odd omission and one that, let's hope, can be corrected with a future firmware upgrade. I also found the transfer software to be somewhat user-unfriendly. There's no clear path to transferring single files and it looks like it was coded on a low budget with a tight timeline. That said, it does work and allow you to select a folder and auto-update files to the HAP-S1 whenever you add music to said folder.
Also worth noting is the fact that, despite being a network-capable device, you cannot stream files from a network attached storage drive, nor can you stream from a computer. Another limitation is that fact that, despite its ubiquity, Pandora is not an option. The only built-in option is vTuner, a radio streaming service that offers every available internet radio station. vTuner, while not high-res, does offer the highest resolution currently available through Internet radio. Lastly, and I'll admit this is getting nitpicky, it would be nice if the dedicated app displayed the amount of available space on the internal hard drive. This can be easily rectified via a future app update.
Competition and Comparison
Several years ago, this section would have been sadly lacking, although thankfully this product category is growing and, as such, Sony has some indirect competition. I say indirect, as most of the competition does not include built-in amplification and speaker inputs. If you're looking to get into high-res audio, but $1,000 is too rich for your blood, you might consider the Pioneer N-50. I've seen it in person and, like the HAP-S1, it's a good-looking unit. It's also relatively inexpensive at $699 and can be had online for much less. In addition to playing high-res files, the Pioneer adds AirPlay and Bluetooth (with an added adapter) streaming capability, but keep in mind what I mentioned above: it's not a standalone unit. A more direct competitor in terms of being plug and play would be the Denon DRA-N5, which retails for $499 and offers 65 watts per channel and multiple streaming options, including AirPlay.
So who is the HAP-S1 for? Its suitable for audiophiles without question but its designed mostly for music lovers. With enough marketing muscle, word of mouth and the inevitable price drop associated with electronics, it should help convert the high-res curious. For the already converted, let's say you have a den or some type of room in your home where you'd like to have a dedicated two-channel system, but don't want the hassle or expense of multiple components. For $1,300, you can buy a HAP-S1 and a very capable pair of PSB Alpha B1 speakers, which will give you a simple and affordable system that's worth showing off for your guests. If one day you'd like to up the ante in terms of performance, simply swap out the speakers. Let's say you want to add a two-channel rig to an existing home theater, maybe one that already has in-wall or on-wall speakers. A pair of floor-standers and the HAP-S1 gives you a dedicated high-res rig that bypasses your amp (or amps), processor, DAC, projector, etc. If you have your doubts about this product and/or this product category, I urge you to audition the Sony. If the dealer's demo room is of decent quality, I have no doubt you'll come away impressed.