Back in the summer of '79, Sony introduced the Walkman. Among the early adopters was my mom, and that iconic blue and silver gadget with the bright orange mute/microphone button on top was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. Flash forward 35 years, add $150 to the price, and you have the latest incarnation of the iconic music player: the Sony Walkman, model number NWZ-A17SLV, which retails for $299.99 and features (thanks to 35 years of technological advancements) hi-res playback capability up to 24/192.
The NWZ-A17SLV features a 64GB hard drive (expandable via MicroSD card) and is compatible with virtually all of the major audio file formats, including AIFF, WAV, FLAC, and ALAC. For a detailed list of specs and supported file types, visit Sony's product page. In terms of functionality, you can load and view pictures and video (AVCHD, MPEG4, WMV9), and there's also FM radio available, but no networking capability. The unit does include Bluetooth functionality, but the somewhat sparse Sony manual makes no mention of it. For those who are technically challenged, this could be an issue. In terms of style, the NWZ-A17SLV is a diminutive unit (a la the tiny cell phones that pre-dated smart phones), featuring a 2.2-inch screen and directional/playback buttons reminiscent of the early iPod.
Sadly, the Sony did not come pre-loaded with any hi-res music, but downloading the transfer software and transferring 10 tracks took very little time and effort. For my listening sessions, I used both my Bowers and Wilkins P5 headphones and my trusty (although somewhat long in the tooth) Sony MDR-7506 headphones. While each set of cans has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses, I found them to be equally pleasing with the Walkman. One of the first tracks I played was the 24/96 version of Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" from his album Time Out (Columbia). I was pleasantly surprised by the visceral nature of the piano strikes and the punchy shimmer of the drum play. This is a busy track, but the Sony Walkman delivered a coherent and lively presentation.
In playing multiple genres through the Walkman, including rock (Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel), jazz (Dave Brubeck and Marta Gomez), and various instrumental tracks, I was impressed with its consistency and transparency, especially given its size. As I listened to the 24/96 version of Peter Gabriel's "Flume" from Scratch My Back (Real World Productions), the little Sony did such a masterful job of reproducing Gabriel's voice (especially the upper register) that I basically forgot I was listening to a portable player. I had a similar experience listening to "Lucia" from the Marta Gomez album Entre Cada Palabra (CD Baby). I found her vocals rich and soothing, with just the right amount of texture. While listening to this track, I also took note of the balanced sonic nature of the Sony, which is to say that, despite varying degrees of recording quality, I never found the Sony to be overly bright nor overly dry. This is pretty surprising, especially for $299.
• The NWZ-A17SLV has beautiful sound quality, especially given the price point.
• The file transfer software is intuitive and no-nonsense.
• The player is perfectly sized to slip into a pocket.
• The NWZ-A17SLV has a well-designed button configuration and menu layout.
• Those who prefer their music loud might find this player to be somewhat underpowered, depending on the headphones used.
• This product has potentially limited appeal for those who are married to their phones for music playback.
• The NWZ-A17SLV lacks networking capability.
Comparison and Competition
There are a handful of other players in the portable hi-res category, maybe the most well known of which are those by Astell & Kern. While they have multiple portable hi-res players, the closest model to the Sony is the AK100 II, which also functions as a DAC and retails for $599. One thing worth noting about the AK100 II is that, unlike the Sony, it will play DSD files. Neil Young has been a hi-res proponent for years, and he's on the cusp of releasing the Pono portable hi-res player, which has similar specs and costs $100 more.
As is often the case, reviews can leave the reader, and quite honestly the writer, in a bit of a quandary as to whether or not a purchase is warranted. In the case of the Sony Walkman, I think it's a bit more black and white. Basically, what it comes down to is how particular you are about sound quality. If your attitude is blasé (shame on you), then just use your phone, save the $300, and be done with it. If your tastes are more discerning, then I'd say the Sony is worth your time. While $300 is certainly not something you'll find in your couch, considering the price of the competition, it's a relative bargain.
• Sony HAP-S1 Hi-Res Music Player Reviewed at homeTheaterReview.com.
• Can We Sell Hi-Res Audio to the Mainstream Music Lover? at HomeTheaterReview.com.