Sony Backs Hi-Res Audio Big Time

Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
Sony Backs Hi-Res Audio Big Time

At a highly-promoted September 4 press conference in New York City, Sony unveiled a multi-pronged strategy to “deliver hi-res digital to a broader audience”. Sony’s explanation for wanting to do so would be self-evident to any TAS reader, but was remarkable coming from a mass-market company. “There has been a shift in the way music is enjoyed,” declared executives from the Jazz at Lincoln Center stage. “MP3 offers greater convenience, but to the detriment of sound quality. Many younger listeners have never experienced their favorite recordings with the kind of quality that the artist and producer intended.”

Well, duh. Yet it’s gratifying to hear an influential company like Sony shine a critical light on this situation. But what are they going to do about it? Several things.

First, Sony is liberally opening its extensive music catalog to hi-res download services, and has engaged the cooperation of Universal and Warner Music as well. In all, a trove of material. I asked HDTracks’ David Chesky, who was in attendance, how much Sony had made available to him. “Pretty much all of it,” he said. That includes many albums recorded in DSD, downloads of which Sony is warmly embracing. Among several others, Acoustic Sounds, whose president Chad Kassem was also at the event, has already launched such a service:

Aside from limited access hi-res titles, Sony also believes that consumers are confused by the plethora of formats, platforms and interfaces associated with hi-res audio. To combat this problem, the company is introducing a new line of products meant to make hi-res audio easier to use. For instance, each of the four new products support virtually every audio format, including those proprietary to Apple, from mp3 to double dsd. That means consumers simply needn’t worry about such things; any digital file will play. Each model also includes features meant to ease the transfer of digital material from PC to playback.

The new components, all of which will be available in the Fall, range in price from $799 to $1,999. Each model has been designed with a specific “lifestyle” in mind. For the computer-bound user, the entry level UDA-1 ($799) will serve nicely as a desktop DAC/amp. The company expects this model to drive a lot of headphones, but it has enough juice (20wpc) to power a pair of small speakers, such as Sony’s new SS-HA1 ($599) and SS-HA2 ($349) desktop models. In addition, while USB may be the primary interface, the UDA-1 also provides coax and optical digital inputs, as well as a line out. With these features, the UDA-1 can start life on the desk but later migrate to the living room.

For those already ensconced in living rooms, the HPA-S1 ($999) doubles power output and adds a 500GB hard drive. Additional capacity can be added via a NAS drive. The unit, therefore, is essentially a combination music server/DAC/amp.  In keeping with the theme of convenience, the HPA-S1 will automatically sync music between its library and a PC via a wired or wireless network connection. From there, the library is displayed on a front panel screen whose GUI is powered by GraceNote.

For the home theater market, Sony is offering a free firmware upgrade to its STR-DA2800ES and STR-DA5800ES receivers. The upgrade will enable these existing products to support all audio formats over its USB input. Presumably, since natively decoding DSD requires specialized hardware, the receivers will convert incoming DSD streams to PCM. But this level of technicality is—as Sony informed me when I asked whose DAC chipset they were using inside the new products—“off message”. 

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