The Future of Audio Is.... the Walkman?

Although MP3 files may not entirely deserve all the scorn heaped on them, it is widely accepted that it was the proliferation of those files that put the whammy on high-end audio. Despite the availability of higher quality formats like CD, SACD and DVD-Audio, conventional wisdom says the convenience of MP3 led consumers to dumb down their audio expectations. Now, is it possible that an old-school audio company and a brand name largely associated with cassettes could lead the way back to high audio quality?

Once upon a time, Sony was the first name in mass-market audio quality. Sure, you could pay more for spendy audiophile stuff, but if you wanted a solid audio product with good build quality and good sound quality, you didn't need to look further than Sony. Their AC-powered audio products were all pretty good, but it was their Walkman line that best defined the company as the leader in progressive, mobile audio.

When it was introduced 35 years (!) ago, the Sony Walkman cassette player revolutionized portable audio playback. The very novel idea of walking around wearing headphones was invented by Sony and the Walkman made it both possible and socially acceptable, not to mention, hip. And, compared to lots of other portable playback means, the Walkman cassette players were significantly better. I still have a Sony Walkman Pro WM-D6C and after all these years, it's still a terrific portable cassette recorder.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, Sony became a little too attached to the Walkman brand. They probably developed too many cassette versions including some that weren't particularly good, and although the CD Walkmans were good, they devalued the brand by sticking with the MiniDisc versions for too long. Still, the Walkman brand continues to resonate.

All of which brings us to today, and hi-res audio. In an attempt to help resurrect the Walkman name, and perhaps the company itself, Sony is selling the Walkman NW-ZX1, a high-end portable player with 128 GB of storage, capable of playing hi-res files. Originally only available in Japan, the ZX1 has sold briskly there, and now Sony is launching the player in Asian and European markets. Sorry, the ZX1 is not officially available in North America, however, you can pick up a gray-market unit via Amazon for $779.

And the ZX1 is only a part of Sony's bet on hi-res audio. The company has released no fewer than 25 hi-res audio products in the past year. Clearly, the brass at Sony believe that the company's still-solid reputation for quality audio, combined with the nascent interest in “hi-res” playback, might be their ticket for a return to the glory days.

A Walkman with a pair of Sony headphones jacked into it might seem very 80's-ish, but curiously it might be more contemporary than an iPhone and earbuds. Is it possible that the era of low bit-rate files, phones, and bundled earbuds is coming to an end? Was it the anticipation of a sea change that prompted Apple to buy Beats, a company that was founded on the premise of higher-quality playback? And in the midst of this, can an old-school company like Sony both regain its footing, and lead us back to the promised land? Maybe. The Walkman, one of the all-time audio endurance champions, might still have miles left in its tank.

Old Ben's picture

I don't think it was the MP3 format per se that killed high res audio. Rather, it was the way people listen to music now. Of course, there are still people who will sit down in front of a pair of high end audio speakers to listen to an album. My sense though is that, for most people now, music is the soundtrack to their lives. Music is in the background while we do other things (work, walk, exercise, etc.). The portability of the MP3 format dovetails perfectly with music always on in the background.

There are two main problems with higher resolution formats gaining traction: education and high cost of entry. Regarding education, the details of sampling rates and bit depth are beyond a lot of consumers. Also, how many opportunities have consumer had to hear a true A/B comparison between an MP3 file and a higher-resolution format? For comparison, HDTV was a relatively easy sell to consumers because it was easy to see how much better the picture was than standard definition. Thus, consumers ponied up the money for the HDTV sets, even when they were really expensive.

Regarding the cost of entry, the high res systems and file are expensive relative to the MP3 alternatives. Additionally, one need high end speakers or headphones to fully realize the improved sound quality of high res audio. Neither speakers nor over-the-ear or on-the-ear headphones are conducive to the "music as the soundtrack of our lives" experience. For example, I've never seen a person run or lift weights while wearing $600 audiophile over-the-ear speakers.

In the end, high res audio requires a large input of money and a bit of a change in how we interact with music to appreciate. This Sony Walkman is cheaper than many other options out there, but is still several times more expensive than iPods and the like. Until consumers can readily access true A/B comparisons to hear the differences for themselves and the prices for the components becomes more mainstream, I think high res audio will continue to struggle.

John Sully's picture

iPods, at least the current gen, can play 44/16 ALAC files, compared to and lossy format that is Hi-Res, whether you want to call it that or not. Currently the bulk of my collection is ripped from CD's that I own at full resolution. On my portable device (used mostly as a car audio source) the are down scaled to 256k AAC. To appreciate 44.1 doesn't require 1K headphones, you can get nice results from phones which cost around $100. From talking with millenials I know it seems that the main problem to buying even a decent stereo is bucks. They don't have the money for even a system which costs $700 or so. Rent, student loan payments, car payments, etc. leaves precious little after an income of a couple grand a month. High end isn't the problem, it is getting people to buy entry level stuff and start climbing the ladder.

When a reasonable (entry level) setup costs $1K, and you don't have any disposable income it might as well be $10K. Most of the kids I talk to would like to have a system that sounds good, but they are limited to their computer speakers or their iPod. I have a friend who is a DJ at the local college radio station and she doesn't have a decent system -- she depends on her iPod and computer speakers.

Mary-Lou's picture

Interesting! Actually I am one of those people who "sit down in front of a pair of high end audio speakers to listen to an album", like Old Ben claims, but I also think that we should not be scared if something new is coming...the important is that there is still good music!