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Move over, Neil Young: Sony is making a Walkman for audiophiles

Move over, Neil Young: Sony is making a Walkman for audiophiles

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Add another to the list of products from weird Sony: the company just announced a Walkman media player designed for lossless and high-resolution audio playback. It's called the Walkman A17, and it's shipping this November for $299.99. Apparently there's a very real demand for hi-res audio players: Neil Young's Pono player raised over $6 million dollars through crowdfunding, and now Sony is planning to take the Kickstarter sensation head on. It's not the company's first attempt at appealing to audiophiles; Sony's already gone down this path with the ZX1, though few people in America have heard of that product. This one strictly focuses on audio, and Sony says it's the smallest hi-fi player in the world as of last month.

But to understand the A17, you need to throw out everything you've come to expect from an MP3 player. If you're used to thumbing around an iPod touch, things are going to get weird. Think of this as the polar opposite of an iPod touch; it doesn't even have a touchscreen. Rather, the new Walkman is a pocket-sized audio player featuring a 2.25-inch QVGA display, a brushed aluminum chassis, and 64GB of internal storage. (You can expand that with microSD cards up to 128GB in size.)

Sony high-res walkman EMBARGO

The user interface feels like it's been pulled straight from a Sony MP3 player circa 2007 — which isn't really a compliment. Sony says it's been designed for ease-of-use, but navigating around with the diamond-shaped clickpad felt pretty awkward. The lack of a touchscreen was jarring at first, as I constantly wanted to just tap icons on the display. But while Sony decided against touch controls, it is including Bluetooth wireless audio streaming and even an NFC chip to help simplify pairing. Add all that up and the A17 comes off as a really weird hodgepodge of technologies. Oh, there's an FM radio tossed in there too.

Check out all of Sony's new releasesBut audio is the story here, so let's get into that. Sony's Walkman will play FLAC, AIFF, WAV and ALAC (Apple Lossless) files with no problem. It'll also play MP3, WMA, and AAC; Sony claims its DSEE HX technology "upscales" the quality of compressed music, but that kind of talk tends to make audiophiles cringe, and no one's buying this thing to throw MP3s on it. Speaking of which, loading music onto the A17 is about as rudimentary as it gets. Plug it into your computer, drag and drop your lossless music over, and you're done. The A16 will play high-res audio for up to 30 hours before the battery dies, and it can run for up to 50 hours if you're listening to lossy music.


Finding the music you want might be the hard part

It's likely that acquiring music may pose a bigger challenge for some. Of course there's HDtracks, a digital music store with a growing catalog of high-res audio. And if you're willing to blatantly disregard the law, it's not hard to find FLACs or carefully recorded vinyl album rips on torrent sites. Sony doesn't operate its own lossless music store, and didn't give the impression that one's coming anytime soon during our meeting. Neil Young's Pono, on the other hand, does plan to open its own store, and presumably anything you buy there — whenever it gets off the ground — will work on Sony's player. Apple likely has everything it needs to go take iTunes lossless at some point, but there's been nothing to suggest we should expect that in the near future. For a vast majority of consumers, what's there now works just fine.

Alongside its fancy music player, Sony is also releasing a new pair of very fancy headphones. The MDR-1A Hi-Res headphones will cost as much as the Walkman itself at $299.99, but for that price Sony says you'll enjoy the ultimate in sound quality, assuming your ears can appreciate the upgrade. And that's really the big question in all of this. Pono's wild success suggests that quite a few music fans are eager to hear more lossless and high-res audio through hardware designed to showcase it. "It is the sound of the 21st century," Neil Young has said. Come this fall, we'll get a better sense of whether there are enough of those people to sustain a new, no-sacrifice music ecosystem. But Sony hasn't forgotten about your everyday music fan either; today it's also premiering a $199 pair of Bluetooth headphones that put a huge emphasis on bass. (Hi Beats.) Those are set to arrive in mid-September.