Over the past few years, Sony has repositioned itself not as just a middling peddler of TVs and Blu-ray players and home audio gadgets like soundbars and Bluetooth speakers, but also the mass market leader in high resolution, super high quality personal audio devices. It's something the company has had credentials in since the original '70s Walkman, which genuinely revolutionised portable music in a way that wasn't equaled until the iPod.
Now, in 2016, at the 70th anniversary of Sony, the latest Walkman is the pinnacle of quality. That has culminated in a digital audio player that will cost you $4299 in Australia — and that's before you buy an equally high quality and equally expensive pair of headphones.
The audiophile's dream source that we're talking about here is the NW-WM1Z, something that Sony describes as its "Premium Walkman with High-Resolution Audio". It's a 124.2x72.9x19.8mm, 455g lump of metal and glass and leather and silicon, plated with gold, that promises the best personal audio listening experience you're probably ever likely to have — the "ultimate sound experience", in fact.
And look, I think they're right. This isn't even about bit-rates and braided cables and lossless audio paths, though — though that's what Sony is selling the NW-WM1Z on, because that's what audiophiles obsess over. The smallest difference in DACs and capacitors and internal wiring and all that stuff; I'm not too bothered about that beyond an academic level.
What I'm saying is that it's hard to pick up a Walkman, of all pieces of audio equipment, that has been built to the highest standard, designed with the utmost respect, and that promises the most to the listener, and not fall in love a little.
I've always liked high-quality audio gadgets, and I've spent too much money over the years on a succession of new headphones, new sources and high quality music tracks that I rarely if ever listen to. But in the same way that reading a paperback book has that tactile sensation to it, listening to music is an equally tactile and emotional experience — that's why vinyl is enjoying an odd resurgence in popularity. It's not a rational choice, otherwise we wouldn't be buying Beats, we'd all still be wearing white Apple earbuds every day.
The Signature Series NW-WM1Z Walkman is the most real and tactile digital audio listening experience that I've ever had. It's an obscene one in a lot of ways — it's plated in gold, it's excessively large and heavy to the point that it's barely portable, the interface isn't especially slick — but when you select a high quality audio track (FLAC at the very least, but something extremely high resolution and a high bit-rate may be technically superior if you have the ears for it?) and play it, something happens.
It doesn't even have to be music that musicians would think is good. You know, your arty friends that think The Decemberists' lost demo recordings are the only way to listen to them, and to whom Prince's locked and sealed archive of (probably mediocre) unreleased tracks is the Holy Grail. One of my favourite albums at the moment is Taylor Swift's 1989, because it's so incredibly well mastered and crisp and minutely put together — for modern pop, at least.
When you select a music track on the NW-WM1Z and put on those big, bulky, solid MDR-Z1R headphones that Sony has just launched at IFA 2016 in Berlin as well — oh, and those are $2999, by the way — something happens. You get a special feeling that you don't get with holding a new expensive smartphone or syncing your offline tracks from Spotify or Apple Music. Sound is something weird, and special, and it does funny things to us as humans. That's why people will spend huge amounts of money to enjoy it in special ways. That's what Sony is taking to the bank with the NW-WM1Z, and to be honest, I'm on board with it.
It's impossible to quantify, and it's just as hard to translate into words. So rather than talk about soundstage and roll-off and harmonics and all that crap, I'm just not going to. I'm going to say that I really liked listening to music with the NW-WM1Z, and that it felt special in a way that few pieces of technology do any more.
In Australia, the NW-WM1Z Walkman will cost $4299, while the lesser NW-WM1A will set you back just $1349 by comparison — it only has a single headphone jack rather than balanced connectors, 128GB versus 256GB of memory, and so on. An accompanying pair of MDR-Z1R headphones will cost another $2999. The TA-ZH1ES desktop headphone amplifier, into which you can plug a Signature Series Walkman, is $2899. That's an obscene amount of money, but if you really like your music, you might be able to justify it to yourself. [Sony]