Magazine article Gramophone

Sony HAP-Z1ES and TA-A1ES: An Unusual Approach but a Magnificent Sound

Magazine article Gramophone

Sony HAP-Z1ES and TA-A1ES: An Unusual Approach but a Magnificent Sound

Article excerpt

Music-streaming systems aren't new --neither is high-resolution music. But the Sony approach to the latter is different to that of established players such as Cyrus, Linn and Naim. Yes, the company has a digital-to-analogue converter able to connect to a computer and do the 'Macs and DACs' audio thing, but the mainstay of the new Sony offering is based around local hard-disk storage of music, not streaming.

Ask Sony about network streaming and the answer is 'never say never'; for now the network capability of its flagship HAP-Z1ES high-resolution player is there to suck in music stored on a connected computer and look up stored music on the Gracenote database. This can be in the form of anything from MP3 right the way via PCM or FLAC at up to 24-bit/192kHz to DSD, the technology behind Super Audio CD.

That's another thing about the HAPZ1ES: it may have a 1TB hard drive, plus a USB socket to allow attachment of extra storage, but there's no optical drive to allow the direct import of CDs. Music must be either downloaded from the internet or 'ripped' using an optical drive on to a computer, where it can then be accessed by the player with the help of a free HAP Transfer application.

So the HAP-Z1ES is a high-resolution player, not a recorder. As well as its network connectivity (either via Ethernet or Wi-Fi), it has audio outputs on both RCA phonos and balanced XLRs to match the input choice on the TA-A1ES amplifier, can access internet radio stations and allows control from a smartphone or tablet using Sony's free HDD Remote app.

However, under the player's lid is a range of engineering designed to make the most of its sound, not least of which is the fact that it can be set to upscale all the audio stored on its hard disk to 5.8MHz DSD before it passes through D-to-A conversion. In fact this is the default setting, and is done 'on the fly' during playback, taking advantage of the fact that converting DSD content means a lot less work for a suitable D-to-A converter and the belief that this should yield benefits in sound quality. (The DACs here are designed so that both DSD and PCM files are converted in their native form: there's no fudging DSD through PCM to simplify things.)

There's also a Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, for counteracting deficiencies of lower bit-rate compressed music. Sony's Eric Kingdon says it's particularly effective in tackling the way such compression can truncate the decay of notes, diminishing instrumental character. Beyond that, the player uses twin transformers (one each for the digital and analogue sections) and a development of the company's Frame and Beam chassis, which here adds a further baseplate for greater rigidity and a low centre of gravity. Even the angling of the internal cooling fan was determined by its effect on sound quality!

The TA-A1ES amplifier also has plenty of innovative thinking within. It's a 2x80W design with plenty of power in reserve to increase output as impedance falls, is of a dual-mono design and has four line inputs, one set of speaker outputs and a separate headphone amplifier with an impedance selector. Again built on an FBB chassis and with a hefty power transformer, it uses an amplifier design linking volume to bias control, allowing linear operation of the power transistors without excessive heat. In fact, Kingdon explains that for the majority of listeners, the amplifier will effectively be operating in Class A for all their listening.

The volume read-out uses a digital display whose control circuitry and illumination are switched when a level has been set, in order to minimise noise. And, while a remote handset is supplied, a wired link from the HAP-Z1ES allows the amplifier to be controlled by that HDD Remote app.

PERFORMANCE

Installation of both player and amplifier was completely straightforward, and the transfer of content from computer to player was also simple, if time-consuming. …

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