Sony has returned to pure, two-channel, high fidelity sound; there’s an initiative to bring hi-fi replay back to the top of its consumers’ must-have wish lists. And it has produced a raft of new products focused around hi-res computer audio.

All are compatible with files up to 24-bit/192kHz and, of course, DSD downloads. HFN was first in line to sample the ‘Elevated Standard’ HAP-Z1ES digital music file player featuring a built-in 1TB HDD, and its partnering TA-A1ES integrated amplifier rated at 80W/8ohm.

The HAP-Z1ES is not a UPnP/DLNA network audio player. Yes, it connects to a home network via wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi, and it provides internet radio using the vTuner platform. However, playback of music files is directly from its HDD/local storage. (A rear USB port allows you add a supplementary external drive to expand capacity.)

Sony provides a small PC/Mac utility, called HAP Music Transfer, for moving files that you’ve downloaded to your computer.With it you can set the HAP-Z1ES to ‘watch’ folders on your computer and transfer files automatically at periodic intervals.

One of the HAP-Z1ES’s unique selling points is that it ‘upsamples’ all file types to 5.6MHz DSD (DSD128) on the fly, but this can be disabled if you prefer your 24/96 and 192kHz PCM files left intact.

Sony’s all-new integrated amp is a tasty £2k’s-worth with a fairly meaty power supply on-board. Dual-mono in layout, the TA-A1ES really is ultra-purist, with no emitter resistors, coils or capacitors in the signal line. It also includes a separate headphone amplifier.

Superb transparency

We were bowled over by the open and crystal-clear sound of the ES amplifier. It sounded relaxed and confident, with an inviting midband and natural, sparkling high frequencies free of grain and edginess. Its bass was powerful, extended and extremely well controlled. Playing Norwegian pianist Jan Gunnar Hoff’s acoustic jazz project, the Quiet Winter Night album [2L], demonstrated fabulous detail, providing ample evidence of the amplifier’s superb transparency.

The HAP-Z1ES is certainly refined and super-clean sounding, with a ‘pure’ and delicate treble quality. But we thought it a tad soft-focused and laid-back, with a subjectively reticent bass delivery. But, putting the two ES components together, the player’s slight leanness and lack of verve were ameliorated to a degree by the amplifier’s clarity and dynamic clout. Together they make for a very persuasive system.

It proved perfectly able to reveal subtle differences in file quality. Improvements in authority, grip, pitch definition, tonal shading and ambient detail were all apparent with higher sample rate media.

And what sonic effect does the ’X1 player have in converting PCM files to DSD? Hearing its excellent sound quality when playing a rip of Patricia Barber’s Companion [Blue Note], there was no way you would know you were listening to a PCM-to-DSD conversion. With good recordings Sony’s new ES components sound just wonderful. In ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ the instruments and Barber’s voice were depicted exquisitely in ‘holographic stereo’, the drum kit tangible and the acoustic palpable.

Verdict

The HDD player offers excellent functionality, the amplifier sounds fabulous, and as a duo they’re a most capable partnership, boasting solid build and handsome design. Tremendous value too.

Originally published in the 2014 Yearbook