Is Sony's Walkman set to make a comeback?

Some question whether you can really discern the difference between Sony's new high-definition music players and compressed audio files

Sony appears to be making a big push to revive its 35-year-old Walkman music player with the new Walkman ZX1 high-resolution audio device.

The 128GB digital music player is one of a couple dozen products Sony has rolled out over the past year, all aimed at audiophiles who believe they can discern the difference between compressed music formats and uncompressed "ultra-high-quality" files.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Sony has launched more than 25 types of high-resolution audio devices since September 2013. The company says the new devices account for "more than 20% of all audio sales for the October through March period."

Walkman ZX1
The Sony Walkman ZX1 with 128GB of capacity and the ability to play high-definition audio. (Source: Sony)

Sony did not respond to a request from Computerworld for comment on ZXI Walkman sales figures but, according to the Journal, the new high-definition Walkman is selling out in Japan, where it was first released in December. In February, the ZX1 was released in other parts of Asia and Europe. It has yet to be released in the U.S.

Among consumers, the most popular file format, or codec, is still MP3 -- the compressed file format referred to as "lossy," meaning data is lost in the translation from the original master to the compressed format. "High-definition" or analog audio is recorded by sampling the audio 44,100 times per second, and then the samples are used to reconstruct the audio signal when playing it back digitally. An uncompressed file on a CD for example, uses 44.1KHz or 1,411Kbits of data per second.

In online music stores such as iTunes, an MP3 music file offers a bit rate of up to 256Kbps. Uncompressed audio files can take up to 10 times as much storage space as compressed files on a device drive.

Sony Walkman
The original Sony Walkman released in 1979. (Source: Sony)

For example, a typical album of songs stored as uncompressed WAV files takes up 640MB of space. The same album of songs in MP3 format will generally take up about 60MB, though the size of the files can vary depending on the quality the user chooses during the ripping process (if he's copying the songs).

There are other lossless formats in addition to WAV (short for Waveform Audio File Format). They include FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format), WMA (Windows Media Audio) and Apple's ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). Those formats have been gaining popularity because they require less storage space than WAV files. Like zip files, they first compress the data and then allow it to be opened and heard in the original, uncompressed format. The highest resolution lossless file, for example, has a whopping bit rate of 9,216Kbps, or 36 times more data than an MP3 file from iTunes offers.

Sony's ZX1 Walkman supports AAC (a lossy file format), FLAC, MP3 and WMA.

David Chesky, who co-founded high-definition music download site HDtracks.com six years ago, said a few hundred thousand people visit the site each month to purchase files.

"And we're scaling out: Millions of people in the world are audiophiles," he said in an earlier interview with Computerworld.

HDtracks sells audio files in formats that include 96,000/24 bits (which refers to a 96,000-sample-per-second file and a 24-bit rate) and a premium 192,000/24 format. HDtracks allows users to choose between downloading music in AIFF, FLAC, ALAC and WAV formats.

"It's not rocket science to see how much more information is in that file," Chesky said. "We're like a 1080p high-definition television set next to a 15-inch black-and-white. We're for people who listen to music attentively. If you want to listen to music while you're vacuuming, we're not the service for you."

Not everyone agrees with Chesky.

Some experts believe the human ear cannot discern the difference between a compressed audio file and a lossless format file.

Paul O'Donovan, an analyst at Gartner, said there may be some people who might be able to hear a difference between formats if they're in a quiet room with very high quality audio equipment. But if they're out and about walking on the street or visiting other public places, "those subtleties will generally be lost" -- even if they're using high-quality headphones.

"After all, this is the purpose of a mobile device, that you can take it anywhere, so I'm not really sure what the advantage would be to the ordinary man in the street," O'Donovan said. "Is it worth $700? Probably not to most people, but then I don't think this is the aim of Sony."

Paul Gray, director of electronics research at DisplaySearch, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based consultancy, agreed that Sony's ZX1 is a niche product targeted at audiophiles.

Gray said he believes the average person can hear the difference between audio on a CD and audio on an MP3 recording, and that increasing the bit rate on an MP3 file also yields a detectable improvement in quality.

But when it comes to increasing the sampling rate of an audio file, that is a different animal.

"Higher rate sampling over CD is contentious, as it contradicts all mathematical sampling theory. I have never come across double blind test results confirming it is audible," Gray said.

While some distortions, also known as "artifacts," can be introduced when music is compressed into a new file format, Gray said hearing those noises would require "a very clean listening environment -- not so easy for a mobile product."

"Most consumers would prefer to spend $700 on a new phone," Gray added.

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter (@lucasmearian), or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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