Sony Touts High-Resolution Audio at Cheek to Cheek Event

When I arrived at Avatar Studios in Manhattan this past Thursday, the first thing I noticed was the sound of the space. It was hushed, yet everyone’s voice was clear. Sony’s event took place in the same room where Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett recorded Cheek to Cheek, a jazz collaboration between the world-famous 28-year-old pop star and the legendary 88-year-old jazz singer.

Avatar Studios in NYC, where Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga recorded their new collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek.

Sony brought a couple of new toys to help show off the quality of the high-resolution recording of Cheek to Cheek. First, there was a Walkman with high-resolution audio capability—the NWZ-A17—a slim, rectangular, brushed-aluminum device that follows the design cues of other recent Walkman products. It fits well in your hand or pocket—unlike the much publicized, similarly spec’d, but pricier and less pocket-friendly Pono Player.

Along with the new Walkman, Sony demoed a new pair of headphones, the MDR-1A. It’s an update to the MDR-1R, $300over-the-ear headphones with a frequency response up to 80 kHz. The new MDR-1A ups the top-end response to 100 kHz, which allows it to reproduce the entire high-frequency spectrum of a 192 kHz PCM recording.

Sony showed off its newest portable high-res audio gear at the event.

While I am left wondering how useful the boost from 80 to 100 kHz is for humans—my hearing only goes up to about 18 kHz—I can’t deny that the MDR-1A sounds great. I already own the MDR-1R, and I had it with me at the event, which allowed for a direct comparison. In addition, thanks to the favorable acoustical properties of the room, there was not a lot of ambient noise to distract from the demos. The MDR-1A is superior to its predecessor, with a more open and airy sound and bass that digs a bit deeper. It seems that Sony’s engineers also paid attention to the audible spectrum when they updated the MDR-1R.

I found myself captivated by the music of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett playing through the A17 and MDR-1A combo. The little Walkman had no problem extracting tremendous amounts of detail from the recording, and its sound quality was clear, even when driving the headphones at irresponsible volume levels.

Sony promised a very special guest in the invitation—of course, that guest was Tony Bennett. Sadly, Lady Gaga was out of the country touring, although she did record a short video where she said hi to everyone there. Tony gave a brief speech about how excited he was to work with Lady Gaga. Tony’s sons, Dae and Danny Bennett, produced Cheek to Cheek, and both of them were there to talk about the finer points of making the album. The two younger Bennetts recorded everything in a series of live takes, i.e., the old-fashioned way. In fact, Dae and Danny noted that the video for “Anything Goes” consists of outtakes from the actual recording session.

Amazingly, everyone who attended received a NWZ-A17 Walkman on the way out—that’s pretty cool considering it is not for sale in the US yet! Everyone had to sign a form promising not to sell the gift Walkman. On my train ride home from NYC—I live in Philly—I listened to the new album on the NWZ-A17 through my MDR-1R headphones. Cheek to Cheek sounded fantastic—it’s the best-sounding portable player I’ve owned. I don’t know how much the high-res audio format had to do with the overall sound quality as opposed to the hardware. I do know that I agree with Danny Bennett, who noted how amazing it is that studio-quality sound is now fully portable.

Sony’s new NWZ-A17 hi-res audio-compatible Walkman—I scored one on the way out!

Sony’s new Walkman isn’t the only high-res audio player out there, but it is one of the smallest and lightest such devices I have ever used that offers true high-fidelity sound. I loaded up a number of albums from my iTunes collection, and they sounded better than the same files played back on my Samsung Galaxy S4—despite being compressed iTunes tracks.

If high-res audio provides an incentive for manufacturers to up their game on the engineering side of things, I’m all for it. What do you think? Do you believe the improved sound quality of the NWZ-A17 (versus my phone) is due to the high-res audio itself, or is it because hardware designed for high-res playback is of better overall quality? I strongly suspect it’s the latter.