REVIEW: Sony TA-A1ES amplifier

Sony TA-A1ES

For various reasons, it’s taken a while to get my hands on Sony’s flagship high-resolution audio player, the HAP-Z1ES – which isn’t the subject of this review.

The buzz has been building about this novel approach to the whole computer music thing, with its onboard storage, DSD upconversion and lack of any sign of network streaming, ever since it broke cover around the time of last year’s IFA show in Berlin.

However, various commitments on both sides – not least the ongoing struggle to pin down Sony’s Eric Kingdon, who’s only slightly more elusive than the Loch Ness monster, so we could have a chat about the products – meant I only got hold of a review sample a few weeks back.

At Sony’s UK HQ, located between what’s left of the old banking at the Brooklands circuit and the strident corporate statement of Mercedes Benz World – think Disneyland with rather more silver metal – I finally got introduced to the whole Sony High resolution Audio range: As well as the £1999 HAP-Z1 ES player, on display was the all-in one HAP-S1 system (smaller hard drive, built-in amplifier) at around the £800 mark, and the £500 DSD-capable UDA-1 USB DAC, ready to play high-resolution music from your PC or Mac.

Well actually at the moment it’s PC, or Mac provided you don’t want to play DSD files: Sony’s still finishing work on a Mac driver to allow them to be played, but it’s definitely on the way.

(Incidentally, the day I visited Sony had seen an announcement in Japan that the company was selling off its Vaio personal computer division to private equity group Japan Industrial Partners, which will set up a new company to sell the computers, initially only in Japan. The announcement had come in the early hours UK time – as things in Japan tend to – and I got the impression the PR people at UK HQ had experienced something of an interesting morning!)

Anyway, back to the plot, and in the black-curtained listening room deep in the building the HAP-Z1ES player was set up and burbling through a pair of Sony speakers, which were being powered by the TA-A1ES amplifier. Launched at the same time as the player, and selling for the same price, this amp has been slightly overshadowed by the hubbub and hoop-la about Sony’s move into the whole hi-res audio arena.

Let’s face it, in the ‘hit fast and move on’ world of modern ‘tech’ scribbling, a boring old-fashioned hi-fi amplifier is seen as neither as shiny nor as sexy as the likes of Sony’s new hi-res Walkman, due on sale about now.

The real star of the show?
Hardly any surprise, then, that in most mainstream media, the TA-A1ES has merited little more than a passing mention – which is a pity, given that this new hi-fi amplifier is anything but boring and old-fashioned. In fact, it could just be the star of the show.

Fat chewed with Eric, and equipped with a sheaf of his reliably comprehensive whitepapers on the technology behind the product, I loaded up two smart (and heavy – the new Sony ES products are solidly-built) black boxes containing a factory fresh HAP-Z1 ES and TA-A1ES, and headed for home, ready to embark on a review for a forthcoming issue of Gramophone.

I have to admit I was slightly cynical about the Sony way of doing high-resolution audio. No network streaming, despite initial erroneous reports of DLNA streaming? ‘Only’ a 1TB hard disk, albeit with to option of plugging in extra external storage via the single USB socket? No digital outputs, digital inputs, or optical drive for ripping CDs?

Coming from the point of view of a system currently running two 6TB NAS units and a dedicated ripping device, and able to play music to any room in the house using a choice of wired and Wi-Fi networking, I was sort of struggling to get my head around the apparent limitations of the Sony approach.

The player and amp were hauled onto the equipment rack and left to cook for a few days, and only after that and a drive down to The Chord Company’s HQ near Salisbury to pick up a replacement for my old XLR cables, one of which fell apart in my hand as I was hooking up the Sony player and amp, did I start to listen to the Sony pairing.

(By the way, thanks to Chord Co Technical Director Nigel Finn, who not only got me some cables made up within a morning, but chose to replace my old studio-type bog-standard XLRs with some very spiffy Chord Anthem Reference ones.)

So, things worth noting about the Sony hi-res audio player and amplifier: a) loading music onto the HAP-Z1ES, despite the very good Sony HAP Transfer software, is definitely a ‘set it running and go and do something more interesting’ thing, rather than a ‘sit and watch it happen’ one; b) once up and running, the Sony duo is really rather remarkable-sounding; and c) the TA-A1ES amplifier is an absolute peach.

Sony TA-A1ES

What’s left to do in amplifier design?
You’d think there’s not much that anyone could do with a stereo amplifier, especially one with little more than five analogue inputs and of sensible, rather than US-high-end-style stump-pulling, power: after all, believe the internet chatter and chaff and you’ll know that the two-channel amplifier is an entirely mature technology, and anyway all amplifiers basically sound the same. And the Sony, while clearly of substantial construction – it weighs 18kg –, isn’t exactly huge, at a standard 43cm wide and a relatively modest 10.75cm tall.

Sony TA-A1ES

Oh, and it has a hefty toroidal transformer – 300VA –, generous power supply capacitor provision, and a dual mono circuit layout, with one of the hefty power modules seen above each side of the chassis; but then again all of those are simply good amplifier design elements.

Sony TA-A1ES

Where the Sony differs is in the details of the design, from the mechanical to the electrical. The whole amplifier is built on what the company calls its Frame Beam Base chassis: this is a development of its established Frame and Beam design, providing extra support at critical points, and uses an additional rigid baseplate, with no fewer than four layers of metal underneath the transformer. Even the dual monaural layout is a direct mirror image, so the load on the chassis is balanced.

Buffer amps are used in both the preamp and power amplifier stages in the quest for optimum sound quality, and the preamp uses relay switching for inputs and is built from discrete components rather than going down the cheaper, but usually poorer-sounding, amp-on-a-chip route.

The power amp, meanwhile, uses a simple push-pull design, with a single pair of transistors driving the speaker: as Kingdon’s white paper explains it, ‘In many cases large output amps employ a power amp stage with multiple transistors to achieve high current output volume, but transistors do not perform identically and emitter resistance is used to stabilise transistor variations.

‘In this amp however, the power amp stage features only one pair of transistors and a design that eliminates variations in each channel at the source, enabling elimination of variation-controlling emitter resistance as well.’

smart control bias

The amplifier is also designed to change its bias according to the volume setting, with the result that most users – unless they’re total volume-level maniacs and/or have extremely hard-to-drive speakers – will find the Sony is actually working in Class A for most of their listening.

The idea is that this technique keeps the output devices working in their most linear range, but without excessive heat.

Sony TA-A1ES

The input provision extends to five line-ins – four on RCA phonos, one on balanced XLRs – and there’s also an impedance switch to allow the power amp to be best matched to the speakers in use: it has 4 ohms and 8 ohms settings, the former for speakers under 8 ohms, the latter for designs from 8 ohms to 16 ohms.

I was a little surprised to see a digital volume level readout on the amp, as these tend to be electrically noisy and thus avoided on many higher-end designs, but Eric explained that the problems are avoided by having the display switch to a static backlight once the level has been set, removing the source of the noise, which is usually from the imperceptible flickering of the display.

Sony TA-A1ES

Also surprising is the inclusion of a headphone stage with switchable impedance – that’s the circuitboard dedicated to headphone use above. True, more amplifiers these days are going for a dedicated onboard amp to drive headphones, rather than just hanging them off the end of the main output stage, but the impedance switching, to allow a better match to the headphones in use, shows the company taking such users seriously: the ‘low’ position covers 8 – <50 ohms; the ‘mid’ 50 – <300 ohms, giving a +10dB over the ‘low’ setting; and ‘high 300ohms and higher, with a 16dB lift from ‘low’.

There’s also an auto-standby option, which I found slightly oversensitive when listening at low levels, and so was left bypassed, and an input for remote control from the HAP-Z1ES, allowing the pair to be driven by Sony’s HDD Audio app for iOS and Android.

Sony TA-A1ES

Some seriously hefty speaker terminals are fitted, complete with screwdown clamps able to be tightened hard using only fingers; bare wires, spade terminals or banana plugs can be used. These oversize terminals also serve to increase the contact area between amp output and spade or bare wire.

In fact, the only thing missing – and this is simply a personal preference – is a unity gain/fixed level option on one of the inputs, to enable the amp to be integrated with an AV receiver’s preouts if required.

Having listened to the Sony combination for a couple of weeks now, the conclusion is inescapable the HAP-Z1ES is a remarkably expressive and involving-sounding player – and one about which I intend to write more here when time allows –, but the TA-A1ES amplifier is even more breathtaking in its ability to convey all the weight of music while at the same time displaying amazing resolution and impact.

Channel Classic Fisher WagnerMake no mistake about it: this is a truly world-class amplifier, and capable of seeing of some much expensive opposition, thanks to its combination of silky smoothness and an air of being in complete control with deft punch and real attack when required.

With a Channel Classics DSD download of Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra playing Wagner, the power and detail in evidence in the Meistersinger overture is simply thrilling, as is the impression of the music being performed before you, rather than just a recording being played.

That’s what the Sony does: used with a suitably revealing recording and source component, plus of course good speakers, it just opens up the music and lays it before in a manner available from only the very best hi-fi.

It draws you into a performance almost without you knowing its being done, holds your attention from start to finish, and then leaves you in a quandary whether to play the same performance again, just to enjoy it all over again, or go on and explore what it can do with something else.

That’s as true with everything from CD-quality rips all the way up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD files via the HAP-Z1ES: the Sony amp has a feeling of maturity and solidity of engineering about it that’s fully realised in the way it plays music, with all the power and snap to drive powerful basslines, an open-mouthed lack of restraint in the midband to make both voices and instruments natural and beguiling, and just the right combination of extension and sweetness in the treble to convey a sense of space and give cymbals real sting.

It will deliver full-force orchestral music as readily as it will blast out ancient and justifiably celebrated KLF tracks; will let you hear every nuance of a pianist’s technique as well as it will smooch through some late-night jazz, and has all the pep and vitality needed for everything from 16th century dance music to the latest chart-fodder.

The TA-A1ES’s sense of grip on speakers is confidence-inspiring, and while it lacks some of the visual ‘bling’ common in some high-end amplifiers of the moment – no echoes of watch-faces or car dashboards here –, it has all the performance to suggest this is going to become one of those classic Sony products still spoken of in reverential tones many years from now.

And yet for now it remains something of an unsung hero in the face of the blizzard of publicity surrounding the company’s hi-res audio players – which is why I’d firmly you suggest you try to take a listen, and decide for yourself exactly what all the lack of fuss is about.

Sony TA-A1ES
Stereo amplifier | £1999
Power output 2x80W into 8ohms
Inputs 4 line-in on RCA phonos, one on XLR balanced inputs
Outputs One pair speaker terminals, headphone (with impedance selector)
Other connections Remote control in
Accessories supplied Remote handset
Dimensions (WxHxD) 43×10.8×36.5cm

Written by Andrew Everard

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32 comments

  1. Andrew, great review – thanks! I already have the HAP-Z1ES hooked up to my AV receiver (Sony’s DA1200ES) and very very pleased with it. I’m considering a dedicated stereo amp now, so the TA-A1ES is my obvious first choice. However, can you tell me if I would be able to connect it to my AV receiver’s pre-outs, so I can use my Canton floorstanders for both TV and hifi? Thanks for letting me know!

  2. Yes, you can connect to your receiver’s preouts using any of the line-ins, but as I noted in the review there’s no unity gain/bypass facility for such connection, so you’ll just have to set the AV receiver channel levels with the TA-A1ES set to a volume setting of your choice, then make sure you set that again whenever you want to use it with the receiver.

  3. Victor Magliano · · Reply

    Even though I have read multiple reviews on this product, there is a great lack of detailed specifications offered. One spec I am very interested in knowing is what is the voltage gain in dB. I would consider using this amplifier in conjunction with a pair of Paradigm S8v3 speakers which have a rated sensitivity of 92 dB room/89 dB anechoic. These speakers can be bi-wired or bi-amped. I might also incorporate a REL G1 sub to handle the low end. I primarily listen to rock music and high energy dance music at louder volumes and would like to know if this amp has the energy reserves for proper transient attack. If it performs as well as stated, this $2,000 stereo amp will save me a lot of money on my 2 channel system revamp for 2014. The current cost for audiophile audio equipment is through the roof, and giant killer equipment such as this amp is very welcome indeed.

  4. G.Bearman · · Reply

    very disappointing that the power amp can not be separated from the line stage to enable transparent connection to the pre-outs of a Sony AVR

  5. G.Bearman · · Reply

    Connected the way Andrew Everard suggests to the pre-out of a Sony AVR surely will reduce sound quality ?

    1. Agreed that a pass-through/unity gain facility would have been ideal, but given the simple design of the preamp stage, I don’t think the method described here will be detrimental to the sound – just a bit of a faff.

      1. G.Bearman · ·

        Quite frankly despite your reply, I would much prefer to hear a two line, two VC setup for myself . No wonder Sony is going down the tubes, firstly the price IMO is far too high for a 80 watt amplifier , it only costs approx £1200 in the US.. Furthermore I can not locate a retailer who stocks/demos these two new audio products. Sony Support is totally useless, all they say is they do not know retailers stocks.? seems a waste of time even reviewing anything Sony., I would not spend £2K online without an audition..

      2. Just purchased a Sony 3000ES AVR and paired with Martin Logan Motion 40’s. Sound is very good. Confused about a number of things in this thread. Can I simply use my pre outs to connect to this amp? It appears so, then it does not? not a audio expert, just want a little more power to my main speakers.

      3. Hi Dan, Yes you can use the 3000ES preouts into one of the Sony’s line-ins, but you will have to choose a volume setting on the Sony, balance up the channels on the 3000ES and then always choose the same volume level on the amp when using it with the receiver.

  6. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    On further consideration I have yet to hear an amplifier with FET input that sounds as good as my own 20 year old 100 watt integrated that features a 500 va toroidal and a total of 80,000mfd capacitance, the TA-1ES has only 300 va and very small capacitance 24000 mfd. so I think I will forget it, listening to CD review today ,the sound I am getting from my Sony 5400Es FM and my amp. is excellent so easy to hear the differing recording quality of the CD’s & SACD,s.

  7. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    Andrew curiosity has won and I am trying out the TA-1AES, surely it is because the design relies upon bias current increasing with volume position that there is no separation of pre & main amp ?

    1. I assume that is the case, though it should have been possible to offer a unity gain facility, as many other amplifiers do. Anyway, I hope you enjoy your audition as much as I did reviewing the amplifier.

  8. G.Bearman · · Reply

    Sony TA-A1ES amplifier big disappointment. Your magazine WHF? says “Does,nt convey rhythms particularly well, needs more sonic punch “. I find the amp conveys nothing particularly well. Bass just a loud thump with no proper definition, or natural resolution, overall sound artificial . Took amp to an electronics engineer & speaker designer for second opinion, he agrees with me . Heat sinks are small, amplifier runs hot, distortion probably due to FET input is high. unable to agree with yours & HFN reviews., facia features annoying bright white light circles for line indicators, distracting and most importantly as you reveal amp. has no unity gain/bypass facility. Black colour surely mandatory… . The price is a rip-off in the UK at £2K, only approx. £1200 in the EU & US. not that I would want this amplifier at any price.

  9. Sorry you didn’t feel as I did – but just to clarify, WHF? is not my magazine, and I am afraid I haven’t seen its review as it’s not a title I read.

    1. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

      I understood you worked for Haymarket, perhaps no longer ? and were Audio Editor both Gramophone & WHF?

      1. Parted company with Haymarket some time ago – now working for Gramophone at its new owner, as well as freelancing for a variety of outlets, both publishing and industry

  10. I wouldn’t worry about what the WHF reviewers said or didn’t say. It is the most unreliable source of information I have come across and I was bitterly convinced in this more than once. Sony TA-A1ES, judging by everything I have read, should be a good integrated amplifier and being familiar with their 1990s ES range, I can say you will not find an amplifier that is better built than a Sony ES amplifier. The quality of the finish and the feel of the switches and controls is simply first class.

    WHF would like to make you believe this amplifier performs on the level of a similarly priced amplifier from Rega or Cyrus. Unbelievably untrue! I will also add to this that all of my experiences with Cyrus have been nothing short of catastropjic and this is especially true with their newest CD players and transports. So how is that possible when they are full of praise over at WHF? Have they actually used those players for longer than the duration of their test CD? If they did, they would have found it not only refuses to read CD-Rs but also 40% of prerecorded, blemish-free CDs bought in a CD store. So forgive me when I say these claims completely disqualify them as an organisation whose opinion is worth taking a note of.

    The sad truth is, Sony makes no claims about it so it will be forgotten soon. But that doesn’t change my opinion that this is a very worthy amplifier. I am in a market for an amplifier at up to 5000 Euro and I have my preferences but it would be a mistale not to hear the Sony. Differences in pricing might be dramatic, differences in performance not so much and this is something to bear in mind.

    Cheers!
    AK

    1. As the saying goes, ‘You may say that – I couldn’t possibly comment…’

  11. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    The best small amplifier available at present is the Goldmund derived JOB 225 mos-fet 125 wpc only cost £1089 direct from JOB. I like very much my SONY AVR STR-DA5400ES/XA5400 ES SACD playercombo and the Sony BDP-760 BD player but the over priced artificial sounding TA-A1ES was a big disappointment. Buy it on SONY,s 30 Day free return offer and hear it for yourself. Never believe any review.

  12. Thanks for the review Andrew, will go and have a listen to one. Could you answer a couple of questions please.
    1] How do banana plugs fit into the speaker terminals? Is there a lug that has to be removed from the end to enable the plug to be inserted?

    2] How do you think they might go with 16 ohm 107 dB efficient horn speakers? I guess the amp would put out about 40 Watts into 16Ohms, which is way enough power….but does anyone know if the amp would be quiet enough, that is …have very low residual background noise and hiss ?

    Thanks in advance.

  13. Bill Allen · · Reply

    I have my Sony TA-A1ES hooked to a pair of Bastanis 100DB Speakers and HAP-Z1ES with Kondo silver cables. All I can say is … WOW! I for one 2’nd everything in Andrew’s review. The amp sounds like a “world class” SET amp on steriods, it has surplanted my Ongaku … Bold Statement!

    I the find the Sony A1ES much quieter than the Ongaku, in fact it viturally silent using the balanced connections.

    Sony offers a 30 day in home trial … what are you waiting for!

  14. Gerald Bearman · · Reply

    Yes the 30 day home trial is a great offer,it seems we all hear differently, OTH I have far more listening experience than most having spent 50 years in the Hi-Fi industry both as a retailer and a s a manufacturer, I have listened to much Live v recorded sound and IMO the overpriced artificial sounding Sony TA-A1ES amplifier is not for me. despite being a Sony fan.

  15. Bill Allen · · Reply

    After 50 years of music it’s a wonder you can hear anything at all.

    Sorry Bear … I couldn’t help myself ….

  16. Paul Hemming · · Reply

    Extremely helpful review, Andrew. I am about to buy the pair as you have reviewed them but I can’t bring myself to spend on Chord Anthem Reference XLRs. Are XLRs better than RCAs on this coupling and how low would you go? Even Chord’s entry level XLRs are nearly £200. At least it is now possible to buy the amplifier and the player for £3100 together which seems more reasonable, particularly since Sony have priced each unit at 2000 whether it is pounds, US dollars or Canadian dollars which seems a bit cheeky.
    I want to use my 20 year old KEF 105/3s which were professionally refurbished, upgraded and calibrated 2 years ago by the firm recommended by KEF, who no longer do it. Dare I use the KEF Kube with the new amplifier? My current Sony TA F770ES does not like it and goes open circuit when I add it into the system. Perhaps I should save up for some Spendor A9s which don’t need a calibrated bass booster. Mrs boss says that they don’t look as good and are too dear.
    I have enjoyed reading your articles and reviews in Gramophone for several years now. It is a shame that the Hi-Fi section was shrunk some years ago as I think that classical music audiophiles who read it have a different agenda from the readers of most Hi-Fi mags. I have made that point to the editor a couple of times and indicated a preference for more HI-FI reviews and articles when the surveys are carried out but no results yet!

    1. Hi Paul, and thanks for your support.

      I’d certainly try using balanced interconnects if possible, even if you use a couple of runs of basic microphone/studio connectors from a supplier such as StudioSpares. But given the price of the two components, I’m confident that a pair of entry-level Chord XLRs will pay dividends – why not try the basic studio cables to get a benchmark first?

      I don’t have any experience of the KEF Kube, so I’m afraid can’t advise on its use with the Sony amp.

  17. Mark Hyland · · Reply

    Andrew, you mentioned in the lead up to the review that you were supplied with white papers on this amp and the HAP-Z1ES. As a HAP owner, I would love if you could swing me a copy over to me via email please…

  18. I’m not sure I have them anymore, sorry.

  19. Andrew, I am interested in buying just the Sony TA-A1ES amp and not the HAP-Z1ES player.
    How does it sound using a CD player and not the HAP-Z1ES player?
    Is the amp only sound good with the dedicated HAP-Z1ES?

  20. Excellent review and reflects on the the Sony HAP-S1 (the Z1/A1 love child) with the built in amp that I have. It’s driving matching Sony SS-HA1 monitors and I have to say the sound is very good. The S1’s amp is only 35 wpc.

    I’ve got a pair of Spendor SP100s coming shortly. I’m thinking that will justify an upgrade to the TA-A1ES. 35 wpc is supposedly enough for the Spendors, being a typical EL34 tube amp output but those big woofers deserve better one would think. I won’t be able to use the balanced input for the output of the S1 but oh well.

    Sony, when they want to deliver audiophile products at reasonable cost, can really deliver.

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