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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
Make 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.
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