Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sony's "Feel the Air" - High-Res Audio Event


I remember seeing my schoolmate's Sony Walkman many years ago. There was a hushed silence - a mix of awe and respect when he took it out. The small circle that formed around him handled it carefully. It was heavy, generous with its use of metals and obviously meant business.

Fast forward through the years - I never did manage to own one. But in those days, Sony was associated with top quality, albeit expensive products.

Sony used to make serious high quality audio products, notably, it's CD and SACD players launched under its ES range.

I felt a mix of nostalgia and curiosity when I received the invitation to attend Sony's "Feel the Air" event on the 2nd of October, 2014. Was Sony making a comeback to high-end audio ?

Feel the Air

A variety of products were exhibited, many of which were setup for demonstration purposes. Some of the products were unusual to say the least (do we really need vibrating headphones ?).

Based on the lineup of products on display, it was clear that the market trend was headed towards portable devices (portable music players, earphones / headphones and bluetooth speakers etc).

A variety of short presentations were also made to explain the technology behind the NWZ-A15 digital music player, and the MDR-Z7 headphone.

Home Audio

One of the rooms was set up with the UDA-1 USB DAC Amplifier and the MAP-S1 Multi Audio Player System. The latter was paired with it's recommended matching speaker, the gorgeous gloss finished SS-HW1. 

The MAP-S1 is equipped with a front loading slot for CDs, and plays a variety of file formats too ( as a DLNA renderer), or through NFC / Bluetooth. A built-in 50 watt per channel amplifier completes the picture. The only thing missing is built-in storage.

The MAP-S1 / SS-HW1 impressed me with it's sound quality and clarity. This is well worth taking a second look at. The MAP-S1 retails for S$ 1,199, while the SS-HW1 retails for S$ 999.

I did not get an opportunity to listen to the UDA-1 as it was hooked up to the MDR-Z7.


A large sized listening room displayed two speaker models from the "ES" series. An earlier presentation provided a brief background into the design and manufacture of these models - the SS-NA5ES and SS-NA2ES.

These beauties are made out of Scandinavian BIrch Wood and handmade in Japan. The tweeter units are what Sony terms, "I-Array", a triple driver vertical array arranged with a central 25 mm soft-dome tweeter, flanked by smaller 19 mm drive units.

The bookshelf model, the NA5ES, is a 2 way design. The floorstanding model, the NA2ES is a 6 driver, 3 way model. Basic specifications for both models are as follows :-


2-way, 4 drivers, Bass reflex
130 mm aluminum cone woofer
25 mm soft dome tweeter
2 x 19 mm soft dome supertweeter
4 Ohm impedance
86 db sensitivity
45 Hz - 45 kHz frequency response (no limits stated)
10 kg weight


3-way, 6 drivers, Bass reflex
2 x 165 mm aluminum cone woofer
130 mm paper cone midrange
25 mm soft dome tweeter
2 x 19 mm soft dome supertweeter
4 Ohm impedance
90 db sensitivity
45 Hz - 45 kHz frequency response (no limits stated)
32 kg weight

A closer look at the I-Array drive units

I came away very impressed with the short demonstration (3 tracks were played for each model). The most impressive audition for the day was actually the smaller model, the NA5ES. It had incredibly bass extension for its cabinet size, and a spacious natural top end. Despite being driven by an AV receiver, and matched to a very large acoustic environment, this petite overachiever really delivered the goods. It's larger sibling, the NA2ES had deeper bass extension and a grander scale. 

I noticed some listener height sensitivity, with quite a marked difference when changing my listening position in the vertical plane.

In both cases, the systems were fronted by the HAP-Z1ES. Sony is well aware of the local grumblings about the non-availability of the Z1 in Singapore and they mentioned that they are carefully evaluating the situation. 

Personal Audio and Headphones

When news of the MDR-Z7 first leaked out, internet forums went into overdrive with the rumour mill making all kinds of stories, including the Z7 being the successor to the infamous MDR-R10.

The Z7 is a closed phone featuring a massive 70mm aluminum coated liquid crystal polymer diaphragm. With a bat-pleasing frequency response stated to extend from 4 Hz to 100 kHz, this pair of cans will have high-res audio suitably covered.

A sample of the massive drivers, with a mock-up ear for size comparison.

Impedance is specified as 70 ohms, and sensitivity at 102db/mW. Detachable headphone cables allow an easy swap to optionally available balanced connection cables. The cables are made by Kimber Kable, which gives it instant audiophile credibility.

Construction is top rate and this has to be one of the most comfortable phones I've tried.

This is not intended to be a successor to the R10, and priced much more modestly (based on overseas pricing - Singapore prices were yet to be fixed at the time of the event).

Why not relaunch the R10 ? Speaking to several Sony executives, as well as Nageno-san, the answer is simple - it can't be done. Many of the components used in the R10 are simply no longer available.

The PHA-3 portable DAC / headphone player is the natural match for the Z7, and both were displayed together for testing purposes. The PHA-3 sports balanced connections, and a claimed output power of 320 mW into a 32 ohm load (balanced), or 100 mW (unbalanced).

I heard the Z7 quite briefly in balanced drive. It has good bass, but probably not enough for bass heads. I found the overall balanced to be slightly on the dark side, with good pleasing midrange, and a slightly laidback treble. Subjectively, it's tone sits between the Audeze LCD 2.2 and the Sennheiser HD600. 

It's top end is more open than the LCD 2.2, but the Audeze has the Sony licked in the area of bass slam and extension. 

It leaks sound a bit (probably through the bottom vents), but at lower and moderate volumes, this is unlikely to disturb nearby people.

Fit and finish was excellent, and top marks were awarded for comfort. Headband pressure was not excessive, and the curvature of the band did not interfere with my spectacles. 

I can't comment on how they heat up in our tropical weather, as the display booth was strategically placed directly beneath the air-con vent. True to Singapore fashion, the thermostat in the venue was set at an ideal temperature for penguins.   

Interview with Koji Nageno and Hideyuki Uemura

I was also given the opportunity to speak to Mr. Koji Nageno (chief engineer for headphones) and Mr. Hideyuki Uemura (engineering team lead for the A15 digital music player). 

Nageno-san shared his thoughts on the challenges of designing headphones and in-ear-monitors (IEMs), the constraints being the distance of the driver from the ear, and the size of the driver.

I asked Nageno-san about the size of the driver vs frequency range, in particular whether there were difficulties in having a large diaphragm reproduce very high frequencies.  He shared some insights into driver design, the materials used for the diaphragm, and the careful shaping of the diaphragm to overcome this. 

Nageno-san seemed to favour closed designs and explained that a typical household has at least 40 dB of ambient noise. He felt that a closed design is better, allowing better clarity in such circumstances. He also explained that a headphone design is not a choice of fully open or fully closed, and a design is always a mixture of open / closed. In respect of the Z7, he described it as being approximately 80 % closed and 20 % open.

I broached the topic of balanced headphone drive. Nageno-san shared that from a technical point of view, the increased voltage swing and non-shared ground are well worth having in a headphone setup.

With respect to choice of driver design, I asked Nageno-san what he thought of other technologies, especially electrostatic driver designs. He replied that he has a lot of respect for his competitor companies, and some of their headphones. He felt that good results could be obtained, regardless of choice of the type of drivers used.

Given Sony's long association with DSD, I mentioned that it would be good if future portable players could decode DSD - especially with it's current popularity. Both Nageno-san and Uemura-san replied that this is currently under consideration. 


Looks like Sony is back on track to make some waves in the audiophile market. Let's hope to see more goodies from Sony. On behalf of all audiophiles in Singapore, I can only say this - "Don't forget about us here in Singapore."

I would like to thank Sony Singapore and it's media partner, Waggener Edstrom for inviting me to this event. 

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