Would you pay $700 for Sony's new Walkman?
Hand-carved from an aluminum block, the 128-gigabyte ZX1 resurrects the iconic portable music player -- minus the cassettes -- for premium buyers in search of high-quality audio.
By Kana Inagaki, The Wall Street Journal
Thirty five years after its debut, Sony's (SNE) Walkman is enjoying a little comeback.
But while the original cassette player of 1979 heralded the age of mass-market, portable music, the new $700 Walkman is aimed at premium buyers, as technological advances help more audio-on-the go users head upscale.
The ZX1, as Sony's gadget is called, is in many ways the antithesis of Apple's (AAPL) slender iPod, and the Walkman's own svelte predecessors. It has a heavy, bulky body that houses 128 gigabytes of storage for ultra-high-quality music files. Sony says each ZX1 is manually carved from a block of expensive aluminum, which helps reduce noise.
"The message for our designers and engineers was: please create a good product without worrying about the cost," said Kenji Nakada, Sony's sound product planner.
Unlike many earlier Sony attempts at high-end consumer electronics, the ZX1 is selling well -- at least in Japan. The new Walkman quickly sold out after hitting Japanese stores in December. Since February, the product has made its debut in Europe and other parts of Asia, although its launch date in the U.S. hasn't been set.
Despite the success, the ZX1 remains a niche product: Sony declined to give sales figures but analysts estimate only several thousand units have been sold so far in Japan.
And nobody expects the new Walkman -- however successful -- to go far in turning around Sony's chronic losses. The company said it lost $1.3 billion in the fiscal year ended March, and expects to stay in the red through March 2015. Televisions and games remain Sony's mainstay products in consumer electronics.
Still, the ZX1's popularity does highlight what industry watchers say is a shift among some portable-audio buyers, as advances in Internet speed and data storage allow consumers, who long opted for convenience over sound quality, to have both. Older-generation digital-audio players managed to store tens of thousands of songs in slim devices by compressing the audio files, a process that sacrificed sound quality.
"An entire generation missed the visceral emotion of listening to uncompressed audio," said Sony Chief Executive Kazuo Hirai, during an electronics show in January.
Now, faster and bigger storage memory chips as well as speedier Internet connections allow gadgets like the Walkman ZX1 to play, store and transfer heavier music files that the industry has dubbed "high-resolution audio" without losing too much of the sound data from original recordings. Longer battery life also allows the Walkman to play heavy audio files and last around 16 hours, although that is still about one-fifth of the hours possible for other portable players playing compressed files, according to Nakada.
Sony claims the format provides better sound quality than CDs, from deep bass tones to high-pitched sounds, including the moment when the singer takes a breath. High-resolution audio files contain more than three times as much audio data than CDs.
Sony has rolled out more than 25 types of high-resolution audio devices since September, including a cheaper Walkman model; it says the products made up more than 20 percent of all audio sales for the October through March period.
Other firms are also experimenting in the area. South Korea's Samsung Electronics (SSNLF), LG Electronics and Taiwan's HTC are all coming out with smartphones that claim to support high-resolution audio files.
In the U.S., sales of premium headphones have doubled in the past three years, according to research firm NPD Group. Japanese research firm Fuji Chimera Research Institute projects that high-resolution audio devices will account for about 20 percent of sales in the global audio market by 2020 in terms of value from less than around 5 percent now.
"People are becoming more quality conscious with high-definition television and this is the same parallel in the audio world," said David Chesky, the founder of HDtracks, a U.S. digital-music store that offers high-resolution audio files. The firm has more than doubled its revenue each year since its launch in 2008.
Tento Koyama, a 19-year-old university student, is one consumer who is willing to pay extra for sound quality. In mid-May, Koyama lined up for one hour to take part in a headphone festival event in Tokyo where Sony's ZX1 Walkman was displayed.
"I think this one is the best Walkman in its history," Koyama said, after listening to the ZX1 at a crowded Sony booth. "I don't mind the price."
Still, analysts say hurdles remain high for mass adoption since differences in sound quality are harder to detect than differences in TV picture quality.
"To get it to the mainstream, it's an effort to actually get people to listen to the difference," said Benjamin Arnold, an industry analyst at NPD Group.
And just as with TVs and smartphones, Sony already faces a growing challenge from rival audio device makers.
After trying out the ZX1 Walkman for about 40 minutes at a consumer-electronics store in Tokyo, Tamaki, a 34-year-old employee at a publishing firm who only gave his last name, said he's leaning toward buying a high-quality portable audio player by Iriver, a South Korean firm founded by former Samsung officials. That product cost twice as much as Sony's ZX1.
"This one is better than Sony's," he concluded.
More from The Wall Street Journal
Nobody is hand carving aluminum. This piece is machined on a 5 axis CNC machining center that completely computer controlled. A human does not even have to load the blank in to the machine or remove the finished part because those are easily done by a robot.
The aluminum blank might be worth $.25.
Hand-carved aluminum. Would hate to have that job. I wonder how the precision measures up to one that is CNC machined.
I think it has a lot of buzz words thrown in to make it more expensive without actually adding anything to the product maing it better.
Like the Walkman of the 80's, Sony should have revolutionized the digital music business like 10 years ago.
This is a real niche sort of product for audiophiles only so this sort of reaction doesn’t surprise me.
Basically, every phone out there plays music but they almost all use what is considered to be a very generic and cheap audio chip. Aside from general quality, the full digital amplifier that Sony uses takes the digital signal and runs it through an S-Master Power Amplifier that goes through an LPF to the speakers. A normal analogue amplifier takes the digital signal and runs it through a D/A converter, to an LPF, to the Volume Control, to an Analogue Power Amplifier to the speaker – more steps and components in-between equals more distortion of original input.
Been looking out for this product for some time.
At one time, I owned an ipod, the Sony walkman Z (model prior to this) and a Samsung phone. Using the same quality headphones on each, The Samsung phone sounds severely awful compared to both so I just use it as a phone. I sold the ipod because the sound quality just didn’t have the same quality and smooth warmness and depth (big difference). I don’t expect everyone to jump on aboard the sound quality boat, but if you ever see one around listen to your favorite song (using your headphones) on your current phone/player and then listen to it on one of these. That’s how I demonstrate the difference an audio chip can make to friends or family.
It's 2014. If I was a Sony executive, I'd ask the project team one question..."But can it send a text message?"
I get that the audio quality is so outstanding that sounds are coming out of the headphones that the human ear cannot even fathom possible. This is a big "who cares" situation. I have one device in my pocket that can play music that sounds perfectly fine, send texts, make phone calls, search the internet, store games, wake me up in the morning, and do pretty much anything besides not break when it drops from 3 feet.
You want to make money, Sony? Make a device with all of those forementioned attributes and develop a glass screen that doesn't break when you drop it from 3 feet. Oh yea, and waterproof. THAT is value added.
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