Sony found things difficult back in the late nineteen nineties, when MP3 files began to replace Compact Disc. The company’s instinct had always been to maintain control of the entire music recording and replay chain, from record company to format to player. But for once, this great consumer electronics group was caught on the hop. The next generation of music listeners wanted their content free and easy – and certainly not tied to anyone’s hardware. Belatedly, Sony responded with ‘Network Walkmans’ running the ATRAC format, but it was like trying to push water uphill – the world wouldn’t listen. History tells us that just a couple of years later, Apple seized the opportunity and wrested the whole shebang from Sony’s grip with the iPod in 2003, and iTunes three years subsequently.
First announced at IFA in 2013, the HAP-S1 high resolution music player sets out to give easy access to high quality digital music in a sleek, one-box package. It has a 500GB hard drive built in, and so forms the heart of a large music library – and importantly it has clever new software that lets you transfer your library from your Mac or PC with ease. The new Sony doesn’t just play FLAC and Apple Lossless (ALAC) files at the normal resolutions, plus all the other lower quality compressed file formats further down the hi-fi food chain (AAC, etc.), it also supports PCM up to 24/192 and DSD.
In short, it’s the first affordable ‘music jukebox’ that can genuinely claim audiophile credentials. This isn’t the first hard disk drive-based music player, as many will well know. We have already seen a slew of such devices appear on the market, only to wither away. Philips were one notable example of a company that dabbled with this idea, then gave up. Cambridge Audio and Yamaha also discontinued their HDD players, and moved to network music streamers instead. In fact, the closest thing in existence to the HAP-S1 is the ageing Brennan JB7, which is a less audiophile proposition, as we shall see…
Sony is serious about the its new one-box system, having resisted the temptation to use cheap, low current consumption, high power Class D power output modules. Instead, it has stuck with Class AB operation on sound quality grounds. Its power amp is of dual mono construction, and is said to have extended bandwidth to exploit hi-res audio sources, up to 100kHz. It’s mounted to a commendably sturdy chassis of 3mm thickness aluminium, and a low noise cooling fan is fitted. This sits on eccentric insulators, made from rubber of specially chosen hardness.
The HAP-S1 sports a low loss EI ferrite core power transformer, and careful attention has been paid to earthing, with a single ground point and high strength epoxy glass circuit-boards said to be twice the thickness of rivals. Trick power supply capacitors are fitted, selected for sound quality, the company says, as are carbon resistors. Special signal switching relays are fitted in lieu of semiconductor switches. Overall quality of construction is excellent considering the price and the type of product it is.
Before you use the Sony in earnest, you’ll have to hook it up to your home broadband network; there’s a choice of wired or wireless, with a built-in antenna for the latter – no nasty stubby plastic masts hang out from behind. Migrating music from your computer is done via Sony’s HAP Music Transfer software (downloadable from the Support section of the Sony Europe website) which runs on Windows or Mac, and automatically copies all your tunes to the HAP-S1’s hard drive via your home network. Usefully, it does this in the background, so I was able to play music from the hard drive, or any other source while it dutifully downloaded my many files.
Being a hard disk-based system, it gives instant access – there’s no lag between the track you choose and when it starts playing. Also, you don’t get dropouts as it isn’t subject to network glitches, and your computer can remain switched off while you’re playing music. I found it worked so well in practice that I’m surprised more manufacturers haven’t done it. My only observation would be that it would be great to be able to record directly from an analogue source, then you could archive your LPs or tapes too. But you can of course record LPs on your own computer, which the Sony will automatically copy then play.
The S-1 features Sony’s Digital Sound Enhancement Engine which is designed to make low bitrate files sound more palatable, and to “restore missing data from compressed audio”. In truth though, it does not do precisely this – rather, it guesstimates what should be in the upper part of the audio band, and also what was in the tail end of the waveform that was chopped off by the MP3 or AAC compression algorithm, and adds it to the music file. A nice feature to have, but ideally audiophiles should stick with the original hi-res music files rather than trying to magic them better via clever DSP!
Sony products are always models of ergonomic excellence, and the HAP-S1 is no exception. The large right hand volume knob is easier to use than an up/down button, and the selector know to the left works well with the colourful display. It still feels very much like a Sony however; some people brought up in an Apple world of touchy-feelie hand movements might feel a little dated. It is easier to use than any network music player – it functions more like an ‘instant CD player’ than a computer audio product, old school and none the worse for it! It’s compact too, measuring 265x88x304mm and weighing 5.8kg.
Auditioning started via its analogue and digital line inputs, to gauge the amplifier section. This proved to have a smooth, detailed sound that was nicely animated – although tonally slightly thin on Freeez’s Southern Freeez via LP. There also was some splashiness to the treble, and some lack of air and space, but it was pleasant enough. The digital input was better, with a cleaner and more open sound, one that was very enjoyable in its way. It proved fun with a big hearted, animated sort of character. There were no signs of this being an inexpensive product – it got on with the job in a satisfying manner. The HAP-S1 also features a built-in Internet Radio tuner, using vTuner, and this worked well, notwithstanding the depressingly low bitrates used by the broadcasters. Still, it’s fine for background music and handy extra functionality.
Moving to the delights of the unit’s internal hard drive, it served up the best sound I’d heard so far from some of my hi-res PCM files; Wings’ Band on Run was very detailed and clean, with lots of atmosphere and a natural rhythmic flow. Dynamics were good, and when fed with rich source material such as Kate Bush’s Snowflake in 24/96, it gave a fine account of Kate’s piano work. REM’s Texarkana at 24/192 was great fun, with oodles of power and impressive dynamics. With hi-res files it made a very nice noise then, but you are always aware of a slightly opaque midband, and a sense of the music being processed.
Dropping the bitrate down was a chance to try the unit’s DSEE facility; a 256kbps MP3 of Jon and Vangelis’ I Hear You Now was nice enough. With the Sony system switched off, the HAP-S1 caught the track’s warm and fluffy sound, and made a decent enough job of the rhythms too. Switched on, it really did improve things, adding some air and space to the hi-hat cymbal work; the bass sequencing was more distinct and tuneful, and the lead synthesiser line carrying the melody had better resolved leading edges. Jon Anderson’s voice was a little less muffled, but fractionally brighter and more sibilant, however. Overall, this is a worthwhile facility, especially on lower bitrate MP3s, although contrary to what Sony might claim, is not able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Five years or so ago, the brave new world of computer audio grew up into hi-fi separates with hard disk drives inside. Products from companies like Brennan, Cambridge Audio and Yamaha offered instant playback of computer files from standalone boxes. Then streamers appeared, and the whole industry began to rally around this model. Sony’s HAP-S1 (and its bigger HAP-Z1ES brother) are the first to elegantly combine the two technologies, giving the best of both worlds. It works like a twenty first century CD jukebox, offering instant music, yet seamlessly integrates with your computer and its music library via your home network. What a great solution!