(The Neil Young fronted) Pono isn’t the only company currently pushing hard on the hi-res audio (HRA) button. Last year Sony announced a range of HRA-capable products aimed at both audiophile and mainstream listeners. There was the HAP-S1 (US$999) – a 500Gb audio player and Class A/B amplifier sealed under one roof and the UDA-1 (US$799) that shed the internal storage in favour of simple a D/A conversion –> amplifier solution.
At the top of Sony’s new HRA-infused range sits the HAP-Z1ES server/player. US$1999 nets you a remote-controlled silver box that stores and spins tunes. It can decode DSD, DSDx2, PCM up to 32bit/192kHz (FLAC, ALAC, AIFF) well as lossy formats such as MP3, WMA and Sony’s own ATRAC. Remote control comes from either the supplied wand or an iOS/Android app.
So far, so good, right? Not quite – there’s a possible stumbling block (for some).
The HAP-Z1ES offers no external D/A conversion nor network streaming from over yonder NAS. All music must sit on the internal 1TB SSD or an end-user supplied external hard drive connected to the Sony unit’s USB port (located on its back panel). The sparse connectivity says it all: balanced and single-ended outputs, an ethernet port, USB. An absence of digital input and output underscores the HAP-Z1ES’s sealed box vibe, recalling the ‘closed system’ of Olive’s earlier entry-level digital audio players.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: not every digital audiophile wants a computer in their hifi rack and/or lounge room. Some folk want a simpler solution and I believe simplicity sits at the core of the HAP-Z1ES’s appeal. Once music has been loaded onto the unit over your LAN you’re good to sit back and hit play.
The HAP-Z1ES has switchable ‘DSD remastering’ that takes PCM content and up-samples it to bitstream DSD before decoding. Neato. Most interesting (for me) is that What Hifi found that engaging said DSD up-sampling massaged away some of PCM’s transient attack and bite; that correlates nicely with what I heard when comparing hi-res PCM and DSD releases of Steely Dan’s Gaucho with the Resonessence Labs Herus.
That’s not the end of today’s story though.
Vinnie Rossi is no stranger to modifying existing hardware. He kickstarted his own Red Wine Audio with mods to Apple’s iPod and has more recently been offering souped up Astell&Kern digital audio players.
It would seem that the Sony HAP-Z1ES grabbed Rossi’s attention as potential candidate for the RWA modification treatment. Only this time he’s dancing to the tune of his own battery-powered amplification designs; Rossi wants to internalise tubes within the Sony unit. He’s talking 6922 and 12AX7 families for an dual tube output stage that promises richer tonality and larger soundstaging.
As well detailing this ‘Level 1’ (RWA-Z1ES-1) modification on his website Rossi has also taken to discussing his modification intentions as well as soliciting user feedback via the fine attendees at Audio Circle.
“In the early days of my modding and even early RWA days, I thought that avoiding tubes made the most sense. What could be more transparent than the best measuring op-amps and simple resistive attenuators and the like? You can op-amp roll, you can get rid of them and do discrete FETs or BJTs, but in my findings playing with op-amps, FETs, and tubes, I find that tubes really win.” says Rossi.
He continues: “I’m sure some of you have heard not-so-great tube stages that added noise, hiss, hum, whatever. I’m sure you’ve heard tube stages that were thick, dark, and syrupy (where you really do here the distortion and it makes the bass bloated and muddy, makes the sound too thick, smears things, etc.). That is NOT the tube stage that I have in mind! That I promise. It extends flat above 100k, it is open, it is super low noise, and it responds well to tube rolling. And it doesn’t beat up your tubes. I’m sure it can’t win a measurements battle with opamps, but in listening tests I think it will win every time as long as it is installed carefully and properly into the context of the Sony’s output stage design. This is what I will make sure happens.”
‘Level 2’ (RWA-Z1ES-2) modifications includes the ‘Level 1’ tube output stage and associated power supply amelioration but loads in capacitor and diode upgrades, C-L-C filtering and vibration damping.
Customers must supply Rossi with their existing HAP-Z1ES unit. He’s charging US$1195 for ‘Level 1’ and US$1995 for ‘Level 2’.