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IFA 2017: Hi-res audio for the mass market with LG, Sony, iFi

  • Sony’s floorspace at IFA 2017 would equal that of an entire North American hifi trade show. In a word: gargantuan. And costly. And, most importantly for this Japanese giant, packed to the gills. Of course, not all of the exhibits are audio related.

    Behind a glass wall shielding would be listeners from (some of) the general din of the concourse, we are invited to spend time Sony’s slowly expanding range of New Walkmen (or ‘NW’ for short).

    On the right-hand side of the headphone bar, listening stations offer time with the heavy, gold-plated NW-WM1Z (€3200), introduced last year. To the left, Sony engineer Tomoaki Sato’s latest creation: the NW-ZX300 – a Walkman that shares its predecessors’ sound quality focus but not its high price or mass. The NW-ZX300 will sell for €879/£600 when it goes on sale in October.

    According to Sony, the NW-ZX300’s internal circuit layout, the carefully selected capacitors and resistors, the digital clocks and the trimmed down host operating system all play a part in realising better sound quality than your average smartphone.

    From the press release: “For the premium listening experience, the ZX300 incorporates an aluminium chassis for less resistance value. The FTCAP (Conductive Polymer Aluminium Solid Capacitors) and the new film capacitor are also incorporated for more transparent vocals and solid bass notes.”

    “OFC cables have been used for wiring the internal amplifier to the headphone jack which results in powerful sound quality by low resistance value and signal transmission without loss. For powerful bass and less noise, the double layer capacitor is the main battery power source in this Walkman. Two crystal oscillators are also utilised to deliver you high quality audio with improved SN ratio and large volume of music data.”

    “Separating audio and power/digital block on the circuit board, the SN ratio has been improved by minimizing noise. The high-quality audio resistor has been used as the LC filter for the headphone output to reduce magnetic distortion which results in expansive, high transparent sound quality.”

    With the inclusion of Qualcomm’s aptX HD codec as well as Sony’s LDAC, this Walkman’s ‘better sound’ capabilities stretch to wireless Bluetooth headphones.

    However, wired headphones are recommended to really get the most from the NW-ZX300. A 3.5mm socket is for those with more ‘standard’ headphones whilst Sony’s proprietary 4.4mm balanced connector allows listeners to wade deeper into audiophile territory “for less noise and clearer sound”. D/A conversion and headphone amplification comes from Sony’s S-Master HX circuit.

    A show like IFA is no place to attempt a review of the NW-ZX300 but its curved edges and solidity feel most pleasing in the hand. The NW-ZX300 can be dropped into a trouser pocket without causing the wearer to walk with a limp. In this respect, the new guy is far closer to the NW-ZX2 than the flagship NW-WM1Z.

    Isn’t that the point? Better portable sound quality with the option to play hi-res audio content should we wish: here, PCM up to 32bit/384kHz, DSD up to DSD256 and MQA.

    Where’s the catch? Files must be played back from the Sony DAP’s 64Gb internal storage or from a user-supplied microSD card inserted into its side. Unlike the aforementioned NW-ZX2, the operating system doesn’t give us access to the Google Play store for Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Pandora etc. but  we do get an extremely useful ~30 hours run time between charges. We don’t get that from Astell&Kern.

    Sony’s decision to aim the NW-ZX300 at those who prefer to download music to own or rip CDs, rather than stream it from the cloud, casts this latest model as a luxury portable for the old world. (Or for consumers in Japan where physical media and ripping remains strong).

    Back at at Sony’s listening booth in Berlin, a hi-res audio discussion panel takes place: “The Future of Hi-Res Audio”.

    (As seen in the above video) Warner Music Group’s VP of Digital Strategy Michael Drexler opens proceedings with a formal definition of hi-res audio: anything above 16bit/44.1kHz. “What is hi-res?” he asks before answering, “It’s audio on steroids.”

    Morvan Boury, VP of Global Business Development at Sony Music Entertainment added, “Once you’ve heard studio quality you feel better, you can listen longer and you don’t get fatigued.”

    It fell to MQA CEO Mike Jbara – stage left – to move the conversation beyond the tech talk and numbers: “Younger audiences need to have THEIR music available in hi-res. Newly released content is really important.” Damn straight.

    With Bob Stuart standing nearby, I asked him how long before we’ll see LCD Soundsystem’s almighty American Dream on Tidal as MQA? The answer depends upon its issuing label. If it’s Warners or Universal, “soon”.

    Here’s Bill Gagnon, SVP Business Development at Universal Music Group: “Hi-res is quickly becoming a mass market product, with more mainstream content, services and playback partners. We want listeners to hear what the artist recorded. All new releases will come out in MQA.”

    There was much talk of how best to engage younger listeners; how to get them interested in hi-res audio. The assembled panel collectively agreed that young people just need to hear it. How to do that?

    My opinion: if hi-res audio comes with a hit to convenience or the wallet, mainstreamers will shrug their shoulders and stick with lossy streams. That begs the question: why not provide hi-res audio to the mass market invisibly and at no extra cost?

    After all, the move from lossless (CDs) to lossy (downloads) took place slowly and without discount. How about restoring the audio quality that was eroded throughout the noughties but with similar stealth? We know it’s possible: in January, Tidal added MQA Master content at no additional charge to its Hifi tier subscribers.

    As per recent data collected by PwC – and reported by Digital Music News – streaming now makes up 18% of the US music industry’s income:

    “Digital music streaming revenue was up a quite astonishing 99.1% year-on-year in 2016 to total $3.0 billion,” PwC relayed. “Music streaming revenue is now forecast to rise to $7.4 billion in 2021.”

    Mainstream uptake of hi-res audio (via MQA or not) will come from streaming, not downloads.

    For portable MQA playback that lands squarely in the mass market, we look not to dedicated DAPs like Sony’s Walkmen but to LG’s forthcoming flagship smartphone: the V30.

    At IFA 2017, we exit the Sony booth on the southside to walk through LG’s mesmerising tunnel of screens – part aquarium, part planetarium – before finding a hall abuzz with talk of LG’s V30 – a smartphone designed with “Hifi audio” in mind.

    From the press release: “The LG V series is a premium flagship smartphone line designed to provide users with the highest multi-media capabilities and purest audio experience. MQA’s award-winning technology captures and reproduces the sound of the original studio master in a file that’s small enough to stream. The LG V30 handset features integrated MQA playback technology so that master quality sound recordings can be played back via the mobile device.

    Mike Jbara, MQA’s CEO stated, “This is a great partnership with LG because MQA’s technology – delivering quality audio in a convenient file size – truly comes into its own on the mobile device. The V30 handset raises the bar in terms of offering an all-round premium user experience.”

    In other words, a mainstream-aimed product that supports hi-res audio out of the box but with a larger nod to better sound quality: the V30’s D/A conversion comes from an ESS Sabre ES9218P chip and user accessible digital filters.

    According to Bob Stuart, the MQA decoder sits at the lowest possible level in the V30 – on a Qualcomm chip – which reportedly called for some radical reworking of the OS by LG’s software engineers to extract bit-perfect audio from Android. Stuart refers to this as “cleaning the pipe”.

    Unlike the Sony NW-ZX300, the LG smartphone gives us access to streaming service apps via the Google Play Store. That means better sounding Spotify, Pandora, Deezer, YouTube and Tidal on the go and – here’s the kicker – without the need for second device.

    The LG V30 is expected to start shipping in October 2017 for around €700.

    At time of writing, MQA decoding and rendering only applies to locally-stored MQA files. MQA downloads offered by the likes of e-Onkyo Music and (bizarrely) are unlikely to appeal to the wo/man in the street. For them, downloads are the old world and streaming is the new.

    Any device supporting the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store holds the door ajar for Tidal to add MQA streaming functionality to Android and iOS devices. However, the LG V30 will be the first to offer full MQA decoding and rendering, bringing us one step closer to hi-res audio for the mass market, invisibly and at no extra charge.

    For DAR’s MQA primer, click here.

    One more thing. I’ve no idea when MQA will come to Tidal’s mobile apps. However…

    Being teased by British manufacturer iFi Audio at IFA 2017 was the forthcoming iDSD nano Black Label (~€235); a battery-powered portable DAC/amplifier, reportedly slated for full MQA-certification in October – according to MQA. Its only input is a Type A USB socket, for direct connection to an iPhone (with Lightning-USB cable) or Android device (via OTG cable).

    2 + 2 = ?

    Further information: Sony | LG | iFi Audio

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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