In case you haven’t noticed, Sony’s been enjoying a bit of a resurgence of late. Back in the day, Sony was the unquestioned leader when it came to cool electronics. Products such as the Walkman, the seemingly endless line of yellow (read waterproof) gadgets, the must-have 8mm camcorders and, of course, those epic and incredibly heavy Trinitron televisions, albeit in more recent memory, it has been companies such as Apple and Samsung that have been dominating headlines and lightening people’s wallets. Thankfully, Sony hasn’t been asleep.
Rather, the company has been reminding us of its technological prowess with game-changing products such as the SS-AR1 loudspeaker, which proves that Sony can play ball with anyone when it comes to speaker design. You might have also noticed some of the headlines regarding Sony’s new Playstation 4, which is punishing rival Microsoft’s Xbox One in sales. The subject of this review, the HAP-S1 High-Res Music Player ($1,000), is not only another game-changer from Sony, it just might help pull high-res audio out of semi-obscurity and into the mainstream. This is a bold statement, I know, but I’ll explain in detail how Sony has managed to get it right on just about every level with this product.
The HAP-S1 comes intuitively packaged and is a revelation to connect, especially when compared to the typical audiophile’s high-res capable rig. While the full list of specs and compatible file types can be found on Sony’s website, I’ll go over the highlights. The shelf-top music system is a compact square box, weighing 12 pounds, measuring about 10.5 inches on each side and standing 3.5 inches tall. The face of the unit features an attractive 4.3-inch display, a one-quarter-inch headphone jack and basic navigation and function controls. The rear of the unit features two sets of analog inputs, one set of analog outs, an Ethernet input, optical and coaxial inputs and one USB input. Oddly, this USB input can only be used to expand the storage capacity of the HAP-S1, not to play music files. In terms of connecting to your home network, the Sony features built-in Wi-Fi. Internally, the HAP-S1 features an expandable 500GB hard drive and a 40 watts per channel Class AB amplifier. It will play back just about every file type currently available, including increasingly popular DSD files. In case you decide to load it up with files of lesser quality, such as MP3s, the Sony has a feature it calls DSEE, which stands for Digital Sound Enhancement Engine. This is said to restore some of the high frequency information and detail lost in an audio file when it’s compressed. I found it to be a welcome if subtle enhancement.
The HAP-S1 is available in black or silver and, aesthetically speaking, the unit and its display are gorgeous. Also, save for the remote, Sony didn’t bring too much plastic to this party. Speaking of the remote, don’t expect much, as it only handles basic functions. Thankfully, Sony has created very capable Apple and Android apps that are full-featured, especially as it relates to choosing music files and changing settings.
I plugged the Sony in and connected my reference Focal 836W loudspeakers, using WireWorld Oasis 6 speaker cables. So there it is: no tweaking, no cursing, and no sweating. I pulled the speaker cables out of my amp, popped them into the HAP-S1 and, thanks to built-in amplification and pre-loaded music, I was, save for transferring my own files to the unit, ready for high-res bliss. By comparison, my reference high-res rig consists of a processor, an amp, a DAC, a USB to SPDIF converter, a MacBook Pro, more cabling than you can possibly imagine and finally, in order to really do it right, playback software. In case you’re curious, I use both Decibel and Amarra. Does my reference setup sound great? Without question. Is it a hassle? When compared to using the HAP-S1, the answer is, unequivocally, yes. Of course, I can streamline this process in a number of ways, the simplest of which is to pop an SACD into my Oppo Blu-ray player, thereby skipping several components. But the process still goes well beyond simply hitting the power button on a single unit. Not to mention the general fuss of whether or not you have everything properly tweaked on your processer – channel level, crossover level, distance to the listener and so on. Or how about your laptop? If you’re a discerning audiophile, there are numerous tweaks you can make to your laptop to ensure a cleaner signal path. All of that assorted obsessive-compulsive (but ultimately necessary for truly high-end sound) tweaking is alleviated with the HAP-S1 and let me tell you, it’s a revelation.