The HAP-S1 ($999.99) won high marks for me when I experimented with it at T.H.E. Show this past spring, and it remains impressive. It’s an easy one-box solution for digital playback, offering compatibility with every format from DSD on down, plus a 40 W x 2 class AB amplifier, 500 gig hard drive, analog out, two sets of analog inputs, an Ethernet input, USB, optical and coaxial inputs, WiFi, and a headphone jack on the front, right next to a very pretty full-color display.
There were toys to play with that I hadn’t experimented with before, though. Next on the table was the UDA-1 ($799), which is billed as “a USB DAC system for PC audio,” but which is essentially the HAP-S1 without the music server bits. It’s equipped with USB inputs for ease of use with a PC or MAC computer or with a portable device, and also features optical, coaxial, and phono inputs. It’s got the same amplifier as the HAP-S1, so once again, you essentially just need this device, your computer or iPod, and a set of speakers to have a fully functioning stereo capable of hi-res playback. Nice. This is something that I could sell a technically un-savvy relative on and have them set up with music in a matter of minutes.
I also got to play with the PHA-2 ($599.99), a [soon-to-be-updated — the PHA-3 was just announced. –ed.] portable hi-res DAC/headphone amp with USB, UBS micro-B, and USB mini-B inputs, plus an analog input. It’s specifically marketed as a headphone amp, but it does have a line out for an external amp or for active speakers. The reason for updating the previous PHA-1 with a mini-B input became clear just this week, with the announcement of Sony’s new Hi-Res Walkman ($299.99). This seems like a winning combination.
Sony is clearly determined to be at the head of the pack when it comes to hi-res audio, and with the announcement of their new Walkman, seems to be poised to take hi-res beyond the audiophile world. But will a wider audience accept high-resolution downloads, with their equally high-resolution price tag? And are consumers outside audiophile circles at all interested in going back to a dedicated portable music player? This all remains to be seen, but it looks like Sony’s willing to bank on a yes.