A quarter of a century after the Walkman made music portable and turned Sony Corp. into a household name, the company is hoping to start setting the agenda again with “high-res” audio.
The tech giant, which recently projected a $2.14 billion annual loss this year, is betting that a music recording format superior to the compact disc is about to leave the niche world of high fidelity and go mainstream.
“It’s exactly one year since we put the first high-resolution audio players on the market and they have been very popular,” Sony’s head of audio, Ichiro Takagi, told journalists last week.
Sony now wants to “push the accelerator on the high-res product line,” he said.
Audio purists have long complained that digitized music has to be compressed so much to fit into the standard MP3 file format that the sound is far removed from what the musician or studio engineer intended.
A lot of data are lost in the compression process, especially when compared with analog formats like the vinyl record, which is enjoying a revival despite the ubiquity of digital music available for smartphones.
High-res audio is made with a sampling frequency around four times that of CDs, meaning the data is encoded four times more each second.
This means more musical detail is captured, resulting in a far richer sound, provided the player can render it. Most of today’s smartphones cannot.
“It’s closer to the original recording and technically superior to a CD,” said Sony audio developer Masanori Sugiyama.
High-res audio products have only been available in Japan for the past year, but they already account for over a fifth of Sony’s domestic audio sales.Sony aims to raise that figure to 30 percent by next spring.
Sony’s worldwide audio and video sales totaled around $3.9 billion last year. It aims to have 20 percent of global audio sales come from high-res products “in a few years.”
The company further believes there is no shortage of customers in Japan prepared to shell out ¥75,000 for a top-of-the-range NW-ZX1 Walkman.
Skeptics say the future success of high-res audio depends on resolving a number of problems, from the huge size of the files, which are typically 10 or 15 times bigger than MP3s, to the lack of an industrywide formatting standard.
Some argue that for most listeners, the MP3 provides more than enough quality without gobbling up hard-disk space or bandwidth.
Colby Leider, director of music engineering at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, dismissed the hype about high-resolution audio as “snob appeal.”
“Some people can tell the difference . . . but if it’s a great song, you are still going to love it even if it’s not HD, and if it’s a bad song, it doesn’t matter,” Leider said.
Sony might be the biggest company so far to take the high-res plunge, but its not the first. Websites such as HDtracks.com and smaller, specialist high-res audio makers like Astell and Kern are already catering to discerning music fans.
Some buyers are waiting for a device being developed by legendary musician Neil Young, who is expected to release his own high-res portable player called Pono later this year.
Sony’s Sugiyama insisted that high-resolution technology is ready to break out of the niche market thanks to the widespread availability of faster Internet connections and affordable hard drives and memory cards.
The growing popularity of audiophile headphones points to a potential market. One-third of headphones sold by Sony in Japan now cost more than ¥10,000.
Taku Kurosawa, who works for the high-res audio download site e-Onkyo, run by Sony rival Onkyo Corp., said that when the service was launched nearly 10 years ago, there was only a small market for top-flight audio. Yet in the past two years, as Sony and other companies have started preaching the superiority of high-res audio, business has picked up.
“I think (orders) will continue to rise. In the future, high-res audio will become standard,” he said.
For now e-Onkyo only operates in Japan, but it plans to go global by the end of the year.
Kurosawa said: “Once you listen to high-res audio, you won’t go back to CDs.”