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Sony’s HAP-S1 Hi-res music player

by | Apr 21, 2014 | Blog, MAARTECH

Sony’s HAP-S1 music player promises to improve your audio quality. Here’s my video review:

Sony Canada graciously loaned me the HAP-S1 Hi-Res music player and matching SS-HA3 speakers. I’m not a Sony employee, was not paid by Sony to do this review, they did not review the video or this post prior to posting. I try to provide a fair and balanced opinion.

This is a device for listeners who appreciate quality. That’s a tough sell – but Sony is one company that keeps trying, even after multiple failures amid a few successes. From Elcasset to SA-CD, the history of audio products has seen many Sony innovations which advanced quality but did not meet popular acceptance. Clearly, Sony is passionate about sound reproduction.

Even with my background as an audio engineer (it was my first career), I don’t really feel my ears are qualified to judge the sound quality of audio products. While I’m happy to review and critique the functionality of products, I’m hesitant to share my opinions on matters or taste, which, in my humble opinion, are highly personal. So, I do not put a lot of weight on my opinions. Where you see “I”, it really says “to my ears”. Accordingly, I invited several others, including my daughter Calla, and her friend Tom who are both graduates of Humber’s music program. Their twenty-year-old ears hear a great deal more than mine do. They helped to confirm my impressions.

I also highly recommend that you take your favourite tracks to an accommodating dealer for an extended listening test. I should note here that there is no easy way to bring your tunes to a shop for listening – the HAP-S1 only accepts USB drives that have been formatted to its specification, which is incompatible with either the Mac or Windows OS. In order to get your tunes onto the HAP-S1, you have to transfer them from a PC with Sony’s HAP app. Your dealer will need to be very accommodating, but hopefully appreciates the music selection you provide.

These are my personal and idiosyncratic impressions and although I don’t want to do direct comparisons, I realize that this system does not exist in a vacuum. I’m not going to pretend that this combination compares with the components from Canadian manufacturers with an international reputation I’d love to own as reference – like Totem Forests paired with Bryston amps. So all of these comments are coloured by the fact that this system falls in a particular price and quality category.

Let me provide a few specific notes. I think solo piano is the acid test for small amps and speakers, particularly the transition from the quiet aria to the aggressive entrance of the first variation on Bach’s Goldberg Variations – either Simone Dinnerstein’s or Glenn Gould’s. The HAP-S1 aced this transition and overall the piano sounds as if you’re standing at one end of the piano and Simone is at the other. Clear, clean – bright without being brittle; percussive without distortion.

I’ve heard few systems that can do justice to the driving percussion ensemble on Anjelique Kidjo’s Gimme Shelter (Djin Djin), but this diminutive powerhouse manages to cover the entire spectrum from the bass drum through the congas and toms all the way to the cymbals – not to mention Anjelique and Joss Stone’s powerful vocals at concert hall sound levels. The bass is natural covering both the soft whump of a standup bass to the powerful and percussive thwack of the bass drum. Turn it up, but invite the neighbours over first.

No tune has a more detailed left to right and back to front soundstage than the brilliant mix of Lyle Lovett’s Church (Joshua Judges Ruth). As on the best systems, on the HAP-S1 I can virtually count the backup singers as they clap through the first verse. Every instrument and voice has his or her distinct space in both dimensions. When I closed my eyes they were in the room with me.

The powerful emotion in Caruso on Sabina Sciubba and Antonio Forcione’s Meet Me in London can be used to sell virtually any component. On the best systems the passion in her voice is so powerful that it moves me to tears. While this falls slightly short of that benchmark, the clarity of her voice here clearly reveals that sentiment.

The HAP-S1 has a Sony developed DSEE processor for playing back compressed files – anything less than CD quality. For the most part I listened to the large collection of files from my computer recorded in compressed versions ripped from CDs by iTunes. And for the most part, I wasn’t sitting in a stereo sweet spot, listening intently.

Using the processor in auto, even for the lowest quality files, and low quality Internet radio streams, I was impressed by the full and natural frequency response, although stereo imaging – which was excellent on CD and above resolutions – remained compromised with these files. These days, I mostly listen to my compressed tunes on the Sonos Play1s that form my whole home audio system. (Mono is the new stereo). Listening on the HAP-S1 reminded me how coloured the Play1s are. (I don’t mean to imply that I don’t fully enjoy listening on the Play1s – I do – but in this context they are far from neutral.)

Here are links to my six listening samples. Great music and great engineering. 

Here are a few of the tracks that I use to listen to audio/stereo/home theatre equipment. 

Simone Dinnerstein J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations (Telarc CD 80692) Compressed files really don’t handle solo piano well – and the transition from the aria to the first variation is particularly ear-opening. Set the level so that the aria sounds like a piano in the room and wait for the fortissimo attack of the first variation. 

Antonio Forcione and Sabina Sciubba Meet Me in London (naim cd021 – sadly the only recording they made together). For a well-recorded voice play Caruso, for a terrific percussion and guitar track, play Brasilico. For a reference to see how good these tracks can sound, go to Bay Bloor and listen on the totem forest speakers. Sabina’s voice literally comes out of the speakers on the former, the snap of the drums is tight and powerful on the latter. Listening to Caruso on a high end playback system has brought tears to my eyes.

Emilie-Claire Barlow Sings (RT CD0001) Pipoca creates an incredible blend between Emilie-Claire’s clean and pure voice and the band.

Lyle Lovett Joshua Judges Ruth  (Curb MCAD 10475) The depth and breadth of the soundstage of the various players and singers in Church is the best cut I know for judging stereo placement, left to right and back to front.

Angelique Kidjo Djin Djin (razorandtie 79301822967-2) Although no recording can do justice to the power that Kidjo displays live, Gimme Shelter (with Joss Stone) does a pretty good job of raising the roof while opening your heart to the emotional power of this tune. Great bass, killer horns and searing vocals to challenge any system’s clarity when confronted with a wide-spectrum wall of sound. 

Production Notes:

Video recorded using the Sony VG20 video camera. iPad screens were Airplayed to an AppleTV and then recorded using the elgato game capture HD. Edited in FCP X 10.1.  Computer screens captured in QuickPlay.

As always, I appreciate your comments and suggestions. Updated April 24th with music details and links.


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