The 2018 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest presented by The Colorado Audio Society was an elucidating and impressive experience. From start to finish, the show was packed full of amazing high-end gear that I was either afraid to touch or simply never knew existed.
Despite being a dedicated lover of music and a veteran of live touring and event production, my time at RMAF helped show me how little I actually know about the audiophile lifestyle. What I thought was a decent breadth of knowledge on the subject, I realized is largely practical and what true audiophilia is about often lies outside the boundaries of practicality. As I scaled the halls of the show, my internal compass started inching towards places where fidelity and practicality meet and after a few hours of being blown away the literal world of sound systems that were the primary inhabitants of the DTC Marriott, I finally found something the inner music lover couldn’t resist.
Nestled in the middle of the headphone section of the event (i.e. CanJam) sat the not to be missed setup for the Sony headphone products. Nobody happened to be sitting down, so my partner Lauren and I joined the gentle mannered Japanese man holding down space at the booth. Through limited verbal interaction, we were introduced to Sony’s new flagship “portable” high-resolution audio player, the DMP-Z1 which was announced this August and is due out later this year.
The DMP-Z1’s extra large gold plated volume control immediately stands out and is complemented by a lovely touch LCD screen. It’s a very large unit that at first glance looks like yet another decadent heavy-duty Digital Analog Converter (DAC). Upon further inspection, however, it becomes clear it serves as much more than that. Due to its multi battery-powered, noise-limiting design, the DMP-Z1 is comically classified as a ‘Walkman’ on Sony’s website, but the story behind Project Manager and Senior Electrical Engineer, Tomoaki Sato’s inspiration for the unit makes such a classification a little more endearing.
Sato describes the first generation Sony Walkman as his “first stereo” and the impetus for pursuing a career in audio engineering. Now decades later, Tomoaki Sato has been given the reigns to help architect the rebirth of the once global phenomenon, even in the face of the smartphone and streaming pandemonium.
As Nikkei reported in April, Sony has made its way back from what appeared to be the global corporate trenches and posted record net profits in March 2018. One of the products highlighted in the report was Sato’s temporary prototype – the NW-WM1Z Walkman – machined out of solid oxygen-free copper. He cites a moment when recently stepped down Sony President Kazuo Hirai complimented the design, saying he was “delighted with how the prototype sounded.” Soon after, what was meant to be an exercise in high-end material concept design, became a fully commercialized product, which in turn helped Sony redefine their presence in the high-resolution audio sphere.
As I scrolled through the on-board collection of lossless audio on the DMP-Z1, I could sense the kind man on the other side of the table enjoying what he was seeing. Two young people, actively engaging with a product which he at minimum, traveled across the world to help present. Coupled with Sony’s premium Z1R over-ear headphones, I dove head first into what I believe is a modern classic of the new millennium, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, by Lauren’s recommendation.
I allowed the French duo’s mix of future vintage sounds to cascade through pathways of my mind and gazed at the finish of the unit largely responsible for delivering this unquestionably high quality sound. I started to have subtle flashbacks to the magic of my first Sony Minidisc player and recorder. I remembered spending hours compiling mixes for weekend ski trips, and the seemingly intelligent qualities the small device displayed when I put it on shuffle and it often managed to play the exact song I wanted to hear at the time. It brought back memories of a simpler time, when the world at-large seemed less abrasive and access to content was much more limited, somehow making the end result that much more meaningful. As the track “Lose Yourself to Dance” came to a close, I slowly turned the gold-plated knob left, removed the $2,300 headphones and gave a small smile and bow to our host.
Not wishing to stress the limits of his English and generally reserved demeanor, we explored the rest of the floor until it was time for us to go. While there were plenty of other impressive setups, the luxurious design and feel of the DMP-Z1 stuck with me until I got home and was able to look up more information. Much to my surprise and delight, it dawned on me that our gentle host was the man behind Sony’s portable comeback, Tomoaki Sato himself. Time will tell how the market treats his magnum opus design, and while I won’t be placing an order anytime soon, the story of its creation and its creator will stay with me: a nexus of luxury, fidelity and practicality, mixed with essences of determination, risk and reward.