Sony has announced hi-res music kiosks will be available at 79 Magnolia locations inside Best Buy stores across the country in an attempt to familiarize customers with the format.
The kiosk that CNET attended consisted of two listening stations using Sony headphones -- the MDR-1A and -- and the and Walkmans, in conjunction with a tablet and music supplied by online retailer HDTracks.
Hi-res audio is any music that is recorded and distributed at higher-than-CD-quality, which technically means 24-bit/48kHz and above. Most hi-res albums are downloaded over the Internet in the form of FLAC or Apple Lossless files.
The hi-res listening stations were launched by Sony's Chief Operating Officer Mike Fasulo, who said he hoped the stations would help the technology enter into the mainstream.
"Hi-res audio has received an overwhelmingly positive response from audiophiles everywhere, and our partnership with Magnolia at Best Buy will enable the industry to deliver the hi-res message to a much broader audience," said Fasulo.
The Walkmans currently feature 40 albums from a variety of genres, and Sony says the selection will be changed every three months.
The new kiosks follow the announcement in June 2015 of a new black-and-yellow logo for "Hi-Res Music" files which is designed to complement the existing Hi-Res Audio logo.
We tested out the new kiosks having been familiar with the new Sony gear -- and liking the headphones in particular -- but if we're being frank, the experience left us a little baffled. The "tablet" at the center of the kiosk at the launch was just a "dumb" display, and we had to use the players themselves to hear music. As we've found previously, the user interfaces on both the ZX2 and the A17 take some getting used to, and having to learn a how to get music playing in the first place might put people off straight away.
For example, the ZX2 displayed a "Tap and select a song from the music player app" message; tapping this brought up a blank screen. As the ZX2 is based on Android, users of the kiosk will need a working knowledge of the operating system to get the music player app open -- in this case, hitting the Back button.
The music on display was the usual mix of remastered oldies with a couple of modern pop albums thrown in -- Vance Joy and Anderson East (who spoke briefly at the launch). Some of the albums have two versions of the same song, and while they sounded different in some cases, both were identified by the Sony player as HR (hi-res). For a true comparison, it would be great to have the lossless or MP3 version alongside the hi-res file.
We listened to "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" by Paul Simon on the Sony Z7 headphones powered by the ZX2 player and the PHA1A amplifier. While the vocal intro by Lady Blacksmith Mambazo sounded clear and crisp, the general public might balk at the combined $2,300 sticker price to hear it this way. While the MDR-1A and A17 combo is more wallet friendly there are better players out there under $500 (such as theor one of the Fiio players).
Will the kiosks popularize hi-res music? It's unlikely, and one of the main reasons is that Magnolia isn't the most highly trafficked part of a Best Buy store. If both companies truly want more people to hear hi-res, they would place the stations more prominently in the headphones section.
We're fans of hi-res audio, especially when it's done well -- the Talking Heads remasters immediately come to mind -- but separating the wheat from the chaff is difficult when too many of the files available are indistinguishable from the CD, or even worse, the MP3s. Despite Sony's efforts, it's likely that hi-res will remain niche, especially when many people are happy with Bluetooth-quality audio, and record companies charge so much more for hi-res files.