Sony has been championing high-res gear since its first major launch at IFA 2013, and this year’s IFA sees a new Signature collection comprising the MDR-Z1R headphones with their large 70mm magnesium-dome diaphragms quoted as capable to 120kHz, two WM1 series high-res Walkmans, and a sexy little headphone amplifier, the TA-ZH1ES.

This high-res headphone audio amplifier uses what the company calls a D.A. hybrid amplifier circuit, a new design which uses an unusual combination of digital and analogue amplification. This is not a variant of hybrids where high levels of digital power take over from analogue when required, but rather uses fully digital amplification alongside an analogue stage which is used to lower noise from the digital output in a form of feedback which corrects waveform errors, in particular when high amplitude pulses are encountered.

“Both digital and analogue quality is important,” says Koji Nageno, Sony’s ‘Chief Sound Architect’. “The sound must be clean without any distortion.” Well, quite.

The TA-ZH1ES headphone amplifier accepts both PCM and DSD signals, and includes a USB-B socket for direct replay from computer. The amplifier then applies a DSP circuit called DSEE HX to PCM signals, upscaling them to 32-bit/384kHz, but sends DSD directly to a “DSD remastering engine” which upscales to DSD 11.2MHz (quad-DSD) before implementing previously-employed S-Master HX processing.

The USB input supports DSD native to 22.4MHz (octuple-DSD) and PCM up to 32-bit/768kHz (so just a little future-proofing there...). There is a dedicated input for Sony’s high-res capable Walkman models and Xperia phones, this good to DSD native at 11.2MHz (quad DSD) and PCM to 32-bit/384kHz.

Importantly the TA-ZH1ES frequency response extends upwards to 80kHz, so can properly deliver the extended frequencies of high-res audio sources to headphones capable of playing them, frequencies which many users will be losing in more conventional amplification designed to be limited to the 20kHz of CD-quality music. While PCM at 768kHz is theoretically capable of delivering frequencies up to 384kHz, we can’t imagine any useful musical content existing beyond 80kHz, so that the higher rates are more about avoiding phase issues from roll-off filters than delivering musical information.

Sony was coy as to the exact DAC implementation, but made clear that it is Sony's own conversion design, not using an "off-the-shelf" DAC chip.There are coaxial and optical inputs (both to 24-bit and 192kHz and 96kHz respectively) and a remarkable set of headphone socketry including unbalanced 3.5mm minijack and quarter-inch jacks sockets, and no fewer than three balanced options — the new XLR4 balanced connection, twin 3.5mm sockets, and another recent innovation, the 4.4mm Balanced Connection which looks like a slighter larger multishank minijack but offers significant additional contact area as well as the balanced connection in a single plug.   

The construction of the headphone amp is impressive, aiming for high rigidity using a Frame-Beam-Wall construction from a single aluminium block, a double-layered bottom plate and an acoustically-tuned top panel which incorporates an information panel showing input and source information.

Construction rigidity plays an “important role in making sure internal components can operate properly”, intoned Sony’s engineers at the IFA 2016 launch in Berlin.

While Ryu Okuda, Senior Manager, Product Division, Video & Sound Division, Consumer Business Group, Sony Electronics Asia-Pacific (pause for breath) notes that the ZH1ES works “not just with our headphones but other audiophile headphones also”, Sony sees its highest performance as coming from the complementary other SIgnature series products — the MDR-Z1R headphones and the new WM1 series Walkmans, available as the NW-WM1A or the goldplated-copper chassised NW-WM1Z flagship player. Both these also feature the 4.4mm balanced output for connection to the headphone amplifier.

Australian pricing for the TA-ZH1ES is $2,899, and it will be available "later this year".

Sound+Image travelled to IFA 2016 as a guest of Sony Australia.This affects our coverage not a jot.