Tony and Gaga

Streaming has taken over the world. Not so fast, at least to Sony’s way of thinking. With the release of their new Walkman A17, they are clearly betting there’s still demand for a portable stand alone, non-Wi-Fi capable high resolution audio player and so have revived their venerable Walkman brand and jumped into the market with the release of the A17. This latest addition to the Walkman legacy supports files up to 192kHz/24-bit and plays all popular formats, from MP3 WMA, AAC, WAV, ALAC, FLAC, AIFF and yet strangely enough not those in Sony’s own high resolution DSD format, which are available for sale and download from Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds. With 64 GB of internal memory, the player also has a microSD slot which uses microSDXC memory cards with a capacity of 64GB or greater. And just to hedge their bets a bit, the A17 also has Bluetooth connectivity for audio streaming.

To open the just concluded weekend run of the New York Audio Show, which was held Sept. 26–28 at the Brooklyn Marriott, Sony held a kickoff event at Avatar Studios on the west side of Manhattan to introduce both the Walkman A17 and let the guests who were treated to an open bar and tasty hors d’oeuvres, to audition the new Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga collaboration, Cheek To Cheek.

Impressed by the player’s small size and the battery life estimated to be around 30 hours when playing high resolution files, I took it home and using a pair of Sony’s new MDR-1R headphones, I spent some time getting used to its controls and listening to the tracks from Sony Music artists it came loaded with, especially Cheek to Cheek. The good news here is that this player is easy to operate, much easier than the still-to-be unveiled Pono high resolution player which I found had overly sensitive controls that would begin playing every track you stopped on while scrolling through the track library. The Walkman A17 also has a larger, clearer screen than the Pono player. Even better news is that at $299.99, it’s considerably cheaper than more elaborate high rez players like the DSD-capable Astell & Kern AK100 ($699) which John Atkinson reviewed in the August 2013 issue of Stereophile and later updated in the March 2014 issue.

As for the new collaboration between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, several salient points come to mind. First, major labels continue to be possessed to a surprising degree with the obsessive desire to create the crossover blockbuster. Here that urge finds even more unlikely ground, namely a record that will appeal equally to Gaga’s twentysomething “little monsters” mob (which is dwindling fast these days) and Bennett’s aging crooner crowd, a span that encompasses the seemingly unbridgeable 60 year age difference between the performers themselves. Tony, of course, is game as always—he’s done a raft of collaborations beginning with his sublime two album partnership with Bill Evans in the 1970’s and continuing on to Duets: An American Classic and Duets II, although the hip cache he had when he first re-emerged from a career slump in the early 1990’s, has now clearly dissipated. Overall, the record is snappy, and well-arranged and should appeal to anyone who loves the great American songbook, done in a classic, jazz-inflected, at times almost big band style that’s highlighted in several spots by solos from today’s most pre-eminent mainstream, tenor saxophone player, Joe Lovano.

From the first notes of the album’s brassy, big band opener, “Anything Goes,” (which Bennett first recorded in 1959 with the Basie band) and on to the next track “Cheek to Cheek” it’s apparent that Tony continues to be in amazingly great voice at the age of 88. This record’s big discovery is more of a reminder actually, a reminder that, what gets lost in the ongoing spectacle of her bizarre fashion sense and overblown live shows is the fact that Gaga was once a star music student who can still bring it, particularly in terms of her vocals which here are playful, emotive and filled with personality and musicality. Visualize her performance with Elton John at the Grammy Awards a few years ago and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. She’s a genuinely talented musician, not just an entertainer. Here, she takes to these classic bits of Tin Pan Alley songcraft by Kern, Porter and Berlin, like she’s been doing it her entire life. Gaga’s highlight comes when she gives a solo performance of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” a tune most closely associated with Ella Fitzgerald (not Billie Holiday), and one that’s always resisted easy interpretation by even the best singers. To my jaded ears she hits it, joining her surprisingly powerful voice with convincing phrasing and a committed interpretative flair. Bennett follows that with a creaky, old pro’s version of “Sophisticated Lady. Another highlight is a gloriously upbeat “Goody Goody,” with Gaga providing spoken commentary between the verses—“I told you I’m no goody, I’m a baddy” “Think you’re funny huh?” “That’s real cheeky Tony.”

At the Avatar event, Bennett’s son Dae, his longtime recording engineer, spoke of the recording process as being “old-fashioned” and “the way it was done when they recorded to two track tape.” He thought of making the record as “preserving a moment in time” and “bringing it into modern specifications.” The sound of this recording is as brash as its concept: a huge splashy big band recording, with the voices at the center of the mix with presence, details and warmth galore.

If I am the target audience (gracefully aging jazz and rock fans who respect the history) then I guess Cheek to Cheek is a success. But, and you knew there had to be a but with a head scratcher kind of pairing like this, I’m not sure younger listeners, Gaga fans will even give it a chance. And as for the older folks, will those with less open minds and a lower tolerance for rock star excess with ever be able to make the jump to listening, let alone liking, these duets. And finally, of course, records like this always beg the question: why listen to these versions when you can simply download truly classic versions of these songs by Sinatra, Garland, Holiday and so many others?

bernardperu's picture

How does the Sony sound?

John Atkinson's picture
I listened to the player yesterday at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, using Sony's new top-model headphones, and was pleasantly surprised by the sound. Only thing I didn't get used to, having bought an Astell&Kern hi-rez player, was the Sony's lack of a touchscreen. But the Sony is less than half the price of the A&K.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

bernardperu's picture

Thanks, John!

I would imagine that, due to size, this Sony walkman works best with IEMs. Would be nice to know how it compares to the AKs and Fiio's with IEMs.

By the way, for portable purposes, a touchscreen can be a pain! When walking with the DAP in your pocket it is best to use a Braille approach to the DAP. I know that for reviewers UI is a major issue, but for end users such as myself, that listen non-stop to entire albums UI is very minor compared to sound quality.

oldtech's picture

I don't think she ever recorded Lush Life.