I was still in grade school when Sony introduced the Walkman. The silver-colored cassette player was revolutionary: Small enough to clip to a belt and powered by a set of AA batteries, it totally changed the way people listened to music. Soon adults and kids everywhere were wearing them — on subway trains on the way to work, at the gym, on the bus on the way to school. Sony invented a new market with the Walkman, and Apple reinvented that market more than two decades later with the iPod. Now Sony is introducing its first hard disk-based Walkman, and there’s no question who Sony’s gunning for: Apple and the iPod.
Sony’s certainly no stranger to hard disk-based music peripherals, but it’s taken until the 25th anniversary of the Walkman before Sony decided to put the popular brand name on a hard drive-based player.
The new Walkman
is a 20GB device that can hold 13,000 songs, or about 3,000 more than Apple says its high-end 40GB model can hold.
That’s a tricky bit of math, because it’s dependent on how the songs are compressed: Sony’s number is based on ATRAC3, a compression scheme Sony developed for its MiniDisc players, encoded at the relatively low bit-rate of 48Kbps. The homonymous similarity between the dubiously-named ATRAC and the long-defunct, low-quality 8 track format has already been the butt of jokes from music fans.
Apple’s 10,000 song number is based on 128Kbps, the same bit-rate it uses for the AAC-encoded music it sells from the iTunes Music Store, which Apple claims is near-CD quality. Comparing Apples to Sony’s oranges, the new Walkman can store about the same amount of songs as an equivalent 20GB iPod when the music is encoded at the same rate.
Apple contends that music encoded using ATRAC3 at 48Kbps is
nowhere near the quality
of its iTunes Music Store songs, either. To bolster their argument, Apple points to Sony’s own iTunes competitor, an online music download service called Connect. Sony sells songs from Connect at 132Kbps — and if 48Kbps is so good, why not use it there? From Apple’s perspective, Sony’s misleading the public with its Walkman marketing, and Apple isn’t content to take that lying down.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, say some critics: People don’t care about bit-rates and compression schemes and other techie mumbo-jumbo, they say, they only care about making sure the box works with their computer and sounds reasonably good. And Apple and Sony’s choices of music encoding formats isn’t the only difference between the Walkman and the iPod. The Walkman is also slightly smaller and lighter, and Sony claims that it sports dramatically longer battery life too, even when higher bit-rates are used. The Windows-only Walkman NW-HD1 hits store shelves in the US this August for under US$400, so only time will tell how well this device will fare against the iPod.
What’s perhaps the most interesting of any of this is that Apple chose to respond to Sony’s marketing message at all. Historically, Apple has operated in its own reality-bubble, rarely acknowledging the competition at all, let alone talking about them directly. That alone has raised some eyebrows and perhaps lent a bit of credibility to the perception that the new Walkman is the first real contender in a market that Apple has, to date, dominated by a wide margin.
(Peter Cohen, Senior Editor for MacCentral, supplies this week’s guest editorial.)
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