It’s often said that when the world ends, all that’s left will be cockroaches and Cher. If we had to add another generational survivor to that mix, it would be Sony.
More than 40 years since the Sony Walkman launched in 1979, Sony’s still on everybody’s lips. Out of all the consumer tech brands on the market, it was the second most talked about between 2019 and 2020. Now, 40 years is plenty of time to fail, a lot, and Sony’s had to admit defeat on countless occasions. That being said, its product strategy could well be the blueprint for battling companies such as Huawei, in so far as Sony’s eggs have never been in just one basket.
If you’re familiar-ish with Sony, you might not know quite how many pies its fingers are in right now. Forget about the stuff you can buy for a second, Sony’s business division is huge, with its image and sensing solutions bringing in almost three times the operating income of the consumer electronics division. ‘Image and sensing’ refers to a host of solutions, including selling smartphone camera sensors to other manufacturers including Apple, Google and Huawei.
As for the stuff you can buy, Sony TVs, PlayStations, Blu-Ray Players, cameras and headphones are among the most notable, popular product categories, with Sony’s flagship devices in each reliably ranking in the best in reviews.
Take Sony’s headphones — despite its audio heritage, there’s no guarantee a legacy superstar brand will stand the test of time, especially after a seismic shift like the move from wired to wireless in the last few years. Yamaha is an example of a competitor whose survival in this competitive space has been significantly more modest, to put it politely.
Sony’s survival is assured though with best-in-class tech, and leading the charge when it comes to noise-cancelling headphones. The £350 WH-1000XM4s top WIRED’s best wireless headphones and noise-cancelling headphones lists, thanks to their rich, nuanced sound, exemplary active noise cancellation (ANC) and impressive battery life.
Another sign of the times is the shift from spaghetti-chord earphones awkwardly looped around a Discman to true wireless buds. Spoiler alert — Sony makes some of the best you can buy, with the tiny WF-1000XM3s (£165) delivering fine sound, impressive cancellation and a comfortable, secure fit.
It may be 40-plus years since the first Sony Walkman launched, but the Walkman’s far from dead. Anyone after a fuss-free, listening experience would be well-served with the Sony Walkman A55 (£160), a compact, dedicated music player, which even operates as a premium DAC, upgrading your computer’s audio while also delivering up to 32bit sound, and no vibrations or notification dings killing your vibe.
Sony’s kind of like an amoeba in its adaptability, and no product says amoeba quite like the Wireless Handy TV Speaker (£170). As if crafted for a world in lockdown, the TV speaker wirelessly transmits your TV’s sound to a retro-chic, big-buttoned portable speaker that sits nearer the listener. There are a host of janky, will-it-won’t-it work solutions like this on eBay, but Sony’s is the first we’ve seen with the quality assurance we’d want before clicking the buy button.
It’s worth taking a moment to touch on a recurring theme, with the Sony PlayStation Pulse 3D (£90) headphones as a focus point. It’s our first example of Sony smarts from one division, in this case — audio, feeding into another division — gaming. The PlayStation Pulse 3Ds are among the best gaming headsets around, with robust sound, as expected from the brand, weaving into the gaming experience beautifully.
While we’re on the subject of gaming, who doesn’t want a PlayStation 5 right now? Good luck with getting one, but even with the supply/demand issues Sony’s facing, the reception to the next-gen console has been stellar, for the most part.
Off to a good start with reviews, by 2024, Sony’s expected to have shifted 104m consoles, and in 2024, it’s projected to sell an additional 66m as prices fall and its games catalogue swells. As for the PlayStation 4, since 2014 it’s been the most popular gaming console, selling more units than any other until the Nintendo Switch ended its five-year streak in 2019.
Sony’s adaptability has also extended to its camera line. While Canon took years to finally embrace mirrorless alternatives to DSLRs, and is experiencing teething problems with its first couple of generations, the EOS R and R5/6, Sony’s mirrorless Alpha line has years under its belt.
Sony’s A7S III (£3,799) is the best mirrorless camera for video money can buy right now. Its lowlight performance is jaw-dropping, it can grab greater dynamic range than many pro-grade cameras, and Sony has finally adopted an articulating screen. Back to Canon for a second, and while the A7S III keeps its cool, Canon’s R5 has lost out to it time and time again in comparisons, thanks to overheating issues.
Sony’s compact camera line is also ticking boxes for prosumers, too, with the pricey but powerful RX100 Mark VII (£1,029) being WIRED’s top performer thanks to pro-grade autofocus and exceptional picture quality.
We’ve sung Sony’s praises for a while now, it’s probably time to talk about the elephant in the room, Sony Mobile. It’s no secret that the Xperia line hasn’t been flying of shelves in recent years. Despite a hardcore fanbase that can usually be found in YouTube comments sections swearing a lot, Sony’s smartphones have been in a state of steady decline in the UK.
Despite the numbers though, Sony’s flagship phones are never bad. Yes, they’re expensive, but at the very least they deliver a guaranteed of level of quality, with the Xperia 1 II (£799) doing its thing for prosumer video fans like no other smartphone; niche, but nice to have.
Ben Wood at CCS Insight attempts to make a case for Sony Mobile’s continued existence: “On paper Sony should not be in the smartphone business anymore. It lacks scale, has consistently lost money over the five years, and has in many cases been behind the curve on the latest innovations. But what major consumer electronics company can’t afford to to be part of a market that sells 1.5 billion units every year? And the Xperia line provides a testbed for other parts of Sony’s business such as camera modules.”
As with Xiaomi, Sony’s mobile business is also part of a much bigger ecosystem. Power on an Xperia phone and you’ll get Alpha camera and Cinema Pro Video elements dotted around the interface. While with most mobile UIs, bloatware is, frankly speaking, gross, on the Xperia 1 II and 5 II these branded elements actually add credibility and functionality.
Sony’s phones have also benefited from its home cinema line, and specifically Bravia technology, with Sony making a Bravia OLED panel in the Xperia XZ3. That said, Sony’s TV division doesn’t need any justification to exist. In a global survey, Sony ranked number three behind Samsung and LG as the TV brand people had in their homes in November 2020.
Sony’s TV market share has shrunk, with the rise of brands like Hisense and even Xiaomi surpassing Sony when it comes to global shipments. That said, the quality assurance we’ve been harping on about when it comes to Sony is reassuringly ever present in its TVs.
The Android TV-powered KD-49XH9505 (£899), for example, is one of the best 50-inch LED screens under £1,000, with Sony being among the first mainstream adopter of Google’s TV platform.
Gamers who want to spend a little extra can pick up a Sony KD-65AG9 (£2,399), one of the best TVs for 4K gaming, or a middle-ground is the Sony KD-55A8 (£1,299), an excellent all-rounder and arguably the best balance of sound and vision on the market at 55 inches.
You could argue that, despite comparatively modest shipment numbers, Sony’s higher priced, quality-assured consumer business is doing exactly what it needs to, in tandem with its B2B arm that’s kitting out hospitals, TV studios and competitor smartphone makers like only Sony can.
Of course, there have been some duffs. Sony Wena, the brand’s foray into smartening up luxury watches is probably the most recent. Then there was Betamax, and Super Audio CDs among others, and Sony’s Vaio line of laptops has now been sold to Trans Cosmos America.
But the fact Sony isn’t afraid to fail is a component in its success story, and if the common thread is a degree of quality assurance, then we’re optimistic the Japanese tech giant will be around for decades more to come.
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