What is the Sony NW-ZX1?
In reality, things aren’t quite so simple. Audio is a space hungry commodity to store and even though large capacity smartphones now exist in even larger numbers, the amount of programs contesting that space on the device has grown as well. There are software issues too. It is possible to make Android and iOS devices play high res files but there is a degree of faff that makes it less than pleasurable to do. When you do go to the effort of getting it up and running you find that one area of smartphones that have suffered in the quest for slimness is the headphone socket which can’t really do justice to those smart earphones or headphones you just forked out for.
What you see here is a possible answer to the issue of doing audio on the move properly and it wears one of the most iconic badges on the market - Walkman. In fairness to Sony, it has never stopped producing dedicated audio players but the ZX1 is part of a new wave of products that are intended to make the dedicated audio player a device you might give some thought to owning again by pushing the technical specification and appealing to a different market segment. The challenges to the ZX1 are significant - not least from the Xperia division down the corridor. So at around £550 at the time of writing (February 2015) is the ZX1 the wave of the future or a blast from the past?
What does the NW-ZX1 do?
The first is that the ZX1 is thicker than a smartphone and makes more use of machined aluminium to create a chassis that feels very solid indeed. Towards the bottom of the chassis, the ZX1 bulges outwards. This is to accommodate the headphone amplifier (more of which later) but counter-intuitively makes the ZX1 a very pleasant object to hold in the hand - for me at least, more pleasant than a wider, thinner chassis. At the very bottom of the chassis is an extra bulge on either side of the casework around the headphone socket. Hold the ZX1 in your hand and it feels different to an Xperia or indeed any other smartphone.
At this point at least a few of you will be thinking "if I use a 128gb micro SD (or a 128gb iPhone 6) and software x or y, I can replicate much of this and still have a functional phone" and this is not entirely wide of the mark. Where the ZX1 really differs from a smartphone is concealed in that bulge at the bottom of the chassis. The Sony uses a bespoke headphone amplifier called the S Master HX. This is designed to further reduce the noise levels and just as importantly, it allows the ZX1 to drive headphones that are simply beyond a normal smartphone or tablet. As a measure of confidence in their product, Sony supplied a pair of their flagship MDR-Z7 headphones (which will be reviewed back-to-back). Full size £500 plus headphones are not the normal preserve of a portable audio player but as reviews over the last few years have shown, there are plenty of models out there looking for devices to drive them.
Does the Sony do anything else?
As a final useful extra, the Sony is fitted with NFC Apt-X Bluetooth and Sony’s proprietary ‘Throw’ option which is effectively an AirPlay equivalent. Which means that once again it can take the strain off a smartphone when used with suitable audio equipment or in the car. The implementation includes NFC touch to pair and it proved easy to connect and worked reliably with the Cabasse Stream One and Mass Fidelity Relay hanging around from recent reviews.
Are there any drawbacks?
In specification terms, there are two concerns. The first is not one I can get too worked up over which is the lack of DSD support. This has been addressed in the newly launched ZX2 which is yours for a grand - neatly allowing you to decide just how important to you being able to play the collection of dismal elevator music that is the current DSD catalogue actually is. The second is that with lossless and high res being used, 128gb is not actually that much space. It sounds a fair bit but it is in reality about 15% of my actual music collection - and still a fair few gigs down on the old iPod Classic. I’m not so deranged as to want to carry the whole collection around with me but this is a product crying out for an expansion port to allow for a second 128gb card. As it is, the business of chopping and changing music is not too challenging and on a quick home network takes about an hour.
How was the Sony tested?
What does the Sony sound like via the dedicated music player?
This superiority is not one single area of performance but is instead a wholesale combination of things. The headphone output is exceptionally free of extraneous noise and this means that audio played on the Sony has no discernible noise floor at all beyond anything on the recording itself. This is then married to reserves of power that are beyond most devices of this size. The MDR-Z7 headphone is not an especially sensitive design but the ZX1 had the ability to drive it to seriously high levels and it can do it without sounding harsh, bright or brittle.
When you switch to lovingly mastered high res, it is no real surprise to find that the ZX1 is a very special player indeed. The sumptuous 24/96kHz download of Craig Armstrong’s It’s Nearly Tomorrow is truly exceptional. There is space and scale that seems counter intuitive coming from something so compact and the vocals are tangibly real. Music on the move has always been a convenience thing as much as anything else - a means of blocking the outside world - and to this end relegating it to a function on a smartphone and relying on compressed media is the logical extension of this ideal. To suddenly throw the best files and optimal technology at the experience is a reminder that it can be more than a means of blocking out your fellow commuters.
How does the ZX1 sound with streaming services?
- Superb sound with lossless and high res
- Lovely build quality
- Good integration with streaming services
- Not enough storage
- Slightly clunky interface
- Not cheap
Sony NW-ZX1 Walkman Review
If you are using lossless and high res and you’ve sat there listening to your smartphone thinking "is this as good as it gets?" The ZX1 is much, much more exciting because it answers that question with an emphatic ‘no.’ This is truly outstanding portable audio and taken in the context of this category it isn’t bad value. To truly better the Sony, you need to be looking towards the Chord Hugo (which is rather more expensive than the ZX1) or the seriously pricey Astell & Kern players. It isn’t perfect - the interface is nothing more than adequate, the battery life isn’t anything to get excited about and it really needs more capacity but the ZX1 is an absolutely spellbinding personal audio player.
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