Sony NW-ZX1 Walkman Review

The year is 2015 and smartphones have almost killed the music player- can an elite rebel lead the fightback?

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

19

Recommended
Sony NW-ZX1 Walkman Review
SRP: £550.00

What is the Sony NW-ZX1?

Last September, almost lost in the fanfare of iPhones and even bigger iPhones, Apple called time on the iPod (or the iPod Classic as it had become by that time), an event I felt sufficiently significant that I was compelled to mark it with an article. While there was great sentimentality towards the iPod, the real world arguments for the existence of a dedicated portable audio player look pretty thin. Why would you want a product that can only play music when you can have a much more capable device that can store a reasonable amount of music but then do almost everything else?

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?

Sony NW-ZX1
The Sony is an Android based portable audio player with 128gb of (non-expandable) solid state storage. The operating system is built around a piece of playback software bespoke to Sony that overlays the Android O/S and is able to handle the usual file formats barring WMA lossless (although, it is arguable if WMA lossless is a ‘major’ format these days) at resolutions up to 24/192kHz. Control of the unit is a combination of touchscreen with a resolution of 850x480 and a row of physical control buttons on the side. Viewed at a glance, the ZX1 looks like a phone but look closer and there are some key differences.

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.

Sony NW-ZX1
Internally, the ZX1 uses a proprietary upsampling system called DSEE HX that is applied to all files and is designed to do two - slightly contradictory - things. The first is that it can restore the quality of compressed files and the second is that lossless files can then be cycled up to higher sampling rates. Restoring compressed audio and boosting uncompressed material require different processes but Sony doesn’t make any mention as to whether this is a one size fits all system. All circuitry is laid out without having to make any compromises to fitting anything else in the player and this is done with a view to keeping noise and interference to a minimum.

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?

Sony NW-ZX1
As mentioned earlier, the Sony runs Android 4 and is skinned and setup in a way that is fairly reminiscent of Sony’s other Android products. While the music player is the default software and the thing that the ZX1 returns to as the home screen, it has the standard collection of Android facilities and can send and receive emails, browse the web and other standard droid functions. Wireless is fitted and this means that the Sony can have apps added if the fancy takes you.

Given that you are likely to have a smartphone already and the low res screen isn’t exactly visual dynamite, I imagine most apps will stay put on your phone but the exception to this is music streaming services. The Sony can store material for Tidal and Spotify on the 128gb internal drive and this makes it capable of the sort of flexibility that I was yearning for in my iPod article. You can have a library of lossless and high res content and then additionally run some playlists and other new content on the same player which can be chopped and changed whenever you are on a wireless connection. This in turn leaves your phone to spend more time being a phone with a commensurate improvement in battery life.

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?

Sony NW-ZX1
The Sony is physically a very well made object and the specification is fairly impressive but there are some annoyances. By the standards of how much the Android interface is hacked about by some companies, the Sony implementation isn’t too bad but it feels cluttered and a little clunky next to KitKat and iOS 8 and the small screen doesn’t make for easy typing or editing. With the drive running at high capacity, not every command is followed instantly which can be annoying. Another curiosity is that the headphone socket won’t respond to inline remote commands. Given that the ZX1 has physical buttons, this is not the end of the world but the fact that this protocol exists as part of Android means it is a little odd it doesn’t work.

There is also the thorny issue of the battery life. The review sample supplied has clearly seen a fair few journos in its time but still appears to be in perfect order. To this end, the claimed 16 hours of high res listening achievable must have been done at kitten’s breath volume levels because I realistically feel that ten or eleven at best is all this particular ZX1 is good for. As Sony in its infinite wisdom terminates the USB connection of the ZX1 in a unique socket, you can’t simply piggyback an Android charger either.

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.
Sony NW-ZX1
The Sony uses a bespoke headphone amplifier called the S Master HX.

How was the Sony tested?

The Sony was given a selection of lossless and high res music from my NAS drive in FLAC and AIFF formats between 16/44.1 and 24/192kHz. Additionally Tidal and Spotify were installed and used for testing via streaming over wireless and offline storage. Headphones used included the Sony MDR-Z7, Grado SR225e, Soundmagic P30 and Audiofly AF140 in ears.

What does the Sony sound like via the dedicated music player?

Sony NW-ZX1
I’ll cut to the chase, the Sony isn’t a simply a little bit better than any smartphone on the market, it can quite happily grind any smartphone from any brand I’ve ever listened to, past or present, into dust. This isn’t bringing a knife to a gunfight, it’s bringing an atomic bomb to a conflict of sharpened rocks tied to sticks. My current Motorola Moto X is fitted with the best headphone amp of any smartphone I’ve owned and taken in isolation it sounds genuinely good. Run some side by side tests with the same files on it and the Sony is decisively better.

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.
Sony NW-ZX1
The manner in which the ZX1 balances this refinement with absolutely exceptional detail retrieval is seriously impressive. Listening to a 16/44.1 rip of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s exceptional score to The Social Network reveals the Sony’s remarkable ability to peel away the dense layers of electronic sounds to reveal incidental details, without losing a sense of the piece as a whole, is deeply and profoundly exciting. Where the refinement comes in handy is the ability of the Sony to keep less well recorded material entirely listenable. UNKLE’s War Stories is still an acid test for any piece of equipment - a truly mighty album with some entirely indifferent mastering, the Sony captures the fury and sheer brilliance of it without pointing out the flaws.

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?

Sony NW-ZX1
Once you are outside of the dedicated playback app, you can’t use various EQ settings available on the ZX1. As I had reverted to flat EQ settings pretty quickly and turned off the ‘ClearAudio+’ setting which gives a slightly overcooked edge to the presentation, I didn’t find much difference between the dedicated player and the same files played on Tidal beyond a consistent but curious cut in volume on Tidal.

This means that with a little bit of chopping and changing on a network, you can use the ZX1 as a 128gb storage point for a 25 million track library and in truth there are precious few real world differences between how Sony’s playback app and Tidal’s playback app work in practise. Spotify also works perfectly well although it is worth pointing out that the ZX1 is sufficiently revealing that the extra compression on Spotify can be audible where the same track as FLAC or as ALAC through Tidal is not affected.
Sony NW-ZX1
This isn’t bringing a knife to a gunfight, it’s bringing an atomic bomb to a conflict of sharpened rocks tied to sticks.

Verdict

Pros

  • Superb sound with lossless and high res
  • Lovely build quality
  • Good integration with streaming services

Cons

  • Not enough storage
  • Slightly clunky interface
  • Not cheap

Sony NW-ZX1 Walkman Review

Sometimes I write reviews in the belief that the reader might have their opinion on the product changed over the course of the copy. With the Sony, I suspect that - with every justification - a significant group of people will have looked at the functionality and then looked at the price and chalked the ZX1 up as irrelevant. In fairness to them, the Sony is a specialist proposition. It occupies the remaining space not occupied by smartphones and tablets and this space is broadly fairly high end. If you don’t intend to use lossless and high res music on it and you aren’t in a position to pair it with reasonable headphones or earphones, you are best sticking with a smartphone. Sony knows this - this is why their own phones notionally do more for less.

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.
Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
.
8

Sound Quality

.
.
8

Features

.
.
8

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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