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Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman Review

Is this the finest Walkman ever made?

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

11

Recommended
Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman Review
SRP: £950.00

What is the Sony NW-ZX2?

When I reviewed the Sony NW-ZX1 Walkman back in February, it was a fairly unusual piece of equipment. Dedicated personal audio players were still the preserve of specialised companies like Fiio and Astell & Kern and the exact number of them being sold was open to question. In the ensuing seven months, the market appears to be the next key area for manufacturers to contest. New players are popping up at a rate of knots and specifications and facilities are on the up.

Why this is happening isn't too hard to work out. Capacity on mobile phones might be higher than ever but the competition for that space from other apps and even their own operating systems is also very stiff. If you want to carry any quantity of high resolution audio around with you, the demands it will make on your phone are considerable. There are also few signs that the quality of smartphone headphone outputs is showing any signs of improvement either. A space in the market is appearing and manufacturers are moving to fill it.

Sony itself hasn't been idle. There has been a consistent line of Walkman products on the market for some years but this had effectively ticked over with little fanfare. All this has changed of late and new Walkmans have been appearing with greater frequency and more publicity. At the top of the current tree sits the model you see here. The NW-ZX2 builds on the specification of the ZX1 and corrects a few spec omissions but in doing so, raises the asking price to a hefty £950. With the best part of a grand being asked for it, does the ZX2 deliver?

What are the specs?

Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman
The NW-ZX2 is similar to the ZX1 in that it is designed around an Android platform for the operating system but mates this to hardware that is designed from the outset to be used for audio. This is an increasingly common way of producing players of this nature but it does mean that the Sony is at something of a disadvantage. The ZX2 is based around Android 4.2 which is perfectly adequate but it looks and feels old compared to Android phones. Until recently, this wasn't something that placed the Sony at too much of a disadvantage in terms of personal audio players but Pioneer's XDP-100R launching shortly is fitted with Android 5 and we are days away from Android 6 being available.

Part of the reason why the operating system feels a little old is that it is tied to a screen with an operating resolution of 854x480. As a piece of viewing equipment, the Sony loses out to mobile phones that are given away free with affordable contracts but the news isn't all bad. There are only screen captures of the ZX1 to compare the screen of the ZX2 to but the contrast and colours of the ZX2 feel richer and clearer than the ZX1. As a means of using the ZX2, it works well and it does mean that the Sony is not absolutely enormous - more of which later.
Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman
The internal memory of the ZX2 is 128gb which is exactly the same as the ZX1 but Sony has had the presence of mind to equip the ZX2 with a micro SD card slot that allows for up to an additional 128gb to be added to the Sony's internal capacity. What isn't clear is whether the 128gb capacity is down to what the Sony will support or because this is where the current maximum capacity of micro SD cards on the market tops out. In either case, 256gb is a useful chunk of storage and while it will still largely fill up before you put an entire collection on it, changing the content is not hard so you'll have to get used to swapping music out rather than just having everything on there all the time.

This will particularly apply if you make use of the other addition to the ZX2's specification. Unlike the older models, the ZX2 is capable of DSD playback (albeit having first converted it to PCM and then applied software to make it work like DSD) which means that format handling is pretty much total unless you insist on using WMA lossless. Additionally, as a fully operational Android platform, the Sony can support Tidal, Spotify and other streaming services and hold their content offline. One final and potentially useful addition is that the like other members of the Walkman family, the ZX2 has bluetooth which is a handy convenience feature to have.

Design

Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman
As a piece of industrial design, the ZX2 is slightly surprising. Photos of the Sony seemed to suggest that it is a ZX1 in a black finish with some detail differences but this does it something of a disservice in the flesh. The ZX2 looks and feels absolutely fantastic. The casework is thicker than the ZX1 and this serves to both improve the lines of the device and make it a hugely satisfying thing to hold in your hand. What is interesting about the ZX2 (for me at least but I'm rather sad in this respect) is that this is much less like a mobile phone than the ZX1 and has a feel more in keeping with audio equipment. The physical buttons on the side of the casework feel excellent and work well in use.

The thicker casework means that there is a less pronounced hump to the lower section of the ZX2 where the headphone amplifier is stored. The Sony continues to use the S-Master headphone amplifier system which ensures that the ZX2 is able to handle more demanding loads than a smartphone would be able to. This is coupled with Sony's DSEE processing, giving the ZX2 the hardware to comfortably outperform a phone with the same material. As a final refinement, the ZX2 houses a beefed up battery that gives it a claimed playback time of 33 hours.

Are there any drawbacks?

Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman
If we leave the price for a moment - I know it is significant sum but the Sony is neither more expensive than key rivals nor removing the availability of more affordable options - the ZX2 is pretty convincing but there are some aspects of the design that infuriate and annoyingly, some of these are carried over from the older model. The ZX2 doesn't respond to inline remotes on headphones and earphones which means you are reliant on the buttons on the side. The buttons themselves default to controlling the embedded music app unless you fully close it down which means that if you use Tidal or Spotify, you'll frequently have to do so via the screen.

Unfortunately, I'm not done there either. The ZX2 undoubtedly has a longer battery life than the ZX1 but I still think that it is some way adrift of the claimed 33 hours and the charge time is noticeably slower. In order to charge it, you will still need to drag the supplied USB cable with its custom plug around as the Sony is fitted with the same oversize connector as the ZX1. Quite why this is the case is unclear - it doesn't transfer any faster, doesn't seem to support higher voltages (and if it did, it would surely need a different plug on the other end) and takes up more space on the unit itself. Sony does get to charge you £15 for a replacement though.
Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman
The ZX2 looks and feels absolutely fantastic

How was the Sony ZX2 tested?

The Sony has been used with the standard playback app with a mixture of lossless and high res FLAC files and some DSD. Testing has mainly been carried out via Noble 6 in-ear earphones but the Oppo PM-3 has also been used as well as variety of less expensive earphones here on test. Additional testing has been carried out using Tidal and Spotify with content streamed from the cloud and downloaded onto the device. As a means of providing an interesting benchmark for the Sony in the absence of another high end DAP being available here for testing, my standard travel rig of a Google Nexus 5 and the Oppo HA-2 connected by OTG cable was used as a comparison.

What does it sound like via the music player?

Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman
When I tested the ZX1, I found it to be a comfortable step forward over any smartphone I'd used or tested up to that point. Put simply, it went louder, hit harder and simply sounded more hi-fi than any competing phone based option. Given the similarity in declared specs between the ZX1 and the ZX2, I wasn't expecting the newer model to do a huge amount more than the older model. In this instance, I was wrong. Quite impressively wrong as it turns out.

The ZX2 takes the strengths of the older model and builds on them in a few areas, some extremely obvious and others less so. The first and most immediately apparent advantage of the ZX2 is the available headroom. I never found the ZX1 to be underpowered (although looking online it appears that some people did) but the ZX2 is in a different league. The power available should realistically be able to drive any headphone that you can connect to them.

The playback app has software adjustment in the form of Sony's ClearAudio+ software and while the effect is a little on the obvious side, it does sometimes offer a useful boost in performance - especially if you are listening at lower levels. With revealing partners like the Noble 6, the Sony is best used without it as the Noble tends to show up that the bass in particular has been a little overblown by the processing. As a means of giving the Sony a boost in noisy environments though, it is very handy.

Running 'flat' without processing, the Sony manages to sound detailed, lively and consistently entertaining. With the 24/44.1kHz FLAC of Nuit de Reve by Scratch Massive, the Sony manages to deliver the crunching basslines while keeping the unusual delicacy of some of the vocals and upper registers. The ZX2 manages the neat balancing act of sounding potent and lively while staying refined at the top end.
Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman
It also sounds pleasingly free of harshness or any sense of 'digital' and the better the quality of the material you play on it, the better it gets. The ZX2 is utterly unfazed by the genre, style or tempo you give it and it puts very little of itself into the presentation. While it is possible that if you listen to a specific genre of music, you might find that you want a specific alteration to the frequency response, the exceptionally even handed response of the ZX2 makes it a formidable all-rounder.

This means that when compared to the Nexus 5 and Oppo HA-2, the Sony acquits itself extremely well. Both of these products are formidable bits of digital and you are unlikely to be unhappy with either of them but there are some interesting differences. The Oppo has a greater sense of excitement and drive to it. When I reviewed it, I noted that it had some aspects in common with my Naim electronics and it remains a tremendously exciting listen. By contrast, the Sony is a little more laid back but has a refinement to the top end that the HA-2 can lack.

Is the Sony better? It is certainly slightly more compact and has a higher capacity. If I were choosing between them and I routinely listened to music on the move (which I don't do anything like as much as I used to), I'd likely choose the ZX2 and something like the new Nexus 5 (which I imagine will have a headphone output as terrible as the original). In my more domestic surroundings, the Sony is a little harder to justify.
Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman
The exceptionally even handed response of the ZX2 makes it a formidable all rounder

What does it sound like with music streaming services?

Installing Spotify and Tidal on the ZX2 was painless and both of the apps can make use of the hard drive to store content. If you compare the performance of the inbuilt player app to Tidal with the same content - in this case Pink Floyd's Meddle as I was feeling nostalgic - there are precious few differences between the two. As with the ZX1, as the means of storing and removing content via Tidal is easier than connecting the ZX2 and transferring content, it makes for an excellent partner for lossless streaming. Spotify still sounds perfectly amenable too although the fairly revealing nature of the Sony means that you would want to use the higher quality listening settings.

Verdict

Pros

  • Fantastic sound quality
  • Excellent build
  • Comprehensive format support

Cons

  • Old operating system
  • Some operational quirks
  • Rather pricey

Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman Review

Perhaps the most important point to make about the ZX2 is that this is not simply a ZX1 with more capacity and DSD playback. While it is unquestionably related to the rest of the family, the Sony is a truly exceptional piece of equipment that does more to justify that hefty asking price than I thought it was likely to do. This is a very fine DAP and while we intend to look at other models in due course, I can see the Sony holding its own.

The slight fly in the ointment is that without making night and day differences, the ZX2 could be even better. A newer Android operating system and a fractionally bigger screen would mean that the Sony didn't feel as old compared to phones and tablets. The ability to respond to in-line remotes would make it easier to stick in pockets and a conventional USB connection would make it easier to use in an Android 'family' of devices. Ultimately, the Sony is certainly good enough to warrant a recommendation but with a few minor tweaks, it could be even more.

Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
9

Sound Quality

.
9

Features

.
.
8

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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