High-resolution digital downloads have been available for close to a decade; but for most of that time, the hardware market has been served mainly by audio specialty companies. That changed in 2013, when Sony announced a series of Hi-Res products for home and portable use. Along with Neil Young's highly publicized Pono Music venture, the entry of major brands like Sony is helping to propel high-resolution audio into the mainstream.
Sony's first batch of Hi-Res products including several models for home listening, including the widely praised HAP-Z1ES music player ($2,000, all prices Canadian) and TA-A1ES integrated amplifier (also $2,000), which we have already reviewed. Last year, Sony introduced several portable Hi-Res models, including the NWZ-ZX1 Hi-Res Audio Walkman ($750), which we have also reviewed.
This year, Sony has extended its portable Hi-Res lineup in both directions, with the entry-level NWZ-A17 ($300) and a new flagship Walkman, the NWZ-ZX2, which carries a Canadian price of $1,200. That player is the subject of this review, along with two other flagship products, the PHA-3 portable headphone amplifier/DAC ($1,000) and MDR-HZ7 circumaural headphones ($700).
As you'd expect for the price Sony's flagship music player oozes class and quality. The NWZ-ZX2 has a beautifully sculpted aluminum alloy body and a bright 4" TFT touchscreen, with clearly marked flush-mounted power, volume and transport controls on the right side. The lithium-ion battery will keep high-res tunes playing for 33 hours on a single charge, Sony says.
In addition to 128GB of flash storage, the NW-ZX2 has a microSD slot on the bottom. Also on the bottom are an unbalanced 3.5mm stereo headphone output, and a proprietary Xperia connector for charging the player via USB (a charger is not included) and for using external devices like the PHA-3 headphone amp/DAC.
Setup and usage: The player runs a full version of Android 4.2, and has built-in Wi-Fi. It can do pretty well anything an Android smartphone can do, except make phone calls. The first time you turn the player on, you're asked to set up a Wi-Fi connection and confirm your Google account. Even if your sole application for the device is music playback, the Wi-Fi and Android features may well be relevant, because they let you install apps for Tidal and other streaming services.
You use the Xperia-to-USB cable to transfer music to the player. When you connect it to a host computer, you see a message asking to confirm that you want to turn on USB storage. When you do so, the Walkman shows up in Mac OS X Finder and Windows Explorer as an external drive.
You can load music onto the ZX2 by dragging files to the player's Music folder. Or you can install a transfer application, which you'll find in the For Windows and For Mac folders on the Walkman. On the Mac, Sony Content Transfer lets you load music, videos and photos onto the player just by dragging them to the application. It's basically a duplication of what you can do in Finder, but a little more intuitive.
The NWZ-ZX2 supports pretty well every digital audio format under the sun, including high-resolution PCM (including FLAC and Apple Lossless) to 24/192, and single- and dual-rate DSD (DSD 64 and DSD 128). It also offers a bunch of processing options, such as DSEE HX (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) for improving the sound of compressed files, equalization, volume normalization, and something Sony calls ClearAudio .
The only operational issue I ran into with the ZX2 was playing msuc files from a microSD card. I had a 64GB Sony card that I had loaded with music directly. FLAC and ALAC files on the card played fine. But DSD albums that I had ripped from SACD did not. On the ZX2, some of them were jumbled into a "Unknown;" others did not show up at all. However, the ZX2 has no problem playing DSD content that's loaded onto its built-in storage.
When I connected the player to a computer with the card inserted, the computer did not see the card or its contents at all. But if I connect the card directly (via an SD adapter) or connect a Pono player with the card inserted, the computer sees all the card's contents. All these albums play correctly on the Pono. I've asked Sony of Canada about this, and will update this review when I get more information.
Sony's MDR-HZ7 headphones have huge 70mm aluminum-coated liquid crystal polymer dome drives, and specified frequency response of 4Hz-100kHz. They come with balanced and unbalanced cables that connect to 3.5mm jacks on each earcup. They're capable of balanced operation with compatible devices like the Pono player and Sony's PHA-3 portable DAC/headphone amp. With a balanced connection, each channel has a dedicated plus and minus connection, rather than sharing a common ground connection. With source components that have balanced outputs, this offers the possibility of lower noise and improved resolution of fine detail.
While large, the MDR-HZ7 is very comfortable, thanks to its leather-like cushions and headband, and a design that distributes its weight very evenly. The cushions cover the ear, and the earcups are closed except for a small vent at the bottom. Isolation from external sounds is fair to good.
Sony offers three different upgrade cables for the HDR-Z7: a balanced cable at $250; an unbalanced home audio cable with quarter-inch stereo plug, also at $250; and an unbalanced cable with 3.5mm stereo plug at $230. Engineered in conjunction with Kimber Kable, they feature Kimber's signature braided design.
The amp/DAC: The beautifully built PHA-3 has both balanced and unbalanced 3.5mm stereo output jacks on the front, along with a rotary volume control. On the back is Sony's proprietary Xperia connector for use with Hi-Res Walkman players, a USB input for use with iDevices (use your own cable), an optical digital input and 3.5mm stereo analog input. When you use the analog input, you cannot connect headphones in balanced mode; only the unbalanced output works. The analog input can also be reassigned as a line-level analog output, for using the PHA-3 as DAC with a stereo amplifier.
The PHA-3 supports all the formats that the ZX2 player does, right up to 24/192 PCM and DSD 128. Rated battery life five hours per change with a digital connection, and 17 hours with an analog connection.
I started by listening to the MDR-HZ7 'phones connected directly to the NWZ-ZX2 player. Right off the bat, I was struck by the quality of these headphones. Not surprising given the massive 70mm drivers, bass is deep, but also wonderfully articulate. Lower piano notes have superb authority, and string bass has delicious body and snap. Highs and mids are excellent too. While the top end is marginally less transparent than some top headphones I've heard, it's natural and there's no artificial sizzle or sibilance. And the MDH-HZ7 can play loudly without ever sounding compressed or distressed. These are truly excellent cans.
Compared to the Pono Music player, recently reviewed on this site, the flagship Walkman sounds a little more incisive and dynamic; but the Pono is slightly warmer and smoother. Of course, the Sony player is a more capable device, with a much better touchscreen, more memory and additional functions like lossless Bluetooth streaming.
A DSD download via Super HiRez of "I Can See Clearly Now" from Don't Smoke in Bed by the Holly Cole Trio sounded glorious played through the ZX2 and HZ7 'phones. David Piltch's bass sounded deep and snappy; and Aaron Davis' piano sparkled. There wasn't a hint of digital glare. I briefly tried ClearAudio processing, but it made the sound a bit veiled. With a track this good, there's no need for artificial processing.
Ray Charles and Natalie Cole singing "Fever" on a DSD version of Genius Loves Company ripped from SACD sounded completely natural, not just the two singers' voices, but the instrumental accompaniment. The sound had wonderful analog-like smoothness.
Well-recorded CD-resolution files also sounded great. In a CD rip of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez by guitarist Milos Karadaglic and Canadian conducting phenom Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the helm of the London Philharmonic, the orchestra and soloist were both beautifully presented, with very natural instrumental timbres. The only thing lacking was a bit of air at the top end of the frequency spectrum; otherwise, it was virtually perfect.
A CD rip of Jennifer Warnes' version of "Invitation to the Blues" from The Well sounded absolutely delicious, with natural and expressive vocals, and a fabulously deep and articulate rendition of Armando Compean's double bass.
I tried the DSEE HX processing on a 256kbps AAC download from the iTunes store, "Bahamut," a rollicking track by the New York jazz fusion group Hazmat Modine. This feature opened up this compressed track slightly.
The next step was getting the PHA-3 headphone amp/DAC into the mix. With the MDR-HZ7 'phones connected via the supplied balanced cables to the PHA-3's balanced outputs, the sonics (already excellent) moved to a different level. "Fever" was even more effortless, with sharper transients on the drums and guitars. The sound was more dynamic and powerful, but also more refined.
Substituting the Kimber balanced cables resulted in a blacker background, better portrayal of special cues, and smoother reproduction with less digital glare. This $250 accessory doesn't make a night-and-day improvement, but it definiltey adds another degree of refinement. It's also a wonderful piece of audio bling, and on that basis alone some audiophiles will find it hard to resist.
With the full kit - ZX2 player, HZ7 'phones, PHA-3 amp/DAC and Kimber balanced cables - listening to a 24/96 download of Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert was a revelatory experience. Jarrett's solo piano improvisations sounded hugely dynamic and expressive, convincingly portraying his percussive approach in dramatic passages and his legato touch in the more tender sections. I've heard this landmark album hundreds of times, but it sounded brand-new.
This kit adds up to $3,150; but it truly delivers. Indeed, it's the best portable sound I've ever heard. Of course, you could argue that a digital player, external amp and big over-the-ear headphones aren't the last word in portability. But the ZX2 does nest nicely on top of the PHA-3; and the two will sit gracefully together on an airline tray, desk or bedside table. If you want high-res music when you're out and about, just disconnect the amp and hook the 'phones to the player with the unbalanced cable. For many music lovers, including yours truly, this will be a dream portable setup.