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Fujiya Avic Spring 2014 (Part 3 – Oppo, JVC Kenwood, Sony)

  • You couldn’t get near the Emilai table for most of the weekend. The queue was nearly always at least three deep. The reason? The Oppo PM-1 and its ‘companion’ HA-1 DAC/headphone amplifier.

    Fortunately, an invite to a private listening session of this very same combo had fallen into my lap not 24 hours earlier. Across town, I’d tagged along with some very eager Head-Fi-ers to pay a visit to Kono-san at Oppo Digital Japan‘s HQ. After a brief listen, it had me thinking about how Alex Rosson (of Audeze) might not be sleeping as well as he once did. It might lack the scale and overall resolve of the LCD-whatevers but the PM-1 is a headphone that’s lighter on the head and easier to drive. And depending on where you live, it’s cheaper too. Kono-san tells me that the local price will be equivalent to around US$1500. That’s more than the USA, a smidge less than Australia and whole chunk o’ change cheaper than the UK.

    Back at the Emilai booth, ‘Technology Evangelist’ Matsuura-san handed me a pair of PM-1 to try with my Astell&Kern AK120. There was no issue with foot-to-the-floor power but the presentation lacked effervescence – too meek, too mild. The top end of the PM-1 isn’t the airiest I’ve heard but you could turn that around claim greater acquiescence with longer listening sessions. Perhaps Oppo envisaged the use of tighter/brighter smartphones as providing cayenne sprinkles.


    I called upon the more vigorous energy of an ALO Audio headphone amplifier. Strapped neatly to the back of the AK120, Ken Ball’s International+ extended proceedings at both ends of the frequency spectrum for an altogether more satisfying PM-1 experience. This was closer to that which I’d heard with the HA-1 at the wheel.


    AK240 owners shouldn’t need to phone-a-friend for to bring the Oppo orthos to life. The top of the line Astell&Kern DAP is considerably livelier and more resolving than the warmer, softer AK120. The AK240 more tonally vivid too. And if you want to go all out with showpony head-fi, Astell&Kern will sell you a ‘gold’ AK240 for close to three thousand clams.

    The JVC/Kenwood table was also super popular and it took me three attempts to get a sit down. Here, another bombastic-sounding portable DAC/amplifier is coming to market and the SU-AX7’s engineer, Miwa-san, was on hand to talk me through it: is similar in size to CEntrance’s HiFi-M8, packs line, USB and optical digital inputs and (unusually) uses an AKM chip for D/A conversion. Switchable gain and ‘K2’ DSP sound enhancement round out a comprehensive feature set. No word on availability beyond Japan but there it will sell for the equivalent of US$600.


    The loooooong Sony table was staffed by as many product engineers as sales guys; you can talk with the designer of the product at hand. That’s almost as impressive as the number of exhibitors who speak superb English. I had no issue conversing with Nishino-san, the engineering brains behind the PHA-2. I covered this portable DAC/headphone amplifier when it launched in 2013 but its build quality and feature set still impress almost a year on: 24/192 PCM, single- and double-rate DSD, two master clocks handling a PCM1795 converter. The roll-cage keeps the volume pot and your headphone jack out of harm’s way. Its sound was warm, rich and chock full of tonal mass, far more congealed and thicker than the Sony NWZ-ZX1 to which I had it digitally lassoed (using Sony’s proprietary connector) . The NWZ-ZX1 sounds altogether crisper, airier, lighter.


    For my money, Sony’s flagship Walkman is one of the most impressive DAPs to date. Sony made a smart move with the operating system by customising Android to their needs instead of starting from scratch. Android also brings with it the ability to run apps as you would on a smartphone (WiFi only) and that means Spotify, Deezer, MOG/Beats or whatever streaming service floats your boat – a killer blow to the competition.


    Some nitpickers have complained about the NWZ-ZX1’s 128Gb internal storage not being expandable but the numerous positives of this ~US$780 unit will likely cast such complaints into the shade: it feels great in the hand, the rubberised grip on the rear means you won’t drop it easily and the screen, although not the best of the best, still looks gorgeous. I’m told a recent firmware update brought DSD playback into the picture but even with Redbook content this Walkman sounds detailed, clean and a thinner tonal mass (than the PHA-2) sees layer separation jump out as one of its primary talents.

    Further information: Oppo Digital Japan | Emilai | JVC Kenwood | Sony | Astell&Kern | ALO Audio


    [Part 1 of this show coverage can be found here, Part 2 here.]

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Again, thanks for taking the time to share your experience, John.

      I have a feeling I’d like the Sony offerings as well, especially the PHA-2. Always had an affinity for the PCM1795’s signature sound. Probably the best chip to ever come out of Burr Brown labs (fittingly here, it was designed by BB Japan, before the TI takeover). I’ve seen a few people with the ZX-1 Walkman at the local Jaben, but never come across the PHA-2 before.

      I heard you got yourself a DITA. True? If so, congrats. Had the chance to hear it a while back (I’m in Singapore, same country DITA comes from) and it’s truly a decent bit of kit.

      So, you flying off to Germany, or do you still a few days in Japan?

      • Yeah, DITA have lent me some Answer IEM for review commentary when I get back to Oz, but yes they are just wonderful. Am setup in Munich now – the show starts this morning. Another Fujiya Avic piece to write before those doors open.

        You might be the only one commenting but through-the-roof site stats this week shows me that people are still reading! 🙂

    2. It’s certainly turning out to be an interesting year in both portable hifi (Herus & iFi iDSD) and streaming (can’t wait to see how the AURALIC streamer turns out.)
      In the past I’ve spent too much money on portable headphone gear only for it to gather dust after the novelty wears off, so how will my latest purchase pan out? I travel a fair bit, traveling light trumps ultimate fidelity for me. I use my travel time to find new music generally and live on my HTC phone with Spotify downloads to a pair of Dunu in-ear (just can’t get my head around traveling with anything bigger) sound quality is acceptable to good I’d say, but like most of us I still yearn for something better. I was in Japan around the same times as you John it would seem, reading your posts and staying in Shinjuku peaked my interest again. Stumbling around the stores I came across the Sony NWZ-ZX1, the form factor and Android integration made for a don’t think too much impulse buy. Ran back to the hotel downloaded Spotify and Quboz oh yes! Now I’m in a different place with musical involvement and I’m even really enjoying the NWZ-ZX1 with an iFi portable headphone amp to my HifiMan HE-500’s at home. Is it the ultimate in sound quality – I’m sure not – but as both an out-and-about system with in-ear phones , plus no hassle home set up, it takes some beating. This maybe just be the one portable system that, for me, doesn’t gather dust.

      • Sony has rewritten what’s possible from a budget portable DAP with the ZX-1. Same price as Astell&Kern’s entry level AK100 but Sony’s customised Android OS means Spotify et al can join the party. Very cool. I might snag one myself when I get back to Sydney.

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