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Around the world with the Sony NWZ-ZX1 Walkman

  • Sony is in the midst of a slow-mo roll of the dice on HRA. Over the past twelve months, the Tokyo-based giant has bet their audio division’s house on the broader uptake of hi-resolution formats. Unlike Pono, this isn’t a game of all mouth and no trousers. Far from it. Sony have bundled each of their HRA-capable products with a plethora of functionality.

    Few could argue with the keen-as-mustard value of their entry-level HAP-S1: all navigable from an front-facing LCD screen, it stores up to 500Gb of music that can be fed to BYO speakers from its internal 40wpc Class A/B circuit. There’s a headphone output out front to boot. Price? A flat US$999 if you live Stateside, AU$1399 if you reside down under. There’s a lot of ‘can do’ here for the man in the street, not just audiophiles. This is the kind of product that would bring my Dad into the digital audio fold and I certainly wasn’t the only pundit to think so given the amount of waves it made at RMAF 2013.

    Or there’s the HAP1-ZES hi-res music server/player that combines 1TB HDD storage and DAC under one roof for what Vinnie Rossi of Red Wine Audio has referred to as one of the best digital implementations he’s seen to date. Little wonder Rossi’s taken to modding them. USA residents get a stock unit for US$1999 whilst Australians are asked to pony up AU$2999 for a ‘special order’; Sony Australia are reportedly keeping next to no stock in the country.

    Sony USA show off the NWZ-A17 Walkman at NYAS 2014

    And if you’re an Aussie about to thump the table at the outrage of it all, know that Sony America has opted out of running with the flagship NWZ-ZX1 Walkman in the US market. At the New York Audio Show in September, the Sony USA team could be found pushing hard on the announcement of the less capable but less expensive NWZ-A17 Walkman. A device that’s since hit the streets for US$299. Oddly, the NWZ-A17 doesn’t do DSD but it hopefully counters your disappointment (wink wink) with 50 hours of PCM playback time. And neither does it do any of the things that make the NZW-ZX1 so enticing. We’ll get to that shortly.

    I’m getting ahead of myself. Time to rewind to May.

    At this year’s Spring Fujiya-Avic festival in Tokyo I had my first tastes (plural) of the NWZ-ZX1. Until Jude Mansilla of Head-fi pulled one from his bag, I’d not really paid much attention to what I’d previously mentally written off as just an Astell&Kern wannabe. How wrong I’d been. See, the NWZ-ZX1 a) runs a modified version of Android and b) has Wi-Fi capabilities. This was the moment the penny dropped for this reviewer: access to the Google Play Store meant Pandora and Spotify could join the party.

    I had to have one.

    I took my enthusiasm straight to the Sony table at the Nakano Sun Plaza where the NZW-ZX1 Walkman could be found sharing table space with the PHA-2 DAC/amplifier and MDR-1R MKII headphones (for which engineers of both were present to answer questions).

    A trip to not one but two different Yodobashi Camera stores – one in Shinjuku, the other in Akihabara – opened my eyes to how much Sony were already invested in re-invigorating the Walkman sub-brand as well as putting all hands on deck with HRA.

    Sony Japan exhibit the NWZ-ZX1 + PHA-2 at the Fujiya-Avic Spring headphone Festival, Nakano Sun Plaza
    Sony Japan exhibit the NWZ-ZX1 + PHA-2 at the Fujiya-Avic Spring headphone Festival

    My plans to purchase a NWZ-ZX1 right there and then in downtown Akihabara were thwarted by a quick mental exchange rate conversion. At AU$699, it was cheaper to buy this Walkman down under than it was in its country of origin. Unreal! (I’ve since written about how I believe the success of future DAPs will pivot on their cloud connectivity).

    By the time I crashed landed into the Australian Audio and AV Show in October, I finally had my hands on my very own unit, purchased with confidence for both review and personal pleasure. At the InterContinental in downtown Melbourne, Sony Australia could be seen showing the NWZ-ZX1 with the soon-to-be-released PHA-3 DAC/amplifier (AU$999) – a moment that had me recall how I’d also seen the very same Walkman digitally lassoed to the Chord Hugo in Munich. WTF? Why was Sony’s flagship Walkman consistently being exhibited strapped to an additional amplifier?

    The message being communicated might not have been intended: this digital audio player can’t satisfactorily drive more demanding headphones. And it’s true, it can’t. The need to strap on the thousand-dollar PHA-3 (or Chord Hugo) not only relegates the NWZ-ZX1 to a seven hundred dollar digital transport, it spoils its all-in-one proposition and its pocketability.

    Sony is omnipresent at Yodobashi Aki, Akihabara, Tokyo

    The upshot? You’d be better of putting that $1000 towards the best pair of portable friendly headphones you can find. Headphones that benefit from the Sony Walkman’s sonic smarts as it stands.

    Further information: Sony Australia

    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. John, I’ve just returned from Seoul and Tokyo and I’m not terribly impressed with Sony atm. I have the ZX1/PHA-2 combination and I love it – what I wanted was the WMC-NWH10 cable I need to hook the ZX1 up to my other USB DACs. ‘Electro-Land’ in Yongsan has a dedicated Sony repair centre but I was told that the person who speaks English was away that day. Flew to Tokyo the next day and found my way to Yodobashi Camera – you’re absolutely right about their prices and I can get the iDSD micro for less here in Thailand than it would have cost me there, even with the 5% rebate. Every Sony cable except the one I needed, so I made my way to Sony Headquarters in Ginza, found a woman who spoke excellent English and she produced the object of my desire then refused to sell it to me at any price. Seems the only Walkman digital output cable in Tokyo was being used in their store to demo the ZX1 and she couldn’t find any stock at any of the Sony resellers in Tokyo. Amusingly the first place she suggested was Yodobashi Camera.

      7 hour flight back to Thailand and my dealer – jetliveaudio – who will bend over backwards to get me whatever I’m prepared to pay for, but Sony Thailand doesnt seem to have the cable either. Sony has a long and inglorious history of locking customers into their universe – fine, but the least they can do is keep sufficient inventory to allow their captive audience to experience the best that their products are capable of. Most of the Sony stores in Australia are staffed by hipsters who are far more interested in mobile phones than anything to do with audio and that seems to flow through to Thailand – difficult to know how many of the staff in Sony HQ actually know their product but there seemed to be a lot of people standing around with twiddling their thumbs – might be time for Sony to cull the herd down to the people who know their stuff and have a language other than japanese, particularly when they’re staffing a floor dedicated to products for sale outside Japan.

      end rant 😉

      • Hey Artie. Sorry to hear of your woes with the cable sourcing. Sony doesn’t seen to be all that consistent on a global level, does it? All the Aussie hipsters are gone now as Sony Australia shuttered its retail stores in 2013.

    2. Sorry to hear that – looks like I’m completely out of the loop. Thanks for the review, John – I also appreciate that you mentioned ADL’s X1, another of my portable toys which I feel hasnt had the recognition it deserves.

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