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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

    Written by John

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

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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