updated 07:16 pm EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Sony takes aim at the high resolution audio market with the NWZ-ZX1
Electronista has been given the opportunity to go hands on with Sony's forthcoming NWZ-ZX1 High-Resolution Audio Walkman. The new device is part of an entire High-Resolution Audio portfolio that Sony is currently starting to roll out to markets globally aiming to tap into the resurgence of interest in high quality audio. After missing out on the digital music revolution that started with the Apple iPod, Sony is positioning itself to make sure that it gets in early on the market for high definition audio players. Digital music has now come full circle with increases in data bandwidth allowing users fast and easy access to high quality uncompressed and lossless audio files.
Sony's first play is the new high-end NWZ-ZX1 High-Resolution Audio Walkman. As a first up effort at a high-resolution music player, it is very impressive. Although that should not come as any great surprise; Sony popularized the personal audio player long before Apple arrived to lay waste to the competition with its digital MP3 player. However, just as Apple's attention has shifted away from standalone digital audio players in favor of further expanding its iPhone empire, Sony believes it may have sensed an opportunity to take some initiative.
While the vast majority of people are more than satisfied with the quality of audio produced by their smartphones, fans of high-quality music have long understood their relative limitations. For these select users, the proposition of a high-quality standalone audio player is worth the minor inconvenience of carrying another device with them. The NWZ-ZX1 is already on sale in Japan and has been since late last year. According to Sony, 3,000 Japanese customers a month in its home market have been more than happy to part with their cash to lay their hands on the NWZ-ZX1, which suggests that Sony may be on to something.
Making high-quality audio has long been at the core of what makes Sony, Sony. However, it has been some time before the Japanese tech titan has released a personal audio player that is as good as the new NWZ-ZX1. One look at the build quality of the device gives you a sense of just how seriously Sony is taking is taking its latest music player. It's premium aluminum chassis feels great in the hand and looks befitting of its high-end price. It is not particularly slim, however, despite how compact it is overall - it also weighs in at a reasonable 139 grams. There is a bulge at the bottom of the device on the back, however, this is because Sony has designed the device with high-quality audio components that have been properly isolated to ensure that there is no electrical interference that could affect the sound - a problem that can affect smartphone listening.
Although the device centers on a 4-inch (854x480) Triluminos touchscreen LCD display, Sony has also included traditional physical controls that allows you to control the device with a hand while in your pocket without having to use the touchscreen interface for skipping tracks, for example. There is also a proprietary 22-pin WM-port for connecting the device to a PC and other devices for maximum bandwidth, and a USB port for charging over USB, while it also includes a 3.5mm (gold plated) audio jack. Continuing with Sony's current fondness for Android, the NWZ-ZX1 runs Android 4.1 out of the box, but unlike the Sony Walkman ZX1, it runs a version of Android with a similar look and feel to Sony's smartphone range. It is compatible with the Google Play store, so you can still use the device to play casual games on the go as well, even though it is purpose made for music lovers. It also includes support for Wi-Fi 802.11n.
What sets the new Sony NWZ-ZX1 apart from some of its direct competition from the likes of Cowon, is the incorporation of Sony's well respected S-Master amplification technology, which in this case has been developed specifically for high-resolution audio reproduction in the form of an S-Master HZ amp. The device also uses several Sony sound enhancement technologies including DSEE HX, Sony's digital sound enhancement for high-resolution audio. Listening to the device using one of Sony's new range of high-resolution audio headphones produced an outstanding listening experience and is one of the best, if not the best audio experience we've heard from a portable device.
The quality of the sound is noticeably better than when listening to a typical 256kbps AAC file or a 320kbps MP3 file. For people that truly enjoy a high quality audio experience, the Sony NWZ-ZX1 is definitely worth a look. There is greater clarity, most noticeable at the high-end, while mid-range and bass response is neutral, but punchy at the same time. The aspect that you notice the most about listening to high-resolution audio is that you will find that, without the compression, the sound stage is much more expansive. I will be posting a companion piece on the finer points of what high-resolution audio offers listeners shortly after posting this article. What you do need to know though, is that high-resolution audio is better than CD quality, which should give you a sense of what to expect.
Although US pricing and availability for the NWZ-ZX1 has not yet been determined, the price is the most likely reason why Sony won't see iPod levels of success. It is retailing in Australia for $699 AU ($650), which is on par with a high-end Android smartphone. However, iPod levels of success may not be Sony's end game. It has a wide range of audio gear headed our way that is made for high-resolution audio. Given Sony's reputation in the field, and its relatively accessible pricing compared to high-end audio makers, there is a good chance that it will pick up a significant slice of the high-resolution audio market. Just how big that market will be become, will be very interesting to watch unfold.
By Sanjiv Sathiah