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February 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Best Audiophile Product Of 2015 Blue Note Award
World Premiere Review!
Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman
Hi-Res Audio sound quality within a seductively-styled portable package.
Plus the Noble Prestige Kaiser 10, JH Audio Roxanne and Ultimate Ears UE18 Pro IEMs.
Review By Steven R. Rochlin

 

Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman Review

 Perhaps the hottest portable media player (PMP) device announced during CES 2015 was the Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman. The Sony NW-ZX2 is not for sale anywhere in the world and so could not purchase a unit. Nor is there a review sample available for Yours Truly. Those two little details make no difference as loyal readers know that nothing will stop me if I put my mind to it. This review of the Sony NW-ZX2 is after about three hours total within the official Sony store in Singapore. It was their showroom floor demo with many hours of use. To ensure a scientific consistency of my findings, I brought with me the highly acclaimed Noble Prestige Kaiser 10 (K-10), JH Audio Roxanne and Ultimate Ears UE18 Pro custom in-ear monitors (IEM). Furthermore, had a 64GB microSD card with high resolution music files I know well. Long story short, perhaps the world's best IEMs and Hi-Res Audio music of my choosing all being used on a Sony NW-ZX2 that was broken in and ready for listening.

 

Bring On The Wayback Machine Sherman
Showing a bit of my age, I remember the first Sony cassette Walkman and was one of the very first people to have the D-5 Discman. The Discman was the world's first battery powered portable CD player. In fact I still have the D-5 and it still works to this day; nearly 30(!) years later. Sony ruled the PMP territory during the 1980's and 1990's with their cassette units, FM radios, water resistant Sports Walkman, etc. As the years passed they produced the D-10, D-88, D-25, and D-555 CD Walkman. Dare I admit to having owned all four and still have the latter two, also still in working condition mind you. As a side note, also had one of Sony's mobile car units that came with a click-on base unit and car mounting arm, which would help absorb road bumps and thus keep the laser/disc from ‘skipping'. We must remember that way back then there was no memory buffering like we have today. So from reading all this you'd think I was a Sony fanboy, right? Wrong! Those who read my December (2014) review of the Sony NWZ-ZX1 and NWZ-A17 Walkman (Walkmen?) versus Pono Music Player -- plus those who know I tend to be brutally honest – intuitively realize I write reviews exactly as I see/hear it.

To make a long story short and save you from reading my previous review linked above, I was not at all that impressed with the Sony NWZ-ZX1 or the NWZ-A17. Neither seemed to deliver what I felt was the true sound quality potential of high-resolution audio. Furthermore, have reviewed the (then) industry-leading Astell&Kern AK120 and the now reference quality AK240. Many PMP enthusiasts consider the AK240 to provide the world's best state-of-the-art sound for a portable media player. In December 2014 I panned the top-line NWZ-ZX1 as was not impressed with pretty much the entire unit. Sony's small, toy-like, NWZ-A17 didn't fare much better either. So now that Sony has had time to regroup and do more product development to refine what they learned from first generation units, am curious if they got it right with the NW-ZX2.

 

Bring On The Sony NW-ZX2 Review
Looking at the studio photos provided by Sony is visually alluring enough to whet your appetite, yet it is no substitute for holding one within your hand. If feels solid and with just the right weight and balance. The all-metal case feels smooth, yet has enough grip so you need not fear it easily slipping from your grip and dropping it. The side buttons for power, volume up, volume down, fast-forward, play and rewind all have a nice feel and need a proper amount of pressure. This way they are not too easily pressed (accidental operation) or too resistive. Based on Android 4.2.2, the touchscreen and GUI work smoothly together. As much as i tried to trip up the unit, it never flinched or hiccupped. Sure it may not be ultra-lightning fast, and there might be a bit of lag when you use your finger to scroll through your music files, yet i have a feeling this is more due to the OS and nothing Sony could really do about it as 4.2.2 has an inherent very slight delay during scrolling. The screen has a resolution of 854 x 480 and measures 4" with good brightness. The touch sensitivity seems to be set a tad on the lower side so when you push on it you'll need a bit of confidence and not just a very light ‘n' fast tap. Maybe there's an adjustment to increase or decrease the sensitivity, yet I forgot to check that within the settings (my apologies). Since it is Android-based, everything during operation was intuitive and user-friendly. Another added benefit is that you can use the unit as any other Android device minus the cell phone. Sony's NW-ZX2 does have NFC, Bluetooth and of course Wi-Fi. I'll leave all the other specifications within the specs section at the bottom of this review.

Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman

Did I mention that the Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman feels confident and solid? The beautiful curves remind me of a Ferrari, while in contrast the nearly twice as expensive Astell&Kern AK240 is physically more chiseled-like in styling akin to a Lamborghini. I tend to fit in a car analogy within every review and, well, there ya go! Getting back to the side buttons, when you're listening to a song and hold down the track forward or back buttons it will fast-forward through the currently playing tune. This faster speed forward or back is constant, and thus does not go faster still if you hold the button down for a longer period of time. After hours using the unit at the Sony Store here in Singapore, and the salespeople kindly left me alone, when I was (finally) walking away the salesman came up to me asking if I had any comments on the unit. My only major criticism was that after continuously pressing the fast-forward or back buttons on the side for more than, say, five seconds, it should go to an even faster scan of the song (faster than the initial scan speed). If that is my biggest operational grip, it is easily solved by Sony code-monkeys and app update, then we're talking about a very user-friendly device because I can be brutal when testing electronics toys to their limits.

The Sony NW-ZX2 comes with a dedicated music and EQ/tuning app and you'll see those apps icons at the bottom of the touchscreen. When you're listening to a music track and then press the back button, I like the fluid graphic that moves the album cover from top center to the lower left. Once you pick another track the album cover fluidly moves from lower left to then fill the upper half of the screen once again. In fact all operations were smooth and felt very user-friendly (AOL friendly for you old-time coders out there). During my listening, all EQ setting and sound/tone manipulation were set to flat. Sony provides a wide variety of unique ways to enhance the sound of your music, which may be especially useful if you're listening to lossy compressed MP3 digital audio files. It is interesting to note that there are additional settings for Hi-Res Audio DSD files, with one being how it handles all the dynamics and another that will do a -3dB setting. Those adjustments were also set to be neutral. All Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth, etc were turned off. The goal was to listen to the Sony NW-ZX2 in its ‘purest' form without any electrical interference or added sound manipulation.

Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman

It is interesting to note that the Sony NW-ZX2 handles both normal unbalanced 1/8" headphone jacks and, undocumented, balanced 1/8" headphone cables too! Users need to do nothing, as you simply plug in your normal headphones or, alternatively, very high quality balanced headphone cables to the gold jack on the bottom and the NW-ZX2 follows along without any necessary user intervention. Upon putting in my microSD card the unit it automatically scanned all the files and was ready to use within a reasonable time. Just remember that if you're listening to music stored within the ample 128GB internal memory and insert a microSD, your music will stop while it scans your memory card.

Calvin Lin Zhi Yong of Music Sanctuary, a specialty audio store here in Singapore and dealer for top-quality IEMs and cabling, was kind enough to meet me at the Sony store. He brought with him various cables and lent me a modded for balanced audio Noble stock cable. Was listening to the normal (unbalanced) 1/8" cable that one receives with headphones for about 30 minutes of audition. I then switched to the balanced version for the remained of this review when using the Noble Prestige K10. As a reminder, other IEMs used include the JH Audio Roxanne and Ultimate Ears UE18 Pro. All of these are custom fit; meaning that you get an impression (molding) of your ear and the company literally manufactures the IEM to perfectly fit your ear. You see virtually every rock star, pop musicians, etc wear these on stage today during performances. The advantages are a comfortable fit that will not fall out whilst also naturally isolating noisy outside sounds from interfering with what you're listening to. Custom made IEMs are widely considered the very best and all three IEMs are currently top-line custom fit models from all three companies.

 

Enjoying The Music With Sony's NW-ZX2 Walkman
Sony NW-ZX2 WalkmanThe first high resolution audio track I chose to hear was Pink Floyd's "Echoes" from the album Echos: The Best Of Pink Floyd and must say I am mightily impressed! The Noble Prestige K10 has incredible resolution, especially with ‘slow releasing' of the uppermost frequencies within this tune. The JH Audio are a bit more heavy-handed and thus the initial ‘ping' sounds do not float nearly as much as the Noble K-10. Getting back to the Noble K10 IEMs, have heard "Echoes" not just in this new Hi-Res Audio digital form, but also in the best vinyl versions using over $12,000 in turntable/cartridge combo and the sound via the NW-ZX2 with Noble K10 and stock cable surpassed my wildest expectation. Next track was "Keep Talking" by Pink Floyd and the bass drop at 1min 25sec is clearly defined and very even sounding with the Noble K-10. From uppermost midbass down to the deep bass there is not a hint of tone anomaly or dips/peaks. Just one smooth sound as the bass drops down in frequency. Stereo separation was also very impressive as the soundscape expands and envelopes you. Switching to the JH Audio Roxanne IEMs seemed to add a touch more dynamics yet at the expense of resolution. The UE 18 Pro IEMs, while bass deficient compared to the other two, was also a bit gritty and thus not as naturally / smooth sounding. It was obvious to me the Noble K-10 were probably going to be the winners of this IEM trio with the Sony NW-ZX2, yet was the K-10 dynamically limited or ???? Ah yes, the plot thickens!

The one thing that keeps filling my listening notes is the dynamic renderings are incredible, yet graceful. Each instrument is within their own volume dynamic structure including those instruments deeply buried and far quieter within the mix. These are, generally, hard to perhaps impossible to hear on MP3 versions of the same music. With Hi-Res Audio versions of the same song played on the Sony NW-ZX2 and Noble K-10, everything from upfront lead instruments to deep-in-the-mix with microdynamics were audible. There is a naturalness, with ease, to the music many music aficionados may associate only with the very best vinyl playback. Oh, and during "Comfortably Numb".... (insert very big grin here). So perhaps I need to see how it does with my own personal recording THTST.

Testing the harmonics and highs, "A Far Off Land" was portrayed with excellent uppermost registers. Yes the recording has some flaws, yet I know this recording well and have the instruments within the livingroom and play them regularly. So if you really want to know how something plays back music, it makes sense to use your own recordings. Uppermost frequencies can also be the most challenging and this is where MP3 leaves me wanting to a great extent versus the far better capabilities of high resolution digital audio. Full midrange and gong sound is appropriately portrayed. The highest frequencies, with their very complex harmonic structure, were reproduced to a very high caliber.

Sony NW-ZX2 WalkmanColor me a bit ashamed as have been meaning to review Tears For Fears newly remastered high-resolution album Songs From The Big Chair. Simply put, if you enjoy Tears For Fears music then buy the album. It is that great! There, that's my review. Done. As for how the album sounds on the Sony NW-ZX2, the song "Shout" tells me as much about the different IEM as it does the NW-NZ2! With the Noble K-10 it seemed the dynamics were slightly compressed; with the UE18 Pro dynamics were 'restored' yet the bass was a bit threadbare and with the JH Audio Roxanne both the dynamics and bass were in proper order yet missing a tiny bit of resolution. Played a few more tracks from this excellent remastered album and my listening note seem to echo the same resolution versus frequency comments.

On Alan Parson's "Mammagamma" with the Noble K-10, the hi-hat was clearly defined with each and every part of the shhhick hi-hat sounding moreso than I can ever recall. For those unfamiliar, a hi-hat is two cymbals facing one-another and can be open wide or closed together via foot operation. Basically, it is the smaller round cymbals right next to the snare drum you see drummers playing most of the time. Since there are two cymbals, they strike one anther when open and thus you have many ‘cymbal strikes' per given event if they are open and struck with a drumstick. Each cymbal strike via the Noble was clearly resolved. Some of these small details easily get ‘lost' when listening to lossy compressed MP3 music and can be exacerbated further when using lower quality audio gear. Buried within the music is an upper frequency keyboard, beginning about 28 seconds into the track. It interplays, in the deep background, of the music and am impressed by the NW-ZX2 / Noble K-10's ability to have all the complexity there from the louder rhythm to the underlying supporting instruments.

On the vintage Miles Davis Quintet track titled "Four", you can easily hear the appropriately dated sound of the recording. While the musicianship is spectacular, you can hear the dated nature of the studio recording methodology. It sounds very good, yet wish they had modern equipment back then that was capable of capturing his horn and accompaniment to today's standards. Sure this FLAC file has been remastered using today's top quality engineering, yet what is within the master tape is simply that. It is there to be heard in every sense of the word, warts and all.

 

Turn It To 11!
Sony NW-ZX2 WalkmanOk, let us ramp the music to 11 shall we? On went Dream Theater's self-titled album. Recorded January through May, 2013, the band chose to record in high resolution digital audio and it shows... or should I say sounds?  Dream Theater is a prog metal/rock band of musicians with incredible chops. Crazy-mad skills! So I chose the high-resolution track "Enigma Machine" and cranked up the volume and... oh hell yeah!!!  All the complex passages were extraordinarily well defined as each musician's instrument broke through as the blindingly-fast bass drum played on, playa'. At the 3min 5sec mark the guitarist breaks into a ferocious screaming run that pierces nicely, yet it never sounded brittle or distorted. With the Noble K10 and Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman combo this hard-core progressive track never, and I mean never, sounded better on any other audio combo, home or portable, I have heard to date. It came through clearly as a complete performance. Generally speaking, lesser quality recordings or lo-fi gear makes a bloody mess of the music when it is as intricate and complicated as within this tune. They do not covey what the musicians intended their fans to hear. With new studio techniques, newly available Hi-Res Audio format and the Noble K-10, all the intricacies were presented with ease. As a longtime fan of King Crimson, Rush, etc, needless to say I'm in aural ecstasy.

Switching to the JH Audio Roxanne and the music 'lost' some of its complexity as the instruments seemed to meld (muddle?) a bit together. Hmmm, wish I had the AK240 with me as I recall a touch more definition on this track with that combo. Fortunately, the wonderful guys from Music Sanctuary brought an AK100 that has been modded so the DAC is a WM8741 chip. Using their modded AK100 the sound has more lower midrange 'drive' yet bass is not as defined or as even within the frequency spectrum. All the complexity is there, pretty much, yet it is not as harmonious sounding. Back to the Sony NW-ZX2, the holistic sound is more even within the frequency spectrum and it sounds more like what I'd assume the musicians wanted their fans to hear. This all pertains to the using with JH Audio Roxanne, for which I know this track extremely well. The same Dream Theater track with stock yet balanced Noble K10 cables and the bass drum seems deeper(!) with more impact. Something must be going on around the 120Hz frequencies with the JH Audio Roxanne IEMs that the Noble K-10 gets more right. The uppermost registers of the guitar are better defined and extended with the Noble K-10 too.

Complaint, ok, here we go. My only minor complaint is the fast-forward/rewind not adding more speed after five seconds on being depressed. You need to be aware that Sony chose to use a proprietary charging cable and not a standard micro USB... like virtually every other Android device in the known universe. There is plenty of volume levels, though if you use ultra-power greedy audiophile headphones you'll want to also use an external amplifier. Audiophiles with the $2000 Audeze planar magnetic variety already know they'll probably need an external headphone amplifier, which Sony and others do sell. For normal headphones you can sit back and relax and you should be fine.

Grand Finale
Am already at over 2,750 words and I still have more to say?!?! Ok, my apologies for writing such a long review as there is not enough time, or passion, to write a shorter version. My thoughts and feelings for the Sony NW-ZX2, and the Noble Prestige Kaiser 10, have caused me to write this streaming-thought review. Obviously if I was not so excited the word count would be far less. So the first question is should you consider getting the Sony NW-ZX2. A resounding yes and here's why. First, it looks great, is a solidly built and am assumingly high reliability. My 30 year old Sony D-5, a few years younger D-25 and D-555 still work and they have moving parts(!). The solid build quality of the Sony NW-ZX2 should bring you many years of musical bliss. The added advantage of being based on the Android OS, and not some proprietary Tizen OS (I'm glaring angrily at you Samsung) means you can do so much more than it ‘just' being a portable music player. I'm also assuming that I could have it pull music files via Wi-Fi from my NAS drive via an app as I do with my Android phone, yet this review is being curtailed as the NW-ZX2 is not for sale so had to review it within the Sony store here in Singapore. Hmmm, I wonder if the Samsung Gear S app will load onto it so I can change tracks using my cell phone watch-instrument? I have so many more questions... the possibilities with Android being nearly endless.

The 128GB Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman, with another 128GB of additional memory via microSD, sounds darn impressive. I'd call it a bargain, but then the £949 in the UK and $1199 US would mean it is priced higher than a non-expandable memory $850 Apple iPhone with 128GB of memory. You may need more memory than 64GB for Hi-Res Audio files, yet additional memory is cheap via microSD plus you can easily have a few cards with different music loaded onto them (wake up Apple!) Furthermore, fans of the Astell&Kern AK-series might come to the forefront, yet that is a purpose-built dedicated unit without any of the advantages of the Android OS system used within the Sony. Or you could be a music enthusiast reading this review and shaking your head about guys like me using $2400 PMP units and $2000+ IEMs and thinking we're a bit extreme. Ok, make believe you forget the price and, instead, please concentrate your attention to the music.

You love music, right? Aren't you even a tad bit curious how great the music you love, your music, can sound using new technology from the recording studio (re)mastering all the way through to the playback device? Sure the very best, and the Sony NW-ZX2 is their best, is more expensive than the 16GB MP3 player you'll find at the corner drug store or basic home electronics store. Are you tired of running out of battery when listening to music? Please don't get me going about the short battery life of the Astell&Kern AK240 as that is precisely the reason why I'm here in Singapore without the AK240, as it needed to be charged and I stupidly left it on the charger at home. The Sony unit will work for up to 33 hours of High-Res Audio music or 60 hours of MP3 playback, with battery operated standby time probably rated in weeks (not mere days!). How about all the benefits of a full metal case or the seductive-yet-strong visual styling's like that of a Ferrari?

Bottom line, go give it a listen and judge for yourself. That is the best advice I can give. Please hear for yourself how great all this new technology can sound with your fave tracks. Me? I'm sold... and I have all that fancy expensive doohickies that cost multiples more in investment. Yes, I said investment as the music I love makes life far more enjoyable. You can take the Sony NW-ZX2 with you during that dreaded driving in traffic to wonderful bicycle rides, and of course those rare moments when you want the world to disappear as the music soothes your soul. With a portable unit like the Sony NW-ZX2 you can bring it wherever you go and the battery life is extraordinary; so you'll not have to keep plugging it in every night to charge. It sounds great, is easy to use and you can load all those great Android apps too.

As for the Noble Prestige Kaiser 10, as Ferrari Bueller says "If you have the means, I highly recommend it". Best sounding custom fit IEMs to date. Furthermore, you can have them in basic visual form or uprated at an added expense to Prestige series if you want a custom look. Visit Noble's website and Facebook page to see the very best artistic IEMs in the world. You'll be the rock or pop star and have in-ear monitors that look, and probably sound, better than the singers you see within videos. Aural art meets science, with more artistry added in for good measure.

For my longtime fans who know how blunt I can be, let me say this clearly and concisely. The Sony NW-ZX2 doesn't suck. It rocks my music world and I want one now! Shhhh, don't tell Sony this, yet as I type this am jonesing big time for another listen. Why, oh why doesn't Sony sell this thing right now?!?! Do we all really have to wait until February 13th here in Singapore to get one? Sony, my credit card numbers are 88....... Oh, and do you offer the NW-ZX2 with a rose gold case? I ask all manufacturers if they offer things in rose gold, as I'm a big fan, though any color you like provided it is black is fine by me. As always, in the end what really matters is that you...

 

Enjoy the Music (We feel it all around us every day... in the music that we play),

Steven R. Rochlin

Additional Information
Our interview with Sony's NW-ZX2 designer, Mr. Yoshioka, can be seen at this link. Also of note is that i purchased one at Sony's retail location in Singapore and plan to compare it to the Astell&Kern AK240. It has already handily bettered the AK120II so we shall see if it can also better the mighty AK240 (reviewed here).

ADDED: The follow-up comparison review with the Astell&Kern AK240 appears here.

 

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Hi-Res Audio battery powered portable media player
Sony NW-ZX2 specifications at this link.
Noble Kaiser 10 (K-10) specifications at this link.
 

Company Information
Sony Corporation of America
550 Madison Avenue
New York, NY, 10022

Website: www.Sony.com

 

Noble Audio
19 West Carrillo Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93101

Website: www.NobleAudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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