World Premiere Review!
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
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
Bring On The Sony NW-ZX2
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.
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
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.
Color 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.
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!
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.
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...