After my world premiere review of the Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman just weeks ago, plus earlier review of the Astell&Kern AK240 for which i gave an award to, my e-mail and social media feeds and discussion board has been on fire! Soon after the Sony review came my exclusive interview with Sony's designer/engineer Mr. Yoshioka. Yes the Sony NW-ZX2 sounds amazing and only in the past few days are those who pre-ordered one starting to receive their units. The buzz is huge and one of the constant themes i'm being asked is how the $1200 Sony NW-ZX2 sound against the $1600 Astell&Kern AK120II and, of course, the heavy-hitter $2500 Astell&Kern AK240. My hopes are to give you a blow-by-blow as Song Brothers in Singapore were kind enough to provide me virtually unrestricted access to the AK120II plus the JH Audio's new universal fit Angie and Layla, which were augmented by my JH Audio Roxanne custom, Noble K-10 custom and other IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) within my stable.
Song Brothers is in Singapore's Sim Lim Square, which a multi-story mall-ish building with a mix of consumer electronics retail, equipment repair, dealers, and some grey market goods too. Picked up a nice $1000 lens that no one discounts in the USA for $750 from a store in Sim Lim Square. At Song Brothers, their salesman Thushar was very knowledge and enthusiastic. They carry JH Audio, Astell&Kern, Sony and many other brands for personal/portable audio. Went to Song Brothers quite a few times over a series of days and during my last visit met their marketing person Kristy Song, who was incredibly kind and humble. This review took the efforts, and kindness, of many people.
How It All Began
It all really began during my visit to Singapore and upon visiting the main Sony store 313@Somerset there it was. The new, not yet released Sony NW-ZX2. Holy sh-t, it's not on sale in Asia for another few weeks (over a month before USA) yet there it was, on the sales floor beckoning one and all to hear it sing. Sadly, did not bring my Noble or JH Audio IEMs and so had to use their headphones, which i was not familiar with. It sounded good, yet hard to say as, frankly, the Sony headphones don't really impress me all that much. They are very good, yet not super fantastic great amazing holy cow jaw drop wow! To each their own plus i prefer custom IEMs yet do have a set of 1 of 1 Steampunk edition Audeze LCD-3 ($2000 in stock form) planar magnetic headphones, which are widely considered one of the Kings of the Hill for planar magnetic headphones.
So my incredibly understanding, fantastic, intelligent and beautiful wife/muse probably knew what was going to happen, and of course she was right. i might be Mr. Right, yet Heather is Mrs. Always Right. Guess who was impatiently waiting in front of the same Sony store just before it opened the very next day? Like you need to guess? i know, right! So there i was with my personal IEMs in-hand and ready to listen and review. The store's display was said to already have a few hundred hours on it so it was settled in electrically and ready for prime time. You can read my initial review of the Sony NW-ZX2 at this link.
I Bought It
Oh darn, if you guessed that Heather and i were back at Sony's 313@Somerset store buying a Sony NW-ZX2 you'd be right of course. Oh my God, could this be real? All the online audio/music lovers are crying about having to wait about a month more for their pre-order to arrive and i had one in my now-trembling hands. Now! At this very moment! At the Sony store they had me open the box to ensure all was great. The unit looked be-you-tee-ful and it was mine. All mine. Mine i say. Ha, ha-ha, hahahaha hahahahahahahah! FYI, did not get any super-duper deep discount price. That's ok by me because i wanted it right now! Pressing the power button. Hmm, nothing. Pressing the power button again. Hmmmmm. Ok, once more because the third time is a charm. Gosh darn it, for safety sake they shipped it with the battery dead. NOOOoooo! KHAN! KHAN!!!
Arriving home the unit was hooked to power as fast as it could. Oh hell, that's right, Sony chooses to use a proprietary power cable (included) and not a standard micro USB. Where in the box did they hide that cable? Ah yes, there it is! Oh, it even comes with a real leather case too. Upon further examination at the case and putting it on the unit i was not very impressed. It was a bit loose and not tightly form-fitted or very stylish. It also covers up the color touchscreen(!). A flap with a snap? Really? Is this circa 1970's Boy Scouts? Later i learned Sony makes a proper case for the NW-ZX2 for around $75 (just bought one on eBay from Japan), which of course is not available yet in the USA. Sony is indeed a company that continues to live up to their namesake. Sony = Soon, only not yet.
Fahgettabout the case and start loading up music Steven. Lots of music. GBs and GBs of music at a casual USB 2 speed. With battery fully charged and music loaded it was time...
The Pros and Cons Of New Toys
The first 10 hours were musically blissful with the Noble Kaiser 10 custom IEMs. Let the music play non-stop that night and woke up the next morning ready to listen. Ummm, uh oh. Ok, reboot maybe that'll fix it. Rebooted and, hmmm.... (Deep sigh and worry) It did not sound quite as good as i remember it did yesterday. Maybe the parts are settling in? Oh no, hope i did not just make a $1200 mistake! No, this can't be, so i did some listening that day and quite a bit of learning the GUI (graphical user interface), optimizing the OS, downloading a few Android apps like Anti-Virus, Pandora (which doesn't work in Singapore), Spotify and iHeartRadio. Oh yeah, and TIDAL too. For those unfamiliar, TIDAL is like Pandora and the others only a lot better. The sound quality is at least equal to CD and not 256kbs-ish lossy compressed circa 1990's technology MP3 like the others. TIDAL streams high quality music (and videos), lets you download songs for offline listening, etc. Without even a thought i hit the FWD button on the NW-ZX2 and it worked. Wait, wha??? Yes, the side buttons on the unit work for FWD, Back, Play/Pause for TIDAL, Pandora, etc. Cool! Hmm, i think it is starting to sound a tad worse, maybe, as the midbass a bit thick-ish and the highs are not quite as pristine. Well, Sony did say the unit needs about 100 hours. Time for bed, so put her on repeat and went to sleep.
So i woke up, which is always good way to start the day of course, and rebooted the unit. i find that rebooting sometimes helps, maybe. So now we're at around 36 hours and she is starting to sound a bit better. Fast-forward another few days to about 100 hours and oh.... my.... goodness this is niiiice! Oh, before i forget, while there is 'only' about 48GB of music on the Galaxy Note 3 that was transferred to the Sony NW-ZX2, i went to one of my private cloud servers and downloaded about 30GB more over the past few days. Singapore has some mighty fine Internet speeds with very low latency.
So came more days of listening with the OS optimized, music downloaded, over 150 hours of burn-in and... as i write this hundreds and hundreds of hours so she is settled in and ready for the highest of scrutiny. Add to that, have had quite some time to use the unit, find the strongpoints, the shortcomings, the one odd bug, and fleshed out my wish list i hope they do within the next software update.
My main reference IEMs are the Noble Prestige Kaiser 10 (K-10), as they are higher resolution and have a more neutral sound signature than the JH Audio Roxanne and are far fuller range than the Ultimate Ears UE18 Pro custom IEMs. Whilst i was also going to review the JH Audio Layla and Angie, they did not have over 100 hours of use and thus did not come close to the Noble K-10s, yet did have the same basic 'family sound' as the Roxanne. It did make me wonder if the adjustable bass on the cord or something else is holding back the ultimate performance from JH Audio IEMs. Just called them and realize the balanced version is offered by Astell&Kern so just e-mailed them an enquiry or a balanced cable and, if possible, sans those bass adjustments in hopes of a more pure sound. Thus will only be talking about the Noble K-10 because they sound the best of all IEMs i have heard to date. Please read my initial review of the Sony NW-ZX2 for my mini-review of the Noble K-10 custom IEMs.
How Does The Sony NW-ZX2
With many pages of listening notes am going to move along fast as time is ticking and have 125% more work to do today so keep up! Long story short is that the Sony NW-ZX2 has more natural detail, is better at following individual instruments within a layered recording, has better PRAT dance and groove, all the dynamics of instruments are rendered and not mashed together, excellent soundstage, has a battery life you'll love and goes an octave or so deeper in the bass yet with jaw-dropping resolution and smoother extreme highs than the AK120II. The AK240 is in the same boat, yet less-so yet still is no match for the Sony NW-ZX2. Look, i love the guys and gals at Astell&Kern and JH Audio, yet as they say the truth will set you free. Or should that be set the music free?
Here are the deeper details. With the Sony NW-ZX2 the instruments simply flow with a smoothness and rendered with ease. Each instruments space and extremely subtle dynamics are there for all to hear. These points are usually what vinyl folks always say digital lacks, and in many circumstances they are right. The Sony is a game changer in so many ways plus you can take it with you for an off-road bike ride, in the car, the train, subway, etc. Try that with vinyl! About two years ago i said at a conference that we'd be doing 'DAC Of The Month' and as much as i personally tried avoiding that dilemma, it looks like i, too, fell for it. Yes the AK240 was King of the Hill back in its day, yet the more people listen to the Sony and post about it on discussion boards, the more music lovers will realize the importance of this new Hi-Res Audio portable media player.
Just The AK240 Or NW-ZX2 With
The Noble Kaiser 10 (K-10) IEMs
Alan Parson's "Mammagamma" relies on the small dynamic shading, as well as timing, to make the music bounce. Any dynamic compression or mistiming and the whole feeling of music dancing falls apart. The Sony excels here. At the 27 second mark you get a backing keyboard entering the music that floats and subtly gets louder and softer over time yet maintains at the lower volume level. The Sony maintains this subtly in a very impressive manner.
Pink Floyd's "Echoes" is also quite telling as the echo 'ping' has a slow decay shows the superiority of the Sony. It is how the truly subtle nature of music is showcased, which i'll say again the vinyl enthusiasts (rightly) rave over. Perhaps digital is finally getting to the point where us digital lovers can look back and smile as we walk the streets with far better sound than $20k black 12" spinners. Of course we also need the software to support the digital efforts, and this is where vinyl may reign supreme for a few years to perhaps forever on older recordings. Of course the young kids probably don't listen to much of that music, so a generation or three from now the game will probably change dramatically, though perhaps longer as humans are extending their lifespan.
The Eagles' album Hell Freezes Over "Hotel California" has substantial deep bass drum and here is where we find the NW-ZX2 showing it's superiority. The bass drum almost sounds as if it is cut short a head vibration or two, but what is happening is that the last handful of bass drum head movements are being rendered the same with the AK240 whereas the NW-ZX2 you can hear that the last two or so the head's audible releases are ever so slightly slower before it finally stops moving. Beat frequency in action here with the AK240. Another factor i hear, and this is with various albums/songs, is that the Sony seems to energize and pressurize better. Have you ever been to someone's home audio system and it seems to be able to lock into the air within the room? As if the system's speakers truly have full control of the pressure waves and can 'grab' the room. The Sony gets this in spades and is lost on the AK240.
Since i'm talking about bass here, am going to do something utterly silly to probably 99% of the readers. Back in the day i was an IASCA car audio sound quality judge. IASCA released official CDs, with some high quality music from the likes of your typical audiophile labels, plus test tracks specifically digitally recorded extremely precisely for analyzing an automobiles sound system. Then, usually as the last few tracks of the CD, were the typical 'basshead' tacks used for SPL. Generally speaking, these songs are techo / dance with an abundance of rhythmic bass notes from 120Hz down to as low as your system could go. IASCA's Certified Test Disc has a song called "Killer Quad Megamix". Basically it is a Star Wars themed song and, well, was listening to it while posting on the I was into Auto Sound in the 80's and 90's group on Facebook. There is all the usual upper bass beats, yet in sections there is bass that goes down to 16Hz or so.
Yes i know how silly this all sounds yet please stay with me here. Those lowest of low notes are nearly totally lost on the AK240 yet, and to my massive surprise, the Sony NW-ZX2 and Noble K-10 did it to some extent. Not overly loud mind you, yet you could hear it was doing it to some degree cleanly. As a sound quality judge things like this separated the high-end and well-designed precision systems with proper power versus others, where either you never heard these notes due to roll-off or the lack of amplifier power made a mess as it ran out of juice (usually due to a lack of wattage, power supply problems or ported in a way not complimentary to producing such frequencies cleanly). If by some longshot you actually have the IASCA disc, it is at the 2 min 20 second mark. What i also noticed is that the Noble/NW-ZX2 combo grabbed and pressurized cleanly whereas the AK240 didn't have a grip of the very deepest of bass notes. Especially when the hits are very deep in frequency and then immediately stop. It is as if on the AK240 you had a subwoofer's voice coil/magnet (motor structure) not being properly designed to precisely control the movements of the cone. Sure this may seem like dumb things, call it stupid deep bass tricks, yet you really can test a system by using these purely electronic tones where you can fully control their frequency, volume level and stop/start them immediately. Thus you can then analyze if an audio system has certain problems, since the deepest bass notes are extremely difficult to produce due to larger cone, motor structure and amplification needed to achieve excellent results. Here's some deep bass music below. If you can't hear the deep bass, especially the bass immediately after the two 'hits' starting at the 45 to 46 second mark, you're system is lacking 'full' frequency sound production. The Sony with Nobles do it. To emulate such accuracy within a home audio environment can get exceedingly expensive, probably 10x+ the cost of the PMP / IEM system i'm reviewing here plus you need a room capable of properly supporting said frequencies accurately without room acoustic overhang. Basshead class is over, back to the 'normal' music.
Look! A Shiny Thing!
Back To 'Audiophile Music'
And Lastly For The Listening
Portion, The Music
To my ears, the Sony offers superior dynamics both macro and micro. Furthermore, the phasing tricks at the beginning of "Music" she says "Hey, Mr. DJ put a record on I wanna dance with my baby" has far more resolution with the Sony. Perhaps the Sony is more phase accurate and this would explain quite a few things to its superiority. Listen to the phasing effect within yet another phasing effect and the way it sounds with the Sony is more defined than with the Astell&Kern. When she breathes at the 3 and 5 second mark you really can hear the studio effect in its full glory. Then at the 41 second mark when the deep bass kicks in the definition and clarity is there in spades. During those brief moments, such as at 1 min 6 second mark listen as the echo effect also decays. After she says "boogie woogie" at 1 min 27 second mark you can feel the energized sound that suddenly stops and begins again. Very clean. Of course the PRAT, boogie woogie if you will, grooves like a legendary Linn LP12 turntable. If you love dance music as much as i do, you unconsciously find yourself tapping your toes to the music. Madonna is the #1 earner for good reason. In fact, go listen to deep funk and try not tapping your toes with the Sony. There is something intrinsically right in the way it handles timing cues with ease and lack of any limiting beat frequency problems.
How Can This Be?
Instead of using typical off-the-shelf chips, Sony can simply design and engineer their own completly in-house. While trying to prod a bit more information about the specs on the Sony NW-ZX2 pertaining to the headphone amplifier's output impedance and the like during my interview with their chief designer Mr. Yoshioka, they were not willing to provide any details. Sony's NW-ZX2 doesn't use a DAC available to anyone else, it is their own. The amplification is of their own design too.
Furthermore, they took great care at reducing electrical noise plus gave great consideration to the casing materials. Sony has the engineering, extremely precise (and expensive) measurement gear, plus decades of creating portable devices. Bring that together with massive funding capability and you get, well, the NW-ZX2 for $1200.
Sure the normal music lover might see $1200 and balk a bit, yet an iPhone with 128GB of memory is $849 and does not have the hardware for those who desire enjoying their music to the ultimate degree. Nothing wrong with an iPhone per se, yet it is not designed to deliver the very best in sound quality with custom audio circuits, chips, etc. Furthermore, look at the photo above showcasing their painstaking build techniques and parts to isolate noise. The results speak for themselves.
Oh, and before i forget the battery life on the Sony NW-ZX2 is outstanding. Best.... battery... life... ever... for any portable Hi-Res Audio player i have ever seen. If you're tired of having your portable/personal media player living on a charger or needing to always carry and external USB power source, then you're gonna love the battery life of the Sony.
A Most Humble Apologies To
Keep in mind i'll be attending many shows and will be seeing representatives of these companies too. Am always happy to provide them live broadcast time within Enjoy the Music.TV's mobile TV studio to showcase their products, with said videos later appearing online for all to see at their leisure. It is not easy being a reviewer, truly it is not. As much as we love to review all the great new gear, the reality is that sometimes a company's best does not exceed another's efforts at a far lower price point. These things happen. The great thing about this is that it forces the market to advance and find ways to improve their products. If you think high-end audio is competitive, try working within the computer technology sector and/or the automotive industry. For investors, who has the fastest, lowest latency connection to the markets with the best and cleanest/efficient lines of code algorithm where microseconds could mean the difference between possible losses and making millions each day.
Sony CKL-NWZX2 Black Leather
Gripes With The Sony NW-ZX2?
Yeah, I Got 'Em
Why, oh why do i have to embed the cover art within the music file when so many other software providers will first seek embedded, and if no embedded then look for cover.jpg in the same folder. i tend to not embed images within music files (to keep them 'pure') and so am SOL as the NW-ZX2 will not display cover art. Lastly, the GUI's All puts every song in alpha order. So why are All the songs within Genres, Album, etc not also in alpha order? While nice, yet not necessary, also add the album cover art to the left of each song when choosing All songs to be listed. Basically, make the GUI consistent as per the first All choice.
As always, in
the end what really matters is that you...