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October 2016
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Superior Audio Equipment Review
World Premiere Review!
Hands On Review: Sony NW-WM1Z Hi-Res Audio Walkman
The new King of Sony Walkman will set you back $3199. Is it worth it?
Review By Steven R. Rochlin

 

Sony NW-WM1Z Walkman Review

  During the Denver CanJam show at the Rocky Mountain International Audio Fest 2016 I had the opportunity to enjoy about 90 minutes listening to the Sony's new NW-WM1Z Walkman. This is the world's first full hands-on review using Firmware 1.0, which is what will ship with new units in November. As the company's top-line Walkman, this battery powered Hi-Res Audio portable digital music player held much promise. This is especially true after my world premiere review of Sony's previous King-of-the-Hill NW-ZX2 unit. Yet before we get into all that, my experience of Sony's portable digital audio players starts with buying their then new D-5 battery powered portable CD player in the 1980's, followed by the D-10, D-88, D-25 and D-555 (the first and later two still here). Fast-forward to February 2015 and I was on holiday in Singapore and so was the first journalist to purchase and review the Sony NW-ZX2. It was a rave review, sure, yet of course my other faves include such greatness as the Astell&Kern AK240 and AK380, Questyle QP-1r and perhaps a bit of love for the FiiO X7 with better amplifier module (the chosen amp module makes a huge difference!).

So here I sit with my trusted Sony NW-ZX2 side-by-side with their new NW-WM1Z music player ready for review. Used the same memory card (64GB SanDisk Extreme) within both units. READ: Two of the same memory cards with identical digital music files, one in each unit. Stock memory of the new Sony is 256GB versus 128GB of the ZX2. Both units have a microSD card slot to add more memory. Custom in-ear monitor of choice is my fave Noble K10 in rose gold Tiger Stripe with Double Helix top-line all silver cable with rose gold 3D printed bits. Firmware was production stock 1.0, which is what will be released when available in November. The unit had around 15 hours on her, and though I waited until the very last day was hoping for 100+ hours so the precious customized caps could better settle in.

 

Sony NW-WM1Z Walkman Review

 

Sony NW-WM1Z Initial Start
Unlike the Android-based NW-ZX2, the new Sony NW-WM1Z appears to use the company's own close-ended operating system. After initial turn on it took a minute or so to recognize and make available the music on my 64GB microSD card. The GUI and OS operated smoothly and screen resolution might not be best-in-class 4K, yet very usable. During the 90 minutes of use the unit only hiccupped once, a brief single stuttering of a music track, with all else being fine. The new OS has some nice operational featuring including swiping in various directions to choose options. Thus it is more refined and offers more usable features that are easy to access, moreso than with the NW-ZX2.

 

Sony NW-WM1Z Walkman Review

 

I immediately noticed there are 120 volume levels on the Sony NW-WM1Z versus 60 on the NW-ZX2. Sony makes it relatively easy to choose between three customized equalizer settings, or pre-set ones, which is the same as the NW-ZX2. It is also easy to choose Direct Source that produces the purest of sound by eliminating EQ and any other DSP settings. During my listening sessions I did (easily) notice you seem to lose inner resolution when using the EQ and other DSP settings versus going Direct. So really Direct Source is, IMHO, the only way to hear the new Sony to the fullest. Sadly, Sony does not offer custom EQ memory for each song. This would have been an excellent feature as some songs/albums do indeed need a bit of equalization, and so if you set an equalization curve for a particular track the unit could have remembered it for future playback. Ah well, two steps forward, one step back per se and this was a suggestion I made to Sony in Singapore when they released the NW-ZX2.

 

Sony NW-WM1Z Walkman Review

 

Listening And Reviewing The Sony NW-WMZ1
There is no doubt that the Sony NW-WMZ1 is more resolving than the NW-ZX2. It is easy to hear the difference and so here are a few thoughts after 90 minutes of going back and forth between the two units. I feel there is a touch less subtle micro dynamics with the NW-WMZ1 versus the NW-ZX2, yet this might be attributed to the low hours on the new unit. As many longtime readers know, Sony uses special FT CAP (high polymer capacitor) that regulates power flow to ensure optimization. These take about 100 hours to settle in, with 200 hours being 'good to go'. There is far higher headphone amplification output with the new unit versus the slightly older ZX2, so it easily maxes out the Noble K10 with volume level to spare.

 

Sony NW-WM1Z Walkman Review

 

There is the same sense of musical ease with both units, with a tad less bit of musical lush as heard with the Sony NW-ZX2. This is not to say it is extremely accurate as with the Questyle QP-1r, yet Sony's latest unit did move the musical needle a tiny bit more to the accurate side of sound. I can not stress enough that when I turned the EQ on, sound quality suffered. It was not subtle! Another factor that was easily heard is the deepest bass. Deep bass is more taunt, with what sounds like more dynamic headroom when using Sony's NW-WMZ1 versus their NW-ZX2. Unlike the ZX2 that has a 5 band EQ plus Clear Bass, the new Sony unit has a 10 band EQ that offers more fine-tuning (both are at 0.5dB steps, though wish there was an 'Advanced' choice to then have a 31-band EQ with 0.1dB steps like the Astell&Kern AK380 unit).

 

Sony NW-WM1Z Walkman Review

 

Sony's NW-WMZ1 has an abundance of DSP settings, far more than the ZX2. Of particular note is the DC Phase Linearizer that seeks to mimic analog amplification. When it was turned on in default setting during Skrillex "Kyoto", I felt the original non-modded version to sound more pulsating than using DC Effect. By using it, it flattened the deep bass, though could be useful for other music. There are so many choices in DSP that it would be impossible to try them all on a variety of music given the limited time I had with the unit, yet plan to dig deeper during my official review in the coming weeks. The Sony rep said he'll be sending me both of the new units they just released (NW-WM1A and NW-WMZ1) so we'll soon have a fun three-some at home. That's three Sony portable music players, and not…. Get your mind out of the gutter! <wink>

 

 

With the Sony NW-WMZ1 I'm not hearing a 'laser fast' on-off sound, such as is found with music by Kraftwerk, EDM, etc. Musical notes have a touch extra build-up and after-note hanging. Again, this could be due to the low operating hours of the capacitors. In some ways both Sony units remind me of the Goldmund Limited Edition large, and very expensive, floorstanding speakers where no matter much you try overly aggressive midrange-ish music, it somehow smooths out the ultra-roughness to sound less harsh and offending to the ear. There is a bit more sense of space with the Sony NW-WMZ1 versus the NW-ZX2. Not necessarily 'air', yet there is a bit of that too. It is in having a better aural sense of acoustic space that surrounds and envelopes the musical instruments when present within the recording. This was especially audible with The All-Star Percussion Ensemble track "Scherzo from the Ninth Symphony".

 

Sony NW-WM1Z Walkman Review

 

Bassheads unite, and here's the skinny. The deepest of bass does not seem to go as subsonically deep with the new Sony unit as it does with the ZX2, even after some EQ'ing. As some of you may recall, the NW-ZX2 has a 5 band EQ plus Clear Bass setting, which reminds me of a hardware effect some dance clubs used many years ago to (artificially) produce extra deep bass from whatever was within a recording. The NW-ZX2 has that, whereas the Sony NW-WMZ1 provides a 10 band EQ and so you can better customize the deep bass as so you desire, yet no synthesized version for that extra (artificial) oomph. Keep in mind with the ZX2 this added effect comes at a bit of cost to the purity of sound and it might be a small touch 'muddy' if not used judiciously, so perhaps the new Sony unit refuses to go 'flabby' and this is indeed a very good thing. It could also be due to using more of those special power caps too.

Extremely intricate competing harmonic structure, especially those found on the track "A Far Off Land" on my Hi-Res Music 24-bit/96kHz album THST, the new Sony NW-WMZ1 unravels many phase, harmonic, and dynamic structures that interplay during the song far better than I felt was possible on a portable media player. This is especially true when the Paiste circular Roto Sound #1 and large gong interact with the rectangular Sound Plate #2 (2 min 34 seconds onward). To get a bit 'audio scientist geeky' here, the Roto Sound #1 is a 9" tuned circular metal surface that also can freely rotate (spin) at whatever speed you choose to move it by hand and it will continue spinning, slowing down a bit over time until a full stop. The Sound Plate #2 is another tuned metal instrument, yet measures 13.1" x 9.25". The 22.5" Paiste Accent gong is, well, a gong. The Roto and Plate have an incredible amount of upper-midrange sound and higher than what many people feel is the limit of human hearing ability upper harmonics. The Accent gong provides lower frequency support to balance out the upper sounds, as the gong's deep 'core' sound joins its rich harmonic structure. When you combine all three of these together in a Hi-Res Music recording as captured by only two Earthworks lab-grade insanely closely-matched microphones via 100% battery powered no-moving parts electronics, it makes for something rarely heard in commercial recordings. I simply wanted to better explain what makes this recording special, and why hearing the Sony NW-WMZ1 unravel this was so extremely impressive. Also of note is that these instruments are within my livingroom, so I can easily make comparisons at any time I so desire to 'refresh' my aural memory. The NZ-ZX2 might do 75% of what the Sony NW-WMZ1 does here on this recording. Thus the difference is easily audible and shows how very impressive the new Sony unit truly is!

 

Sony NW-WM1Z Walkman Review

 

Just A Friendly Reminder
The new Sony NW-WMZ1 does not have Wi-Fi, and without that (and perhaps Android OS) you can forget about TIDAL, Spotify, and other online streaming music services. You can also forget about using your home network (NAS) to stream files. The Sony NW-WMZ1 is a very closed system, so you see what you get and don't ever plan on any huge OS updates. Generally speaking, Sony is not known for upgrading their firmware on a timely basis. The Sony NW-ZX2 is still using the two-gen old Android OS, sure, yet it is Android so you can use a wide variety of apps for music playback, customizing the sound, and of course stream online music services. I feel this is what is going to make the NW-ZX2 a rave within the used marketplace and thus hold its value.

Also keep in mind my listening session was with balanced 3.5mm cables, yet true balanced sound is only available via the 4.4mm balanced audio jack on the NW-WMZ1. Asked quite a few people if they had a 4.4mm to 3.5mm balanced TRRS jack adapter yet none were to be found. Am sure this situation will solve itself shortly as vendors see the demand and start selling it. By the time my review samples arrive am sure I'll have custom cables made that handle the 4.4mm size, or at worst case scenario a very high-end adapter. Kimber Kable, the same company that has their special copper wire within the NW-WMZ1, will surely be able to provide a custom cable that uses the 4.4mm TRRS jack.

 

Final Thoughts On The Sony NW-WMZ1
I'll start by saying yes the proverbial elephant in the room is the price of $3199 for Sony's top-line NW-WMZ1 Walkman battery powered digital audio player. Astell&Kern makes their AK380 ($3499) and I hear many people happy with that unit. Sony is a few hundred less yet gives you a very different set of features. Some for the better, others perhaps not as much (more EQ frequencies and 0.1 resolution Sony and EQ per track memory; c'mon Sony you can do it!). Overall I came away very impressed with the Sony NW-WMZ1 over the NW-ZX2, as it was very easy to hear the improvements in sound. Keep in mind I 'only' heard it via balanced cable (via the pseudo-balanced Sony jack), and so am very much looking forward to hearing what a true balanced audio experience will be like. Overall, it has far better delineation of the space/hall between musical instruments and deep bass is more refined. The highest-most frequencies are nearly the same between the Sony NW-WMZ1 and NW-ZX2, with a small nod to the newer Sony NW-WMZ1 yet it sounds very subtle to my ears when using the Noble K10 custom in-ear monitors and Double Helix top-line silver cable.

The new Sony NW-WMZ1 also has more headphone amplification, so should be far more usable with a wider variety of in-ear monitors and headphones than the NW-ZX2. The new operating system is extremely easy to use and offers a better user-experience than the NW-ZX2. You can swipe to get more options versus the small icons at the top with the ZX2, to then get to sub-menus. Sony's NW-WMZ1 is heavier and feels far more solid than the ZX2, yet don't let that be a deciding factor as the ZX2 is a very solid and durable unit. Both units have excellent battery life as compared to other Hi-Res Audio portable music players.

 

 

The big, and $3199 question, you're probably asking yourself right now is should you go ahead and pre-order a NW-WMZ1. (Sigh) This is where I see both sides of the coin (3199 Sacagaweas). That's a lot of money for a closed-ended system portable audio player with little hope of any major firmware update to provide added benefits. The Android-based Sony NZ-ZX2 handles audio, plays video, can allow you to enjoy online music streaming services, etc. Android OS has many benefits versus the closed system within Sony's NW-WMZ1. Judging from what I heard in direct mode, the NW-WMZ1 is without a doubt an improvement over the ZX2 in sound quality. Is it nearly 3x (or more) better? I predict we'll be seeing many used NW-ZX2 units being sold and so bargain hunters will be scooping those up fast! If you want to have it all and don't need online music streaming, the Sony NW-WMZ1 is the next gen to bring musical excitement into your life. If you want an excellent bargain, the ZX-2 used might be the ticket to happyville, or wait to find out more about the $1199 Sony NW-WM1A when it also arrives in November, which is nearly the same as the Sony NW-WMZ1 minus a few tweak caps and other bits, plus not as fancy a casing. Me? I'll wait it out for my full review of the unit and if I feel it is worthy, you know I'll gladly hand over the Sacagaweas.

  As always, in the end what really matters is that you...

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

 

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

 

Double Helix Cables
Website: www.DoubleHelixCables.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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