Sony NWZ-ZX1 high-resolution audio player

A beautifully designed top-end audio player that supports high-resolution files

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Sony NWZ-ZX1
  • Sony NWZ-ZX1
  • Sony NWZ-ZX1
  • Sony NWZ-ZX1
  • Expert Rating

    3.50 / 5

Pros

  • 22 hour battery life
  • Incredible sound quality for 24-bit tracks
  • Still manages to have a good soundstage on compressed tracks

Cons

  • Asking price is steep
  • Older Android 4.1.1 with some underwhelming specs means that UI transitions are sluggish
  • Proprietary charging cable could spell trouble if you lose it

Bottom Line

Sony’s NWZ-ZX1 is a great buy for an audiophile who wants a full-featured, high-capacity, dedicated portable media player that can play 24-bit audio files.

Would you buy this?

Given its audio cassette player heritage, Sony’s new all-digital NWZ-ZX1 shouldn't surprise onlookers with its somewhat chunky and asymmetric design. In the 35 years of Walkman history (first debuting in 1979 with the TPS-L2), the device has gone through various incarnations and evolutionary branches including CDs, MiniDiscs, MP3s and more recently sharing its DNA with Sony-Ericsson and Sony Xperia smartphones.

Sony has now developed the ZX1 as a true audio enthusiast's media player. It announces its single-purpose in a sturdy aluminium frame with a textured back, classic hardware media keys (sans eject button) along the side, and a robust audio jack at its base. On the bottom-left of the screen bezel is a removable sticker with the Hi-Res Audio badge, which tells of the player’s top feature: the ability to play 24-bit/192kHz music files in most formats, including WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, and the DFF and DSF variations of the Direct Stream Digital (DSD) format.

Sony has made some brilliant design choices for the player, with few compromises. It packs 128GB flash storage, a stated 32 hours battery life (though we got closer to 22 hours in our tests), a quick three-hour charge time, and it has a light weight of 139g. The accessories do not include headphones, and this is a decision we agree with — it would be ludicrous for a premium audio player to presume to choose earphones for an audiophile.

We ran down the battery with FLAC files that looped while the player's screen was mostly off. We used Denon earbuds and had the ClearAudio+ setting enabled .
We ran down the battery with FLAC files that looped while the player's screen was mostly off. We used Denon earbuds and had the ClearAudio+ setting enabled .

The package does include a leatherette slip case to protect the screen, and it allows ready access to the headphone jack but occludes the hardware media keys. The screen is a 4in LCD with capacitive touch, and it features acceptable brightness on the backlight, much the same as the Xperia Z handsets of late.

The rear has a texture that makes the product lovely to hold.
The rear has a texture that makes the product lovely to hold.

Distinct buttons on the right side make it easy to feel for the volume and playback controls while the screen is off.
Distinct buttons on the right side make it easy to feel for the volume and playback controls while the screen is off.

The large headphone port and the proprietary USB port at the bottom.
The large headphone port and the proprietary USB port at the bottom.

Be ready to shell out for the premium build and Hi-Res processing; it runs a recommended retail price of $700.

Software and hardware

The device ships with Android 4.1.1 and includes some Sony software specifically designed for media playback. The launcher's fixed-row of apps includes a Music player, Video player, Photo gallery and DLNA casting utility. Make no mistake, while this device is designed as a media player first, it’s a fully-fledged Android device with WiFi and Bluetooth radios, with NFC pairing and Bluetooth streaming. As it's an Android device, you are able to install apps via the Google Play Store. If you're a fan of streaming there's no reason you couldn't install Spotify or Rdio for example (though it'd be best to request high-quality streams to get the most out of it.)

We were somewhat disappointed by the occasional visual lag and stutter of the Music app's start-up and resume from sleep. Thankfully, we experienced no audio stutter regardless of the file quality. An update to the Android core and Music player could be forthcoming, or could be routed around by installing an alternative player — keep in mind however that not all playback software can handle high-res files.

Getting files on the internal storage is quick and painless with the included proprietary USB cable. It appears as a USB mass storage device in Windows and OS X, allowing you to simply drag-and-drop files into the Music directory. There's no messing around with MTP (media transfer protocol) as with some other Android handsets. The drawback is, of course, that if you forget the non-standard USB cable you can't top up the battery — the long life of the battery meant we weren't stuck without tunes to listen to, but it was a frustration not being able to copy over new tracks.

Playback

We tested the device with three different headphones: Etymotic HF (in-ear canalphones), Sennheiser HD 280 Pro (studio, closed circumaural) and the new Marshall Monitors (portable, open circumaural). Playback was admirable on all three, but the Sennheiser HD 280s performed better with external amplification. Given that the Sennheiser headphones have an impedance of 64 Ohms, this was anticipated; most portable headphones/earphones run at or under 32 Ohms.

Music playback was beautifully crisp, layered and very detailed across the range of music styles and bitrates. We started with some compressed CD-quality tracks from Tool’s 10,000 Days and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and found the playback to be balanced across the range. Lossless tracks from Between the Buried and Me’s The Great Misdirect - and Opeth’s Damnation were reproduced perfectly from CD quality.

The player truly shines when given high-resolution files. We tested it with 24-bit versions of King Crimson's In The Court Of The Crimson King and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. These tracks sounded astounding and truly deserve the file storage they consume.

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