Since smartphones came along, more people have been using them as their sole means of listening to music on the go. Carrying multiple devices around is a pain, after all.
But there are those who care more about sound quality than convenience, and they’re in for a treat, because the latest Walkman sounds awesome. The Sony NWZ-ZX1 is a seriously premium player, and one that focuses on hi-res, Studio Master music. It’s also the best sounding portable device we’ve ever heard.
So what’s high-res audio? Short version: it’s a bit like 4K for you ears. It’s better sound quality than CD (you do know they compress your music before they put it onto a disc, don’t you?), with "better" meaning "closer to what musicians and engineers intended in the studio". It’s the Next Big Thing in audio.
It’s all about reconstructing an analogue sound wave as accurately as possible, and this is where we introduce The Science Bit.
You see a sampling rate is the number of samples taken per second when analogue sound waves are converted to digital. The more samples taken per second, the closer the sound is to the original sound wave. Meanwhile, bit depth describes the accuracy of that sample. A typical CD measures 16-bit/44.1kHz. A high-res audio track, meanwhile, may measure 24-bit/192kHz.
Got it? No? Don’t worry – just remember it all results in more data and therefore more detail and better sound and you’re golden.
High-res audio itself is nothing new. There are already smartphones around that can handle these files – LG G2, Google Nexus 5, Samsung Galaxy Note 3, to name a few. What’s new is that high-res audio has now taken off far enough for big companies to make dedicated players that sound way better than those phones.
Enough numbers! How does it sound?
Load up a high-res track and you get an impressively refined sound with layers of subtle detail. You’ll spend a lot of time noticing parts of your favourite songs you’ve never heard before. The soundstage is wide, well organised and timing is spot-on.
The ZX1’s tonal balance is good, too, but the well-defined, hard-slapping bass deserves a special mention. Combine that with extended, punchy dynamics and it’s a seriously engaging, exciting sound.
We started comparing the ZX1 to an iPod Touch and things got ugly for Apple very quickly. The Sony is way ahead in every department, from its weighty delivery to its extraordinary precision. We’ve always been keen on the iPod’s sound, but next to the ZX1 it comes across as brash and unsophisticated. It comfortable beats those high-res-playing phones we mentioned, too.
It’s not all down to the high-res tracks, either. We loaded up both devices with the same CD-ripped WAV files and it was still easy to pick the devices apart.
A question of content
There is still one fairly significant problem, though - high-res music might be the next big thing, but right now it's not that easy to get hold of. You can't get any on iTunes, and even Sony itself seems reluctant to go any higher than MP3 for its own download store. The likes of Naim and Linn have high-res music stores, but the selections aren't especially mainstream.
For now your best bet is to go with HDtracks. It's officially US-only but there are easy ways to work around that, and a UK launch is expected in the next few months. A direct connection from player to download store and a whole load of new music is definitely needed if Studio Masters are going to make a proper impact, though.
READ MORE: 30 Essential Albums for Audiophiles
Unusually good looking
It’s not just the sound that separates the ZX1 from the competition. If there ever was such a thing as an anti-iPod, this is it. Sony has clearly tried to distance itself from Apple’s aesthetics, and the result is gorgeous. It’s a striking design with a premium feel that rivals anything coming out of Cupertino, and feels less delicate, too.
It’s a proudly asymmetrical slab of aluminium that wants nothing to do with simplicity and rounded edges. The glass face drops off abruptly into a straight edge, where the physical controls make us happy by allowing us to change tracks in our pockets.
The bottom edge of the ZX1 has a gleaming brass cylinder that’s so big it rises slightly above the screen. We’re not sure why: theoretically it allows internal cabling to be a bit thicker (and improve sound quality). Sony says it reduces contact resistance.
The literally outstanding aspect of the ZX1’s design is its bottom third, which protrudes at the back. This is because Sony felt like putting in a larger amplifier block, straight lines be damned. It’s unusual, but it serves the handy secondary purpose of sitting in your hand quite nicely. It doesn’t wobble on a table, but Sony has included a tiny wedge of plastic in case you’re that worried about perfect flatness.
While the ZX1 has been outstanding in its sound and design, its features are fairly normal. It runs on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, which is safe but not particularly exciting these days. The 4in screen makes it easy to navigate the device. There are good colours, but the picture isn’t sharp enough for proper movie watching or gaming.
There’s also NFC at the back for easy Bluetooth pairing, as well as a tiny speaker masquerading as a Walkman logo. We’re quite not sure why you’d spend so much on a high-end audio device and then play music that way.
Then there’s the matter of storage. You get 128GB on board, and that’s it. There are no models with different capacities, and no slot for external memory. It’s a pretty good offering for the money (the biggest iPod Touch has 64GB and costs S$548), but not including a memory card slot feels a bit silly, especially when you consider that hi-res music files are often absolutely massive.
Sony NWZ-ZX1 Walkman verdict
We love it. We love the design and we love the sound. And its features are pretty decent, too.
The problem is how niche it is. No-one’s buying dedicated MP3 players anymore because everyone’s using their smartphone as their portable music player, and you’re going to have to be seriously dedicated to the hi-res music cause to feel that it’s not only worth carrying around an extra portable and going the extra mile to find and download high-res music, but also worth spending an extra amount of cash on the privilege.
If you are that seriously dedicated, we applaud you, and we know you’ll love the way this pioneering Sony sounds. One day the rest of the world will catch up.