Review: Sony NW-ZX100 Walkman, Sony PHA-1AEU Bluetooth headphones and Sony MDR-1ABT headphone amplifier and DAC

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Sony NW-ZX100

Triple Sony test this week, with the brand new Sony NW-ZX100 digital audio player, the Sony MDR-1ABT LDAC Bluetooth hi-fi headphones and the Sony PHA-1AEU DAC and portable headphone amplifier.

Sony NW-ZX100: wireless Hi-Res Audio

The Sony NW-ZX100 is the latest audiophile model released by Sony. Using Sony S- Master HX digital amplification, it boasts a 128 Gb memory, can read CD quality Lossless and compressed files as well as HD (FLAC 24/192 and DSD). Another strength of this DAP is that it is equipped with the best Bluetooth wireless transmission technologies and is LDAC and apt-codecs compatible. Used along with a set of headphones such as the Sony MDR-1ABT, the Sony NW-ZX100 DAP lets you enjoy an HD and CD quality listening experience with or without wire.

Sony NW-ZX100: operation and interface

The Sony NW-ZX1100 DAP benefits from a splendid curved line design and aluminum finish. Its 5.6 cm color screen doesn’t offer the best definition and isn’t tactile but this is not the most important. On the front of the device are 7 buttons, while the volume controls, locking button, micro-SD port and micro-USB port (to copy files from and to a computer) as well as the battery charge are located on the right side. A small button lets the user reset the player. On the bottom of the device are the mini-jack 3.5 mm headphone input and Sony proprietary USB port.

Sony NW-ZX100
The Sony NW-ZX100 DAP and its elegant aluminum casing, an excellent, easy to operate design

Sony NW-ZX100: the best Bluetooth DAP?

The Sony NW-ZX100 DAP’s interface is extremely simple and features 8 icons on the main display. Yet, the settings possibilities are interesting: tone correction, upsampling (DSEE technology), dynamic compression or choice of digital filter for DSD playback.

Strength: it is possible to fully configure the Bluetooth connection which is a very rare thing.

Although it is possible to let the Sony NW-ZX100 choose the best transmission method (depending on the capacities of the Bluetooth receiver, headphones, speakers or amp), the user can also choose it by him/herself. The two best compression methods are offered by the Sony NW-ZX100 portable player (LDAC and apt-X). It is important to insist on the fact that the data rate of Bluetooth radio microchips does not allow for CD-quality transmission without going through an altering compression.

The LDAC compression engineered by Sony offers a maximum data rate of 990 kbits/sec, which allows most files to be transferred with a lossless compression (FLAC type). The Sony NW-ZX100 portable player offers two other LDAC modes with a reduced 30% and 60% transfer rate, if the listening conditions are not optimal (important distance between the player and Bluetooth headphones / amp, digital interference caused by other transmitters, etc.).

The apt-X compression offers a lesser quality transmission with a rate of 350 Kbits/sec but has the great advantage of being handled by a large amount of Bluetooth headphones, speakers and amplifiers.

The SBC compression offers, on paper, an even lesser quality but is handled by all Bluetooth audio peripheral devices. Our portable player features two SBC modes, including one with a 360 Kbits/sec transfer rate.

Sony NW-ZX100: listening impressions using Bluetooth

We listened to various audio files using the Sony MDR-BT770BN and Sony MDR-1ABT headphones. The former is apt-X and SBC compatible while the latter handles LDAC technology. The difference between high rate apt-X and SBC is barely noticeable, the apt-X is a bit more precise in the higher end of the spectrum and offers a more subtle sound layering. On the flip side, the SBC transmission, as often, suffers the appearance of artifacts in the high frequencies. It is therefore important to avoid this transmission mode and a positive point is that the NW-ZX100 offers the possibility to manually configure the transmission mode.

Sony NW-ZX100

As regards LDAC transmission, we carried out a lengthy comparison with the apt-X mode using FLAC 16/44 and FLAC 24/192 files. For CD-quality files in FLAC 16/44 format, the difference is very slight, even though the LDAC codec (quality mode) delivers treble with less emphasis and offers a lesser compression of the sound layers. With 24/96 or 24/192 FLAC files, the difference is more noticeable and the LDAC codec offers a more spacious and balanced listening experience. Once again, highs never sounds blown out.

Sony NW-ZX100: listening impressions using the headphone output

We listened to the Sony NW-ZX100 S-Master HX amplifier using our faithful Sennheiser PX-100 headband headphones, the (included) Sony MDR-WM750n earbuds as well as the Sony MDR-1ABT and Sony MDR-770BN headphones (with their mini-jack connection cable).

The first thing we noticed was that the power of the headphone amplifier was relatively limited and that this portable player should not be used along with high impedance and/or low sensitivity headphones. The sound signature is rather dry, the energy is focused on a well textured medium range, especially in the lowest part of this range. The absence of colouration in the higher end of the spectrum allows the listener to enjoy the subtleties of each recording. The stereo is nice and wide but lacks in depth, which is something we felt with all the tracks we listened to.

Note: the earbuds included with the portable player benefit from active noise cancelling technology and do a great job stopping outside noises but will have a hard time convincing people who are used to supra or circum-aural headphones. The frequency response falls short on each end of the spectrum in spite of the specific optimisation mode. It is necessary to properly adjust the graphic equalizer to obtain convincing results.

Sony NW-ZX100

Sony NW-ZX100: some convenient features

Of the 128 Gb flash memory available, 115 Gb are for storage (a part is probably taken by the operating system). When connected to a computer, the DAP cannot be used since the memory is ?disconnected.  The computer can thus have unrestricted access to files, which is very convenient when modifying audio file tags (we recommend Windows Tagscanner). The writing transfer rate averages around 8.8 Mb/sec, or enough to enable rapid transfer. In reading mode, we reached close to 25 Mb/sec.

All of our files (16/44, 24/88, 24/96 et 24/192) and DSF (DSD 2,8 MHz) were read without any problem.

Sony MDR-1ABT

Sony MDR-1ABT: overview

The Sony MDR-1ABT are Sony?s audiophile Bluetooth headphones. They differ from the Sony MDR-770BN in that they use Sony S-Master HX amplification and an LDAC/apt-X/SBC Bluetooth receiver (770BN is only apt-X/AAC/SBC). Its metal and resin finish combined with its dark brown leather is highly sophisticated. These over-ear headphones are very comfortable as they are not only light but were also designed so that the weight is evenly distributed.

The presence of an NFC chip means that the Sony NC-ZX100 DAP can be paired with any compatible smartphone or tablet. If you do not own such a device, you’ll need to turn on the headphones by pressing and holding the POWER button for a few seconds in order to activate the Discovery mode and sync the device in a standard fashion.

The Sony MDR-1ABT is fitted with a microphone for phone calls (hands-free) and features tactile playback and volume controls, located on the right earcup. Passing your hand over these controls activates this function. A short interval is necessary for this.

The headphones? battery life varies depending on the method of transmission used. We were able to listen to the headphones in Bluetooth LDAC mode for approximately 10 hours before recharging them via their micro-USB port.

Sony MDR-1ABT: audio performance (line input from the Sony PHA-1AEU)

A little rise in the mids, between 1 and 2 kHz, adds detail to the overall listening experience, which is generally balanced with a (very) slight emphasis in the highs. Listening to jazz or classical is excellent and voices are really well placed. Each listening experience is sophisticated. The power of the Sony PHA-1AEU enables the bass range to be pushed to the extreme and to reach extremely low frequencies at a very fast pace.

Sony MDR-1ABT

Sony MDR-1ABT: audio performance (Bluetooth)

The Sony S-Master HX amplifier performs well in Bluetooth but its overall performance doesn’t change radically. The type of Bluetooth transmission, however, has a bearing on the sound output, with the treble being slightly forced (SBC and apt-X compression at 350 Kbps approximately) and the dynamic range stretched. It?s no surprise then that the best results are obtained in Bluetooth LDAC (high quality with the Sony NW-ZX100 portable player). Listening is more spacious and the treble range regains its neutral status. Be careful though as the LDAC bass function is similar to listening in apt-X or SBC.

Sony MDR-1ABT

Sony PHA-1AEU: overview

The Sony PHA-1AEU portable headphone amp with integrated DAC is compatible with stereo streams of up to 24 bits/192 kHz which can be decoded from any computer, iPhone, iPod, iPad as well as Sony DAPs or smartphones and Android devices supporting the USB OTG audio output. Its battery is used to power the Sony S-Master HX digital amp with an operating life of 6 hours. The fact that the Sony PHA-1AEU doesn’t have a high endurance isn’t due to the small size battery but to the amplifier punching above its weight and using a large amount of energy. Three amplification gain values are featured which sounds perfect on paper.

Test: Sony PHA-1AEU – overall listening impressions

We paired up the Sony PHA-1AEU headphone amp with the Sony NW-ZX100 DAP using the specific USB cable supplied. The gain in quality compared to the player?s headphone output is outstanding.

The sound stage is expanded and stretched in a spectacular fashion. We loved listening to Daft Punk?s Within (24/88) – the piano has a rare density and percussion is outstandingly smooth (very little jitter).

Prince?s Let?s go Crazy (24/192) can be listened to with confidence. The rhythm is frenzied, the guitars squeal and the drums are well controlled. A bit more energy in the infra-bass would have been preferable but, considering the price of this amp, listeners can’t be too demanding.

Sony MDR-1ABT

What we particularly liked

  • The Bluetooth LDAC, apt-X and SBC transmission which is entirely adjustable
  • The overall ease of use of the Sony NW-ZX100 portable player (smooth interface, high-quality storage)
  • The energy and smoothness of the Sony PHA-1AEU USB DAC headphone amp (especially at this price)
  • The precision and neutrality of the Sony MDR-1ABT headphones

What we would have liked

  • A more powerful headphone output for the NW-ZX100 DAP

Conclusions

The Sony Sony NW-ZX100 DAP is a very good portable device, despite its lack of range. It will benefit from being paired with the Sony Sony PHA-1AEU DAC amp, which will add the necessary depth. The wireless Bluetooth transmission is impeccable and demonstrates an exemplary level of quality and control. This is undoubtedly the highlight of this player. It delivers entirely satisfactory performances when used with good Bluetooth headphones, such as the Sony Sony MDR-770BN model (easy to use and frighteningly good in its handling of low frequencies) or the Sony MDR-1ABT (both precise and extremely comfortable).

1 COMMENT

  1. Very nice review. Details regarding the Bluetooth profile support was excellent and not something you typically find in a review.

    I recently elected to purchase the DAC version of the MDR-1A which was priced the same as the MDR-1ABT. I found your evaluation of its sound performance to be consistent with my own observations.

    Based on your review and others, I just ordered the NW-ZX100 which has not been widely available in North America. I’m looking forward to finding out how the DAC in the headset performs with it. I’ve got my fingers crossed hoping the DAC performs closely to the standalone PHA-1A? Now that would be awesome without having to spend another $300 or carry another device! Well one can hope 🙂

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