Pros: Great UI, Easy to use, bug free, smooth, great sound, signal processing options
Cons: Pricey, not enough POWA
As indicated in the subject like, this is going to be a review of the Sony NW-ZX1. I'll be conducting this review by A-Bing a series of songs, using a Sescom SES-IPOD-AB A/B switch. This allows me to plugin in two devices at once in to separate inputs, and a headphone in to the switches output, and immediately switch between devices. I will get the music matched as closely as possible timing-wise, then match volume by ear (no SPL meter).
I'll be comparing the Sony to several MP3 players, and will add a couple more devices, if people are interested, over time. Methodology will be quite simple, I'll start with the ZX1 and [other MP3] player both plugged in to my switch, and any one of the 4 headphones I'll be using in the comparison in to the output. I will start playing the same track at the same time on each player, then will take notes of differences that I hear between the devices. Any differences I perceive in a sighted test, will be later tested using the same equipment, and a partner to allow for a blind test. Anywhere I don't perceive a difference, there's not really any reason to waste someone else's time.
I'll be using 4 pairs of headphones, and all of my music playing devices. The headphones are each unique, so they should be a good group to use.
HiFiMan HE-400. A pair of magnetic planars. Solid all the way around, really like these guys.
AKG Q-701. Another great pair of headphones. They're open, dynamic driver headphones. Also of note, they're the hardest that I own to drive. Massive soundstage, great highs and mids, and well controlled lows, that are just lacking a touch in volume.
Unique Melody Merlins. A balanced armature/dynamic driver hybrid custom-IEM. The Merlins have great mids and highs, and plenty of bass, with a crazy low frequency response. They're colored, but in a really fun and engaging way.
Pioneer HDJ-2000. These are a DJ headphone, so there's plenty of bass on tap, and they're closed dynamic cans. But they're also pretty darn accurate in the mids and highs, and aren't a Beats style of bloated and overwhelming bass. I bought them to be a closed and more bass heavy complement to my AKG's, and they never disappointed
The MP3 Players
Sansa Clip+ with Rockbox. The standard. With super low output impedance, and an identical power output spec, the Clip+ is an inexpensive alternative to more expensive DAPs, and it sounds great.
Sansa Fuze+ with Rockbox. I bought this because it was cheap, and I wanted to play with Rockbox on a device with a larger color screen. Sounds good, but there's some background hiss.
Nexus 10. This is a 10.1” Android tablet, with a super high resolution display. (299 Pixels per inch versus the iPad Retina display's 264) I use Google Music for my music playback, and I'm running a custom ROM, it shouldn't affect sound quality, but it might.
Fiio E18. I'll use a desktop computer, and play my music through my favorite jukebox app, Nightingale. Will the program that I use make a difference? No, but I want to plug Nightingale. I was sad when Songbird ceased operations, but this fork of their source lives on.
Samsung Galaxy S4 (to be added later). This is my phone, and it's another Android device, so a good comparison for the Sony. It's rooted, but runs Samsung's stock ROM. Will have to add the comparison at a later date, because it's in for a display repair
HiFiMan 602 slim (to be added later). Also in for a display repair. Figured I should throw it in. It will be interesting to compare this with the UM's, as the output impedance should significantly impact the sound.
iPod Shuffle (to be added later). Only iDevice I own, figured I should include it. Sorry for not having a “better” one. It's the latest generation, and this one will only really be interesting if it's just as good.
The Tracks (note that I won't breakdown each song, with each pair of headphones on each MP3 player, but might note specific things about songs, and I just want you to see the variety that I used for the A/B's in both format, and types of songs. Where necessary, FLAC was converted to 320k MP3 using dBpoweramp, rips were also performed with dBpoweramp)
Renee Olstead My Baby Just Cares for Me off of Skylark (FLAC ripped from CD) – Selected because it starts out with a really nice stand up bass section (which does continue, but it's a solo at the beginning) that just sounds wonderful through my HE-400s. And I have to include an Olstead song, because I just love her voice.
Tim McGraw If You're Reading This off of Let it Go (221k MP3 obtained from Amazon) – I like this song, and it's a good representative of its genre, with some nice acoustic guitar.
Rolling Stones Start Me Up off of Tattoo You (FLAC, 99% sure I ripped this from CD) – Gotta include something from the stones, and I like this one, it's good and energetic
Norah Jones Those Sweet Words off of Feels Like Home (24-bit 192k FLAC converted from DSD because I wanted to see if DSD was worth anything) – Good test of presentation of instruments and what not.
Adele My Same off of 19 (FLAC ripped from CD) – I like this Adele song, and I want to try out a song with vocals at a higher pitch, which this has
Travis Tritt It's a Great Day to be Alive off of Down the Road I Go (224k MP3 from 7Digital, I think)
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong Isn't This a Lovely Day off of Ella and Louis (24-bit 192k FLAC from HD Tracks) – My favorite album, so I have to use something from it
BB King and Eric Clapton Marry you off of Riding With the King – Clapton. And the King.
First of all, I'm biased. I've now owned: the HTC Evo, Samsung Galaxy S, Galaxy S4, Droid Charge, Motorola Droid Bionic, Nexus 10, and HP TouchPad (with Android running along-side the stock WebOS), and run everything from stock ROMs to Cyanogenmod, Paranoid Android, AOKP, and a smattering of smaller Roms, on everything up through the newest version of Kit-Kat. I'm intimately familiar with Android, so I love the UI. I think it's clean, it's easy to use, and I have few gripes. Sony's done a good job not cluttering stock Android like a lot of OEM's tend to do. The player app has a few things to be desired. For example, there's a search function, but it only searches tracks. It does not search artists or albums. How weird is that? But while the player is a bit clunky, it's certainly useable.
I use my own launcher (Nova, which I have the paid version of, and use it on my phones and tablet as well), so I've made it very familiar for me, which is comforting, I suppose. I find Sony's implementation of Android (4.1.1 Jelly Bean) to be responsive and smooth. I keep the Stock player's widget on my main launcher (home) screen (I use it because Gmusic can't play all of my high bit-rate FLACs) with a Google “My Library” widget on the left screen, and a calendar and “TrackID” widget on the right. I've deleted the 4th and 5th launcher pages. I only ever use 3. I've includes some homescreen shots so people can see the layout I've got:
I've not installed a ton, but I do have a game on there for when I just want one device out, and do have email setup. I also installed the aforementioned launcher, Swiftkey, an icon pack, One Drive, and Firefox. I've also loaded 57GB of music, but oftentimes use my Google Play Music All Access account to listn to music.
All of this adds up to the best user experience I've ever had with an MP3 player. I really do love this device. That's why I want to make sure I add blind tests after any differences I “hear” between this and anything else. As mentioned above, I'm really biased.
I find this thing to be achingly beautiful. Seriously. From the silver aluminum that contrasts in a very Apple-like fashion with the black of the display and bezel. To the matching Walkman and Sony logos. Flip it and find a nice pleather back with the logo cut in to it to allow for the speaker grill. Even the hump on the back works. Also, the buttons on the side flow very well with the design of the rest of the device, and have a nice tactile feel to them; the gold colored headphone jack on the bottom rounds it out, making you think: “That must be a serious freaking jack.”
I find it to be smaller than I expected, and fits nicely in to the hand. At its thick end, it's only ever so slightly thicker than a Motorola Droid Bionic at the bionics thick end (it has a hump at the top instead of the bottom),and ever so slightly thinner at its opposite end. It's also shorter and less wide than the Bionic, which is the closest device that I have in size. It's thicker than my S4, but smaller in its other dimensions, and comfortable to hold. The plastic section on the top is the one thing that breaks with the flow of everything else, but it's a necessary sacrifice for a device that needs a data connection, so I can forgive it. Form in this case does have to follow function, and I find it to have solid wifi performance. So the package really comes together nicely, it made me lust after it before I had it, and like it even more in person.
So next up, let's get in to the sound comparisons. We're starting with...
I was a little shocked when I queued up Those Sweet Words on the Clip, so much hiss. I don't know what the deal is. This is the DSD converted file, so maybe that has something to do with it. But I noticed this not just with the IEMs, but even the HiFiMan cans. And it was bad. This is something we'll keep an eye on, but the background is completely black from the ZX1. I decided to try other tracks on this same album, and they all exhibited the hiss. I thought that maybe it was an issue with the 192k files, but other 192k FLAC files on the Clip+ didn't exhibit this issue. That said, anyone whose ears work would have heard this difference from a mile away. So something was going on. Note, I re-copied the files to make sure all was on the up and up there. (Copied from the same source to the ZX1, and I checked the source, both straight out of my motherboards integrated sound to my speakers, and out through the E18 and didn't notice the same issue.) But again, it was just that album, so moving on...
The Clip+ definitely has more juice. On instances where I really needed to turn up to 11 with my HiFiMan headphones, the Clip+ had more reach. TheZX1 seemed slightly more clear, but the Clip+ more full. I thought that this might have been because of the more recessed bass from the ZX1, so I boosted it with the included EQ, and I think bringing the bass up to match the Clip+ really enhanced the overall feel of the ZX1. Suddenly it was just as full, but piano keys still came through better, for example, on Isn't This a Lovely Day from Ella and Louis. With the Q701s the power difference becomes more obvious, and more frustrating. There seems to be a larger soundstage with the ZX1, but a lot of the types of tracks where I care about this are also not the loudest recordings in the world. And Sony really needed to give this thing an 11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xgx4k83zzc
I mentioned a higher level of detail from the ZX1, and sometimes it seems to be there, and sometimes it doesn't. For example, the guitar behind Tim on If You're Reading This sounded identical across the players. But that song, again, still felt more full from the ZX1 (Note that because of the song being an ogg, I switched to Play Music on the ZX1). Across the board, however, There seemed to be more life, more fullness to the ZX1 regardless of headphones or track. I'm not convinced it wasn't bias from the dude in the chair. Certainly not $700 worth of sonic difference. That said, the Clip+ is probably the best value out there for sonic quality, and the ZX1 does a whole world of things that the Clip+ doesn't. But the Clip does one thing that the ZX1 doesn't, it fits in my nice little Otter Box case, along with my Merlins, my little dehumidifying thingy, straps for Fiio E18, and my credit card reader.
NOTE: The sonic differences where not enough to reliably differentiate between the two in blind testing.
The diminutive Clip+ in my Otterbox case
Ready to travel
The Fuze+ is a nice piece of hardware, hampered by virtually unusable firmware that Sansa seems to just have never bothered to fix. Luckily, some Rockbox developers did fix it, and the Fuze+ with Rockbox is really a great player. How great? Well, I was taking bulleted notes, here's just a couple along the way:
Adele sounds identical, almost, still just seems more “full”
Great Day to Be Alive and Start me up sound identical on Merlins, the Sony can't drive the HE-400s for Great Day to Be Alive. This is a tragedy, because it sounds better with them than with the Merlins.
So there are a couple raw notes. Notice the word “identical"? Yeah, well, the Sony can keep up with the Sansa on loud tracks, or with sensitive monitors. Then falls behind on quieter tracks. On Isn't This a Lovely Day I actually found the Sansa to seem more clear than the Sony, so I turned on DSEE HX on the Sony, and that actually did make a difference, it seemed to clear up the sound a bit, but then the Sansa was clearly more punchy, then a trip to EQ resolved that issue. Yes, with the help of some software EQ, the Player I paid $760 for was able to catch up to the one that I paid $36.93 for.
There were some positives for the Walkman, however. Also during Isn't This a Lovely Day, I noticed with the HiFiMan's that the standup bass in the last third of the song sounded deeper than with the Sansa. I swapped to the bass friendly Merlins, and confirmed that finding. I also confirmed that when the trumpet kicks in near the end of that song, either player combined with the Merlins could most assuredly blow out your eardrums. That song is one with more dynamic range than most. Enough that it sometimes hurts. AAlso, the hiss in Those Sweet Words (as well as the rest of that album) is still present. Something about the DSD converted files seems to not play nicely with the Sansa hardware (or Rockbox firmware?)
To sum up, once again the wildly less expensive Sansa kind of rules the day sonically. I mean, it's keeping up with a player that costs a good 20x as much. Again, however, sonics aren't everything. The hardware of the Sony is superior, and you're still comparing an MP3 player to a small computer that fits in your pocket and can do, well, just about everything. Up to and including stream my Google Play Music All Access. Let's see you do that, Mr. Fuze+.
Side by side
Versus Nexus 10
This test is important to me, while it might not be for anyone else. Part of the reason that I can't really use my phone as my primary listening device is my love for Android and tinkering with it. I'm always flashing roms and what not, so having a constant Android device for music listening is important. And I want to be able to listen to streaming music. Well, my tablet, which I also flash a lot, is always on my desk at work, and that's where I listen to the most music. Between tablet and phone, one of them is always on a stable build, so if both phone and tablet sound as good as the Sony, I can just use whichever of them is stable at any given time.
So I was a little nervous, as I stated above, I'm rooting for the ZX1, but it hasn't really soundly beaten the much less expensive Sansas. Still, my primary player has to utilize the service that I'm paying $8/month for (Google Play Music All Access). So it beats them on a make or break it feature if not on sound. But it does not have the feature advantage pitted against the N10. And with my S4 temporarily out of service, this was the first comparison I could make, Android to Android. (Note: I'm using a Droid Bionic right now, but its got a bad headphone jack, so I can't test with it) On to the sonic qualities:
It started out looking pretty bad for the ZX1. I started out with Marry You Clapton and the King together, plug in my Q701s, crank the volume, AND...neither can drive them. Seriously Sony, this is really frustrating. You've either overstated (or Sansa understates) the output of this thing, and it's frustratingly lacking in power. The Q701s aren't that hard to drive, and on those songs that are a bit louder, you can actually hear a difference between the two devices with the 701s, but you can't consistently use them. I plug in the HiFiMan cans , and they're both able to drive them. Just. I noticed more clear bass and mids from the ZX1, but I don't have an SPL meter, so I can't be sure this wasn't due to a slight volume difference, since I'm just matching by ear.
For fun, I compared a CD rip FLAC of My Baby Just Cares For Me on the ZX1, to a streamed 320k MP3 on the N10. I managed to get the song perfectly in sync on a second play through, I had thought I'd heard a difference in the horns, and after getting them perfectly in sync? I actually had to double check that the switch wasn't broken because you literally couldn't tell when you flipped it. They sounded absolutely, 100%, identical. The first song I head a notable difference between the devices was Isn't This a Lovely Day. I was actually streaming the song on both devices, and the difference was noticeable enough that I had to double check that the ZX1 was also streaming it, that I hadn't accidentally selected the copy of the song that was on the device. The difference was most noticeable in Louis' voice. So then I tried a second test. My uploaded copy of it, streaming to the N10 vs. the local FLAC copy on the ZX1, and the difference was night and day. There was more spacing between instruments, voices were clearer, you could almost hear an echo in the room where it was being recorded. There really was a massive difference.
In other words, the real value of this device vs. the N10 is the 128GB that I get for albums like Ella and Louis, or Skylark, albums where I really care about hearing the nuance. Playing the locally stored file just sounds better. But for modern pop music? I'll take it streaming over All Access. So against the Nexus 10, the value provided by the ZX1 is the ability to both stream and store locally.
My test of the E18 is when my opinion of the ZX1 shifted drastically. But more on that later, it started out with me expecting the worst. So far, everything sounds close to identical, and the ZX1 can't drive the Q701s (or the HE-400s on quiet tracks). So I figured, this will also sound identical, and have the horsepower to drive anything I own. This was confirmed when I soundmatched the two on the first song using the HE-400s, and the ZX1 was cranked all the way up, and the E18 matched it at 4 on its volume knob. In low gain.
As for the sound, the E18 has more bass out of the box, but EQ on the ZX1 allows you to match it. Then they sound very similar. Again, though, when a standup bass came in to the music, especially with the HiFiMan headphones, the sound just seemed deeper from the ZX1. The best way I can explain it is that its deep enough to feel the standups with the ZX1. This is an across the board difference, I noticed it when comparing every device. With the HE-400s, you can't feel the strings being strummed on the bass with anything but the ZX1. But the difference is definitely way too subtle to notice without using a switch like I am. I felt that the E18 was a little more muddy, as well. This is actually turning out to be the first time that I can hear a real, marked difference, though. And it's with the other “HiFi” device.
Then, as I'm listening to Isn't This a Lovely Day I casually hit the menu in the music app on the Sony, and am screwing around with the HSEE+. On the way back through the menu tree, I pass the screen with “ClearAudio+ (Recommended sound settings for music).” I had briefly turned it on once before and didn't feel that I liked it, I don't remember what track I was listening to, but I switched it back off (and the track was streaming from All Access, I do know that, because it was before I'd even loaded any music locally). For the fun of it, I hit the check box. The music pauses briefly, as it adjusts settings, then it kicks back in.
Holy sweet mother of god. I don't know what all it adjusts. I'm sure it's some EQ, and maybe some other signal processing, but suddenly the bass was deeper and more forward. Yet it didn't do anything to crowd the mids or highs. If anything both the voices of Ella and Louis were more clear. The background was darker, and you could hear the plucking of strings better. It sounded leaps and bounds better than the E18 all of a sudden. This was confirmed during Start Me Up and some more Renee Olstead. I mean, holy crap it changed the personality of the music. Then I tried another streaming song through Play Music, and found the effect to be a bit ho-hum again. It must be something about the way it processes the signal in the stock app, or that it doesn't like the streaming files, maybe it can't process them correctly if they're not local. Blind testing I can now tell this player from any of my others. I'm sure that, with the right finagling, I could reproduce this, maybe even do better. I just don't know how. But I can say that I'm now completely sold on signal processing.
Now I just have to go back to the Clip, having found this little gem of a setting. It makes the music more clear, the bass more impactful without impacting the mids. Blind, I could never consistently tell the difference between the Clip and the ZX1 without hitting that little checkbox in the audio settings. Once it's checked? Too easy to spot the difference. I should also note that it makes a bigger difference with my Merlins than my other headphones, but with all of them, I now strongly prefer the ZX1.
I was getting all ready to say that it just isn't worth it. The last thing that I've tested thus far is the E18, and I found this setting at the end of my testing of it. (Well, tried it, I knew it was there, I just hadn't liked it wihtthe Google Play Music track before). This thing sounds just like a $30 Clip+, and only slightly better than a tablet. But the audio settings really allow you to play with this it, and make the ZX1 sing, for lack of a better word. I have a feeling that Sony could throw this signal processing on to any of their phones, and I'd be happy with that as both a phone and DAP. But for now, I've gone from being ready to throw this thing up on eBay to wanting to keep it. I think it might be love. Even if it's not got enough power.