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Sony NW-ZX300 + Oriolus BA300S + Massdrop Plus, a great portable combination

Discussion in 'Portable Source Gear' started by DeBilbao, Oct 20, 2019.
  1. DeBilbao
    I've been loyal to Spotify from the very beginning, as they made my dreams come true by offering instant access to a huge collection of music. And having it available on your portable device, made listening to music easier than ever.

    But like almost everything in life, there are drawbacks as well as advantages. Such a quick and open access makes easy to forget my main goal: listening to complete albums, track by track in order, trying to understand the artist's work as published.

    Streaming services are my formula for discovering music, and I also use it to enjoy it, but you have to be very disciplined not to end up doing something else with that device connected to the Internet. I usually find myself not concentrating, but jumping from artist to artist or simply stop paying attention to listening.

    That's why I've always have a dedicated DAP, to store and play my favourite albums or those newcomers that could end up in my collection of essentials. Bring it to your coach or your favourite place, connect your headphones, choose an album and listen to it from beginning to end. Nothing else, no distractions. Just music.

    Until now my choice has been the iBasso DX90, as it offers excellent sound quality and plenty of power, enough to drive without problems my beloved Sennheiser HD 650.

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    I sold it once because I didn't use it a lot, but I ended up buying it again because I missed it. If I'm not mistaken it's a 2014 design, but unless you want the new high resolution formats, it's perfectly valid for stereo files (99.99% of what I listen to) up to 24bit/192kHz. iBasso DX90 has two DAC Sabre ES9018K2M that provide enough detail and add some brightness to the HD 650, is easy to handle, has a compact format and an alternative firmware developed by Lurker that improves the interface and fine-tunes the configuration.

    The DX90 + HD 650 set is very good, but I can't say it's a portable solution as the HD 650 are big and only makes sense at home. To get portability I need to use IEM, but my relationship with in-ear headphones has not been good so far, as I have difficulties to find a comfort fit.

    Comfort is above sound quality for me, and if something is not comfortable I don't use it and let it go. However, I have a feeling that IEMs are the way to go portable and I'm giving them a new opportunity.

    After evaluating different alternatives available in the market, I've bought not only a Massdrop Plus in-ear headphones, but also a Sony NW-ZX300 player. I'm really surprised by the sound quality of the combo, and if I can adapt to the IEMs, they will be my reference portable rig.

    I'm using the Massdrop Plus connected to the balanced output of the NW-ZX300 with a 4,4mm to 2,5mm adapter and a 2,5mm balanced cable, in high gain. The sound is excellent, but very far from the mental reference I have with the HD 650 to which I am so used to.

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    I am a fan of the rather dark sound of my Sennheiser HD 650, but the sound of this rig is something different, it is a very refined sound with an outstanding level of detail and realism. With good recordings, the ZX300 / M+ combo leaves you with a big smile while you listen to it.

    It all started this summer when I had the opportunity to borrow the Massdrop Plus from a friend. I liked the sound
    a lot, but what caught my attention was how comfortable they were, and I thought that with the right tips, they could be a solution to reconcile with IEMs.

    The Massdrop Plus is a design from Massdrop community. As each ear is different and comfort is a great demand, they did a study sampling the morphology of many different ears and engineered a model optimized to fit most of them. They printed it in 3D with a translucent dark blue acrylic material, and the result is an extremely lightweight earpiece, close to a custom IEM, which would probably be my solution to adapt to IEM, with an exact mold of my duct. Maybe one day.

    The design doesn't protrude from the ear, and you could even wear it on the bed lying over the pillow. I'm not a fan of listening to music while in bed, but I've tried it and I can say that it's true.

    The cable is easily replaceable and uses a two-pin connector. I have two standard cables and a balanced one finished in a 2.5mm jack, which is the one I use together with a 2.5mm to 4.4mm adapter as I found that the Sony player, which has single-ended output as well, has a much better output with the balanced one. I like the cable because it is lightweight, has no microphone effect and is very comfortable with the typical hook shape over your ear. I prefer it to cables that just hang, because I feel them lighter.

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    Comfort and sound depend not only on the earpiece, but also on the chosen tips. They come in many shapes and sizes, and finding the right one is essential if you want to enjoy the best sound and comfort.

    My ear canal is narrow and I usually need a small size "S". I have tried many alternatives, and at the moment the ones I liked most are the white Xcessor that you see in the picture. They are made of very soft silicone and I can wear them for a long session, but sealing can be improved. While listening, I usually feel that they start coming out from the duct, and loosing the seal, bass is gone and you get a boring sound.

    I have good memories of the Etymotic hf3, which I used in the past with a tri-flange tip, with deep insertion but comfortable, so I also ordered the Xcessor in tri-flange configuration, with the same ultra-soft silicone. Seal was much better, but silicone is so slim that after removing the IEM, I ended with a lost tip inside my ear canal and needed tweezers to take it out. I have discarded them and I don't want to think about the situation out of house without tweezers at hand.

    I know that I need to improve the seal, and I've read also good reviews of the SpinFit CP100 and JVC Spiral Dots, they are about to arrive from China. At the moment I'm dealing with the Xcessor, but I'll tell you about my advances with the tips, which I'm convinced will be responsible for the success or failure of my project.

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    The Sony NW-ZX300 player is an extraordinary device. When you use it you realize that every detail has been carefully designed (with some silly mistakes too, typical of Sony designs). On their Japanese website, the NW-ZX300 project team talks about the design and implementation. From the design of the casing in a single piece of aluminum (similar to Apple's Unibody), the electrical or mechanical design, the audio electronics, it's a very nice reading if you want to see a passionate team talking about doing what they like.

    https://translate.google.es/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&u=https://www.sony.jp/walkman/special/flagship/zx300/interview03.html

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    Sony's promotional video gives you an idea of the player's design and features. They're good at marketing and it's a very Apple-style promotion.


    I've also choose the Sony NW-ZX300 to use it with my Sony WH-1000XM3 noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones. Both devices are compatible with the LDAC standard and comparing the result against iPhone X or iPad Pro using the AAC codec, or even against MacBook Pro using the aptX codec, the sound of Sony is clearly superior.

    I don't know if the improvement comes from the use of the LDAC codec or from the fact that Sony is the manufacturer of both equipments and knows how to get the most out of the combination, but it's more than evident that they work perfect together, with great dynamics, a very credible timbre, deep bass, extended and controlled, little forward mids and a full of detail highs. It's hard to believe that you've eliminated the cable between them, it's fantastic.

    I use the Sony WH-1000XM3 mainly on trips because their active cancellation is very effective and allows you to block the engine noise in the airplane, but I am convinced that I will use much more at home. Leather pads are comfortable and in summer you may want to wear them less, but now that temperature is falling, they will be perfect for autumn/winter season.

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    The size of the NW-ZX300 is perfect as a portable device. Not as small to make hard to read the screen, not as big as a second smartphone. For me it has the right size and all the controls are at hand, well positioned and the screen has good resolution and is tactile, with a matte finish that prevents fingerprints, something I especially like.

    [​IMG]

    The body is made of aluminium, with a light texture pleasant to the touch, and the back has a rubbered material that prevents it from slipping.

    It comes with 64GB of internal capacity, more than enough to have a library of your favourite albums, but it can be expanded with the microSD slot you see on the side. I have placed a 256Gb microSD and I have space to store a huge amount of FLAC encoded music.

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    There's another model in black with 16GB capacity, but is sold only in the Asian market, and as is usual in Sony, players sold in the EU have implemented a volume limit (capped), something that can be easily removed using the tool SonyNWDestTool RockBox. This tool also serves to convert Asian devices to other regions, solving language interface problems in units that only speak Japanese or Chinese.

    The tool is very easy to use. Just download it from SonyNWDestTool < Main < Wiki and run it in a command window. Connect the player to the computer with the USB cable and the internal disk will appear in the file explorer with the name WALKMAN and associated with a drive letter, in my case the F:

    The command scsitool-nwz-v23 f: get_dev_info will give you information about your unit, make, model, serial number, firmware version, etc. while the command scsitool-nwz-v23 f: dest_tool get will tell you which is the region (Destination) and if the sound limitation (Sound pressure) is activated or deactivated.

    The command scsitool-nwz-v23 f: dest_tool set CEV off will set the region to Eastern Europe and will remove the volume limitation (uncap). Once executed you will have to restore all device settings. Be careful not to choose restore to factory settings, as it also erases the music you have in the internal memory. After restarting, you will have the new values applied. It can be easily undone if you run it with the CEW on option that will revert the region to Western Europe and apply the sound limitation as required by the EU regulations.

    [​IMG]

    It supports Bluetooth 4.2, and as a receiver it's compatible with the best codecs, being Sony's LDAC the best, extraordinary in combination with the Sony WH-1000XM3.

    [​IMG]

    Although Qualcom's aptX codec gives a pretty good sound also connected to computers that support it (such as my MacBook Pro), and the AAC codec used with iOS devices, such as the iPhone and iPad, offers a lot of quality. Far from the sound of the WH-1000XM3 with LDAC, of course.

    An interesting bonus is that in addition to having a Bluetooth transmitter that allows streaming from other devices. That way, I can use Spotify, Tidal or stream my music library in Plex, for example from my iPhone X. This is interesting, but away from the spirit of my project. I want to forget about distractions while listening to the chosen album with the best quality, with cable and without temptations.

    But without a doubt it's an extra that gives it a lot of value.

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    Another interesting feature is that you can use it as a DAC, connecting it with the provided USB cable to your computer. It uses a Sony proprietary connector that makes you have to take special care not to lose it, as you'll need it to charge it.

    I have tested it as a DAC on my MacBook Pro and the result has been excellent in terms of sound quality, but if you want to use it with video it has an unacceptable high latency that causes lip-sync problems.

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    The interface of the NW-ZX300 is very well thought out, with one hand operation in mind, and has a lot of controls to customize both the interface and the sound.

    During playback, you can choose different presentation modes of the main player screen. The most common is this one, which shows the cover of the album. Sony has a glitch that can't display it if the JPEG is in progressive format.

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    You can add some digital volume level meters for each channel

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    Or a classic pair of volume meters, to get a more "analog" setup.

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    Or a spectrum analyzer to see the frequency distribution

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    You can control everything with just the thumb of the hand holding the player. Slide it over the cover to the right, left, up or down and you'll get the playlist, and other menus.

    You can browse through the library, folders, get a quick access to the last files you transfered, only the high resolution ones, etc. I have customized it so that it also has a filter per year of recording, which is very useful for me with Jazz.

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    You can let the sound output in "Direct" mode without applying any kind of post-processing, which is how I have tested it more thoroughly.

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    However, it is possible to change the sound by applying different filters in the audio settings section, but keep in mind that this settings aren't available over a Bluetooth connection.

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    The first setting lets you choose between a tone control in the classic style of an integrated amplifier, separated for bass, midrange and treble.

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    Instead you can fine tune the sound with a 10-band equalizer, in 0.5dB increments for each frequency.

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    Sony has a sound post-processing system called DSEE HS (Digital Sound Enhnancement Engine), which promises to improve compressed files, something I don't need since I use FLAC files, but it also allows you to apply a setting to better define female voices, male voices, percussion or stringed instruments.

    I've tried it and I've found very convincing the effect with voices, adding more body and a more forward presentation.

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    The DC phase linearizer, in addition to having a strange name, is responsible for ensuring that the response at low frequencies is close to that of a traditional analog amplifier. It has two modes "A and B", each with three levels "Standard, Low and High". For me the effect is quite subtle and I prefer B Standard.

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    The volume normalizer allows the device to regulate the volume of each song so that some don't sound louder than others. It can be useful for those who like a variety of playlists, with music recorded in different ways, but I like full albums and prefer to have it turned off.

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    And finally it has a setting to get the sound presentation closer to vinyl, allowing you to choose between the standard mode, resonance of the arm, resonance of the plate or even adding the noise of the needle scratching the surface.

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    I'm not a fan of sound effects, but I must admit that these sound processing ar very well thought out and better executed. All I've tried make sense and don't sound artificial at all, so you can customize the sound to your liking. It has 3 memories to save up to 3 combinations of settings, which can be quite useful for use by musical genres.

    The NW-ZX300 + Massdrop Plus set demand very well recorded material, because if the recordings aren't good, all the defects become more evident. But it's a real delight to listen to carefully recorded albums, like any of those of Cécile McLorin Salvant, a prodigious and sensible voice.

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    I use a lot the song "Giorgio by Moroder" by Daft Punk to do tests, since it begins with a dialogue of Giorgio Morder himself talking about his beginning with electronic music and little by little the song adds layers, beginning with some lows that go down considerably, and there are enough trebles also in the synthesizers. It's a top notch listening experience, with marvellous mids, with a lot of vocal presence, deep bass, extended and with impact, and detailed but not aggressive treble. Very, very good sound.

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    Patricia Barber's latest album is one of my must-have albums lately, and in particular the track "The Opera Song". There are lots of mids, bass and highs, and Patricia's voice is fabulous. There is precision, harmony and maturity in her interpretation. I love it.

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    Back to my classics, this Bass on Top by Paul Chambers is a wonder. It starts with the theme "Yesterdays", with Chambers using the bass as if it were a celllo, an impressive string dialogue. The degree of intimacy the ensemble achieves when you close your eyes is spectacular.

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    Without a doubt it is one of the best portable rigs that I've had, but I still need to resolve the comfort and sealing issue with the right tips to make the experience complete.

    I don't know if I will succeed, but I'll try and I'll let you now.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2019
  2. Signal2Noise
    Holy post, Batman!
     
  3. DeBilbao

    Thanks, mate!

    :)
     
  4. purk Contributor
    Awesome resource and read!
     
  5. DeBilbao
    Still looking for the right tips to enjoy the MassDrop Plus with the great sound quality they offer, but with the comfort and sealing that I'm missing.

    This week I received the JVC Spiral Dots and the Spinfit CP100 from Penon Audio and I'm sharing my experience.

    The JVC Spiral Dots are reasonably comfortable in the intermediate size of the 3 I ordered ("S", "MS" and "M"), but they are still far from being the ideal tips to my ears. This week I've tested them in depth during several flights and I end up noticing some discomfort after not many hours. Sealing is very good, as it practically makes disappearing the engine noise.

    Regarding sound, the large opening in the nozzle further enhances the bright side of the Massdrop Plus and I find it excessive.

    [​IMG]

    I've tested also the SpinFit CP100 silicone tips in the smallest size "S", and they are too big for my ear canal, so I can't use them.

    I'll keep trying, and any suggestion are welcome.

    :)
     
  6. DeBilbao
    I'm still going on with my project of setting up a dedicated rig, only for local music reproduction, with the highest quality - within a reasonable budget - and with light in-ear headphones that I can take with me on my frequent work trips.

    After trying the Spin-Fit CP100 in the smallest size and seeing that they are too big for me, at the moment the winners (not perfect, but I can live with them) are the JVC Spiral Dots. In their intermediate size SM I find them comfortable, although their large opening makes it that the sound profile of the M+ is presented transparently, and the highs are slightly excessive for my taste.

    Being a fan of tube sound, I couldn't resist to test a perfect match for the Sony NW-ZX300, and I'm testing the BA300s from Oriolus with great performance and much in line with my taste, softening the sound and getting that I don't know-what tubes have and that I love.

    The BA300S is a portable tube amplifier from the Japanese Oriolus, a model that has a very simple design and goal: offering 4.4mm balanced input and output, and two small 6N16B tubes encapsulated in a design that offers a gain of 3dB and 350mW of power. Add a power switch to turn it on and off, and a microUSB connector to recharge its lithium battery, that offers 7 hours of battery life, far from the 30 I get with the Sony player.

    The battery issue is not a problem for me. I don't see myself taking the pack out on the plane, where the Sony plus the Massdrop Plus are a perfect match (or with the WH-1000XM3 if the flight is long), but I do see myself taking it out in the hotel room, to enjoy a high-end music session on-the-go.

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    Let's see if I can find the tips that could make me get a perfect seal and comfort. At the moment I'm far from getting it, and even though these JVC Spiral Dots are comfortable for a while, I end up with a little discomfort after a couple of hours, and also the seal is a little fair. Sometimes I even open my mouth and they end up coming out of my ear.

    What an odyssey with the tips! How little they seem, and how important they are to get a high quality result

    :)
     
    Jemsheed likes this.
  7. Jemsheed
    Even i have zx300. I wanted to upgrade. So i was looking to get the same amp and see if that makes any improvement or upgrade to a new device. Let us know what difference this combo brings.
     
  8. davidcotton
    Thought about going custom if you are having that much trouble with tips? I have the same issue. Narrow canal with a sharp bend means that few if any tips will fit them.
     
  9. DeBilbao

    Thanks, but I've cancelled my project because I have a tinnitus in my right ear and it has worsen after listening with in-ear headphones.

    Custom in-ear could be the way to go, but yo must be 100% sure that this IEM is for you, as it will be very difficult to sell if not.

    :)
     
    davidcotton likes this.

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