As the flagship model for its “High Resolution Audio Initiative,” the new Sony HAP-Z1ES defines what Sony sees as the future of two-channel audio. It attempts to be easy for a naïve user to operate, yet capable of the highest audio quality. And while it’s relatively simple to make an audio product that is easy to use, very few ergonomically elegant mass-market audio devices also produce state-of-the-art sonics. Conversely, there are quite a few state-of-the-art computer audio rigs that sound superb, but require at least a bachelor’s degree in electronics with a minor in computer sciences to set up and use. Bridging the gap between these two extremes is exactly what the Sony HAP-Z1ES is all about.
The Grand Tour
What is an HDD audio player? In the case of the HAP-Z1ES, it is a local network-aware device that plays digital music files. It hooks up via Ethernet or Wi-Fi to your local network and the Internet. The HAP-Z1ES contains a 1TB hard drive for storing music files; it also has the ability to use external USB drives for additional storage. And what can the HAP-Z1ES store and play? It supports virtually any format audio file, including: DSD (WSF and DSDIFF), WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, ATRAC, MP3, AAC, and WMA files.
Since it is a local-network-aware device, any music file on any computer hard-drive in your home network can be imported into the HAP-Z1ES via a proprietary application program called “HAP Music Transfer.” The HAP Music Transfer app can run on almost every PC that supports 32-bit versions of Windows or Mac OS. Besides the initial transfer of music files, the HAP Music Transfer app can also automatically and periodically transfer any new music files on designated hard drives in your home network to your HAP-Z1ES player’s HD storage.
Don’t look for SPDIF, USB, or AES/EBU digital inputs on the HAP-Z1ES player, or any digital outputs. The only hard-wired input is the aforementioned Ethernet connection, and the only outputs from the HAP-Z1ES player are analog. Located on the rear panel you’ll find a pair of balanced XLR and a pair of single-ended RCA outputs. If you are in need of digital outputs to connect to your DAC or AV receiver, the HPA-Z1ES won’t help you.
The front panel of the HAP-Z1ES is almost as Spartan as its rear panel. It has an on/off button on the extreme right, a large 3 7/8" by 2 1⁄4" full-color display panel in the center, and four buttons and one large knob on the left side—the four buttons are menu, back, enter, and play. The HAP-Z1ES also comes with a small wand remote that supports basic functions including play, pause, jump forward, jump back, and select tracks for play. But most users will probably want to use Sony’s new dedicated app with the HAP-Z1ES. My review sample came with a Sony Xperia tablet that had the HAP app already installed. By the time you read this review Sony will have versions available for IOS and Android devices. I’ll tell you more about the app later in the review.
While the outside of the HAP-Z1ES may be simple, its inside is full of new, sophisticated circuitry. For compressed music files Sony has developed DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) technology, which restores upper frequencies and the “tail” of waveforms that were truncated by lossy compression schemes. The HAP-Z1Es also includes Sony’s new “DSD Remastering Engine,” which according to Sony “combines a high-performance DSP (digital signal processing) and FPGA (field-programmable gate array) to convert any signal (my emphasis) into DSD128 signals. It was designed based on the know-how garnered from Sony’s 8-times oversampling and Extended SBM (Super Bit Mapping) technology for professional recorders.” Yes, you read that right: the remastering engine can convert any and all PCM music files into DSD128 format, regardless of their original sample-or bit-rate. You can, if you wish, turn off the DSD Remastering engine via the main settings menu so the HAP-Z1ES will not convert PCM to DSD.
Once a digital file has been converted into DSD128, the final step is to convert that DSD file into analog for playback. The HAP-Z1ES does this step with an analog FIR (finite impulse response) filter. Along with reducing the extreme high frequency noise inherent in DSD signals, the FIR filter system has independent right and left channels with four separate filters per channel.
A low-phase-noise liquid-crystal oscillator handles internal digital timing in the HAP-Z1ES, which acts as the master clock for all digital signals. According to Sony’s measurements, the low-noise liquid-crystal oscillator delivers 20–30dB lower noise than conventional clocks.
The HAP-Z1ES has two separate large-capacity transformers, one for the analog power supply and one for the digital supply. Both receive a special vacuum impregnation pretreatment so all the winding coils are uniformly coated with varnish. By using separate transformers for analog and digital power supplies, the HAP-Z1ES achieves separation of analog and digital signals at the circuit board level. This reduces the adverse effects of digital noise to a minimum.
Unlike many digital products, where the chassis is merely a big metal box, the HPS-Z1Es uses “Frame Beam Chassis” construction, which Sony has used on all its ES-level products in the past. The HP-Z1ES’s base is composed of two metal plates of different thicknesses that support the main chassis. There are two additional base plates under each power transformer. Along with these metal plates, Sony employs structural beams than run crosswise to reinforce the overall rigidity and improve resonance control.