Sony has been creating cost-no-object “flagship” components since early in its history. And while never intended as big-sellers, these models have often provided benchmarks for future, more affordable designs. The new Sony NW-WM1Z portable player ($3199) and MDR-Z1R headphones ($2299) are two of Sony’s latest top-echelon portable audio devices. This review will look at each product individually and then as a unified system. While not perfect for everyone’s needs (nor are they meant to be), the NW-WM1Z and MDR-Z1R boast several unique technical accomplishments that make them special and noteworthy—not to mention their top-end sonic performance.
Both the NW-WM1Z and MDR-Z1R are part of Sony’s new Signature line that also includes the TA-ZH1ES tabletop headphone amplifier. This amp includes a DAC and a new remastering engine that coverts PCM and DSD sources up to DSD256. But for this review we will look at the two portable components from Sony’s Signature line.
The NW-WM1Z Portable Player
Portable players have come a long way since the first Sony Walkman. Current state-of-the-art portables have as much technical sophistication as any high-performance AC-mains-connected component. But unlike room-based units, which can be as big as needed to contain what’s inside, with portable components the issue of size and weight becomes part of the equation. As many experienced travelers do, I always look for the lightest, smallest device that will meet my needs when I’m traveling.
Though compact, the NW-WM1Z cannot be considered lightweight at 455 grams, which is slightly over one pound. The reason for its heft is its chassis, which is carved from a single ingot of OFC (oxygen-free copper), then coated in 99.7% gold inside and outside after fabrication. Sony chose this chassis material because it offered better mechanical and electronic isolation than a standard chassis made of aluminum. Sony also claims that this chassis delivers a different sound signature than an aluminum chassis. For those audiophiles who want to compare, Sony has also released the WM1A player ($1199), which has a topology and features very similar to those of the NW-WM1Z, except it has an aluminum chassis rather than a gold-plated copper one, OFC copper wiring instead of 4-braided Kimber Kable, and a MELF resistor instead of a special custom unit. The WM1A player also weighs half as much at only 267 grams.
The NW-WM1Z is a “closed” system that does not use an Android OS like the Sony NW-ZX2 player did. That means that the NW-WM1Z OS won’t allow users to add third-party programs via the Android Play store. The NW-WM1Z also does not support WiFi, so it can’t supply any direct streaming capabilities for Tidal, access to a local NAS drive, or automatic firmware upgrades. The NW-WM1Z does support the latest version of Bluetooth, but that’s for connecting to a pair of Bluetooth earphones. One last feature that the NW-WM1Z does not have is that it cannot be used as a USB DAC. It has a USB connection, but it is for charging and moving files into the player.
Having reviewed more than a dozen portable players during the last several years, I have developed my own set of preferences regarding the open/closed OS question. I prefer the reliability and sonic optimization that I find on closed systems, but when a feature or app is not included in a closed system your chances of accessing it are nil without some unauthorized hacking. I much prefer an open system where I can choose what apps I want to use and even use those same apps across multiple platforms. That said, it’s far too easy to add an app to an Android OS that is not compatible, or can even cause a player to cease functioning correctly. Also, it does get tedious when every time you activate your player it proceeds to download and update apps first. So, in my opinion neither solution is perfect.