When Apple discontinued its 160GB iPod Classic portable music players, a funny thing happened: Their prices on eBay doubled overnight. And while many tech-pundits see dedicated portable players as an ergonomic dead end (supplanted by ubiquitous smartphones), crowd-funded sales in excess of $3 million for Neil Young’s Pono player demonstrate that music lovers still have a healthy appetite for dedicated portable media players.
Sony, which created the first “Walkman” portable player, has been involved with portable audio since its inception, but recently has not been as dominant in the market as it was in the early days. That could change with its latest offering, the NW-ZX2. Priced at $1199, this Android-based player can handle any commercially available music file including DSD128, plus it also plays videos from YouTube, Hulu, and Facebook. The NW-ZX2 has WiFi and Bluetooth support. In short, the new NW-ZX2 does virtually everything an Android-based smartphone can do except make and receive phone calls. And it sounds much better than any smartphone I’ve heard.
Instead of an oddly shaped or “look at me, I’m different” case, the Sony NW-ZX2 is conventionally phone-shaped, measuring approximately 2 ½" by 5" by ½". Most of its front panel is a 2" by 3 ½" touchscreen. The NW-ZX2’s enclosure has a matte-black anodized finish with just a hint of texture, making it easier to hold than early iPhones with a mirror finish. The back of the NW-ZX2 is inset with textured genuine leather that further enhances its gripability. Ever since my first iPod Touch lasted exactly 30 minutes before it jumped out of my shirt’s breast pocket and into the toilet, I’ve valued players with less slippery surfaces that remain in pockets even when gravity nudges them in other directions. The Sony NW-ZX2 feels secure in my hands (or pockets) due to its shape and thickness. Weight-wise, it achieves a happy medium between being neither too heavy (like the Sony PHA-2 DAC/amp or Colorfly C4 portable player) nor too light and unsubstantial like an iPhone 5. No amount of time in your thigh pocket will bend or otherwise alter the NW-ZX2’s case.
Sony has incorporated a number of new technologies into the NW-XZ2. First and foremost is its use of supercapacitors to enhance power output capabilities. According to a Sony technical paper, a supercapacitor can augment a Class D power amplifier’s peak power output by over three times! This makes it possible for the NW-ZX2’s headphone amplifier to produce quite a bit more power during dynamic peaks. Also, the supercapacitors increase battery life by relieving the battery of some of the peak-power demands that can reduce its reserves.
The NW-ZX2 employs two crystal clocks. Sony’s previous (but not distributed in the U.S.) player, the NW-ZX1, could only do 44.1, 88.2, and 176.4kHz natively, but the ZX2 adds 48, 96, 192kHz native rates, as well as native DSD64 and DSD128.
The NW-ZX2’s chassis is constructed of solid aluminum. The interior of the chassis is lined with gold-plated copper to reduce noise and improve isolation between electronic subsections. Other “tweaks” include use of high-purity solder and MELF capacitors in the analog output stage. These high-cost metal-electrode caps are usually only found in custom-tweaked or megabuck components, and are currently the best parts of their kind available. The NW-ZX2 also employs seven Os-Con caps, three in power filtering and four in the analog circuit.
Anyone who has spent any time with an Android-based phone or tablet (such as the Sony Xperia) will find himself right at home with the NW-ZX2. Upon startup you will be greeted by that swoopy Android graphic and unlock screen. Once unlocked with an upward swipe (if you choose not to use the password lock), the NW-ZX2 will display its home screen, including whichever app you had open when you last used the device. The NW-ZX2 comes with “Play” as the primary music app. It looks very much like the music app on Sony’s HAP-Z1ES full-sized digital player and includes many of the same features, including SenseMe mood channels, playlists, and multiple view options.
Through Google’s “Play Store” you can acquire additional apps. I added Tidal as well as Oppo’s HA-1 remote-control app. With the preloaded Google Chrome browser you can do anything that you would do with a web-enabled smartphone, including watching videos, logging into Facebook, or reading e-mail. You can also set up the NW-ZX2 so it can instantly access your Gmail account. The only limitation is that the NW-ZX2 needs access to a WiFi hotspot to enable all this space-age connectivity—it has no other way to directly access Web-based content.
If you use and like the Android operating system, you will be very comfortable with the NW-ZX2. But if you are an Android newbie, there will be a learning curve. My review unit arrived without any instructions (it was only the second one in the U.S.), so I had to fly blind during my initial listening sessions. Except for a minor panic attack when I managed to mute the NW-ZX2’s outputs (I unmuted it somehow and haven’t had the problem since), I had no operational issues with the NW-ZX2. I’ve gone back and forth, playing tracks from Tidal, then Sony’s Play app, then YouTube vids via Chrome with no hang-ups or inordinately long delays between selections. Also I could field e-mail and surf the Web while listening to music with no hiccups. After several weeks of use, the NW-ZX2 and its Android OS have proven to be stable and reliable.
The only notable operational issue I experienced with the NW-ZX2 was when I disconnected it from my MacPro desktop computer. If you merely click “disconnect” from the NW-ZX2’s screen, instead of first moving the NW-ZX2’s icon from your Mac desktop to the trash, you can corrupt the contents of any micro-SD card mounted in the NW-ZX2. This happened to a 32GB card, and it took me almost two hours of copying to repopulate it fully. To avoid this catastrophe, I suggest following Apple’s “best practices” and getting in the habit of always moving USB icons to the trash (or virtually “ejecting” them) before disconnecting the physical device itself.