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Sony HAP-Z1ES HDD Audio Player

Sony HAP-Z1ES HDD Audio Player

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.

 

To further improve overall vibration control the HAP-Z1ES uses a new foot design that employs ribs combined with an offset connection that isolates sound pressure from external sources. Inside the HAP-Z1ES Sony uses special mounting methodologies—an example is the analog connection terminal, which is mounted separately on its own isolated board to minimize the effects of vibration. An internal cooling fan is mounted via a damping system to minimize any vibration it might generate. It is also specifically angled so that it can operate with maximum efficiency and minimum noise.

Sony’s attention to detail on the HAP-Z1Es extends even to the main dial on the front panel. It is attached to an iron plate to prevent twisting or lateral movement. Although priced at only $1999, the HAP-Z1ES’ fit and finish certainly rivals preamps and network players costing a lot more.

The Setup
The original set-up plan was for a Sony technical expert to fly into Denver from San Diego and set up the HAP-Z1ES for me. An especially vigorous snowstorm curtailed his visit. He got as far as the outskirts of Boulder before he had to give up. Undaunted, I set up the HAP-Z1ES by myself without any outside technical assistance. I found that even an audiophile with limited computer savvy could install a HAP-Z1ES with little difficulty.

After unpacking the HAP-Z1ES, I placed it on an equipment rack shelf and attached its analog outputs to my preamp and connected its Ethernet input to my home network via a 100 feet of Cat 5 Ethernet cable. I could have used the HAP-Z1ES’ built-in Wi-Fi (I got a signal strength reading of 61 from the HAP-Z1ES’s built-in Wi-Fi signal strength meter), but I wanted to make sure the HAP-Z1Es was receiving the most robust signal I could supply.

After connecting the HAP-Z1ES I turned it on and went to the “Network Settings” section of the main menu. There I selected “wired set-up” and “Auto” from the IP address page. After that, the HAP-Z1ES linked to my network and I saved the configuration. For users who like reassurance, the HAP-Z1ES lets you check and confirm that the settings are “OK” before closing the network settings pages. The procedure is much the same for wireless Wi-Fi, except you have a page that lets you select your access points. If you live in a Wi-Fi-intensive environment you can pick the correct Wi-Fi network and enter your password. Near the end of the review period I switched over to Wi-Fi access and had no issues with changes to the installation or impaired Internet performance.

Once the HAP-Z1ES is connected to your home network, either via Ethernet cable or via Wi-Fi, you can transfer music files to its internal hard drive. Unlike many music servers that employ a closed system (see AHC’s review of the Olive player), the Sony HAP-Z1ES permits you to add, store, and backup your music files onto standard USB hard drives as well as its internal drive. Although created so those new to music servers can easily use it, the HAP-Z1ES can fit into a fairly complex computer music eco-system. Sony expects the average HAP-Z1ES owner already has a library or even multiple libraries of music. With the Sony HAP Music Transfer application owners can not only transfer current music files over to the HAP-Z1ES, but also periodically and automatically copy over any new music to their HAP-Z1ES.

Initially I had some problems using the HAP Music Transfer application on my ancient Dell D620 laptop, which runs Windows XP. Even though I was running the last version of XP, the D620 did not recognize the HAP-Z1ES. After a couple of e-mails, Sony determined that the D620 was not running XP in the 32-bit mode that is needed for the program to run successfully. Any PC running a more current version of XP, Windows 7, or Windows 8 won’t have this issue. Since my ancient laptop proved to be better suited for doing firmware upgrades than running current software, I asked to see the Mac version of the HAP Music Transfer application. Sony then sent me a Beta copy of the Mac version which had just become available. It worked flawlessly.

When first used the HAP Music Transfer application has a default location for your Mac’s music library that may or may not be correct for your system. If you don’t keep your music on your primary drive you will have to change the app’s default location for your music folders. You must change the music library default or nothing will be transferred because the app won’t be able to find your music files.

The HAP Music Transfer app supports multiple music folder locations. This means that if you and your family have separate music libraries on different computers in your home, as long as they are attached to your home network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, the HAP Music Transfer app can move them over to the HAP-Z1ES after you’ve selected and added them to the HAP Music Transfer’s music library folder list.

Once your music folder locations have been entered into the HAP Music Transfer app, you can specify what kind of files you would like to transfer. The HAP-Z1ES supports 3GP, AA3, AIF, AIFF, DFF, DSF, FLA, FLAC, M4A, MP3, MP4, OMA, WAV, and WMA file types. And while you can transfer any and all of these formats over to the HAP-Z1ES, you might want to restrict its library to higher-quality lossless file formats. For users who’ve generated MP3 versions of their full-resolution files for their portable devices, being able to exclude MP3 files is a useful feature. By checking or unchecking the format boxes on the “Contents Settings” page of the HAP Music Transfer app, you can specify exactly which formats will be transferred.

 

Once you’ve specified file types, pushing the “Start” button will initiate file transfers. My initial transfer involved 5697 music files and required almost 20 hours to complete. You can expect the first transfer to take a while, which is why a wired Ethernet connection with its faster transfer rates is the best option.

After all your music files are transferred to the HAP-Z1ES by the HAP Music Transfer app, the HAP-Z1ES connects to Gracenote’s database to acquire artwork for any files that may not have artwork. A majority of my music files already had artwork, but for some of my own recorded tracks the HAP-Z1ES found some interesting, if not entirely correct, art and attributions. On one particular track, which was a recording by my acoustic band, Knapweed, of the Bill Monroe/Peter Rowan song, “Walls of Time,” the song was incorrectly attributed to Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers from their Live at the Ryman album. I was quite surprised when I selected it; instead of Emmylou’s superb vocals I heard my own pitiful croaking.

If you select “auto update” from the HAP Music Transfer program’s options, during each launch it will immediately look for any new tracks in your designated music library locations and automatically transfer any new files onto the HAP-Z1ES.

In addition to playing music from your music library, the HAP-Z1ES also has a built-in Internet radio tuner. Called the “V-Tuner,” this feature includes the ability to search for Internet radio stations by genre or location. It also lists the bit rate of each station so you can see exactly what quality level a station can deliver. I quickly found the local stations that I listen to regularly and designated them as “favorites” via a heart symbol icon, which added them to a special list that I could access more easily.

Sony also added a special AI feature to the HAP-Z1ES called SenseMe channels. According to Sony, SenseMe channels is a function that analyzes and automatically categorizes music tracks according to their mood and tempo using the 12-tone analysis technology developed by Sony. SenseMe has twelve categories of music—morning, daytime, evening, midnight, energetic, relax, upbeat, mellow, lounge, emotional, dance, and extreme. These could be handy, especially if you’d like something a bit more selective than good old-fashioned shuffle mode. In my music library of almost 6000 songs, selecting “extreme” brought up 34 tracks. I guess I’m just not an extreme kinda guy.

The HAP App and HAP-Z1ES Remote
The HAP-Z1ES comes with a silver wand-shaped remote control. It also has its own dedicated free downloadable app. The remote control duplicates all the buttons on the HAP-Z1ES front panel. It also adds jump forward, jump reverse, as well as mute and volume controls. Although the HAP-Z1ES has a fixed output level, both the volume and muting can be controlled by compatible Sony receivers and integrated amplifiers, or even assigned to products from other manufacturers, using the HAP-Z1ES’s “Amp Control Setting.”

The HAP control application will be available for Android phones, iPhones, iPads, and Sony Xperia, and other Android tablets. At the time of the review, only the Android app had been finalized, so Sony included an Xperia tablet with the app installed on it. Once the app located the HAP-Z1ES on my network it worked flawlessly with no crashes or delayed responses. The app lets you choose music, make playlists, and find particular tracks in your music library. Among its extra features is a “new music” list that shows you the latest additions to your HAP-Z1ES’s music library and the most popular tracks called “favorites” (in case you really enjoy playing the same tracks over and over.) One nice, yet completely superfluous feature is that the background colors of the app change in response to the primary colors in the cover art of any currently playing track.

Day-to-Day Use
While I’m pretty sure there’s a computer in there somewhere, its lack of computer-based issues has made living with and using the HAP-Z1ES on a day-to-day basis a joy. I just turn it on and it works. Whether controlled from the front panel, the remote control, or the app, the HAP-Z1ES responded to commands quickly, and except in the case of hooking up with Internet radio stations via its V-Tuner, where it sometimes took as much as ten seconds for some stations to start to play, any music on the internal HD began playing almost instantly after being selected.

While I didn’t find Sony’s SenseMe feature of particular value, I’m sure most users will find some use for it, if only to annoy significant others by selecting “lounge.” One feature I did enjoy was the “Favorites” selection feature in the V-Tuner. I was able to assemble a very nice list of higher-bit-rate Internet radio stations in a short time by using V-Tuner’s search features.

The Sound
As someone who has felt that the best digital reproduction comes from files that have not had their native rate changed, reading that PCM files can be converted into DSD by the HAP-Z1ES raised some red flags. But after comparing the HAP-Z1ES’s DSD Remastering Engine’s rendition of PCM recordings with those same files played back at their native rate through the HAP-Z1ES, I can only conclude that whatever Sony is doing in the conversion process doesn’t appear to have any signature negative sonic effects. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to write that the Sony HAP-Z1ES does a better job of reproducing PCM than PCM-centric DACs or HD players, it certainly is on sonic par with the best I’ve heard.

 

After an initial break-in period I did a number of A/B comparisons between the HAP-Z1ES and two streaming audio/ computer based sources. The first source was a Sonos ZP100 feeding a Mytek Stereo192 DAC via a coaxial digital connection. The second source was a Mac Mini running Pure Music into the Mytek Stereo192 via its USB 2.0 connection. It took me several sessions of comparing these three systems before I could consistently recognize the HAP-Z1ES from the other sources in a blind A/B. The primary and telling difference was that the Mytek had slightly more energy in the upper midrange into the lower treble. In my system I felt the HAP-Z1ES was slightly more natural sounding with less edge. On Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, Ella’s voice had more air through the MyTek, but it had a more natural and organic tonality through the HAP-Z1ES.

In many respects the HAP-Z1ES and the Mytek DAC were very similar in their sonic presentations. Both recreated a soundstage with convincing three-dimensionality. Both also had the same level of dynamic contrast on the micro-and macro-levels. Bass extension was also a virtual dead heat with both quite capable of full low-frequency extension and subtle inner detail.

Which sound is more neutral or preferable will very likely depend on the rest of your system. If your system is on the darker side of neutral, the Mytek’s extra bit of forwardness would match quite well, while the HAP-Z1ES could sound a bit subdued and perhaps even hooded. But if your system has any tendency toward brightness, the HAP-Z1Es will probably be better received than the Mytek. There’s also something quite seductive in the HAP-Z1ES’ midrange presentation that is hard to resist.

The most difficult and least conclusive A/B test I performed during the review was comparing the DSD Remastering Engine’s DSD conversion of PCM files with those same files played back without the DSD Remastering Engine engaged. When switched back and forth there was a pause followed by about a two seconds of playback of the last snippet of music before the switchover. During that two seconds the sound was slightly different, seemingly warmer and rounder, but after that initial two seconds the sound reverted, and in blind A/Bs I could not tell whether I was listening to Remastering Engine or native output. I used both 16/44.1 and 24/96 PCM files for this test and didn’t hear any differences when I switched between DSD and PCM on standard Red Book or higher-definition digital files.

During the A/B listening sessions I had ample opportunity to compare the HAP-Z1ES app with the “Remote” app for iTunes. I much preferred Sony’s App to Apple’s. The HAP app was easier to use and navigate. It also provided more information about tracks including the original sample and bit rates.

One final aspect of the HAP-Z1ES’ performance that deserves attention is its prowess as an Internet radio tuner. It was easily the best-sounding Internet radio I’ve heard to-date from any device. And while I didn’t hear any changes when I switched in Sony’s DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) on my uncompressed music files, when it was activated for Internet radio the overall sound quality improved dramatically. For some prospective owners the HAP-Z1ES’ stellar Internet radio performance could be a primary reason for ownership.

The High Value HAP-Z1ES
In overall sonics and build-value for the dollar, the Sony HAP-Z1ES sets new standards. A Mac Mini with monitor, keyboard, mouse, and external drives attached to the MyTek Stereo192 DAC runs over $2500, and if you use better quality cables the price could go substantially higher. Even the Sonos ZP100/ Mytek Stereo192 front end costs around $2300 when you include a NAS drive. For $1999 the Sony HAP-Z1ES supplies the computer, hard drive, DAC, and app to run it all. While this is a bit of a stretch, the HAP-Z1ES could be considered the iMac of HD music players—everything you need to acquire, store, and reproduce HD music files, regardless of format, in one carefully thought out and powerful box.

For audiophiles and music lovers who want to listen to high-quality digital music files without the hassles of keeping another computer working optimally, the HAP-Z1ES is an attractively priced, yet fully featured option. It also doesn’t hurt that its control interfaces are easy to use and unintimidating even for non-techy users.

Sonically, it’s difficult to fault the HAP-Z1ES. Its sound quality was such that it rivals comparably priced standalone DACs, yet delivers more functionality and won’t be made obsolete by the latest USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt interfaces since it uses Ethernet and Wi-Fi as input connections.

Throughout the review period as I put the HAP-Z1ES through its paces, I looked for reasons the player might be not be considered a true high-performance component and found none. If you plan to spend more than $2000 on any digital front end, whether it be an audio-computer, CD player, DAC, network player, or any other front end that uses digital files as a source, and you don’t audition a HAP-Z1ES, you are failing to consider what may well be the benchmark digital product of 2014.

SPECS & PRICING

Frequency response: 2Hz–80kHz +/-3dB
Dynamic range: 105dB or higher
THD: 0.0015% or less
HDD capacity: 1TB
Supported playback formats: DSD (DSF , DSDIFF ), LPCM (WAV, AIF), FLAC, ALAC, ATRAC Advanced Lossless, ATRAC, MP3, AAC, WMA (2 channels)
Outputs: Unbalanced 2.0V RMS (50k ohms); balanced 2.0V RMS (50k ohms), 600 ohms
External ports: Type A USB for hard drive, IR Remote-Out jack for IR blaster
Power consumption: 35W (on), 0.3W (off), 2.8W (standby)
Dimensions: 17″ x 5 1/8″ x 15 3/8″
Weight: 32 lbs.
Price: $1999

SONY ELECTRONICS INC.
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127
(858) 942-2400
sony.com

Tags: FEATURED

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