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.
SONY ELECTRONICS INC.
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127