Sony Walkman NWZ-ZX2 review: Sony's Android-powered high-res audio player sounds great, but it'll cost ya
It was 36 years ago that the Sony Walkman brand appeared and subsequently ruled most of the 80s and early 90s, helping to popularize the cassette tape along the way. The subsequent Discman was able to take some of that momentum into the CD era, but by the early 2000s Sony had stumbled badly -- its proprietary formats with names like MiniDisc and ATRAC were relegated to niche status, crushed under the MP3 juggernaut that was Apple's iPod.
But what goes around comes around: with smartphones pushing the iPod into obscurity, standalone music players are making a comeback of sorts. Companies like Pono and Astrell & Kern have shown there is a market for enthusiast-level audio on the go -- portables that play high-res audio for discriminating listeners that can appreciate digital audio files that sound appreciably better than MP3s. And Sony -- which never gave up its high-end audio focus -- is back in the mix, too.
The NW-ZX2 isn't Sony's first attempt to resurrect the Walkman name, but it may come the closest to recapturing some of the magic of the brand's glory days. While its build quality is impeccable, the Sony's real weapon against the "little guys" is its ability to connect to Wi-Fi and load Android apps (hello, Tidal!).
The "catch" is the extraordinary price tag. At $1,199 in the US, £949 in the UK and AU$1,599 in Australia, the ZX2 is a stretch for music lovers not used to paying through the nose for something that doesn't even make phone calls. Happily, the Sony Walkman NWZ-A17 delivers a non-Android alternative at one quarter of the price. But the ZX2's design and sound quality make it at least worth an audition if you're in the market for a high-end player.
Editors' note: This review has been updated since its original publication on March 6 with full ratings, battery testing comparisons, and some additional thoughts and observations.
The Sony Walkman NW-ZX2 looks as luxurious as you'd expect from the price, with a carved aluminum case and a satisfyingly thick headphone jack. As well as touchscreen navigation, there are dedicated volume and transport controls that are indented to prevent accidental selection.
The menu system is basically Android Jelly Bean and can seem a step out of place compared with the outward glamour of the Sony music player. For example, while the hold button causes the screen to fold in on itself like a CRT (looks very classy) the drab black-and-blue volume bar is pulled straight from Sony's very first tentative steps onto Android land.
The device is larger than most phones, at 2.625 inches by 5.25 inches by 0.75 inch deep (67 by 133 by 19mm). It features a textured back -- similar to the grip on Canon cameras -- and a large 4-inch LCD screen. It's quite weighty, too, at 8.3 ounces (235 grams).
The main advantage the Walkman has over competitors like the Cowon Plenue 1 is that it's able to access streaming services, especially high-quality ones like Tidal. The Walkman runs Android 4.2, which means you can enjoy streaming apps in a higher quality than you'd expect from your typical phone. Of course, the Walkman isn't a phone -- you'll need to make sure you're within range of a Wi-Fi hotspot to stream. (The ZX2 supports dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi.)
Behind the glossy Google exterior beats Sony's S-Master HX digital amplifier, which the company says offers ultra-low distortion. The player will playback digital files up to 24 bit/192 kHz in MP3, WMA, AAC, FLAC, AIFF, WAV, ALAC and, importantly, DSD formats. If that list is a string of unrecognizable letters and acronyms, this product isn't remotely for you.
Unlike many competitors, the ZX2 is an audio and video player and features a decent-size 4-inch display with a 854x480-pixel resolution. Unlike its laundry list of music formats, it will only play AVC (H.264/AVC), MPEG4 and WMV 9.
With a capacity of 128GB of storage -- and a microSD expansion slot that can take up to 64GB more -- the ZX2 has ample space for those space-hungry high-res music files.
Sony says the onboard lithium ion battery that provides up to 60 hours of MP3 or 33 hours of hi-res per charge. We had already tested the smaller A17 Walkman and found it had an extraordinary 48 hours of life playing a 24/96 WAV file and the ZX2 was equally impressive with 42 hours of life (with Airplane mode on). Both players leave their respective PonoPlayer and Cowon opponents writhing in the cold, cold dust.
We also tested the ZX2 with Wi-Fi turned on and it still managed a respectable 36 hours, but anecdotally we found that leaving the player in a bag throughout the day, and playing music occasionally, yielded a even bigger hit on battery life -- more like you'd expect from a smartphone.
Sony included a pair of its own MDR-1R headphones with the player (sadly sold separately) and found these to be a good foil for the player by adding suppler bass and better detail than some of the other headphones we used, including the Sennheiser Momentums.
We tested the phone with Tidal, Spotify and third-party music apps like MediaMonkey and PlayerPro. While the initial software restricted high-res file playback in third-party apps, the recent 1.01 update has all but fixed this (though they still can't load high-res WAV files).
Using the default playback software then, we pitted the player against its own more affordable sibling (the A17 Walkman), as well as the $400 PonoPlayer and the $1,000 Cowon Plenue.
While the two most expensive players -- the Sony ZX2 and Cowon -- sounded best; picking between them will take further listening. With a song like "Pauper's Dough" by King Creosote, the singer's voice was fixed in the middle of the soundstage in the Sony ZX2, while it was a touch more ethereal and indistinct when heard via the Cowon. The sibilants in speech were a little more pronounced and a greater sense of the space around the singer was audible on the Sony.
There was family resemblance with the cheaper Walkman, though. Using testing track after testing track we found that the $1,200 Walkman and the $300 version dealt with difficult as well as pleasing melodic passages in much the same way: without a sweat. The very last note in the descending bassline of "Life" by the Beta Band was a little louder and more defined but the two players sounded very similar. They're not completely identical sonically but there probably isn't $800 worth of sound quality between the two.
If you're buying a $1200 Walkman you probably have some expensive headphone exotica you want to pair with it. We found the Sony wasn't able to drive the HiFiMan HE-400 as loudly as either the Cowon Plenue P1 or even the PonoPlayer. If you want to power a set of hard-to-drive headphones in noisy environments you should try either of those players instead.
The Sony Walkman NW-ZX2 is a premium looking and sounding player and it's priced accordingly. Though it's more accessible than the highest-end products the company has produced -- the SS-AR1 speakers and Qualia headphones come to mind -- the ZX2 is still a statement piece that's targeted at refined listeners. It's a worthy tribute to the Walkman name, but it's still a lot to swallow at this price. In addition to its app library, the NW-ZX2's wireless capabilities and battery life -- mutually exclusive as they are in this case -- are what distinguish this device from competing high-res music players.