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Sony Walkman NWZ-ZX2 review: Sony's Android-powered high-res audio player sounds great, but it'll cost ya

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

24/96 WAV playback (in minutes)

Sony Walkman NWZ-A17
2,880
Sony Walkman NW-ZX2
2,532
Cowon Plenue 1
480
PonoPlayer
358

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

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.

Sound quality

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.

Conclusion

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.

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