Contrary to impression, I am not really an audiophile. The term means “a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction”. While I have a keen ear, I have not reached “enthusiastic” level yet, for I do not indulge myself into seeking and exploring the endless world of audio equipment.
I enjoy music, and appreciate audio quality. But more often than not, I listen to music casually, on the go, in public and noisy environment. For my ears to detect the difference between good quality 16-bit MP3 and lossless 24-bit FLAC, I must be in an utterly quiet environment.
The other differences among headphones that I would look out for – which appeals to general consumers – would be the audio presentation based on dynamics, frequency balance (treble-mid-bass), stereophonics, sound staging, instrument layering.
I always believe that every product created by the manufacturer has its intended audience. No one wants to sell inferior products, but when I do encounter one with unusual audio characteristics, I ask myself why. I recall when I tested the Cardas EM5813 earphones, which sounded extremely muffled and lacks the modern brilliance. Then there was the extreme: the Mixcder Flyto that is totally devoid of bass.
So far, the most “honest” brand that I have encountered is Fischer Audio. Their description of their products are pretty accurate, and I like that they provide a guide on the suitability of their earphones against the music genres.
About Sony Signature Series
The last time I indulged in audio euphony was when Beyerdynamic sent me a carton of 3 headphones and a headphone amp. That experience tells me that the most expensive flagship products may not necessarily be the most favoured product.
When Sony launched this premium Signature Series at IFA 2016 in September 2016, many people wondered whether the high price is an indicator of the quality. 4 weeks after announcing, Sony sent me the NW-A36HN instead, which was also announced at the same time. That was a nice prelude to what was to come, which I finally experienced this month.
The Sony Signature Series refers to the following 4 products :
- NW-WM1Z Premium Walkman S$3999
- NW-WM1A High Resolution Walkman S$1599
- TA-ZH1ES Premium Headphone Amplifier S$2999
- MDR-Z1R Premium Headphones S$2599
As the name suggests, they are the supreme Sony audio product range. Sony has been producing professional audio products for decades but this is the first time they tagged “Signature” to a series of products. Given this bold name, it is no wonder every audiophile is keen to find out how they sound against the best.
To get down to test, I purposely went to buy some more Hi-Res audio files. Currently the highest definition I have are 96KHz 24-bit FLAC files and DSD64 (which has roughly the same resolution as 24-bit 96KHz PCM recording), but I needed 192kHz 24-bit to fully experience the product, assuming I can actually detect the difference.
Seeking Hi-Definition Music
In recent years, it has become easier to access high-resolution audio in 24-bits and at 96KHz and above. Streaming sites like Deezer and Spotify have started offering high-res audio streaming, which are technically lossless audio.
There are several sites dedicated to purchasing Hi-Definition audio. One of the sites that I shop for hi-res music is HDtracks.com. It has extensive catalogue and even offers free sample downloads. For a start, I recommend these hi-res albums below US$5. I also mention the tracks that I use extensively to review the Sony Signature Series, among my existing reference tracks.
HDtracks 2017 Hi-Res Sampler (96/24): $0.00
The HDtracks 2015 Sampler (96/24): $0.00
– Track 10: Free For All
– Track 11: Arnesen: MAGNIFICAT 4. Et misericordia
Audiogon Presents The Wake Up Your Ears Sampler (192/24): US$4.98
– Track 7: Mozart Ave Verum
The Audiogon Headphone Experience (192/24): US$4.98
– Track 11: Electric Bass Guitar Scale
– Track 12: Organ Pedal Scale
– Track 16: Ib the Monster Comes Down from the Mountains
Walkman: NW-WM1A and NW-WM1Z
The WM1A (128GB) and WM1Z (256GB) have the same dimensions and button placements, which means any accessory can be shared between the 2. Even the software is identical, so the same firmware can update both models. The difference lies in the internal circuitry and the frame material. The WM1Z uses gold-plated solid copper chassis which weighs almost twice the WM1A which uses the more common aluminium alloy.
As I browsed the settings for both devices to make sure they are the same for unbiased testing, I found out that while the WM1A has been played for over 250 hours, the WM1Z was only used for a mere 5 minutes. I’m not sure if the lack of “burning-in” has any impact on the WM1Z, but here is what I find initially:
- WM1A delivers airier highs, while bass response is slightly broader and more immersive. Vocals sound more sizzling.
- WM1Z produces more expressive mid-treble, weightier direct bass. Vocals sound a tad rounded.
The difference seems to lessen as I play the WM1Z longer, but high-res audio files still exhibit the slight tonal variance, while normal MP3 is not that apparent.
Putting the slight variance aside, both delivers similar qualities that put them above the digital players. There is that clarity and roominess at the higher frequencies, where the reverberations consciously offer another listening dimension. Comparatively, the NWZ-A15 pales in the overall clarity and definition. On previous Sony Walkmans, I could hear the frequency differences, but with the WM1 series, I can further hear the audio definition better.
Compared to the NW-A30 series, there are many difference in functions. The NW-WM1 series have “Direct Mode” to disable all audio processing in a single step, whereas on the A30 series, I had to turn off each audio mode. There is no support for digital noise-cancelling headphones, no ClearAudio+ and VPT (Surround) on the WM1, as well as FM radio and language study mode. But on the DC Phase Linearizer, there are 6 phase character settings to choose from, allowing tweaks to the low-frequency phase, which does make a difference on how the lows are played over the headphones.
The WM1A and WM1Z elevate my listening acuity to another level. On premium recordings, the added details, clarity and transparency are very apparent. Between the 2, I feel the WM1A offers better value and the review unit plays better, perhaps due to longer burn-in time. The WM1A weight is more manageable and the black design is more subtle. Note though, that in order to enjoy the best audio experience, the audio files must also be of utmost quality coupled with premium headphones, for instance, the MDR-Z1R.
The Z1R is the first closed-back headphones I have reviewed with dynamic coil drivers larger than 50mm. From physics point-of-view, larger drivers means bigger sound, better dynamics. The Z1R is rated to deliver frequency response from 4 to 120,000 Hz.
It is impressively lightweight for its size and extremely comfortable. The sheepskin earpads are asymmetrically shaped to cosy up the ears so that the acoustics are retained with less room to create any unnecessary reverberation. Wearing it feels like an absolute pamper to my ears, though the trade-off is the ears tend to get warm in humid conditions like Singapore. The earpads are easily removable for replacement via twist-lock mechanism if they get worn out.
On the whole, the Z1R is an amazing headphones with exceeding design and audio quality. Music sounds more alive and instruments more depth than normal consumer headphones, only betrayed by audio production flaws. If there are any negative statements on the Z1R, it is merely nitpicking but for casual listeners, they are certainly not obvious. Most of my comments are based on unbalanced connection (to explain later) because that is the standard connection for most users.
The closed-back design of the Z1R helps in retaining all the details without losing the energy. The bass is firm and prominently deep yet does not significantly overpower the upper frequencies, hence a welcoming intensity for me. Perhaps some might not fancy that but it offers some gratification to listeners with a slight preference for that rumbling sound. The headphones deliver snappy attack response and fast decay, so the bass does not linger excessively.
The Z1R delivers clear treble output without sounding too pronounced, hence is not as overly-transparent as the Kennerton Odin. There are no tonal sweetening on the mid-treble, though the vocals and lead instruments deliver depth without sounding too forward against other instruments. On the orchestral tracks recorded by Cincinnati Pops and Erick Kunzel, the strings sound a little hazy. On “Brave” by Sara Bareilles, the “see” sung on the chorus sounds like other headphones with fuzzy sibilance, unlike what Kennerton Odin did.
Ultimately, how detailed the Z1R produces depends on the source. When tested with the WM1 series, the Z1R reveals the original acoustic environment of the recorded tracks, making me feel they are performing close to me. This is opposed to other headphones that alter the sound staging to appear excessively wide or spacious. The Z1R is capable of delivering plentiful details for every instrument recorded, giving me once again new discovery of overplayed audio files. Playing new test tracks like the Organ Pedal Scale, the Z1R effortlessly delivers the extreme sonic rumble without distortion. At the upper frequency, the Z1R does not hide details, revealing undesirable recording flaws at the same time. Environmental acoustics are also delivered to add that elevated feel. Playing with standard devices, the Z1R feels generally harsh and lacks refine and sound stage that exhibits on the WM1 series with balanced connection.
The Z1R comes in a leather-wrapped hard case and serial numbered plate. It comes with 2 sets of cables: a standard 3.5mm cable of 3m length and a balanced 4.4mm cable of 1.2m length.
I like the Z1R for its ability to keep music close to my ears and deliver details that I can critically appreciate. The headphones will make normal tracks sound inferior, so once again, only play high-quality audio files on the Z1R.
Native DSD on Balanced Connection
One feature that all the Sony Signature Series offer is 4.4mm 5-pole balanced connection cable, a new format. Generally, the main purpose of balanced connections is to eliminate signal noise. How it does is to transmit 2 opposite signals using 2 cables per channel to the destination, which will then revert the signal to the correct polarity. How is noise eliminated? Because in the presence of noise, both cables from the same channel will receive identical noise signals, yet when the device reverses the signal of one of the cables, the noise signal is reversed against the other cable, cancelling the noise signal in the process.
The other critical advantage of balanced connection on the Sony Signature series is that they play native DSD (Direct Stream Digital) audio files, which means there is no conversion. On normal unbalanced connection, the Walkman converts DSD to PCM. The difference is obvious to the trained ear: music played on balanced connection feels less restricted, more expansive, while unbalanced connection can sound a little compressed, which I originally thought was inherent to the mix.
Headphones Amplifier: TA-ZH1ES
The TA-ZH1ES is more than just an amplifier. It provides multiple input (analogue, co-axial, optical, USB digital) and output (XLR4, unbalanced, balanced) connections and the usual Sony audio-processing effects like DSEE HX, DC Phase Linearizer, as well as a feature to remaster audio inputs to DSD quality. There is option for gain (high/low) and pre-amp output (to speakers, for instance). A slim remote control is supplied to aid in the operation.
Here are some of the technologies that go in the TA-ZH1ES to deliver supreme audio:
- D.A. Hybrid Amplifier Circuit: in a nutshell, the hybrid amplifier compares differences between digital and analogue output signal and corrects it to achieve precise audio wave.
- DSEE HX: the upscaling technology offers unique modes to suit the type of audio: male, female, strings, percussions. Because each of their waveform is uniquely different.
- DSD Remastering: instead of the usual PCM conversion, the TA-ZH1ES utilises FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) to convert any signal into the DSD 11.2MHz sound format.
- DC Phase Linearizer: this playback mode matches the phase characteristics of the analog amplifier to deliver a more analog-like sound.
- Rigid Chassis: the TA-ZH1ES is designed inside out to minimise interferences. The chassis is made of large aluminium block to minimise vibration, the top panel is made of combination of steel and aluminium to suppress resonance, and the bottom panel has 2 layers with low point of gravity to improve stability.
Listening to the TA-ZH1ES is a further aural upgrade to the Sony Signature experience. There is even more room and air to the recording that I have never thought is available. When I thought the WM1 is spectacular, the TA-ZH1ES liberates the music even more that I could imagine possible. I am speechless at how much information the audio files contain that have been locked by normal music players and headphones.
Playing through the TA-ZH1ES is like playing a multi-track master, each track and instrument delivering their own aural content without competing. I don’t have to struggle to listen at musical details: they just come to me. Listening with the MDR-Z1R with the large sensitive 70mm driver on balanced connection cable also helps to transport the audio faithfully to my ears. You can also say that the TA-ZH1ES brings out the full potential of the Z1R.
In the absence of a Sony Walkman, you can also enjoy digital audio from desktop via USB. Do remember to adjust the headphone playback properties from the Control Panel -> Sound settings and set to 192KHz 32-bit. Download the PC driver at: http://www.sony-asia.com/support/download/615272
Putting aside the audio technological qualities, the TA-ZH1ES is quite a useful home amplifier with its numerous inputs and outputs, as well as audio processing effects.
Conclusion: Experience Elevated
Every time when I receive an audio product for review, I question myself if my ears could detect any qualities as claimed by other online articles. After all, I had to verify if what others write are true. On the Sony Signature Series, I have extended my humble audio experience to another plateau. At the same time, I have achieved further understanding of my aural capabilities, that I should not doubt what my ears tell me, even though sometimes I might not be in the best of mood to define what I hear.
Will I buy audiophile products like the Sony Signature Series? Not at the moment, and it’s not because I don’t think they are worth the money. It is because I don’t have the luxury of sitting in my study room and listening to them for hours without distraction. Nor do I have a massive collection of premium recordings to maximise the potential of these products. For on-the-go music listening, I have several consumer-grade headphones to make do.
But there is no doubt that the Sony premium amplifier, the premium headphones, and the premium digital music player in the Signature series deliver astounding audio details that I never thought was available in the same music files that I possess for all these while.
Recommended Retail Price
NW-WM1Z Premium Walkman – S$3999
NW-WM1A High Resolution Walkman – S$1599
TA-ZH1ES Premium Headphone Amplifier – S$2999
MDR-Z1R Premium Headphones – S$2599