Disclaimer: the Sony NW-ZX2 (1199$ USD) featured in this post was lent me by Ongaku Shuppansha, a magazine client of mine whose yearly half-yearly publications and events I shoot. The ZX2 was on my shooting table for a few hours, during which I had time to RMAA it as well as give it a gentle, albeit brief listen. This is not a review.
A New Hope
After dinking around with poor interfaces (Onkyo DP-X1, Pioneer), massive players (Astell&Kern AK380), and exploring the gory world of staunching bandages (Astell&Kern AK Jr, Astell&Kern AK380), I was so happy to fit the ZX2 in my palm. Its interface is clearly organised. It is generally responsive. Its body doesn’t draw blood. It’s a Sony. Whatever else it means, at minimum the name suggests a decent focus on human-oriented design. Indeed, both the ZX2's hardware and software UIs are revelations among all high-end players.
Unfortunately, the story ends there.
The Empire Strikes Back
Put simply, the ZX2 isn’t worthy of the Hi-Res badge. Its output is ridiculously weak for an audiophile player. It hisses more than the competition (and certainly more than a recent iPod nano, about the same as an iPod from 2005, and slightly more than an original AK100), and more than any iPod from the last five years. In fact, in some hardware metrics it gets bested by an iPod nano 7G. In Japan, it goes for about 6,4x the price of a current-gen nano. Not that price/performance is the only metric by which hi-end players should be judged. But even against more subjective metrics: UI, accessory quality, brand power, resell value, the ZX2 is on shaky ground. The nano has been out for years. And Used, it still sells for 2/3 to 3/4 of its price. The Sony has already dropped on local auctions to 2/3 of its original price. Ouch.
Spurn of the Jedi
Which is a shame. Though it’s larger than I’d prefer, it feels lovely in the hand. And, while it doesn’t even come close to the median performance of an AK Jr, its output is stable. Against 16-bit metrics, it is a fine performer. It’s just that, even unloaded, it surpasses Red Book spec by small fractions; and loaded, depending on the metric, it falls by large margins.
The ZX2 isn’t worthy of its Hi-Res badge. Of course, I’m as skeptical of hi-resolution audio as one can be. No one listens to regularly recorded music whose dynamic range and signal-to-noise levels come remotely close to 24-bit spec, let alone volumes that demonstrably resolve a small percentage of 24-bit standards. Still, a product labelled Hi-Res has a responsibility to the end user - and one which the ZX2 is wholly incapable of fulfilling.
Onto the measurements:
The following Rightmark Audio Analyzer tests were conducted through this equipment.
Source: Sony NW ZX2
ADC: Lynx Studio HILO LT-TB
Computer: 2012 27" iMac
Cables: 1,5m Hosa Pro 3,5mm stereo to dual 3-pin XLR (around 8$)
NL - no load
SM2 - Earsonics SM2
ES7 - Audio Technica ES7
DT880 - Beyerdynamic DT880/600
24-bit results @+0dBV (HILO input sensitivity)
24-bit summary @+0dBV (HILO input sensitivity)
Finally, below are results for the NW-ZX2 and a three year-old iPod nano:
To be sure, the ZX2 betters the nano in most metrics. But no less should be expected. It's just that where and unloaded ZX2 betters the nano, it just barely betters it.
Should we expect better from Hi-Res, or audiophile badged players? Yes. If there is any job to which they are expected to perform, that singular function is of absolute importance. Should we expect high-ticket players to come with high-ticket UIs? Unfortunately, no. Outside of Sony, and recent Astell&Kern players, little evidence exists that manufacturers of hi-res players give a damn about how their device operates in human hands. Which is a shame. Though large (especially considering its mediocre performance) the ZX2 looks and feels great. Had its performance even approached AK Jr levels, it would be a no-brainer. Had it surpassed them, approaching Onkyo's opus, the DP-X1, I would purchase one.