Black And Yellow (A Modern Homage to Pittsburgh)
There is a certain streak of insanity to the new Sony players –an undeniable gold fever that makes even the most seasoned of audioholics slightly uneasy. The glint in their eyes reveals that a few are already feeling the disturbing onset of possible upgrade anxiety. What if this was indeed better? Could it be the chosen one? As for myself –no such wonderment. The shock and awe of the NW-WM1Z had quickly worn off by the second day, when I was more shocked than awed by the general weight of the device. Yes, it is an inconvenient 455 grams. That’s exactly 1.00 pound, if you take three significant figures. It’ll turn heads when you bring it out on public transport, and more likely than not have the uninitiated questioning your sanity. Perhaps it is indicative of a trend these days for audio to bath in the glory of sheer excess, or maybe it is simply an early indication of where the industry is headed. Neither explanation would be particularly surprising anymore. Did I also mention that the NW-WM1Z is gold?
Currently priced at $3,999 SGD and $1,599 SGD (Singapore), the NW-WM1Z and the NW-WM1A are expensive devices even by audiophile standards, with the former existing in a super rarefied niche of high-end audio products. According to a recently revamped audio philosophy, Sony has intended for its new audio products to be “for ‘and by’ [sic] music lovers”. The WM1A and WM1Z is specifically marketed as being able to elevate the “high-resolution sound experience from one you listen to, to one you can feel.” In what could only be considered an unavoidable result of its astronomical pricing, the WM1Z simply has a lot of expectations to live up to. As part of the review process, I spoke to fellow enthusiasts of varying budgets in an attempt to understand the kind of considerations and performance needs that could potentially lead someone to purchase either one of these players. Representing the concerns of varying enthusiast audiences was quite important, and I have tried my best to interject meaningful commentary into this review. If it seems like I am nitpicking, it probably is because I am. Then again, at its current price -it better be close to perfect.
Sony provided the NW-WM1Z/NW-WM1A for the purposes of this review. As with the MDR-Z1R, I have been loaned the players for three weeks. As always, I am neither a paid affiliate nor an employee of Sony. As I mentioned earlier, it is a great privilege to cover Sony’s newest players. It’s been quite the journey since I first found out about the Signature Series a couple of months back, and since then I’ve come to have a much better understanding of the considerations, challenges, and beliefs that went into shaping the various components of the Signature series. I do reserve the rights to the media in this review, so if you would like to use the photography/ videos please do drop me a line (at the very least please provide attribution). I dislike watermarks on photos and would rather not use them. As always, I do hope you enjoy this review!
Also, if you have any questions, feel free to comment below. However, I’m slow with checking the comments section, especially on older reviews. In these situations, please just shoot me a PM. I really do try my best to answer all the PMs I get.
PACKAGING AND ACCESSORIES
The package received for this review is not representative of how final production units will look like, so a bit of additional research had to be done to confirm its contents. As with the MDR-Z1R, both players come in a nice matte box with large photos of the device shown on the front. Opening the outer box up reveals another hard cardboard box with the player inside. A medium density EVA style foam surrounds the device. There’s a separate compartment with all the accessories included. In summary, the following accessories are included with the player:
- Wrist Strap
- Product literature
- Leather Carrying Case (NW-WM1Z)
One is not merely paying for good sound at the WM1Z’s current price, but also for a complete product experience. Compared to the MDR-Z1R unboxing, the NW-WM1Z unboxing was bland at best. A cardboard box with paper inserts doesn’t quite cut it. At the very least, the box should’ve been a derivative of the Z1R’s full-leather case (with the solid metal clasp). The WM1A’s packaging scrapes by in this regard, but the absence of a carrying case is similarly mystifying. At this pricepoint, it would be nice to see more manufacturers move to include carrying cases with their DAPs.
The case for the WM1Z is well built, but lacking in terms of practicality. It clamps to the top of the player and also has two clips on the bottom for better securement. The flip case design closes magnetically at the top of the DAP. This implementation of the flip case (vertical) is impractical and reduces the already strained ergonomics of the device, especially for the heavy WM1Z. With the top flap hanging, the bulky player is even more difficult to handle, and also brings up yet another point regarding the NW-WM1Z’s design. In what can only be described as a rather egregious design error, there is a cutout at the bottom of the case for the wrist strap, but none for the charging port. Having to flip open the case to charge the player occupies a lot of desk real estate, and is annoying. In general, a form-fitting case with a couple of screen protectors would’ve been the far more elegant solution.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The build quality on the NW-WM1Z and the NW-WM1A is excellent. The metal chassis is solid, and with the NW-WM1Z there is a very real sense of holding a brick –at a price, of course (no pun intended). The weight of the WM1Z poses a challenge, and will test the dedication of even the most serious enthusiasts. The screen quality for both players is decent DAP-wise, though it is far from being a high quality LCD. Contrast ratio, while not published, is average at best and backlighting definitely shows through in darker conditions. Use in direct sunlight is suboptimal but survivable.
As far as industrial design goes the NW-WM1Z/A has a fairly coherent sense of what it wants to achieve. Apart from the weight of the NW-WM1Z (sorry, it is just very apparent in daily use), the DAP strikes an excellent mix of functionality and aesthetics. Invoking Occam’s Razor as a general guideline to solving the apparently complex issue of modern DAP design, one could comfortably arrive at the NW-WM1Z/A. Abandoning sharp and complex edges favored by other competitors, or the multitude of buttons that come plastered on yet others, the NW-WM1Z provides a balanced layout of tactile physical buttons and touch screen functionality. Examination of the initially perplexing number of buttons on the right side of the player quickly reveals that there is indeed order in its chaos. The power button is conveniently located at the top corner directly under the curved edge, making it impossible to miss. Beneath it are the volume control buttons, which can be quickly located via a raised dot on the + button. Further below is a second set of playback buttons, which can be located via another raised dot on the play/pause. This system of tactile identification makes for very quick navigation with a little bit of corresponding muscle memory. To make things even easier, the flip case does come with notches above the buttons with the raised dots.
As mentioned before, the device is very pleasant in the hand, and the chamfered edges are a welcome change from the edgy designs favored by many higher-end DAP manufacturers. The metal finish is a nice satin polish on the WM1Z. However, the WM1A trades this nice finish for a somewhat rough looking brushed metal one on the flat panels of the player. The textured faux-leather glued to the back of the player works surprisingly well, and is also indicative of the player’s ability to run at fairly cool temperatures. The only time that the player did approach being slightly warm was when it was played during a charge. Despite a lot of things being done right on the WM1A/Z, there are definitely some shortcomings as well. Once again, both players feature the frustrating Walkman proprietary connection –which complicates everyday use, and makes a spare proprietary cable a necessity. The inclusion of only a single microSD expansion slot is likewise a missed opportunity. With the WM1Z and a single 200 GB microSD, a total of 456 GB of storage can be achieved. Similarly, maximum current storage for the WM1A is 328 GB. Understanding that this will be a primary playback source for some (especially in the portable community), and acknowledging the rapid development of microSD cards (and their increasing affordability), it would seem that the WM1Z/WM1A could soon be outclassed storage wise. This will be especially true for those whose libraries are comprised largely of DSD content.
There are several small differences between the two players. As stated above, the WM1Z features 256 GB of internal storage, while the WM1A only has 128 GB of internal storage. Perhaps the most distinct difference between the two is a gold-plated OFC chassis on the WM1Z, which stands in stark contrast to the black aluminum chassis on the WM1A. Internally, headphone jack wiring on the WM1Z features a braided Kimber cable, whereas the WM1A employs a more standard OFC. The WM1Z also features just a couple more “Fine Sound Register” resistors than the WM1A.
At the time of writing, I was equipped with firmware version 1.00. Despite initial confusion regarding the nature of the OS, Sony’s official webpage now states that the OS found on both players is a Sony Original OS. Overall, the UI feels slow, with a half-second to second delay between simple touch gestures and a broken “smooth” scroll. On the positive side, the UI is fairly uncluttered, free from the odd functionalities of the cheaper Sony players (noise cancelling, radio, etc.) One of the obvious drawbacks to the non-Android OS is the lack of wi-fi support. This severely limits the flexibility and development options for the players, precluding any form of streaming and even DLNA-based activity.
From Left To Right: Home Screen, Volume Control
The volume dial can be accessed by clicking the volume bar.
From Left To Right: Various Available Playback Screens
Album Art, Spectrum Analyzer, Analog Meter
Both players are equipped with a wide range of DSP functionalities, but unlike the NW-ZX2, they can be disabled fairly quickly via the enabling of Direct Sound mode. This is indeed a very positive thing, as there were many users and long-time fans of the ZX2 who did not appreciate the “hard” implementation of DSP into the player . A 10-band equalizer provides decent EQ capability, though AK’s implementation of equalization is by far more comprehensive and customizable. DSEE HX returns, performing general upscaling, with five variations on the theme: standard, female, male, strings, and percussion. DC Phase Linearizer was originally introduced in Sony’s hifi systems to handle phase linearity issues in the lower frequencies (30-50 Hz) caused by amp-speaker interactions. It now finds itself in the WM1Z/A, though its necessity as a correction method as opposed to a means of sound flavoring is debatable. Dynamic normalizer minimizes volume differences between tracks. I personally turned most of these special effects off in day-to-day use.
From Left To Right: DSP Screens
Equalizer, DSEE HX, DC Phase Linearizer, Dynamic Normalizer
TECH AND SPECIFICATIONS
This time around, Sony has put in a fair bit of effort into creating a well-performing player with good specifications. Though they were tight-lipped about the output impedance on the two players, I’ve measured both devices and found that the output impedances for the WM1Z and the WM1A are 0.94 ohms and 0.92 ohms respectively -excellent news for regular IEM users. Power output has also been increased, making the WM1Z/WM1A far more competitive and versatile in comparison to their underpowered predecessor, the NW-ZX2. In high gain mode, the player output close to 1.926 V into 15 ohms per channel via its balanced output (measured with 1 kHz signal), providing a output power of close 247 mW into 15 ohms. This is slightly less than the published 250 mW into 15 ohms. In high gain mode, the player output 0.937 V into 15 ohms per channel via its single ended output, providing a output power of 58.5 mW into 15 ohms (once again, 1 kHz signal).
Battery life is certainly commendable, varying between 20-22+ hours for 24/192 playback @ 100 mV into a 16 ohm load. However, regular screen usage can severely reduce this lifespan. Thus far, I have encountered no significant issues with formatting, though all files needs to be stored in the a folder labelled “music” in the microSD’s root directory in order to be read by the player. Reformatting can be carried out on the player, but unlike the Supermini’s built-in reformatting does not corrupt microSD cards (good news). Most high resolution formats are supported, with the sole exception being .ape. Native DSD support is also finally available, though it is frustratingly limited to the balanced output only! This simply doesn’t make sense for such an expensive player, and generally speaking a user should have full access to the functionalities within the player without being limited in such a blatant manner. Read speeds are fast, and USB mass storage functionality is available. For Mac users, this will come as a huge relief seeing that Android File Transfer will not involved for file transfers. For the record, I hate Android File Transfer -it is a sad excuse of a program.
*In fact, the WM1Z/A have no issues with 32/384 playback, but I’ve got to fix the table (aka lazy).
@earfonia recently required a new audio analyzer, and we’ve had the chance to examine the inner workings of the player in greater depth. Thanks! Fortunately, both players came through fairly well, and do have good SNR and THD measurements. It’s really very interesting to be able to gauge performance in such solid metrics, and is definitely something worth taking a closer look at.
At A Glance
The WM1Z features a richer signature with an enhanced bass section. I hesitate to make this comparison –but the WM1Z is sort of like a MDR-Z1R in DAP form (also one of the reasons why I do indeed prefer the WM1A-Z1R pairing). The bass is fuller with more body and a slightly slower decay, and once again the ever so subtle diffuseness makes a return. Midrange sounds marginally more recessed, and doesn’t have the same certainty as that of the WM1A. It’s just not as clear nor as powerful. Upper end extension is more or less on equal footing, with similar levels of articulation and a generally crisp texture. In some ways, the diffuseness that is sometimes present on the WM1Z weakens the textural quality of the DAP’s sound, and reduces perceived detail retrieval at times. Both players feature good soundstage and spectacular imaging, with the latter easily being among the top in its class.
Now, to root ourselves in reality and to provide context to the above statements –to perceive a lot of the differences described above, a concentrated listening effort was required. As I have mentioned in the past, the differences between DAPs when described in reviews may seem rather significant. However, I can assure you that the differences are several orders of magnitude smaller than the differences brought about by a change in transducers. While I do recognize that there are instances where a huge difference can be perceived –Sony NW-A25 I’m looking at you, the gap between most decently performing players is easily closed by environmental conditions. Between ToTL players, these differences are even less obvious, and we are really nitpicking in certain situations. Then again, at $3,999 SGD, nitpicking is most certainly in order for a product like the NW-WM1Z. Because I feel that there is certainly more to a flagship DAP purchase than pure sonic qualities (and yes, I acknowledge that for some sonics will be all), I will also examine the feature set found on these players in order to provide a more holistic assessment of these devices.
The AK 380 is the first serious competitor to be put against the NW-WM1Z. Sonically, both players err towards a “softer” sound. Of the two, the WM1Z sounds more present and features better dynamics. Lower frequencies are less tight on the WM1Z, but there is still good impact and an overall sense of being far more involving. Mids are clearer on the AK380, and upper-end extension and articulation are more or less on par for the two devices. Soundstage is similar, but the imaging on the NW-WM1Z is better. I would say that the AK380 for those who enjoy a more “disinterested” source with better air and general clarity. While this may not be a particularly elegant description -the AK380 feels rather detached in its presentation at times. As a final note, I personally preferred the WM1A to both the WM1Z and AK380 on the account that it was sonically crisper and more impactful, with slightly better inflection overall.
Design wise, both players excel at the integration of physical and touch functions, though one has far too many buttons on the side and the other far too many edges. I guess this is truly a case of picking your poison. Of the two, the WM1Z/A can claim to be pocketable, whereas the oddly shaped shadow-inspired silhouette of sharp edges (aka the AK380) isn’t. Anyways, there are no major flaws in this regard. Both UI’s were generally slow (see thebit’s DAPs), but the WM1Z definitely felt more sluggish, especially when it came to “smooth” scrolling. In terms of functionality, the AK380 features extensive networking and server support, and its ability to handle Wi-Fi certainly increases its flexibility as a system component greatly. EQ is also more extensively implemented on the AK380, though fans of Sony’s DSP would be hard-pressed to find something similar. Battery life is most certainly better on the Sony players than on the AK380.
The final count will ultimately fall on whether the user requires a device that focuses more or less entirely on music playback, or a one that can act as a integrated system component with flexibility in the form of wi-fi features. However, while sonics is more or less on par (and will fall on personal preference), the potential functionality of the DAPs is not, and its hard not to feel that the lack of wi-fi support was indeed a bit of a missed opportunity for the WM1Z/WM1A.
Lotoo Paw Gold
The Lotoo Paw Gold is a rather different device when compared to the NW-WM1Z. Form factor is the first and most obvious difference. Whereas the WM1Z is a fairly sleek device, the LPG looks like it came straight out of a H.R. Geiger concept sketch. However, upon closer examination, both devices do have a heavy focus on pure music playback and sonics. Of the two, the LPG has better sound quality, and the difference is apparent. The nuances and microdetail retrieval levels on the LPG exceed that on both the WM1Z and the WM1A. On track’s like Daft Punk’s Fragments of Time, you can hear the fingers contacting the fingerboard clearly, and it is brought out in a very in-your-face manner. I like the brisk presentation of the LPG, and this would be my choice if cost was no object. In the WM1Z/WM1A’s defense, both players have better soundstage and imaging than the LPG, and are less forward (dare I say aggressive) in their portrayal of sound. I do find the LPG could potentially be just a bit fatiguing especially with the wrong pairings.
The Lotoo Paw Gold has much better output power, but once again comes down in terms of battery life. I feel that if one’s focus is only on pure sonics, the LPG would be the way to go. However, it is hard to deny the immense convenience of the WM1Z/WM1A as an overall music delivery package, and if we consider a player’s overall usability into the balance of this comparison, I would still say that the WM1Z/ WM1A is the better of the two options.
I had the opportunity to test the Fiio X7 with the AM1 module in the course of this review. I’m personally not a big fan of the Fiio signature, and so you may consider me to be somewhat more biased in this sense. Generally speaking, the X7 doesn’t sound as smooth as either of the two players, and on certain tracks did come off as a little thin. Sonically, it doesn’t sound as refined, and while it excels in soundstage and detail retrieval, it almost feels slightly forced. Also, there seems to be a slight grain to the sound. In comparison, the WM1A traverses most of these points with ease, and it does indeed come off as being a “next” level DAP.
With the various amp modules now being rolled out, the X7 does have huge potential for improvement. It also lends the player a whole lot more flexibility, and in this sense those interested in modifying their sound will be may find themselves rewarded. Furthermore, the wifi support on the X7 once again comes into play, and it also features other functionalities such as USB-DAC and the like. For those concerned with DSD playback, the X7 will only support up to DSD128. For myself, I feel that the X7 is an excellent all around device, but the sonic qualities of the Sony players easily win me over.
The Opus#2 was not exactly the most standout comparison in this review. Of all the players, it sounded rather thin, and while this did give it a greater sense of air and separation, it came at the cost of weaker performance in the bass section, and it simply did not strike me as particularly impressive. Part of the reason why the Opus#2 finds itself in this position is because of its significantly increased pricing when compared to the Opus#1. It is no longer a value proposition, and a reimplementation of the Opus#1’s signature with slight improvements is not going to make the cut, especially not when considering the rather large corresponding increase in price.
The new Sony players are very complete packages, and as far as DAPs go, are well-thought through. The UI is still rough around the edges, but this could potentially change with future software support from Sony. While it does lack in terms of connectivity and networking features, the WM1Z and the WM1A are certainly extremely solid offerings as music playback devices. They sound great, and with increased output power and good specs, are definitely highly competitive in today’s DAP market. For me, the greatest take away was the NW-WM1A, which offers a good bang for the buck as far as being reasonably priced and sounding good goes. The elusive NW-WM1Z on the other hand will remain a holy grail for most, but it is comforting to know that there is an “endgame” option available for those willing to go the ends of the world for sonic performance.