Just how much would you audiophiles pay for a portable music player?
That seems to be the question that Sony is posing with its recently unveiled NW-WM1Z Walkman that’s drawn so much surprise and envy that it’s sure to attract the very rich and the very obsessed, though they are not always the same.
The price tag on the S$3,999 player instantly keeps away casual hobbyists and exudes the sort of snob appeal that high-end audio gear needs to sell at exorbitant prices.
Then, there’s the gold plated, all-copper frame that makes the player, all of 455g, heavier than any portable gadget you’d usually hold in your hand.
Even for someone who loves high-end audio gear, I find it hard to justify a player this expensive. Its cost alone can buy you a decent sound system, with an amp plus either a pair of speakers or headphones.
So, the question I had when I first fired up the player was whether it was perfect. It had to be since it costs more than twice the next Sony player in line, the S$1,599 NW-WM1A that replaces last year’s NW-ZX2 player.
Sadly, I’d say it’s not twice as good. The law of diminishing returns always applies in hi-fi and Sony’s new flagship player might find it hard to justify its price tag.
Okay, the cheaper NW-WM1A model doesn’t come with fancy Kimble Kable internal wiring that the NW-WM1Z comes with. Again, the question is whether there’s a real-world difference.
When I tried out last year’s NW-ZX2 with a cheaper but well-made player, I had to listen carefully to hear the difference.
Between the top two flagships today from Sony, I’d say go for the cheaper one because I couldn’t make out the difference clearly enough to justify the huge gap in prices.
Until now, I’ve not even talked about the quality of the audio. Make no mistake, the NW-WM1Z flagship sounds amazing. The detail it extracts and the control it has over sonic material are things you’d delight in once you fire up a track.
I listened to a range of music including jazz vocals, rock and rap and the player never fails to keep pace with the speed of a track. It is neutral sounding, letting the headphones you have on keep their character.
I plugged the NW-WM1Z into Sony’s TA-ZH1ES headphone amplifier in its premium range and the audio signature varied when I heard the same tracks on Sony’s MDR-Z1R headphones and on my own Beyerdynamic T1s.
The Sony cans had a bit more bass, as is the company’s signature, while the Beyerdynamic cans were more transparent and airy, which were more to my liking.
In both cases, the NW-WM1Z (and the Sony amp) didn’t colour the sound so much that the headphones were unrecognisable from their original intended signatures.
Playing back a Stacey Kent track from Breakfast on the Morning Tram, I could clearly make out the triangles and high notes. There’s more sparkle, however, on the Beyerdynamic T1s.
With Japanese jazz singer Megumi Fujino’s English album Night Pieces, you can make out the fine detail of the tracks as well.
Each draw of breath and each syllable of a word from her and Jun Satsuma on his guitar are clear and pronounced, without the edgy, brittle or grainy over-emphasis you sometimes get on inferior players.
At the same time, the bass is certainly not lacking when the Walkman is called upon to deliver, say, with the Inception soundtrack, which features dramatic peaks and troughs.
Speaking of that, what about classical music? Again, the NW-WM1Z draws out detail well, creating an imaginary sound stage when a large performance is required.
Separation is superb as well. With my Beyerdynamic cans, I don’t worry about one part of a performance being drowned out by other competing instruments.
While I still think it’s too expensive, the new NW-WM1Z has some useful new features that weren’t in last year’s player.
The most important for me isn’t the gold-plating and bulking up but the single balanced 4.4mm jack and the amp that now powers even large headphones like Sony’s own MDR-Z1R.
Even for large cans you wouldn’t usually carry around, the new Walkman acquits itself very well, indeed. There isn’t a huge loss in quality even when the large headphones are driven directly by the player.
Perhaps a little less slam in the bass, yes. Then again, that’s not a big thing for users like me who prefer less emphasis on the low-end because it can be fatiguing after a while.
Okay, what about the physical look and feel of the player? Surely, the looks matter, right? Well, I’d say Sony has played its cards right with the hefty chunk of metal. It knows the target audience.
Yet, while I like some heft in audio gear, I’d perhaps not ask for this much on a portable player. Hang on, is the NW-WM1Z meant to be carried around?
I ask not just because it’s heavy. In a dodgy neighbourhood, I’d worry about flashing a gold watch – I don’t have one – so I’d be wary of showing off my new Sony Walkman as well.
Otherwise, I’d like to say the the controls are well machined in. The hold or lock button on the left has a nice textured feel. And the playback controls on the right are large and easy to reach.
I’d just like Sony to work harder on the software interface. The company has dumped Android and gone with its own software but unfortunately, it’s a little laggy.
There seems to be a brief pause whenever you want it to do something. Yes, we are spoilt by other touch-screen devices, and the Sony interface isn’t a deal breaker but surely, a player costing this much has to be perfect.
After all, the rest of the hardware is near perfect. The 4-inch screen itself has a sharp-enough 854 x 480 resolution that’s handy. That’s keeping in mind that the player has to balance sharpness with extending battery life to the maximum of 30 hours with lossless tracks.
Another piece of good news is the player’s stated 256GB capacity (or about 230GB available for songs). It lets you keep your entire FLAC/WAV lossless library on the Walkman (I have 196GB of songs myself). If that’s not enough, you can pop in a microSD card.
Needless to say, Sony’s flagship player also supports all your latest music formats. It plays DSD Native (11.2 MHz), along with popular lossless options such as WAV, FLAC and AIFF. You also get Bluetooth, if you wish to play back tracks on your wireless headphones.
To be honest, it’s hard not to like the NW-WM1Z from Sony. Well, except the price. Sure, in a free market, you’re free to pick something else if you don’t want to or can’t spend S$4,000 on a music player.
And this is just Sony saying this is the best it can put together, which is great. However, the new player is also ostentatious, even by the standards of the self-absorbed hi-fi world.
As a result, I find it hard to recommend the new flagship player because there’s something else from Sony – the NW-WM1A – that frankly sounds just as great.
Unless, of course, you want to be a collector. In that case, you’re buying the gold-plated NW-WM1Z more as a luxury item that others can’t afford than a high-performing music player.