Introduction and features
Sony’s NW-ZX100HN is the middle child in the renowned audio company’s brand new lineup of high resolution audio players. Although not the first portable HRA player to come to market, at £500 the ZX100HN has been aggressively-priced to combat the likes of Acoustic Research’s M-2, Pioneer’s XDP-100R and other devices from Astell & Kern.
Let’s be honest here, there’s few manufacturers out there that can draw on such a phenomenal legacy as Sony when it comes to portable audio devices. Without them, July 1, 1979 would have just been another boring day where it not for the introduction of the very first Walkman.
But the world has changed since the time of Van Halen and The Beegees.
Since those days we’ve seen both incredible advancements, and shocking falls; audio quality has taken a serious hit, for the sake of convenience and file size, in the ever ending war to fit 30,000 songs on an iPod.
However there’s a change in the winds. Long gone are the days of poorly compressed MP3s and AAC files. The public is starting to crave better quality and, more importantly, they’re starting to crave higher resolution audio. It’s something they can’t get from their phones, or off the back off a bundled pair of earbuds.
Welcome then to 2016, the year of HRA, MQA and tracks that provide a truly divine listening experience. As long as you’re willing to pay of course.
But we know what you’re thinking, the kind of experiences we’re talking about have often been reserved for the audiophiles amongst us. Those who would and could happily drop £15,000 on the latest HiFi stack and pair of electrostatic headphones, all in the sake of indulging their acoustic addictions.
So how does Sony’s NW-ZX100HN bring those attitudes to a more mainstream audience?
Straight out of the box the NW-ZX100HN feels like a bit of a blast from the past. It forsakes what’s almost become the traditional Android operating system for these devices in favour of Sony’s stock Walkman software instead.
It’s like going back in time to 2008 and picking up one of Sony’s Walkman phones.
Interestingly the likeness to that bygone age doesn’t stop there. The 400 x 240 pixel screen does provide a clear image and a vivid menu system to access your way around the various audio settings, bluetooth connectivity and music library. However it does further bring home that antiquated feel.
And although there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, when you have the likes of Pioneer’s XDP-100R nipping at Sony’s heels, it’s a decision we can’t help but question.
What this old-school technology does provide you with though is a phenomenal battery life. According to Sony, the NW-ZX100HN can playback HRA files for up to 45 hours on a single charge. And certainly in our testing even after leaving it to sit on standby for an age, we noticed absolutely no drop in charge at all.
When it comes to audio componentry, Sony has gone out of their way to ensure that all of your HRA needs are sated.
The low dielectric PCB situated at the heart of the player ensures the lowest possible electromagnetic interference providing you with a far smoother sound. The fully aluminium frame, keeps the system incredibly rigid and the circuit board secure.
Even the solder has been specially designed for “reduced noise and improved sound frequency.” Snake oil? Maybe, but what really matters here is the support. The ZX100HN can play everything from MP3, WAV, WMA, AAC, AIFF, ALAC, HE-AAC, FLAC and even DSD all the way up to 192 KHz files.
Couple that with a meaty 128GB internal storage, and a Micro SD slot for optional expansion, and you’re more than set to enjoy all of your favourite tracks in whatever quality they’re stored in.
Overall though the aesthetic design is a little odd. As we mentioned earlier it feels almost antiquated in a lot of ways. Despite it’s relatively small size the ZX100HN is just plain bulky. There are no straight lines or defining curves like we’ve seen from others contenders, instead we’re greeted with a bulky, heavy-handed silver finish. It just looks a little old fashioned for our liking.
Quality of sound however is great.
There’s a real depth to it, the bass tones are strong but not overpowering, the mids retain their signature crunch and there’s very little impact on the upper treble. In a blind test we couldn’t tell the difference between our dedicated Denon DA-300USB DAC and this little portable powerhouse. The sound is that crisp and well balanced.
On top of that Sony has also included two unique software based processing technologies in the form of ClearAudio+ and DSEE HX. The latter of which acts only as up-sampling, taking your MP3s and upscaling them to “HRA quality” through its techie magic. We’re pretty dubious on this one, in our experience it just seemed to add a small degree of reverb to the treble and vocal ranges, only widening that range fractionally. Although yes, that might give it an edge in the audio clarity department, to say that it’s as good as a HRA track is pushing it.
ClearAudio+ on the other hand is a full digital processing system.
During playback, simply pressing the option button and tapping down to the ClearAudio+ options allows you to disable and enable this feature. In our experience we found having this enabled increased the emphasis on the bass, whilst also pumping up the treble at the high end.
Think of it as THX’s Crystalizer tech made manifest on a portable walkman.
The audiophiles among you will no doubt be turning your nose up at this point, as this isn’t the way the original tracks were intended to be recorded, and we agree with you there. Although each instrument and vocal track sounds far rounder than before, it takes away the warmth from each song.
Other criticisms lie in the fact it’s not very loud. Good music should be appreciated at all sorts of volumes, but it lacks the overall amplification power of something like the AR M-2.
Battery life is great though, and it does very much hark back to how smart devices used to work in olden times. Left in a cupboard for over 4 weeks and this thing still has full charge.
The Micro SD expansion is a nice addition too. The overall build quality of the device is fantastic, and well put together, the materials used are sleek. The sand blasted aluminium is gorgeous and soft to the touch and the rubber back is a smart idea to ensure less slippage.
The biggest problem is the overall aesthetic design, as we said earlier it just looks a little too old fashioned.
Ultimately Sony’s NW-ZX100HN left us a little confused.
Don’t get us wrong it’s a great-sounding device, capable of pumping out some class act audio, especially with a good pair of headphones like Oppo’s PM-3s or Beyerdynamic’s DT 1770 Pros. But the fact it lacks all the versatility available from Android’s operating system has left us wanting.
In today’s world, having access to streaming services such as Tidal via WiFi is a fantastic addition for any high end HRA player. And for that reason alone, the fact that Sony’s reserved that only for its flagship model leaves the ZX100HN out in the dark without a light.
The overall feel and weight of the device is great. Although whether you like the style will depend entirely on your personal taste, for us it does feel a little old school. And on top of that the screen and response times for some menus can fall a bit flat.
That being said all of Sony’s decisions here have created a stunningly efficient portable music player. The fact that you can go 44 hours on a single charge listening to HRA music tracks is phenomenal (75 with standard MP3s). It makes us pine for the days when phones used to last that long.
The sound quality here is exceptional, especially for a device at this price point and form factor. The soundscape is broad, the treble strong and the bass powerful – yet not overpowering enough to stifle the mid-range.
The battery life beggars belief and having access to 128GB internal storage with the option for even more via the Micro SD slot being exceptionally well thought out.
The on board audio processing features, although they sound interesting in theory, in practice they truly distort how the musicians intended you listen to these tracks. It’s the equivalent of taking a photo of Picasso’s Le Rêve, then adding an Instagram filter and retouching it in Photoshop.
Yes it might look better by today’s standards, but It just shouldn’t be done.
The fact it comes with a proprietary micro-USB 2.0 cable is another niggle. Seriously, how hard would it have been to stay with the traditional form factor here?
On top of that the antiquated style of this device, lack of connectivity options, and generally low resolution display just makes it feel a little dated in contrast to some of the competition out there. It’s also a little too quiet for our liking as well.
Sony’s NW-ZX100HN is a well thought out piece of hardware, yet there’s just too many niggles for us to be completely happy with how it’s turned out. The sound quality is great, but the overall lack of usability, and streaming capacity really holds it back, keeping it pinned in the last decade.