Audio

Sony Signature Series - top quality sound at a price

Sony's TA-ZH1ES amplifier, NW-WM1Z gold-plated Walkman audio player and the MDR-Z1R headphones (above), and the NW-WM1A (below).
Sony's TA-ZH1ES amplifier, NW-WM1Z gold-plated Walkman audio player and the MDR-Z1R headphones (above), and the NW-WM1A.PHOTOS: SONY
Sony's TA-ZH1ES amplifier, NW-WM1Z gold-plated Walkman audio player and the MDR-Z1R headphones (above), and the NW-WM1A (below).
Sony's TA-ZH1ES amplifier, NW-WM1Z gold-plated Walkman audio player and the MDR-Z1R headphones, and the NW-WM1A (above).PHOTOS: SONY

Headphones, amplifier and two high-end Walkman audio players - the setup can cost up to $9,600

Quality sound demands an appropriate price point. At least, that's what Sony is setting out to achieve with its latest and grandest offering to audiophiles with its Signature Series, which comes at a price tag ordinary consumers will baulk at.

The top-of-the-line audio offerings in the Signature Series include two high-end flagship Walkman audio players, a headphone amplifier and a pair of closed-back headphones.

They are all designed to complement each other in a high-end home audio setup for personal listening. The entire setup can cost up to $9,600 - a price tag that's nothing to sneeze at, but will not faze audiophiles who are prepared to plonk down a substantial sum in their quest for quality sound.

WALKMAN

First in line in the series are the NW-WM1A and NW-WM1Z Walkman digital audio players.

Both are functionally identical, with the main difference between them being in the build material of the external chassis and internal wiring.

The top-of-the-line audio offerings in the Signature Series are all designed to complement each other in a high-end home audio setup for personal listening. 

The NW-WM1Z comes with a gold-plated copper chassis, which provides greater acoustic clarity, while the NW-WM1A is constructed out of a sturdy aluminium chassis.

These differences, however, account for a $2,400 price gap between the two, with the NW-WM1Z going for almost $4,000, compared with the NW-WM1A's $1,599.

The sound difference between the two players escapes my ears, although audiophiles who are more serious than I am say they find the gold-plated copper variant produces more natural tones.

As high-resolution audio players, both support all sorts of high-resolution formats such as FLAC, Apple Lossless and also Direct Stream Digital, one of the highest-resolution formats for audio.

  • MDR-Z1R TECH SPECS

    PRICE: $2,599

    DRIVER DIAMETER: 70mm

    FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 4Hz - 120kHz

    WEIGHT: 385g (without cable)

    RATING

    FEATURES: 5/5

    DESIGN: 5/5

    PERFORMANCE: 5/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    OVERALL: 5/5

  • WALKMAN TECH SPECS

    PRICE: $1,599 (NW-WM1A), $3,999 (NW-WM1Z)

    SUPPORTED FORMATS: MP3, WMA, FLAC, Linear PCM, AAC, HE-AAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF, DSD Native (up to 11.2MHz)

    WEIGHT: 267g (NW-WM1A), 455g (NW-WM1Z)

    RATING

    FEATURES: 5/5

    DESIGN: 5/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

  • TA-ZH1ES TECH SPECS

    PRICE: $2,999

    OUTPUT IMPEDANCE: 8-600 ohms

    RATING

    FEATURES: 5/5

    DESIGN: 5/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

Newcomers to high-resolution audio who are still toting a library of compressed MP3 files don't lose out either, as both Walkmans feature what Sony calls DSEE-HX upscaling.

This technology recreates the higher sound frequencies that get lost in compression and brings such tracks back to high-resolution quality, leading to more clarity, detail and presence.

I tested this with both an MP3 and a FLAC version of the opening number to the musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton. The upscaling expanded the soundscape noticeably on a good pair of headphones, giving the ensemble more depth and detail.

Both players support Bluetooth as well and are capable of wirelessly pushing remarkably clear and skip-free high-res audio tracks to my wireless headphones and portable speakers in a fuss-free manner.

The gold-plated Walkman is very hefty, weighing almost half a kilogram - which makes it unlikely to be a portable player you would want to take out. The NW-WM1A, however, is light enough to carry out, although it is still pretty bulky.

My only gripe with the Walkman lies in the software. There is a bit of lag when scrolling through the different menus, and it also sometimes takes a while for the system to register presses.

HEADPHONES

They pair well, of course, with the MDR-Z1R headphones. The fact that it is Sony's most premium headphones - with a price of $2,599 - is apparent the moment I put them on, due to the combination of its all-metal construction and distinctive design of the earcups.

While Sony brands them as closed- back headphones, the spiral design of the earcup's grille gives them an open acoustic quality, which expands the audio soundscape while keeping them breathable.

The large, generous padding on the earcups seals sound in a cocoon of high-resolution audio and are supremely comfortable even for long stretches of time.

They have huge 70mm drivers - some of the largest in the market. By comparison, most high-end headphones' drivers hover around the 40-60mm range.

These gave some of the most powerful, clearest audio reproduction among headphones I've tried. The bass is resonant and vibrant, while the mids and trebles are crystal clear and smooth.

The headphones are capable of reproducing frequencies of up to 120kHz - six times higher than the normal hearing frequency of human beings. Is that overkill? Probably, and indiscernible to all but the fussiest of audiophiles, but the fact that the headphones can perform at the level means that no detail is lost unnecessarily, creating an intangible aural experience that anyone can enjoy.

Another premium touch to the headphones is the case they come in - a large black satin-lined box. This is where you will want to store them carefully when you're done.

AMPLIFLIER

The last item in the collection is the TA-ZH1ES amplifier, which sits between an audio player and headphones to provide additional power and drive for a more immersive audio experience. Its front panel allows for a variety of output options, such as a XLR4 and balanced channels, which are for cables that reduce audio distortion.

The amplifier's top panel is made of steel and aluminium, designed to reduce vibration and resonance. The internal hybrid amplifier circuit provides finer control over the volume and clarity of music being driven through the headphones.

The benefits of the amplifier lie in how it pushes what is already good audio quality into excellent audio territory. Subtle details like background chimes, strings and vocals are clearer, while the bass gets more oomph and greater body.

It's unlikely that buyers of the Signature Series will have anything better from Sony in the years ahead, as the specs of the devices are as high-end as they can be today.

Serious audiophiles looking to future-proof their collections, or ardent fans of Sony's resurgence in the audio field with cash to spare will want to check out at least one of the devices.

•Verdict: The Signature Series will appeal only to the most ardent of audiophiles with cash to spare, but the payoff over the next few years will be worth the hefty investment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Sony Signature Series - top quality sound at a price'. Print Edition | Subscribe