Sony HAP-Z1ES high-resolution file player
It's now hard to find any place where there aren't people with wires hanging from their ears, and it's difficult to deny those listeners their convenience. Of course, the downloading of files to a computer meant that one could also play them at home through a regular stereo system, despite the fact that, at first, the files were always mercilessly compressed in order to accommodate the limited storage of the little 'Pods. Still, I know of a number of audiophiles who were seduced by the convenience.
Since then, people have been ripping their own CDs into uncompressed LPCM formats like WAV and AIFF or lossless-compressed formats like FLAC and ALAC, and a few began buying uncompressed music files of higher resolutions. For those listeners, Stereophile has been reporting on devices, such as USB DACs, that will support high-definition playback and our colleagues at AudioStream.com cover the wider range of storage, servers, and streamers, in both hardware and software products. In January, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, there was a series of panel discussions about efforts to coordinate the hi-def download business. Perhaps not so surprising is that Sony is a major supporter of this effort.
Two big things are needed in order to bring this about and, hopefully, attract the attention of the wider market for downloaded music, which listens only to compressed files on such portable devices as headphones or computer speakers. The first requirements are the availability of a large number of hi-def files of music and recordings that people actually want to buy, and easily accessible outlets for their distribution. That was the topic of the CES discussions, whose panelists included representatives of the major labels and the prominent audiophile labels. Second, mainstream audio manufacturers need to offer high-quality, simple-to-operate playback devices. With a new product line headed up by the subject of this reviewand the release of many classic recordings remastered as DSD filesSony has taken a bold step in the translation of file-playing from modest mobile devices to high-resolution, high-quality listening in the home.
Basically, the Sony HAP-Z1ES is a music-file player like an iPod, but it improves on Apple's paradigm in every way but portability. First, it can playand enhance the sound ofalmost any format, lossless, or lossy: DSD (DSF, DSDIFF at 2.8 or 5.6MHz), PCM (16-, 24-, or 32-bit at 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, or 192kHz), WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, ATRAC Advanced Lossless, ATRAC, MP3, AAC, and WMA. Second, it has a 1TB hard drive for storage, and supports the attachment of an additional drive via USB. Third, it offers wired and wireless network connectivity to/from your computer, so that you can upload, download, back up, and restore your files, and enjoy Internet radio streaming via vTuner. Fourth, the HAP-Z1ES, which Sony calls a DSD Remastering Engine, can upconvert any digital source to 128fs DSD. And fifth, Sony has included its Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE), which, it says, restores a natural sound to compressed files.
The box I received from Sony contained the HAP-Z1ES and a Sony Xperia tablet, along with documents and accessories. I was surprised by the HAP-Z1ES's 32 lbsit reminded me of a similar experience I had a decade ago with Sony's SCD-XA9000ES SACD/CD player. In both cases, Sony has clearly invested a lot in constructing a remarkably stable and rigid environment; the frame-and-beam chassis with dual-panel baseplate ensures a low center of gravity. That plate sits on specially designed anti-feedback feet. Inside are separate transformers, which isolate the digital and analog power supplies from each other. Most of the other internal components, notably the DSD Remastering Engine board and even the cooling fan, are compliantly mounted to isolate them from each other. The only front-panel knob, used for file navigation, is mounted on an iron plate to ensure rigidity and provide a satisfying feel. Clearly, Sony has spared little in building the HAP-Z1ES.
The front panel is dominated by a bright, clear color display. At the far left are the power button and remote-control receiver window. Immediately to the left of the display is the LED indicating whether DSEE processing is active; to the display's right is the navigation knob, surrounded by three navigation pushbuttons: Home, Back, Enter. To the extreme right is the Play/Pause button. This seems relatively minimal, but I found it effective for all basic operations; with the display's visual feedback, functional control was completely intuitive.
The HAP-Z1ES comes with a remote control that offers On/Off, Play/Pause, Skip Forward/Back, Mute, and Volume Up/Down. It works, but I rarely used it; the front panel served as well, and the Android/iOS application did more and better. Also, I was continually annoyed by the remote's volume controls, which are irrelevant, unless one has a compatible (presumably, Sony) control amp. You can't adjust the volume of the HAP-Z1ES's analog outputs, and therefore can't connect it directly to a power amp or to powered speakers. Too bad.
The rear panel sports, from left to right, stereo XLR and RCA output jacks, an output jack for an IR link, an RJ-45 Ethernet jack, an USB Type A jack for adding external storage, and an IEC power connector.
Installing the HAP-Z1ES was easy. I connected its analog XLR and RCA outputs to stereo inputs on my Audio Research MP1 preamp and powered up the AC. Since the Sony came preloaded with a dozen or so files, I was able to begin listening almost immediately without referring to any of the documentation or accessories.
My first impression was emphatically positive. Although I was familiar with only a few of the preloaded selections, and none are what I would call "modern" recordings, they sounded notably clear and dynamic, often belying their vintage dates. I then connected the HAP-Z1ES to my home network to access some familiar Internet radio sites and had the same positive reaction, regardless of the bit rate (always compressed) at which a given station was operating.
The real purpose of the HAP-Z1ES, however, is to ease and enhance the listener's enjoyment of a large library of music, and for this, one does have to expend a little effort. First, one has to obtain a library of music files, and despite the network connection, one can't do this directly from the Sony. As when using a mobile player, one browses, buys, and downloads the music to a regular computer. Then, with Sony's HAP Music Transfer application, you can select the computer directories/folders that contain the files you want to send to the HAP-Z1ES. You can also flag them "Watch," so that files added to such directories will be uploaded to the HAP-Z1ES, automatically or at your bidding. You can select which formats you want transferred automatically. That said, HAP Music Transfer didn't discriminate between stereo and multichannel files, even though the multichannel ones were grayed out on the HAP-Z1ES's display and couldn't be played.
I downloaded some new files and added them to the music directories on my PC. Even though Sony had provided only a dozen free tracks on the HAP-Z1ES's 1TB drive, I decided not to upload my own library to the review sample. Instead, I took advantage of another important feature of the HAP-Z1ES, which permits the connection of additional storage via USB. First, I plugged a preloaded portable drive into the rear-panel USB port, but the HAP-Z1ES responded with a message on its display asking me to approve the formatting of my USB drive. I've learned that any computer-related device that asks that question is indicating that granting that permission has consequences; I declined. Clearly, Sony has chosen a different format for this additional local storage, and I didn't want to lose what was on that drive. My solution was to use a blank, 75GB portable drive, which the HAP-Z1ES formatted in less than a minute (footnote 1). I selected the option to have HAP Music Transfer put the files from my music library on the external drive. Uploading was quite swift, but it will depend on file size and your network's speed.
I went back to the music systemall the new files were there, integrated (with help from the GraceNote database) into the HAP-Z1ES lists by genre, album, performer, etc. But now the lists were simply too long for the small screen and the manual controls, especially since the scroll control worked opposite to expectation: I turned it clockwise, the cursor went down, and vice versa. Yes, I know, it's analogous to swiping a touchscreenbut it's a knob.
Footnote 1: I later tried to read that drive on my PC, which couldn't recognize it at all. Sony uses a version of the ext file system, created specifically for the Linux kernel. It took the download of new utilities from the drive's manufacturer, elimination of all partitions, and a low-level reformatting to recover normal use of the drive. Lesson learned: Use a drive that you intend to use only with the HAP-Z1ES, unless you use a Linux system.Kalman Rubinson