Sony DMP-Z1 digital music player

Apple may not have been the first to market with a portable digital audio player, but its original iPod defined the genre: a device small enough to fit into a shirt pocket. When companies like Acoustic Research, Astell&Kern, Fiio, HiFiMan, and Questyle introduced portable players that could play high-resolution files, they echoed the iPod's form factor. The exception was the Toblerone-shaped PonoPlayer, but even that was small. The subject of this review is another exception: The DMP-Z1, from Sony's Signature Series, is comparatively enormous—almost the size and weight of a regular preamplifier. At $8500, it's also considerably more expensive than other players.

A Walkman?
The last high-resolution music player from Sony we reviewed was the HAP-Z1ES ($2000), which Kalman Rubinson wrote about favorably in May 2014; that player is intended to be used in a conventional system. The DMP-Z1 is described on Sony's website as a Walkman—though perhaps it's more of a SitInTheLimoMan. Either way, it's an elegant-looking piece of kit finished mostly in gloss black, with a color touchscreen in the center of its top panel.


Dominating the DMP-Z1's front panel is a large, mega-bling, gold-plated brass volume-control knob— a window in the top panel reveals even more of the knob. At the front edge of the top panel, between the volume control and the window, are three buttons: Track Backward, Play/Pause—this has a raised stud in the center so you can find it without looking—and Track Forward. To the Volume knob's right is another button; pressing and holding it for four seconds turns on the DMP-Z1. To the knob's left are two headphone outputs: conventional single-ended stereo on a 3.5mm jack, and balanced stereo on Sony's 0.17" Balanced-Standard jack. These can be set to Normal or High Gain (+6dB).

The rear panel has a USB-C port and a 19.5V DC jack for charging the DMP-Z1's internal battery. (The percentage of battery charge is shown at the top right of the touchscreen.) The player's 256GB of internal storage can be supplemented with two microSD cards, their mounting slots concealed under a hinged panel on the player's left side. When you connect the DMP-Z1 to a host computer with USB, the player asks if you want to turn on USB Mass Storage. Touching "OK" mounts the internal storage drive on your computer's screen. To copy music files to the DMPZ1, Sony recommends their Music Center for PC app, or drag'n'dropping content with Windows Explorer. Mac users can simply copy files using the Finder. When you turn off USB Mass Storage, the message "Creating Database" appears on the Sony's screen, followed by the player's Library screen.

Playing music
Other than the four physical buttons, everything is controlled with the DMP-Z1's touchscreen. The Library screen shows what music is stored on the player; the library can be sorted by "All Songs," "Album," "Artist," "Genre," "Release Year," "Composer," "Playlists," and "Hi-Res." This screen also allows the user to select the USB DAC and Bluetooth Receiver functions. When a song is playing, the screen in Standard mode shows the cover art and song info. Other modes are Spectrum Analyzer (octave bands plus a couple extra) and Analog Level Meter. The Library screen can be accessed when a song is playing by swiping down and exited by swiping up. Songs can be bookmarked or added to a playlist.

Inside the box
Following the DMP-Z1's premiere at the Hong Kong Advanced Audiovisual Exhibition in the summer of 2018, Rafe Arnott previewed it on our InnerFidelity website. According to Rafe, the DMP-Z1 uses a pair of Asahi Kasei Microdevices AK4497EQ DAC chips, a 32-bit part operating with PCM data at sample rates up to 768kHz, and DSD data sampled at up to 22.4MHz. The AK4497EQ features what AKM calls Velvet Sound technology, which appears to be high-current capability, and also offers six choices for the reconstruction filter, these operating with 32-bit precision. Sony labels these filters Sharp, Slow, Short Delay Sharp, Short Delay Slow, Super Slow, and Low Dispersion Short Delay. A filter is selected by pressing the toolbox icon in the bottom right of the touchscreen, then Output Settings and DAC Filtering Selection. When a different filter is chosen, the player mutes for a few seconds as the new filter coefficients are loaded, then resumes play.

The DMP-Z1 offers a variety of DSP functions: a 10-band graphic equalizer; bass, midrange, and treble tone controls; DSEE HX, which upsamples lossy-compressed and CD-definition data; DSD Remastering, which transcodes PCM data to 5.6MHz DSD; a Dynamic Normalizer, which minimizes loudness differences for different tracks; and a Vinyl Processor—this last said to produce "rich sound that is close to the playback from a vinyl record on a turntable." As well as a standard setting, Vinyl Processor can be customized with adjustments for surface noise, tonearm resonance, and turntable resonance. Purists like me can bypass all these options, other than DSD Remastering, by selecting "Direct Source (Direct)." For playback of DSD files there are two ultrasonic-rolloff filter options and gain settings of 0 and –3dB, the latter recommended to avoid clipping.

The headphone outputs use high-performance Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 chips, which I last saw in Music Hall's ph25.2 headphone amplifier, reviewed by Sam Tellig in May 2010. The internal wiring is all sourced from Kimber Kable.

I don't have headphones fitted with Sony's Balanced-Standard TRRS jack plug, so for my auditioning I used the 3.5mm stereo output jack. When you plug in a pair of headphones, the DMP-Z1 mutes and an orange light on its top panel illuminates. The player is unmuted by turning the Volume knob to its minimum position and back again, or by waiting a few seconds. I didn't need to use the player's High Gain mode with the low-impedance Audeze LCD-X and AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, though it did help with the high-impedance Sennheiser HD 650s.

As the Sony has two slots for microSD cards, I first tried to play familiar music files stored on two cards I'd been using with my PonoPlayer: a 16GB PNY and a 64GB SanDisk Ultra Plus. However, the DMP-Z1 couldn't find the files on these cards. When I looked at the manual to see what I was doing wrong, I found this: "Use a microSD card that has been formatted on the player. Sony does not guarantee the operation of other microSD cards." I reformatted the cards with the DMP-Z1—it uses the FAT32 file system—and recopied the music files to them from my laptop. Still no joy. Farther down the relevant page of the manual it says, "Sony does not guarantee the operation of all types of compatible microSD cards with the player." Perhaps that was the problem.

I unmounted the cards and began using both the music that had been included in the DMP-Z1's internal storage and files I copied to the DMP-Z1 from my Mac mini via USB. I also connected the Sony's USB port to a port on my Roon Nucleus+ server and selected "USB DAC" on the touchscreen. Roon 1.6 running on my iPad mini recognized the Sony as "Player (ALSA)," and once I'd enabled it as a playback zone, with DSD data transmitted as DoP, and defined the DMP-Z1 as an MQA decoder and/or renderer, I could stream music to it from the Nucleus's internal storage.

Sony Electronics Inc.
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127
(858) 942-2400

dc_bruce's picture

I guess for the audiophile who has everything, this is it. But, at this price, there are a lot of nice DACs available. Moreover, as always seems to be the case with Sony, they're a week late to the party. It seems that few people are playing files these days; they're streaming.

Finally, Mr. Atkinson's report on the sonic effects of the myriad of filters offered by this device permanently buries the notion that digital sound is perfect. If using two different filters to play back the same digital file through the same electronics yields two different sounds, then they both can't be "right." Maybe neither is. So, it seems with digital we have merely traded the imperfections of analog for a different set of imperfections; we may not have gotten "closer to the source," whatever that is.

I grant only that digital generally is more convenient than analog and, perhaps, less perishable.

Archimago's picture

It's not so much about "perfect" or "imperfect" digital. It is just that the company wants to give people choice.

The best technical filter with least imaging artifact, best frequency extension, and no phase shift is the linear phase "Sharp Filter". If people likes the sound of the others, so be it. Many companies are just playing around with giving people a choice... That's fine.

Having said this. Show me a blind test that these are significantly audible :-). I know audiophiles don't like the concept of blind tests, sadly.

ednazarko's picture

Everything that's technology is a bundle of tradeoffs and compromises. Price, weight, size, capacity, sure, but there are other tradeoffs that often the manufacturer decides for you - like filters, sound signature, DSP. I always like to have control over a few of the tradeoffs that affect how things sound, since speakers and headphones have their own set of tradeoffs.

The notion that there's some pure rendering of a recoding always makes me giggle a little. I've been in studios watching recording, where the whole goal is to get as pure and controlled capture of each instrument as possible. Sound baffles, soundproof rooms, close mics. When you listen to that in playback, it sounds truly terrible - artificial, almost like it came from an electronic instrument and not a saxophone or piano. "Dry" is the term of art. Then during the mixing and production, reverb and decay and other sound shaping things get tinkered with to try to get it to sound more realistic to normal ears that are used to hearing instruments playing in spaces that affect the sound.

Other than live albums recorded outside of studios, without close mic placement, anything you hear has a significant amount of tinkering added to the raw recording.

BillBrown's picture

I don't want to argue about blind testing (I largely agree with JA's oft-stated opinion), but you shouldn't assume that none of us are interested in it.

While acknowledging it as single-blind test and N = 1, I had listened to various filters open-mindedly and begun to form an impression. I was comparing in Audirvana a conventional steep, linear-phase one with a very shallow one that the designer of iZotope had described as quite similar to Ayre's.

I tested my acute-eared, music-loving 20 year-old to some of his favorite selections without telling him what I was comparing or what to listen for. He heard a difference and used adjectives similar to the ones I had been thinking. He didn't hear anything untoward, nothing to suggest artifacts.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

As an example ....... Look at the frequency response measurements of dCS Bartok DAC, recently reviewed by Hi-Fi News ...... The effects of various filters :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Another recently reviewed Esoteric DAC, rolls-off -3.2 db at 20 KHz, by Hi-Fi News measurements :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

One more ....... Pioneer UDP-LX800 universal player offers a 'slow roll- off' filter, which rolls off -5 db at 20 KHz, by Hi-Fi News :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

BTW ....... All the above are less expensive than the $43,000 Kalista DreamPlay, which rolls-off -5 db at 20 KHz :-) ........

Graham Luke's picture

blind tests are to audiophiles what crucifixes are to vampires.

Graham Luke's picture

...but maybe they have sold well in the Gulf States where they like their Rolls Royces gold-plated and their power absolute.

DH's picture

"rich sound that is close to the playback from a vinyl record on a turntable." As well as a standard setting, Vinyl Processor can be customized with adjustments for surface noise, tonearm resonance, and turntable resonance."

In other words, we designed an algorithm that recreates and adds in all the distortion produced by a typical TT during vinyl playback to your digital file, so that you can get that euphonic distortion you love. Hilarious.

Pity you didn't review this feature.

DH's picture

"With Roon performing the first or both unfoldings of MQA-encoded, 192kHz-sampled data, the Sony peculiarly displayed, respectively, "PCM 96kHz" or "PCM 48kHz."

Since when MQA encodes a 192k file it encodes only up to a 96k resolution (all material in the original above 48khz is discarded) this is not that peculiar. 192 MQA files are at best 96k files that are upsampled in the renderer to 192.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

So, trade-in your $200k turn-table and buy this Sony DAP? ....... Seems like a good deal :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

BTW ...... Can this Sony DAP make MQA files sound like vinyl play back? ....... That would be a major advancement in audio play back :-) .........

otaku's picture

I find it disappointing that an eight thousand dollar device cannot read an SD card that any cheapo cellphone or camera would be able to use.

ednazarko's picture

Glad that I'm not the only person who's had micro SD card compatibility issues. Every single player I've owned has been fussy about cards - and each had cards it preferred. Price of card or player isn't predictive, either. It's not cheap versus fancy cards or players - it has almost always come down to brand matching. Annoying.

I'm interested in the Sony's user interface, and how easy it is to find what you want to listen to if you've got 500GB of music loaded. I now only listen from computers, or iPhone, iPad or iPod, and have dumped most of my music players. Every one of them had a miserable UI and navigation experience, bad enough that I found myself never loading more than 100GB of music more or less (often less)... and then I'd still get frustrated trying to browse to find what I wanted to listen to.

I still have one player that plays high res files really well, and is very small. The UI ain't great, nor are the buttons and touch screens easy to work with. My solution - I've taken the 32GB and 64GB micro SD cards that accumulated over time, and loaded each card with a single playlist. The player and dozen cards travel with me in a coin purse. I pick the playlist that fits the mood, insert the card, and I can ignore the awful UI other than volume, and skipping cuts.

jeffhenning's picture

Given its size and weight, I'm somewhat perplexed as to where this fits into a person's music listening life.

I guess, most likely, your second or third condo where you enjoy laying in your bed listening to headphones?

It looks more fantastic than most Sony products and its performance is not in the least bit shabby, but I'm curious as to where they thought their buying audience for this was.

Unless, of course, this is a buyable prototype product. Companies of this size do make them so that they can then take that experience to scale them down... to people who don't own several condos.

Is it cool? Yes. Would you buy one to put it in concert with your main system or any system with an amp & speakers? I can't imagine why.

This is a lot of scratch for a media player for headphone listening. I'd have thought that they'd have added some regular line outs. Would that have raised the price marginally to $9K?

The box, though, is very pretty.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Agreed. My wish list for home digital player includes a lot of features this box box possesses, but for that kind of money:

1: It's not a "Walkman" and it's silly to call it one. A Walkman fits in a pocket, this doesn't

2: As a digital music server it should also function as a preamp, have regular RCA outs in addition to those headphone outs.

3: As a digital music server it should stream off the internet.

4: While we're at it, how about some analog inputs?

There's plenty of DAPs out there that are more flexible than this, cheaper than this, and they can fit in a pocket, like a "Walkman" is supposed to. I like the idea of a non-portable digital player that runs off batteries. My experience is that digital audio wants pure DC, a proper battery-based power supply for this sort of device makes sense. But for this kind of money, this item lacks flexibility.

Anton's picture

I kind of agree with everyone.

I saw a 1 TB small SSD for 40 bucks at Amazon.

If these babies could allow working slots for a dozen of those, imagine the joy!

I hope some of the players in the digital player industry hire a consumer or three and ask what they'd like to get done!