Sony SA-Z1 nearfield active speaker system Page 2

The four digital inputs (USB, Walkman, optical, and stereo mini) are on the "A" speaker's left side. A's rear panel offers pairs of unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) analog inputs and a left/right switch, which determines whether speaker A or speaker B receives the right (or left) signal. Here, also, are the aforementioned digital sync cable and the power inlet.

Speaker B's front panel holds four acoustic adjustment knobs. Addressed from left to right, the D.A. ASSIST (D.A. Hybrid amplifier analog assist) allows you to choose whether to use the analog amplifier only for error-correction ("Standard") or to also use the analog amplifier to help drive the speakers ("Blended"). "The Blended setting adds just a bit more analog signal to create a slightly smoother, more analog sound," Carlsson said.


A.WF MOTION allows you to disable the rear woofer. Carlsson explained, "The Active position gives you more bass, but Fixed might sound a little tighter."

A.WF FREQ RANGE (Assist Woofer Frequency Range) widens or narrows the frequency range of the rear woofer. "The Standard setting means that the rear woofer reproduces the same frequency as the front woofer," Carlsson said. "The Narrow setting reduces the frequency range a bit and makes the bass a bit tighter, while Wide gives it a slightly wider bandwidth than the main woofer but makes it not as tight. We think Standard is the ideal setting, but you can either make it a little fuller or narrower."

Finally, the A. TW TIME ALI (Assist Tweeter Time Alignment) adjustment synchronizes, delays, or advances the two smaller tweeters in relation to the main woofer. "Advance" brings the highs forward in time, making the sound more immediate and potentially sharpening or brightening the sound. Delaying the tweeter can compensate for bright recordings, producing a more laid-back, relaxed sound.


Setup is crucial
The SA-Z1 system arrived in a single large box. Significant portions of the velvet-covered Styrofoam meant to hold the speakers in place inside the box were in pieces, the speakers askew and with a few dents that did not compromise their sound. Two of the four plastic locks designed to keep the box sealed were also missing. A Sony rep apologized, telling Stereophile that these samples and their packaging had seen some miles. Sony sent new packaging so that I could send the speakers to John Atkinson for measuring.

If you initially do what this overeager dolt did—angle the speakers inward so that the tweeters fire toward your ears and then move your desk chair back so that you're directly in the line of fire—you'll discover that the tweeters sound way too bright. If you try to compensate for a listening pace's unusual symmetry by moving the speakers too close to the wall, the sound will be too warm. If the speakers are too far from the wall, you'll lose bass, and the sound will be clinical. If the speakers are too far from you, you'll lose color and sense of immediacy.

Using a guide provided to reviewers, I started by placing the speakers on a desk (instead of on desktop stands) and aiming them straight ahead. Start with the speakers 28.75" (730mm) apart and 5.9" (150 mm) from the front wall and adjust from there. There's lots more information on setup in the manual. Read it.

If your front wall is curved, your desk is in a corner (like mine), or your listening space is configured like rococo architecture, all bets are off. For example, Sony recommends that the main tweeters be situated at the same height as your ears. In my diagonally bisected corner space, I preferred the sound with the tweeter array below ear height. I was able to achieve that, though, by following Sony's advice and putting the speakers directly on my desktop.


Shortly after I began listening, I realized that positioning a 27" iMac between the speakers, on the same level, created a bass prison into which the inside side vents of each speaker's assist woofers fired. Further, my iMac's size limited how close together I could move the speakers. Bass, imaging, and all the rest improved when I replaced the big iMac with a 15" MacBook Pro, which sat on the lower tier of my desk, where it had no effect on soundstage, bass response, or anything else. Now I had room for an optimal SA-Z1 setup. A large monitor will tend to inhibit any desktop system, but some more than others.

Power and purity
I asked Carlsson how he felt about aftermarket power conditioning. Sony's design team had not employed power conditioning in developing the SA-Z1, but then the speakers were designed in a purpose-built listening room in Sony's Tokyo headquarters, which was supplied with fully isolated, clean power. Power conditioning was the closest I could get to Sony's dedicated transformers, so I felt confident stealing Tweak Geek's Dark Matter Stealth AC Conditioner from my reference system and using it in the review.

I also sought Carlsson's views on aftermarket power cords. "When we set up the SA-Z1s in our San Diego headquarters and at the 2019 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, we definitely heard an improvement using some high-end Kimber power cables and a Kimber USB-C cable from my MacBook," he told me. "It was definitely an audible upgrade."

For this review, I used a combination of Nordost Valhalla 1 and Odin 2 power cables, plus a Valhalla 2 USB cable connected with a Frey 2 USB-C–to–USB-A adapter.

"Cables are one of those interesting topics. I'm an engineer, and the scientist in me says they shouldn't make much difference. But on the other hand, when you listen, a lot of times there is a clear difference. In this case, it was for the better. One of the most fun parts of audio, for me, and the reason I got into it, is that it's a bit of a mix between art and science. There's a lot of science to it, but at the end of the day, it comes down to making a decision about what sounds best—by listening."


Lifting off
Inspired by the speakers' visual aesthetic, I led off with the theme from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey: the deep-rumbling organ pedals, blazing brass, and pounding bass of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra. This (literally) pull-out-all-the-stops blockbuster recording by the Seattle Symphony, which pairs this beloved Strauss tone poem with Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy (24/96 WAV, Seattle Symphony Media SSM1025), was a supreme test for a small desktop system.

There was some low-level woofer fluttering caused by the small woofers' inability to reach as low as a mighty organ can go, but bass was otherwise tight and convincing, the midrange was warm, and highs were as rousing as one might wish for. Images weren't gigantic, but the way the soundstage expanded beyond and through the speakers was awe-inspiring. I wouldn't have minded more transparency and deeply saturated color (although color increases as one sits closer), but the sense of immersion in an all-encompassing soundfield was the closest a small pair of speakers, desktop or otherwise, has ever brought me to the wonders of fine headphone listening.

Equally impressive was the clarity. Especially when I leaned closer to the speakers—distance won't be an issue with a conventional desk and laptop—the differentiation between violins in the Seattle Symphony's large string section was ear-opening. Clarity also reigned supreme on Cecilia Bartoli's rendition of the almost 10-minute aria "Se mai senti spirarti sul volto" from her wondrous 2018 album Antonio Vivaldi (Qobuz 24/96 FLAC); it's a miracle of deeply felt, perfectly controlled, hushed intensity, made possible by her extraordinary breath control and seemingly limitless musical intelligence. Listening in awe, I wondered why I hadn't been playing the album more.

The singing was heavenly, and the SA-Z1's presentation was so detailed that it was as though I was right there with her at the microphone.


I indulged in a few standbys. Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thiele, and Edgar Meyer's recording of J.S. Bach's "Sleepers, Awake!" from their Bach Trios album (Qobuz 24/96 FLAC)—one of John Atkinson's choices for last month's Records to Die For—delivered bass tight and right. Ma's cello sounded wonderful, and the mandolin's texture was convincing.

Once again, colors could have been more saturated. My very different reference desktop system, Audeze designer Dragoslav Colich's Dragonfire system, which includes a powered subwoofer, a proprietary DAC that doesn't handle ultrahigh resolutions, and Dirac room correction, scores in the color, transparency, and delicacy departments, but the SA-Z1s play far louder and produce soundstage depth I never thought possible from a desktop system.

What about all those buttons?
The Chesky Records recording of Priya Darshini's Periphery (24/192 WAV) was up for a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album. During the opening track, "Jahaan," switching D.A. ASSIST from "Blended" to "Standard" tightened percussive snaps and produced more impact. Setting A. TW TIME ALI to "Advance" delivered more color. As superbly recorded as the album is, moving from 24/192 PCM to DSD256 by engaging DSD Remastering yielded even smoother, more refined sound, with excellent depth.

Roon Radio capriciously took me to Michael Jackson's "Liberian Girl" from Bad (Qobuz 24/96 FLAC). Inspired to leave classical behind, I turned to the New York Times story on the 50th anniversary of "Lola" by The Kinks. Here, it seemed, in the video embedded in the Times website, lay the roots of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" and other, more salacious contemporary fare. (Think Cardi B's "WAP.")

Low-rez, lossy files were brought to life and sounded 3D. For anyone who watches music videos on their desktop, I cannot recommend Sony's DSEE-HX highly enough. The first active speaker I reviewed, Dynaudio's larger Focus 200XD, produces bigger, weightier images and more bass rom sonically compromised video sound sources, but it cannot deliver the astounding three-dimensionality of Sony's SA-X1 system with DSEE-HX.


San Francisco–based new/experimental music organization Other Minds, founded by tireless new-music advocate Charles Amirkhanian, recently released a 320kbps MP3 of Charles Shere's long-lost Trio for Violin, Piano and Percussion, performed by the lamented Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio (footnote 1).

Rescued from a cassette and available to Other Minds only as an MP3 supplied by the ailing 85-year-old composer (footnote 2) (who as I write this is under hospice care), it should have sounded mediocre or worse. But with DSEE-HX, Shere's music sounded air-filled and 3D, and Winant's percussion had much life and impact.

You won't want to use DSEE-HX with lossless recordings, but with MP3, it's great.


My listening returned to deep space with "Yoda's Theme" from Star Wars, performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic on Celebrating John Williams (Qobuz 24/96). Recorded and mastered by the Grammy-nominated father/son team of Dmitriy and Alexander Lipay, who also record the Seattle Symphony, the music possessed a captivating gentleness I'd forgotten existed in the Star Wars soundtrack.

For contrast, I ended with the "Throne Room and Finale." As Williams's familiar theme roused my senses, I realized that within the context of small-scale personal listening, the SA-Z1 system can deliver all the biting brass and French horn/woodwind warmth one might need, want, or desire.

With the SA-Z1 nearfield active loudspeaker system, you can sit at the comfort of your own desk, close the office door (or not), and without needing to fasten your seat belt, launch into an air-filled galaxy of sound that you may not have thought possible with a desktop system. With a host of controls that enable you to tailor each excursion to your liking and compensate for the vagaries of poor recordings, compressed music, and an imperfect listening environment, the SA-Z1 is capable of opening up entire new realms of personal listening.

Footnote 1: Analog lovers will recall David Abel and Julie Steinberg's two justly celebrated recordings for Wilson Audio; the Beethoven and Enescu sonatas are available in 24/176.4 on Qobuz.

Footnote 2: As a music critic for the Oakland Tribune, Shere once reviewed one of my early whistling performances, describing me as a personable young man with a winning smile and big feet. What he did not understand was that my income was so low that I was wearing the only nice black wingtips I could find at local thrift stores, which were a size and a half too large.

Sony Electronics Inc.
16535 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127

jimtavegia's picture

I wish they would get creative about another under $1K SACD player. "If you build it, they will come."

JRT's picture

You can extract the DSD layer from SACDs and store that data on an inexpensive network attached server (Kal knows how to do this).

teched58's picture

JVS is very excited at the performance of these $8K desktop speakers, although he's clearly puzzled that Sony doesn't use power conditioners in their labs. (Fortunately, Mr. Carlsson doesn't disabuse him of the benefits of power cords and cables.)

Meanwhile, from deep in the recesses of the audiophile equivalent of the Federal Reserve, JA1 provides his perspective in plain language that's accessible to longtime readers of his valuable measurements:


Sony has an impressive pedigree in conventional loudspeaker design (footnote 3), so I was intrigued to see how a specialized design like the SA-Z1 would perform in the test lab.

stereophileuser2020's picture

What's the significance of that quote?

tonykaz's picture

... not made in JAPAN ?

Who is the intended customer for these things ?

Did SONY see a pair of Devialet Phantoms and decide to compete by making something in Malaysia selling at 2 to 4 times the price with a two year warrantee but no beautifully designed packaging?

The SONY Brand is no longer 2D4, besides these things are ugly. ( doncha think ? )

Will our wonderful whistler be keeping these Demo's for extended evaluations ?

Tony in Venice Florida

ps. frequency range : 10hz to 200khz ---- 200,000 hz -- wow, it's almost RF. is this a Class D rig with large heatsinks ?

JRT's picture

Some radio transmission frequencies can also get pretty low. The ITU designates "ELF, extremely low frequency" band of radio frequencies as 3_Hz to 30_Hz. While the low bandwidth forces slow transmission of information, the extremely low frequencies are capable of penetrating ground and sea water.

tonykaz's picture

Ok, thanks, I might've been attempting a bit of exaggeration concerning the propensity of Japanese to exaggerate dubious performance properties.

It might seem appropriate for an $8,000 Asian desktop device to have a bit more bragging rights than a modest Genelec Active 820 system costing about $1,000.

Thanks for writing back with a bit of science related to wave propagation, it's nice to know that proper Scientists read Stereophile too!

Tony in Venice Florida

Jack L's picture


Good question! Who really wants to drop $8,000 for a pair of desktop loudspeakers !?

Only some very few rich & famous would want to put those not-so-handsome
looking loudspeakers on their desks assuming they were sound crazy like some of us !

There are far smarter & less costly way to enjoy music on one's workdesk. Why $8,000 made-in-Malaysia Sony? Where would Sony stand on the really Hi-end audio wagon anyway ?

Jack l

tonykaz's picture

Thanks for writing back,

Who is the intended ? Maybe these things are designed for some industrial build application like the ceiling of a Bus or the interior of a small Corporate Jet.

It's puzzling !

Tony in Venice Florida

Long-time listener's picture

For anyone who would like a deep soundstage on their desktop at a lower price, I can enthusiastically recommend the Buchardt Audio S300 speaker. Provided you can accommodate its larger size, it's ideal. It has a very even off-axis response, which gives you a wide (and deep) sweet spot as you move around while working at your desk. I find its sound comparable to the Dynaudio Special 40. The Special 40 is slightly better at resolving midrange textural detail, but the Buchardt has a more even response (especially off-axis), and sounds a little more open, with equally good bass weight. I have no connection with Buchardt Audio; I just really enjoy these speakers whenever I listen.

jimtavegia's picture

I have certainly enjoyed my pair of 305's for way less money for years now.

Ortofan's picture

... have something completely different?

Start with a pair of LS3/5a-esque near-field monitors.
Take your pick from Graham, Harbeth, Spendor, Stirling, etc.

Add a tube-type integrated amp - the PrimaLuna EVO 100, for example.

Complete the system with a DAC, such as the Chord Qutest or the Schiit Yggdrasil.

For a similar total cost, have JVS see (and hear) how such a combo might measure up - in a manner of speaking.

Charles E Flynn's picture

I hope to see a review by John Atkinson of the KEF KC62 subwoofer used with the LS50 Metas. It would be interesting to see how this combination handles the bass on the Seattle Symphony's Also Sprach Zarathustra.

I would also like to see Mr. Serinus review this recording:

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

not by me. By the time I asked about reviewing it, it had already been claimed. So I chose other goodies. Stay tuned...


Charles E Flynn's picture

Thanks for the preview of coming attractions.

Jack L's picture

......... Also Sprach Zarathustra."quoted C E Flynn

Why should I spend $3,000 for these 3 KEFs minis to play Also Sprach on my workbench ASSUMING these minis could make miracles on tabletop environment.

For serious music performances as such, I would definitely play them properly on my audio rig - no less ! We should show some respect to its composer: Richard Strass !

I've 4 or 5 LPs on the Also Aprach title & the best 2 out of those are the DGG label: Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Only one of these two sounds to my satisfaction: starting with some clean deep deep low crawling bass notes followed immediately by the CLEAN & powerful beating of the kettle drums !!!

An acid test of transient response of any sound system: clean low low crawling bass notes, IMMEDIATElY followed by CLEAN & forceful kettle drums beating of Also Aprach Zarathustra on LP.

Listening is believing

Jack L

stereophileuser2020's picture

if they weren't so boxy. Sony's industrial design is usually as good as Apple's, but these speakers are not in that vein.

JRT's picture

RAAL Requisite SR1a ribbon headspeakers and Schiit Jotunheim R amplifier (the set, $4.0k from Moon) in combination with an Okto Research Dac8 Pro (sub-$1.2k direct) and a pair of SVS SB16 Ultra powered subwoofers ($2.0k/each, $3.8k/pair, direct), and the alternative system comes in at a little under $8k. Everything mentioned has been reviewed here at Stereophile in the not too distant past (oldest being the subwoofer back in 2017).

The use of headphones or headspeakers avoids the myriad of issues with interference from reflections from objects on and near the desk and nearby room boundaries, as well as interference from diffraction around edges of those objects.

The RAAL ribbon headspeakers are at or near the top of the headphone game, the weaker aspects being lack of isolation and limited low frequency output. The lack of isolation is a problem that is also shared with loudspeaker setups. The limited low frequency output can be solved with use of subwoofers. The subwoofers could also be utilized to augment a loudspeaker setup, when not using headspeakers/headphones.

SVS SB16 Ultra is a low distortion powered sub capable of high volume velocity on wide bandwidth (for a sub) from a sealed alignment exhibiting much lower group delay relative to bass reflex, and includes significantly capable DSP.

If applying separate upstream DSP to the RAAL headspeakers, the subs could receive a separately processed or unprocessed stream through the Okto 8 channel DA converter while the Okto also provides a master multichannel volume control.

That leaves four channels on the Okto which could be utilized to feed another pair of power amplifiers and loudspeakers plus another different headphone amplifier and headphones. Or the four channels could be used to integrate a pair of small satellite monitors (eg. KEF LS50 Meta) with a pair of bespoke woofer bins (maybe talk to Lee Taylor or Jim Salk about what they can build for you) either some side firing midwoofers located behind the computer monitor if used with desktop monitor loudspeakers, or some woofers in bass bins used as floor stands for your stand mounted monitors setup elsewhere in the room.

The Okto multichannel DA converter with multichannel volume control, especially in combination with upstream DSP and/or external AD converters, enables much system flexibility.

Jack L's picture

....... with interference from reflections...." quoted JRT

Maybe so in theory. I don't experience such "interference from reflection" in my 700sq ft basement audio den withOUT any elaborated acoustic treatment at all !

So yr acoustics 'science' can't blind my critical ears !

BUT, headphones or headspeakers FAIL to deliver the same live 3-D spartial environment offered by any floor/stand loudspeaker. You may not worry about it but many live concert goers, like yours truly. do !

That's why I personally do not go for any headphone music !

You know why? Hint: this is the nature of our ears BOTH sharing the same soundwaves !

Listening is believing

Jack L