Sony Walkman NW-ZX100HN Hi-Res Music Player Bundle Page 2

The biggest surprise was the Sony MDR-V6, a 45-ohm recording-studio favorite whose prominent treble is a challenge to source components. It proved an excellent mate for the Walkman, delivering my top orchestral reference track—Beethoven’s Fifth, as performed by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic (FLAC 88.2/24)—with a vivid tonal balance and high listening comfort. The chiming tuned percussion and peeping piccolo of “Ben’s Farm in Vermont” by David Chesky (FLAC 192/24) was fully resolved but not exaggerated. “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin tipped over into thin-and-grainy territory, though it was by far an exception. The DSD listening modes definitely made a difference with “Shhh/Peaceful” from Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way. I preferred the Slow RollOff for the golden glow it imparted to the music; the Sharp Roll-Off was edgier and less refined.

The Sennheiser HD 600 headphones benefitted imaging at the expense of detail, softening the edges of objects but enlarging them and improving their spatial context. The softening didn’t help the Beethoven or Chesky tracks, though some of my lossy buzzsaw rock tracks—a current favorite being “I F---ing Love Science” by Hank Green and the Perfect Strangers (MP3 320 kbps)—moved deeper into playit-loud territory. The distinction between the two DSD filters was subtle. The Walkman didn’t afford much headroom with the 300-ohm Sennheiser. A few tracks required it to play at the top of its volume range. Sony appears to have prioritized running time over volume capability, and that might have been the right decision, given that high-end headphone makers are increasingly prioritizing sensitivity. Still, while this mating wasn’t a total failure, it was a mixed success, and I had to dock the Walkman a half-point in the performance rating, though it was a solid five-star performer with the other headphones. Don’t match this player with inefficient, high-impedance headphones or those with an overly polite top end.


Mated with the HiFiMan Edition X planar headphones, the Walkman hit one home run after another, combining the fearless detail excavation of the Sony studio headphones with the imaging and spatial prowess of the Sennheiser. Once again, the Beethoven came through with satisfying tonal balance, the Chesky track’s high-frequency finery was perfectly intact, and the treble of Zep’s “Rain Song,” with its toppy mellotron, wasn’t overstated. With Madeleine Peyroux’s cover of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” (FLAC 44.1/24), the HiFiMan/Walkman team delivered a transfixing vocal of masterfully focused, liquid beauty. The choral vocals of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem (Mariss Jansons, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, ALAC 44.1/16) snapped into focus. The entry of Colin Moulding’s swooping monster bass on XTC’s “Senses Working Overtime” (MP3 192 kbps) throbbed as much as it did with the Sony studio headphones, but with better-controlled pitch. There seemed to be no major downside to the HiFiMan/Walkman pairing. It was as satisfying as any head-fi experience I’ve ever had.

Cancellation Confection
The main courses were delicious. Time for dessert—that is, testing the Walkman with the bundle’s supplied MDR-NW750N noise-cancelling-compatible earbuds. The noise-cancellation circuitry is provided by the player, so the proprietary earbuds don’t need a battery or an awkward battery compartment. Designing the player and earbuds as a closed system offers an opportunity to optimize sound quality.

For demo material, I used two albums kindly provided by HDtracks: Alexis Cole’s Dazzling Blue: The Music of Paul Simon and the jazz trio Three’s Company’s We’ll Be Together Again (both AIFF, 192/24). Both have sparse instrumentation, with lots of nearsilence between the notes, and a higher dynamic range than that of typical pop music. A little adjustment was necessary: I had to select the MDR-NW750N in the main Settings menu. In the Noise-Cancelling menu, which is separate, I turned the NC on and selected the Full Auto AINC mode, which actively tailors the noise cancellation to acoustic conditions sensed by the earbuds’ mics.

I started the music and hit the street. The perpetual roar of traffic at a busy Manhattan intersection all but disappeared; already, I was impressed. I hopped aboard the Broadway Local, a slow-moving subway train, and rode for a dozen stops. The system reduced the loud whooshing ventilation system to a whisper. It was less successful with clatter on certain parts of the subway track. The system couldn’t prevent very low-frequency noise intrusion—the sound that you don’t so much hear as feel—but it was extremely effective with noise entering through the ear canal.


I could play Alexis Cole at a low to moderate volume and catch all of Paul Simon’s lyrics without having to ride gain. And sound quality was excellent by earbud standards, the buds neatly imaging the voice, murmuring guitar, string bass, and light percussion and approximating their timbre. It sounded like music, not a tinny blare. Switching from the Full Auto AINC mode to the dedicated Bus/Train mode didn’t affect my results much; AINC didn’t need the help. There are also Airplane and Office modes. The Quiet mode allows NC without music, presumably preventing the player from automatically shutting down.

After a half-hour on the subway, I switched to an even slower-moving bus for the one-hour trip home. This was a tougher test because bus travel directly couples your body to a bone-shaking diesel engine. At this higher level of bone conduction, I needed to push volume just a little higher, though the level was still moderate. The system did little to cancel out the engine’s higher-frequency whine—but it did zap the low-frequency roar that enters through the ear canal, a major part of what makes bus travel so exhausting. That noise beats up your inner ears, which play a key role in maintaining your sense of balance. After an hour, I should have felt tired and disoriented; instead, I hopped off feeling reasonably fresh.

Barring its mixed success with the Sennheiser headphones, I love everything about this Walkman. I love the way it looks, feels, works, and performs. It sounds amazing with headphones of reasonable sensitivity, especially those with prominent and/or refined treble response, and it doles out bass like a master. It also succeeds on an emotional level, uncannily uncovering the humanity of singers. The idea of building noise cancellation into a source component is a stroke of genius. I’d love to own one of these things.