A $1,200 Walkman? Twelve hundred dollars? They’re still making Walkman? Or would that be Walkmen? Why is it a man? What if I don’t walk much? What if I’m a woman, is it not for me?
The Sony Walkman NWZ-ZXW raises a lot of questions.
This handsome matte black box is a portable audio player for audiophiles. Now that iPods have gone the way of dinosaurs and the original Walkman, portable audio providers are focusing more of higher quality sound. But it’s not just portable devices—you’re going to start seeing a lot more emphasis on hi-res sound in the next year. Jay-Z knew this when he bought the high-fidelity music-streaming service Tidal in March (a move that’s received a lot of criticism). Tidal is like Spotify except on Tidal you can pay a $20 monthly fee for hi-fi streaming, or a $10 monthly fee for standard sound quality like what Spotify offers.
Tidal hi-def is CD-quality (16-bit depth and 44.1 kHz sampling rate). Basically that means it has more sound information than standard streaming and MP3s (which are stripped down). Listening to Tidal on your iPhone is pointless because the digital-to-analog converter in iPhones just don’t support high-res audio. That would be like watching a Blu-ray video on a 1995 Sony Trinitron TV set.
But the 128 GB Walkman ZX2 has WiFi and an Android operating system, so you can download Tidal onto the device through Google Play. The streaming sounds pretty damn good—like listening to a CD (because, a mentioned above, it’s CD-quality). But you don’t want to pay $1,200 for CD-quality. If you want to get the most out of your expensive little box, you need to download expensive (usually $18-25) hi-res albums off hi-res sites like HDTracks.com. But the more hi-res you want your music, the less selection you’ll have. This is part of the reason Tidal has less offerings than Spotify and HDTracks has less offerings than Tidal. Listening to hi-res albums on a hi-res Walkman sounds like you’re right there in the studio—you can hear multiple layers. It’s richer, deeper, fuller. It doesn’t take a trained audiophile ear to notice the remarkable difference between listening this way and streaming music on your iPhone.
There are a few other other hi-res portable audio devices—most notably, Pono and Astrell & Kern, but the former doesn’t have WiFi and the later doesn’t have touch screen or all the features that come with Android (video, games, maps, photos, app download, etc.). The ZX2 is like a heavier, sturdier Android phone that doesn’t make calls, but instead plays the sort of audio that would probably please Jack White. It will probably please you too, if you care about that sort of thing enough to lose $1,200 and the convenience of streaming everything and only carrying one device.
But let this be your warning: Once you get used to listening to hi-res audio, standard smartphone streaming will forever be a disappointment.
How much you need this if you’re not an audiophile: 2.0 out of 10.0.
How much you need this if you are an audiophile: 8.5 out of 10.0.