It's finally here ! After what seemed like an eternity, the HAP-Z1ES finally made it to Singapore, with a product debut at ISSE 2015. It seemed like an incredible tease - a fantastic product launched in major markets, but not here. In a twist of irony, the product was being happily made just across the border in Malaysia - so close yet so far. Well, better late than never.
The HAP-Z1ES is Sony's top-range high-res audio player. It is a self-contained solution with on-board storage and DAC. Contrast this with dedicated streamers like the Auralic Aries (no DAC and no on-board storage), Aurender (no DAC, and a choice of models with both board storage and without), and Lumin (with DAC, but no on-board storage).
The HAP-Z1ES is a really beautiful unit in the flesh. My review unit came finished in silver and felt substantial and well put together. A series of front panel buttons and a solitary knob control most playback functions and navigation.
A 1 TB internal hard drive should be adequate for the average user, although this seems a bit miserly compared to the competition. If you have a large collection of DSD files or high-res, the 1 TB seems barely enough. Thankfully, you can hook up an additional hard drive via the rear USB port.
File compatibility is excellent, with support for all major file formats, including WAV, FLAC, AIFF, WMA, ALAC, and DSD (both 2.8224 MHz and 5.6844 MHz sampling rate). PCM sampling rates up to 192 kHz are possible, with support for 16 bit, 24 bit and 32 bit resolution (32 bit resolution is available only for WAV files). Lossy formats such as MP3, ATRAC and AAC are also supported.
Some of the more interesting features of the Sony include a DSD re-mastering engine (on-the-fly PCM to DSD conversion), and two choices of oversampling filters (precision and normal).
Network connection can be made via wired LAN (Gigabit Ethernet) or wireless (802.11b/g/n)
Analog outputs take the form of one pair of RCA and XLR sockets. The XLR sockets follow the industry standard of having pin 2 as "hot".
The HAP-Z1ES does not offer any digital inputs or outputs. You can safely abandon any thoughts of using the Sony as a DAC, or using the Sony as a computer transport with an existing DAC !
I hooked up the Sony to my home network using a wired connection to my router. Boot-up was fast, and within five minutes (including the time taken to hook up my interconnects and power cord to the unit), I was ready to transfer a sample music library.
Music can be loaded onto the Sony in a few ways. The simplest would be to connect an external CD drive to the rear USB port. The Sony can rip your CD and perform tagging using Gracenote. If you hook up the Sony to your home network, you can install and use the HAP Music Transfer application available from Sony (both a Windows and Mac version are available) on your desktop. Alternatively, you could just access the Sony's internal drive by pointing your computer to the Sony's IP address. The last method is probably the easiest - just drag and drop.
Some time is taken after any file transfer to scan the drive and build up the database. If your music library is already meticulously tagged, you can speed up this process substantially by disabling Gracenote access.
One thing worth noting is that the Sony cannot play files directly from a NAS (unlike the Aurender N10 I reviewed earlier) - you need to copy the files over first.
Although the HAP-Z1ES can be operated from it's front panel, like most media players, it really should be used with Sony's control app, HDD Audio Remote. The control app was really very easy to use and proved to be perfectly stable over the course of time I used it.
The Sony would be best described as a confident sounding machine, with a highly detailed and precise placement of instruments and voices in the soundstage. It had a degree of confidence that seemed unflappable regardless of the genre of music thrown at it, or the complexity of the mix.
Resolving power was outstanding, with very subtle spatial clues, the complex timbre of instruments and vocals reproduced with ease. If you love details, you certainly are going to enjoy the Sony.
From a tonal perspective, the Sony had a slightly cool and analytical presentation. Playing PCM files and with the oversampling filter set to "normal", the high-frequencies of the Sony were a little bit soft - with some lack of extension and a smoothing-over of details. Thankfully, this was easily addressed by either activating the DSD remastering engine, or switching the oversampling filter to "precision". I used the Sony throughout most of the review period on the "precision" mode and without the DSD remastering engine.
Spatially, the Sony rendered very precise images, albeit with a more 2D presentation. This remark was made comparing the Sony with my usual setup of the Melco N1A NAS, Auralic Aries streamer and Totaldac D1-Dual DAC. The Sony cost a fraction of that, so my criticism should be taken in it's proper perspective.
The Sony also had a rather light touch on bass lines. It lacked a bit of slam and density compared to the competition. While tightness and articulation were good, the Sony's lack of bass weight would need careful matching.
From a value perspective, I would be hard-pressed to outperform the Sony for it's asking price. In fact, I would confidently say that the Sony punches well above it's weight, and delivers great bang for your precious dollars.
A simple 2 bay NAS, a basic streamer / DAC combo (e.g. the Lumin D1 which I reviewed here) would cost the same as the Sony. Although I no longer have my Mac Mini rig for comparison, I felt that the Sony far outperformed my Mac Mini paired with my Calyx 24/192 DAC (which cost a lot more once you added in an external hard drive, the cost of software, and a USB cable). This makes the Sony an easy to recommend device for the audiophile that is just dipping his toes in computer audio and needs an all-in-one solution. However, this is also the Sony's weak point - it is unsuitable for audiophiles that already have a large investments in an outboard DAC, or have multiple digital sources.
The Sony is a modestly priced all-in-one streaming solution that is an outstanding bargain at it's asking price. It is easy to setup and use, and offers very good performance for the money.
The review sample was kindly supplied by Sony Singapore through it's media partner, Waggener Edstrom.
Recommended Consumer Price - S$ 2,499