So far, computer audio has arguably been the most significant audiophile development of the 21st century. Yet many seasoned audiophiles haven’t bought into it, for a variety of reasons. Some lack the computer skills needed to manipulate and play music files. Some may feel that other media produce better sound, while others may simply prefer physical media. But for many audiophiles, I suspect a major objection to the computer-audio movement is that it involves computers. Some people don’t want their audio equipment rack besmirched by an ugly computer, and especially by its screen. Others don’t want to fool with a separate server and DAC, which themselves take up two rack shelves.
Sony’s new HAP-Z1ES music player has several features that should appeal to audiophiles who want to play audio files but don’t want a computer near their rack: 1) with a brushed-aluminum faceplate and color display, it looks just like an audio component; 2) it plays most formats of computer audio music files, including WAV, FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, MP3, DSD DSF, DSD DFF, and DSD128; 3) it has an internal 1TB hard drive for storing music; 4) it allows you to connect an external USB hard drive to expand its storage capacity when its internal drive is full; 5) it can work with a wired or wireless network; 6) it includes a free, easy-to-use remote-control app for Apple and Android tablets; 7) it has its own built-in DAC; and 8) it costs only $1999.99 USD.
The HAP-Z1ES is the top model in Sony’s new line of components designed to play most current formats of high-resolution audio files. It doesn’t play Digital Extreme Definition (DXD) recordings (24-bit/352.8kHz), but since only a handful of these are commercially available, that’s not a serious drawback. Nor does it play multichannel recordings, which would have been nice. Although a Linux computer lurks inside its case, you’d never know it from the HAP-Z1ES’s appearance -- it looks like a standard audio component, measuring 17”W x 5 1/8”H x 15 3/8”D and weighing a hefty 32 pounds. A silvery metal remote control is included, though in all likelihood you’ll use an iPad or Android tablet to operate the HAP-Z1ES. In a pinch, you can operate the Sony using its own 4.3” display and front-panel buttons. The HAP-Z1ES is warranted for a disappointingly short one year on parts and labor.
On the front panel, from left to right are: the on/off button, the sensor for the remote control, and the color display. I found the screen useful for setting up the HAP-Z1ES, which can be done only from the front panel. To adjust these operational parameters, you use the next three buttons to the left, and the rotating knob they surround. These buttons are: Home, which takes you to the top of the HAP-Z1ES’s menu tree; Back, which takes you to the preceding step on the tree; and Enter. The large knob controls not volume but scrolling: When you’ve used it to dial in the choice you want, you select that choice by pressing Enter. At the far right is the last button, a play/pause toggle.
On the rear panel are balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) analog output jacks, an RJ-45 network input, a USB Type-A jack, an IEC input for AC power, and some IR remote jacks. And that’s it -- no digital inputs that would let other digital sources use the HAP-Z1ES’s DAC. I would have preferred a digital output, so that the HAP-Z1ES’s useful lifespan could be extended when a substantially better DAC came along. But that’s just me; probably most users will find its internal DAC just fine.
The HAP-Z1ES has the option of converting any file to DSD128 and playing it at that resolution -- the format used by PS Audio’s PerfectWave DirectStream DAC ($5995.95) and EMM Labs’ DAC2X ($15,500), each of which costs considerably more.
Sony partners with a service called vTuner to connect the HAP-Z1ES to a variety of Internet Radio stations. The quality of its sound varied with the sampling rate; some 320kbps music was listenable, but several stations with resolutions as low as 32kbps sounded like crystal radios. My favorite local station is available on the Internet, but I’ll stick with my FM tuner, thank you.
Another feature of the HAP-Z1ES is its Digital Sound Enhancement Engine, which tries to compensate for the sound quality lost by lossily compressed MP3s, etc. I tried this with several MP3 files but could hear no improvement. Admittedly, all the MP3s I had were 320kbps, the highest resolution available. (Why do I have MP3 files? Unfortunately, they’re all my car stereo will play.)
The HAP-Z1ES may make it possible to play audio files without a computer, but you’ll still need one to rip CDs, download hi-rez files, and load them onto the Sony. Fret not -- you can do this remotely over a wired or wireless home network. Sony tries to make all of this easy with its HAP Music Transfer software, which helps you manage the files stored on the HAP-Z1ES’s hard drive. You specify a directory on your computer’s hard drive, from which HAP Music Transfer copies files to the HAP-Z1Es’s internal drive. Then you copy the files you want to transfer to that directory. You can set HAP Music Transfer to transfer files automatically or manually. It also lets you view the contents of the HAP-Z1ES’s hard drive and delete any files you don’t want. One terabyte is a lot of space, but DSD files and hi-rez PCM files are big -- the drive may fill up faster than you anticipate. Installed in my Windows 7 computer, HAP Music Transfer was accessible via the notification area in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
Setup and use
My review sample of the HAP-Z1ES was loaned to me by a friend, who didn’t include the instruction manuals -- I quickly discovered that it would be hard to set up and operate the HAP-Z1ES without help. Fortunately, help is available online: a 206-page Help Guide, a HAP Music Transfer Help Guide, an HDD Audio Remote Help Guide, a Quick Start Guide, and a Reference Guide. These are written for the computer novice and are very thorough -- I found answers to most of my questions.
I installed the HAP Music Transfer program on the desktop computer in my office, which is far from my listening room, and used it to copy several familiar albums to the Sony’s internal drive. When the HAP-Z1ES was connected to my network via Wi-Fi, copying was slow but worked fine. Using a wired connection sped everything up, as you’d expect. Setting up the wired connection was trivially easy: just plug in the Ethernet cable, select Wired Connection on the front panel, and the HAP-Z1ES will be accessible through your network, via either HAP Music Transfer or the operating system’s network accessibility. I preferred using Windows’ networking connections to HAP Music Transfer. But if you’re unfamiliar with networking, HAP Music Transfer would probably be easier to use.
I used an Audience powerChord e power cord on the HAP-Z1ES, and connected it to my preamp with Clarity Cables Organic balanced interconnects. I tried both wired and Wi-Fi network connections. Since the review sample was on loan from a friend, it was already broken in.
I downloaded to my iPad and installed Sony’s HDD Audio Remote, which turned out to be one of the easiest, most intuitive remote-control apps I’ve used. During the review period, Sony twice updated the HAP-Z1ES’s software, and updating my sample couldn’t have been easier. When I turned the player on, a message on its display notified me that an update was available, and asked if I wanted to make the update now or later. I picked “Now,” and the update was downloaded and installed. The HAP-Z1ES then told me it had to restart, and warned me not to turn off the power. After the first update, I tried to play an album but discovered that there was also an update available for the HDD Audio Remote app. No app change was needed for the second update.
I suspect that the slight hum the HAP-Z1ES produced when turned on was the sound of its hard-drive motor. It was barely perceptible at my listening position, about 10’ away, and wasn’t annoying.
I began my critical listening with Mahler’s Symphony No.1, performed by the San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas (DSD64/DSF, SFS Media/Downloads Now!). Like all the symphonies in Tilson Thomas and the SFO’s Mahler cycle, this recording is a huge challenge to reproduce. It begins with a barely audible passage, has many passages that are molto fortissimo (aka fff, aka extremely loud), spotlights many of the orchestra’s instruments, and can be flaming gorgeous. The HAP-Z1ES was up to the challenge, reproducing the extreme loudness levels without strain. The various sections of the orchestra were reproduced with glowing harmonic accuracy, and the palpable tension as the orchestra progressed through the score created an energetic musical momentum that infused the playing with considerable excitement. The HAP-Z1ES handled the huge dynamic swings without breaking a sweat.
In my favorite selection from La Folia 1490-1701 (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF, Alia Vox), Jordi Savall and his band frolic through Folia Rodrigo Martinez, obviously having a great time. The macrodynamic changes and tempo variations in this information-dense recording were captured with precision, clearly communicating the musicians’ expressive phrasing. The bass drum, which descends into the mid-20Hz decade, was reproduced fairly well, but I’ve heard deeper, more detailed bass from DACs like MSB Technology’s Analog, which costs five times the Sony’s price. PS Audio’s PerfectWave DirectStream DAC has more extended highs and captures more detail, but it costs three times as much as the HAP-Z1ES. So while the Sony’s sound may be ever so slightly less than the ultimate, you’d have to pay multiples of its cost to find better sound to close that tiny gap.
It was similar with the Tallis Scholars’ recording of Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus (24/96 FLAC, Gimell): The MSB Analog DAC presented a more convincing illusion of depth, aurally painting an amazingly detailed image of the recording venue -- but it costs five times as much as the Sony, so it doggone well should sound better. The HAP-Z1ES presented a spacious reproduction of the venue’s width and depth, and placed choristers and soloists at believable locations within that space.
To further challenge the HAP-Z1ES, I cued up A Collection of Analogue Eric Bibb (DSD128/DSF, DSDFile/Opus3). Bibb records mostly blues, not my usual listening fare, but the quality of the sound in this collection is so good that I’m glad I tried it. Recorded at 5.6MHz, the album takes up 3.9GB of disk space. The Sony depicted Bibb’s baritone voice in “That’s Why I am Here” as particularly rich and expressive. This cut didn’t sound spectacular, but it sounded spookily real.
I listened to Eva Cassidy’s cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” upsampled by the HAP-Z1ES to DSD128. The upsampled version sounded a bit smoother, with very slightly rounded-off transients, and was also slightly lower in volume level.
My Auraliti PK100 music player is similar to the Sony HAP-Z1ES in many ways: 1) it includes a Linux computer dedicated to playing computer audio files; 2) it plays PCM and DSD files; and 3) it has a built-in DAC (although it doesn’t sound as good as most external DACs I’ve tried, and it won’t play DSD files). Unlike the HAP-Z1ES, the Auraliti is housed in a utilitarian black case best kept out of sight. The Auraliti is currently priced at $949, plus $399 for optional linear power supply. To complete the Auraliti’s high-resolution playback capability, I use an Audio Research DAC8 DAC ($4995), which brings the cost of the Auraliti-ARC combo to $6343 vs. the HAP-Z1ES’s $1999.99 -- and that doesn’t include the S/PDIF or USB cable needed to link the Auraliti to the ARC, or the cost of the hard drive needed to store the music files. And since the ARC DAC8 doesn’t play DSD, my comparisons were limited to PCM files. To pair the Auraliti with a DSD-capable DAC, something like a Mytek Stereo192-DAC, a Benchmark DAC2, or an Auralic Vega would probably make a good match closer in price to the Sony.
In the recording of Allegri’s Miserere, vocal harmonics were a smidgen more complete through the Auraliti-ARC, which displayed more detail. Macrodynamics were better defined, making more clear how the musicians shaped the music through dynamic phrasing. Spatially, the Auraliti-ARC produced a clearer sense of depth than the Sony -- not only did I hear that the solo group was separated from the main choral group, I heard more detail about the space between the two groups.
With Folia Rodrigo Martinez, the bass was equally deep through the Sony and Auraliti-ARC, with equal amounts of impact and detail. Instrumental harmonics were detailed and accurate; the Sony may have been a little sweeter, the Auraliti-ARC a bit richer. Both systems conveyed this recording’s considerable density of information.
So while the Auraliti and the Sony were sonically pretty close, the Auraliti won’t operate wirelessly -- you must have a combination wired/wireless network. Also, I found it a challenge to set up the Auraliti, although its revised setup instructions have made that a lot easier. Still, the Sony was a lot closer to being plug-and-play, and requires fewer computer skills. And Sony’s iPad app would probably be easier for a novice to use than the Auraliti’s MPaD app.
The Sony HAP-Z1ES aims to meet the needs of a particular type of customer: those who want to play all types of computer audio files but who don’t want a computer on their equipment rack, and don’t want to futz around with separate servers, DACs, and cables. In my view, Sony has hit the bull’s eye. Their HAP-Z1ES looks like the elegant audio component it is, plays computer audio files superbly, and is easy to use. Chances are that someone new to playing computer audio files will need some help setting up the HAP-Z1ES, so Sony provides lots of helpful guides written with the novice in mind.
Still, a few things might dissuade the complete novice from using the Sony: You’ve got to set it up on a network, and you’ve got to use a separate computer on the network to rip CDs and copy audio files to the HAP-Z1ES. A few servers or all-in-one players have built-in optical drives that let you insert a CD and have it automatically ripped to the internal hard drive without need of a separate computer, but I know of no player that will download hi-rez computer audio files to its internal hard drive. That feature may show up any day, but until it does, you’ll need a separate computer to load files onto the server’s or player’s hard drive. Sony makes that about as easy as I can imagine. But don’t take my word for it -- my local audio dealer reports that sales of the HAP-Z1ES are exceeding their expectations. That’s very encouraging.
The Sony HAP-Z1ES is not the only all-in-one high-resolution music player in existence, but it’s a thoughtful design that offers excellent value. While it’s possible to get better sound, chances are it will cost you lots more money.
. . . Vade Forrester
Sony HAP-Z1ES Digital Music Player
Price: $1999.99 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
Sony Electronics Inc.
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127
Phone: (858) 942-2400