Chances are you've owned a Sony Walkman. It probably played cassette tapes or CDs and had such features as Mega Bass and skip protection. This Walkman is nothing like that one.
The new Sony Walkman ZX2 is a piece of premium audio equipment, a portable way to play high-resolution audio files that promise better fidelity. It's also $1,200.
A Different Kind of Player
The Walkman ZX2 is the follow-up to Sony's first high-end Walkman, last year's (you guessed it) ZX1. At 8.3 ounces, the black metal body is weighty in the hand and feels really sturdy, while the textured leatherette back adds much-needed grip. Its profile is longer and thicker than a smartphone, and that extra weight helps keep it from slipping. But it is a little awkward, especially if you're trying to put it in a pocket.
The 3.5mm audio jack is ringed in bright gold, which is Sony making sure you know you're holding something premium. Not everyone's going to love the ZX2's looks, but if you're into the whole industrial-luxe stereo aesthetic—and, yes, that's a thing; see McIntosh preamps or anything from Krell—you'll probably be into it. I dig it.
The interface is another story entirely.
The ZX2 runs a heavily modified version of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, which feels outdated on the new device. Using an existing operating system is a great idea, since Sony can be confident it's going to work and can focus its energy on the features that matter—but using one from late 2012 seems underwhelming. You can download apps from the Google Play store, meaning the ZX2 will run the streaming services you're already using to get your music. It can even be used like a tiny tablet in a pinch.
Things such as dedicated equalizer controls and tons of different ways to sort your music are baked into the new experience and add to the serious audiophile cred, but the overall experience was laggy and left me frustrated on multiple occasions. Whether it was waiting for album art to fill the screen or simple things like scrolling, the ZX2 often felt half-a-second behind.
The 4-inch screen is only 854 x 480 pixels and has relatively low contrast; by comparison the Samsung Galaxy S6 is only 1 inch larger but boasts 2560 x 1440 resolution with insane colors. I know that a beautiful display isn't mission-critical in a dedicated audio player, but on a supposedly top-tier device, no corners should be cut.
I do appreciate the addition of a MicroSD slot, letting you expand on the 128 GB hard drive, which could fill up quickly with those bigger hi-fi music files. A single album can be more than a gigabyte in the massive DSD format, and you could be looking at as few as 1,500 songs at that quality level.
When I first picked up the ZX2, I was excited about the physical buttons sunk into the right side; not having to dig into menus or turn on a screen to play/pause or skip tracks sounded appealing. In practice, I found it hard to get used to them after having used touchscreen controls for so long. Some people still might love them, but I could take or leave them.
The ZX2 sounds incredible. Period.
My testing process was pretty straightforward. I plugged in a pair of Sony MDR-1A headphones ($300), kicked back, and hit play. My demo Walkman came loaded with a pretty diverse selection of tunes, from Nine Inch Nails to Serge Gainsbourg to the Smiths, and it made my studio apartment feel like a concert hall. I could be faux-poetic and start describing the notes dancing around the huge soundstage, the bottomless pit of the music's negative space, and the shimmering of the quietest parts you'd never hear on compressed files. However, I'll leave it at that and say I was made a believer. Reclining on my Danish modern sofa, I closed my eyes and enjoyed every second. (OK, the couch is actually Ikea, but with the ZX2, the whole experience felt much classier.)
Out in the world, my excitement started to waver. On a walk to work with Upper East Side Manhattan street noise, during a quick trip on the subway, and even during an afternoon at a laid-back coffee shop with Sylvan Esso playing in the background, I found the ZX2's performance perfectly good but uninspiring. The music sounded exactly like what I could pump out of my iPhone 6. I even did a little side-by-side swap with some LCD Soundsystem tracks and couldn't tell the difference. There's just too much going on, too much ambient noise, and too many distractions to appreciate this level of fidelity outside a controlled environment. Even the most isolating headphones aren't going to get you to that full-on living room sound.
It's also important to remember that audio quality starts with the file you're playing. You can have thousands of dollars in gear, but if your files are poor quality, you can only do so much. To get the most out of the ZX2, you're probably going to need to rebuild your audio library to some extent. Those iTunes purchases, MP3s, and free streams will play just fine, but you're not going to notice nearly as big a difference as when you're playing AAC and DSD.
I love the idea of a high-end gadget that does only one thing and does it extremely well. But, while the ZX2 does provide outstanding audio quality, the limited practical benefits, burden of carrying another heavy device, and steep price tag all conspire against it. As for the $1,200 question? I'm going to have to give the Walkman ZX2 a pass.
This isn't to say I recommend retreating to free streaming services and EarPods. If you're interesting in getting more out of your music, invest in a good pair of headphones and keep your eyes on the pending music streaming war, as better-quality audio is likely to be one way different services will distinguish themselves. Soon you might be going hi-fi whether you want to or not.