Review: Sony NW-WM1Z, MDR-Z1R, TA-ZH1ES – Los tres tomodachis

leDisclaimer: I borrowed Sony MDR-Z1R, NW-WM1Z and TA-ZH1ES  from Sony HQ, in big Tokyo. They returned to Osaki on the 11th of this month. Big thanks to Sony for organizing the loan, as well as an interview, which Headfonia will publish in the soon time.

Update: along with changing ‘pleather’ to ‘leather’ or ‘sheepskin’, I refined what I said into hopefully clearer English. 

A recent trip to Sony HQ showed me just how damn hard Sony’s engineers work, think, and plan. Parts of the MDR-Z1R, for instance, were in planning, production, and engineering phases for over a decade. And it shows. It’s a phenomenally engineered headphone with the sort of polish that comes only with great effort.

Under Sony’s slick exterior is a gruff go-get-em’ attitude. Under that is hella poise. Beneath that is elbow grease, ancient know-how, and a little engine that could. From the bottom to the tippiest top of the market, Sony challenge entrenched products. Today challengers are a headphone, a DAC, and a DAP, each Sony’s finest.

DAP: NW-WM1Z – 3200$ USD. All about it here: Premium Walkman® with High-Resolution Audio NW-WM1Z

Headfonia: Review: Sony WM1Z Walkman – Splendid!
ohm image: RMAA: Sony NW-WM1Z 24-bit

The attention to detail paid this DAP’s physical and UI design is staggering. And I don’t necessarily mean the gold- although that’s got an allure all its own. The NW-WM1Z sports as intuitive an interface as I’ve used in a portable DAP. It is responsive to touch, button presses, and it fits in the hand perfectly, landing important hardware UI elements right under the thumb and forefinger. Getting to important settings generally requires no more than two button presses.

Volume up and play buttons are indicated by tight and perky nipples. Each button also sits in wells, some of which are bored out farther, or deeper, to indicate functionality, even blind. Then there are the well-spaced ports, both of which sit flush and in strong wells and on opposite sides of the device. I’m not a big 4,4mm guy myself, but damn, did Sony do a good job speccing a robust balanced standard. And the NW-WM1Z’s non-slip back keeps the player steady in the hand, on the desk, and/or atop the TA-ZH1ES. Its screen isn’t as good as a smartphone screen: it washes out when angled. But then, Sony’s focus was sound not display quality.

And, as Berkhan adroitly explained, this DAP sounds good. It is also one of a handful of medium to high-end DAPs with a recognisable sound signature. The audiophile term for what I hear is liquid, which usually indicates measurable aberration. Sony engineers explained to me that the NW-WM1Z was designed to sound good rather than just measure well.

They designed and manufactured the silicon FGPA running it all and the myriad hardware and software enhancements behind what you hear. Aside from higher levels of hiss than usual for a device of this price, I’m ecstatic about what I hear. Mids are a warm with higher distortion than I tend to prefer, but god, damn, that, too, must have been on Sony’s agenda, because as a package, it just works. They didn’t just look at a 16 or 24-bit spec sheet and say: we must achieve this. (Although, the measurebator in me wishes they did.) They took general bit-level spec sheets as a guidepost and designed their sound from there, with their own silicon, and all of it marked up by their unique audio fingerprint.

The overall balance is more liquid than typical for a modern DAP whose chips hedge toward state of the art rather than NOS. But it’s not as chalky or warm as a first-gen AK100 or iPhone 4. Listen, I have no idea where the liquidy sound comes from. But it’s there. And it nails every music I throw at it. In single ended, the WM1Z can spit out a damn detailed stereo image, topping out somewhere around 90dB, or bottoming out around 80dB, load dependent. This surpasses the great bulk of my favourite DAPs and a few good amps, the Vorzüge PURE/DUO among them. Move on up to balanced, and 90dB becomes closer to 110dB.

Sadly, the single-ended output doesn’t hold a candle to its balanced counterpart when pushing loads. It distorts more and earlier on, and suffers a more compressed stereo image. It sounds damn good, but it isn’t a single ended out that stands on its own, nor challenges balanced as really well implemented single ended outputs can. This compromise is the NW-WM1Z’s biggest failing, though admittedly, it’s not huge, and volume matched with, say, an Astell&Kern AK380, I’ll be damned if anyone can find fault with it.

Comprised. But in light of how well it sounds, I’m down with that compromise.

MDR-Z1R after the jump:

3.9/5 - (30 votes)

Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.


  • Reply September 26, 2017


    “The only thing I dislike is the pleather pads. ”

    I think they’re made of sheepskin.

    • Reply September 26, 2017

      ohm image

      That’s what Sony say. But they don’t feel like sheepskin of any quality. They feel exactly like high grade protein leather.

  • Reply September 26, 2017

    ohm image

    However, point taken. I will indicate that in the text body. Thank you.

    • Reply September 26, 2017


      Ah, it felt like pleather too for some of my friends. However given how easy it is to bust them on this, I doubt Sony, an entity that can’t run away from a lawsuit, would risk this.

      Enough audiophile stuff gets claimed by random small boutique companies(quantum-physics based stickers that help audio quality… it’s real) that once brought to court would just disappear. I think bigger corporations like Sony or Sennheiser are a bit more reliable in this regard. But it would help if somebody checks to see whether it’s really sheepskin.

      Beautiful photography of the MDR-Z1R. It’s a tricky headphone to photograph… the grill pattern tend to create moire in cameras… most of the press shots I’ve seen tend to display that.

      • Reply September 27, 2017

        ohm image

        You may be right. But here in Japan, many things pass for leather that are not leather, nor even close to it. There are many words used in substitute for the real thing which indicate things that are totally fake. So, you may well be right, and it is probably fair to trust Sony generally.

        • Reply September 27, 2017


          They specifically use the kanji 本革/hongawa (real leather) on their website interviews. If they are pleather I think they are opening themselves wide up for lawsuits.

          • Reply September 28, 2017

            ohm image

            Yes, thank you. I saw that on their website, and still was confused about it. They feel great, but nowhere as nice as what I’ve used normally that’s called ‘sheepskin’.

            Awesome comfort otherwise.

  • Reply November 15, 2017


    Nice and valuable information!!

    Thank you!!

  • Reply November 22, 2017


    Super information!! Thank you very much 🙂

  • Reply March 9, 2018


    Hi Nathan, thanks for the great reviews!! I always find the reviews on Headfonia more reliable/enjoyable/easy-to-read than any other sources.

    I have a question please. I have v281, which I primarily uses the balanced out only. If I were to sell my beloved precious v281 and buy TA-ZH1ES instead, would I be wanting more from TA-ZH1ES’s balanced out? The recent prices on TA-ZH1ES is so attractive that I’ve been contemplating this, but being spoiled by the superb balanced out of v281 I am just not sure if I can ever be satisfied again with any other amps. My current headphones are HD800S, LCD-2C, HD600 and I’m saving for Utopia.

    • Reply March 12, 2018

      ohm image

      I’m sorry, but I personally haven’t used the V281. I think that Lieven has. Sony’s FGPA system is wonderful and I’m keen on the TA-ZH1ES but I can’t recommend it over your system as I have no anecdotal point of reference. Apologies.

      • Reply March 18, 2018


        I really appreciate your candid response!

  • Reply May 29, 2018


    Very good information!!

    Thank you!

  • Reply June 6, 2018


    Immerse yourself in exceptional sound with the premium NW-WM1Z Walkman, a High Resolution MP3 player for those in pursuit of beautifully balanced audio. Awesome article! I want people to know just how good this information is in your article. It’s interesting content.

  • Reply November 21, 2019


    Finally got to read it, and actually it is a nice idea to review the trio together, but tho a bit in mthe back of my mind I also desire the usual depth and comparison from this site, and still an enjoyable read tho ????

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.