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

TA-ZH1ES – 2199$ USD. All about it here: Premium Headphone Amplifier with D.A. Hybrid Amplifier Circuit TA-ZH1ES

Sony cleared a space for this unit’s complicated internals from a single, large aluminium ingot. They did this to keep acoustic vibrations to a minimum. It’s heavy as hell, and solider than any DAC I’ve tried. You could throw it through the DAC I previously said you could throw through the solidest DAC I had tried at the time.

Into it you can plug a Hi-Res badged Sony DAPs, and out the back, it takes in optical, coaxial (RCA), and USB, as well as RCA analogue. Each is impeccably anchored, finished and spaced. But not a one holds a candle to the TA-ZH1ES’s front panel. Five outputs, two single-ended, three balanced, each installed in wide, heavy-duty berths.

Typical outputs: 4-pin XLR, 3,5mm, and 6,3mm hug the left side, Sony’s solutions: single 4,4mm and dual 3,5mm TRS jacks hug the right. Inputs and outputs are selected via buttons on the top panel. It’s a lot simpler than fiddling knobs, but more work than depressing discrete buttons.

It is heavy enough to stay firm no matter the headphone or source you’re plugging and unplugging, and overall a joy to use, if not lift. Sony nailed it.

And, they nailed power. Aside from the 10.000$ Goldmund Telos HDA, it is the only DAC that can overpower my ADC even at +24dBu. Of course, at that level, the TA-ZH1ES pushes a lot of aberrations into a signal that will blow your ears. It is powerful. Fortunately, it makes selecting any volume level from 0 to -99 easy as pie. The smooth-rotating attenuator governs an output that is channel balanced from the bottom to the top.

There is a lot of similarity to the NW-WM1Z: liquidy sound, lushity, and a penchant for linear stereo detail. These are the obvious outcomes of Sony’s specific design on sound. Despite its power, the TA-ZH1ES hisses only slightly: less than a Lynx HILO, and less even than the NW-WM1Z. HILO is a bit warmer and softly grained than is neutral, while the Sony is warm but a bit brighter in a liquid sense than is neutral. This makes for a good match with the W-a-r-m MDR-Z1R.

Its balanced outputs present a detailed, wide, and deep stereo scape. It’s rare to get such a neutral, frequency-equal response from mids, bass, and treble, no matter the load and no matter the volume. If you’ve got the ear for it, you’ll find deep z-axes combined with even-Stephen sound pressure from top to bottom that will render great detail from environments both large and small.

Like the NW-WM1Z, the TA-ZH1ES’s balanced output is better able to hold signal under load than its single-ended output, which raises the question: did Sony design these units around a balanced circuit which was then jerry rigged to work with single-ended headphones?

While you will find greater power, especially for insensitive headphones, the TA-ZH1ES is less well mated to sensitive, low-Ω headphones and earphones, into which it can push quite a bit of distortion. At normal listening volumes, the distortion doesn’t really matter, but I think that some sharp-eared listeners with earphones like the Earsonics SM2 or Shure SE846 may detect certain anomalies, especially in the upper midrange, and when pushing volumes up near the Chase Emory levels, surely will detect IMD shears.

Because of this, I recommend the TA-ZH1ES for headphones in excess of 50Ω. Because it outputs little hiss, and because its signal balances well even at near-0 volume levels, sensitivity isn’t an issue. Clearly, however, this unit’s weakness is earphones.

Despite the above issues, of the three units, this is my favourite. It is just so well designed, and when everything is on, sounds so damn good, and is so damn easy to use that I just wanted to listen and listen and listen. And, it mates really well with my favourite headphones from Beyerdynamic and MyST, not to mention Grado. I wish my Lynx HILO was as well designed for plug/unplug, and had as nicely machined a body and an array of outputs that came anywhere close.

You won’t find ultimate performance by any reference standard from it, but that appears to be a recurring theme tying together their greatest DAP, DAC, and headphones. I couldn’t find a way to coax the TA-ZH1ES above 106dB dynamic range – which already over-stressed IMD – but my measurement system is amateur. And it’s got an actual sound signature at its heart, which is atypical for SS DACs in this price range.

End words

Each of the above are polished above anything on the market. But polish does not itself make a product. The TA-ZH1ES, while supremely powerful, and in some arenas, the most impressively engineered of the three, is the least sonically polished. Still, it is easier to use, better integrated, and ergonomically spot on than just about anything on the market on which I’ve laid hands. Sony did their homework- most of it at least. For me, a MDR-Z1R with higher sound pressure up top would yank me into the fold. Better performance from the TA-ZH1ES’s single-ended outs would do it for the desktop. And the NW-WM1Z? Lower the noise floor and I’m in.

These are solid, well thought-out products that deserve both the praise and skepticism heaped upon them.

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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.

16 Comments

  • Reply September 26, 2017

    Inka

    “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

      Inka

      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

          senshi

          http://www.sony.jp/headphone/special/park/products_m1/tech10.html

          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

    Henal

    Nice and valuable information!!

    Thank you!!

  • Reply November 22, 2017

    Washer

    Super information!! Thank you very much 🙂

  • Reply March 9, 2018

    BlackWF

    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

        BlackWF

        I really appreciate your candid response!

  • Reply May 29, 2018

    Henri

    Very good information!!

    Thank you!

  • Reply June 6, 2018

    Pooja

    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

    Sp12er

    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 😁

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