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.
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.