sony 1Sony’s Walkman came on stream in 1980 to rewrite air travel comfort, and the brand dominated the market through cassettes and CDs until it was hit for six by MP3. Suddenly iRiver was the brand de jour. Then came the iPod juggernaut of 2001.

“Sonys and iRivers sounded better than iPods and ran longer between charges, but iPods killed them stone cold dead,” a seasoned salesman told me. “We couldn’t give them away. The staff did very well out of them.”

I gave up portable music about then because portables all operated with compression formats like MP3 and AAC, meaning flat, colourless music that generated all the pleasure of cleaning the drains. But lately I’ve been thinking about them again. I spend lots of time on planes and I figure it should by now be possible to get CD sound quality out of a digital portable. So are there any digital media players these days that sound as good as the portable CD players of, oh, two decades ago? Ones that will do justice to good noise-cancelling headphones?

Sony 2The answer is yes, but you really have to look hard. The big retailers only seem to carry cheapies that sound awful, explaining that everyone uses their phones for music these days. Which I guess means that everyone is still listening to flat, colourless music.

What I want is compatibility with high definition formats like FLAC, ALAC and WAV, the formats of choice among the high definition on-line music libraries like Linn Records, HD Tracks and Tidal. Music recorded in these formats takes up lots of memory, but that’s okay, memory is cheap and compact these days.

So I looked at an iPod Touch at the Apple shop. Memory goes up to 64 gigabytes for $419, and you get 40 hours of audio between charges, certainly enough to keep me happy. But when you’re recording at the highest quality possible 64 gigs is not enough, not when your musical tastes are so eclectic that you flip between Iron Maiden and Arvo Part.

To get 128 gigs I’d have to buy an iPhone 6 for $1000, with up to 80 hours audio between charges. But I don’t want a phone. And then I discover none of the Apple devices read FLAC or ALAC anyway, ruling out downloads from Linn Records for one. They do handle Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV.

And so to the Sony shop. The NWZX2 offers 128 gigs and 33 hours between charges running FLAC in the choice of 192-kiloHertz/64-bit definition, or 96/24 – both way better than CD’s 44.1/16. There’s also Apple Lossless. You get almost 54 hours of recording with 96/24 while 192/64 yields 27. But here’s the thing; the ZX2’s memory is expandable because it takes micro SDHC cards of up to 32 gigs.

Sony 3How much space do a few micro SDHC cards take up in your carry-on? How much do they weigh? That’s practically none and practically nothing respectively. Okay, but 32-gig micro SDHC cards cost anywhere from $30 each and they sure are easy to lose down the back of a plane seat.

Worse is the cost of the ZX2. $1599. It concentrates the mind wonderfully. There’s a cheaper version, the NWXXX1 at $799 and it’s 128 gigs, but there’s no slot for a micro SD. Both prices seem way over the top to me, but what else is there? And on my experience you’ll only find it at a Sony shop or a specialist hi fi store, which means paying full tilt.

The ZX2 is just like a phone and does pretty much everything a phone does except for making calls and taking pictures. Email, browsing, mapping, it’s all here. But it weighs significantly more and that’s because there are some very sophisticated electronics inside. This is the best sounding portable I’ve ever heard by a country mile, and there’s only one downside of that; you’d be foolish to skimp on headphones so budget at least $400 there. So, two grand all up.

Sony’s quick start guide is dreadful and its on-line help is poor. The software is unintuitive and takes a lot of patience. You forgive this when you listen. It’s a revelation, a five star, triple-wonderful with bullet. Okay the price is way over the top; I want one anyway.

Published May 2015

 

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