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Sony HAP-Z1ES - A Hi-Rez Media Streamer (Part 1)

1/29/2014 10:07:12 AM
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Music server

The HAP-Z1ES is a serious statement of intent from Sony. This is flagship stereo hi-fi, but the fact you’re looking at a server and not a CD player shows modernity and gives an indication that the Japanese giant is taking the future of music consumption seriously. The Z1ES sits at the very top of a whole new range of hi-fi components from Sony, all of which tie in with the company’s push to support high-resolution audio. As such, the Z1ES copes with virtually every audio format and sample rate on the planet, including WAV, FLAC, AIFF and DSD (Direct Stream Digital, see Jargon Buster) format.

Sony HAP-Z1ES

Sony HAP-Z1ES

Full control of source material

The HAP-Z1ES is a very interesting machine. The internal 1TB hard drive brings a slightly different approach to streaming compared with stand-alone products from the likes of Naim and Cyrus. While their servers are more than happy to play music from a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device, the Sony isn’t. In fact it won’t stream any music this way because Sony wants you to store it all on that 1TB hard drive. It’s more of a closed ecosystem, which won’t please everyone, but you can see where Sony is coming from. Music on a PC requires the computer to be on at all times and you need to rely on a network connection during playback – the internal hard drive method means there’s no danger of buffering issues, and stability is improved.

To get started, you’ll need to install Sony’s HAP Music Transfer software on your PC or Mac. You can then specify which music folders you want the software to access (and which file formats to transfer), and the software does the rest, moving all those files onto the server’s hard drive. It’s a simple yet effective way of organizing things. Every time you add new music to the folder, it’s scanned and transfers across, which also helps minimize hassle.

No-frills handset

The supplied remote is minimalist and thin. Part of us admires the simplicity the other part thinks this plasticky, cheap wand isn’t good enough given the streamer’s beautiful finish. There are just simple playback controls and ones for volume which you can use if you hook the server up to Sony’s matching $3289 stereo amplifier, the TA-A1ES.

Sony HAP-Z1ES

Sony HAP-Z1ES

As a flagship product, the HAP-Z1ES fits the bill. It’s modern and retro at the same time, with the neatly finished aluminum chassis and thick front panel giving off a premium vibe. The front of the unit is dominated by a large 4.3in LCD display. It’s a good size – bright and punchy, with plenty of room on there for album artwork as well as track information.

The jog dial lets you scroll through the menus but you don’t press it to select. There’s a separate ‘enter’ button to the side, which takes a little getting used to. Sony says including push-to-select would have introduced unwanted resonance into the player’s structure and hindered its sound.

Connectivity is very basic. There’s a USB socket around the back, so you can add an external hard drive if that terabyte of storage isn’t enough. There’s a standard analogue audio output, or you can connect to a stereo amplifier via the balanced XLR output. There’s also an ethernet port to get the server hooked up to your network for when it needs to transfer files.

The HAP-Z1ES is one of the first servers we’ve reviewed to support DSD files and we’re straight into that format with some Marvin Gaye and What’s Going On. You’re immediately drawn in by the streamer’s invitingly smooth and refined character. Gaye’s voice sounds polished and yet there’s plenty of emotion to tap into. The soundstage is solid, with instruments convincingly placed, and the Sony extracts plenty of detail from the DSD stream. You could ask for a bit more bite and attack, but it’s by no means weak or insipid.

Eccentric insulator of Sony HAP-Z1ES

Eccentric insulator of Sony HAP-Z1ES

It’s not just high-res music that impresses through the Sony. Play a standard 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV rip of Daft Punk’s Lose Yourself to Dance and the HAP-Z1ES shows a nice funky fluidity. Pharrell’s high-pitched vocal peaks without any hardness or harshness, Bass notes sound weighty and rounded, with even the subtle ones in the background making their presence felt. The repetitive strumming on the lead guitar sounds tight, distinct and punctuates the track perfectly.

Similarly, with Adele’s Someone Like You, that effortless and enjoyable delivery continues. Adele’s beautiful vocal sounds rich and intimate, flowing as smoothly and clearly as the melodic piano playing. The Sony does a great job of communicating the emotion and heartbreak of the song without sounding mannered.

Part of the Sony’s internal wizardry is its DSD Remastering engine, which converts all music files to DSD, supposedly improving sound quality in the process. Thanks to the latest software update, you have the option of turning it on or off, so during testing we experimented to see if we could hear any differences. Turned off, music seems to have a slightly edgier, more attacking character. Switched on, the Sony goes for a fuller, slightly smoother sound with greater body. You lose a little in terms of attack, but we preferred the balance with it switched on.

 
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