With a streaming-capable smartphone in most pockets, it’d be easy to assume that the bottom has fallen out of the standalone media player segment altogether. Sony, though, would argue that’s an incorrect assumption, and point to its long-standing Walkman line as evidence of that. Latest to join the clan is the Sony Walkman NW-ZX300, freshly unveiled at IFA 2017 in Berlin.
You might not have realized it, but Sony has been pushing out quite a number of Walkman models over the past couple of years. Unsurprisingly, their styling has drifted in the same direction of the better-known Xperia smartphones, until at first glance you could mistake media player for something more capable.
So, my big question as I donned a set of headphones and prepared to give the NW-ZX300 a quick audition in the hardly-conducive environs of the Sony booth was whether the Walkman could still offer something sufficiently compelling to make me want to add a second device to my pockets. Turns out, if you have the right music and enough space in your bag, there could well be reason enough to double up.
It’s small, if your hand has grown used to sizable smartphones, though a little chunky. Sony’s argument is that the extra girth is to accommodate audiophile-spec hardware: an S-Master HX digital amplifier, OFC internal cabling between that and the headphone jack, and a double-layer capacitor for power. The signal to noise ratio has been cut by splitting the audio and power/digital block on the circuit board, while a higher quality audio resistor has been implemented for the headphone output’s LC filter.
In short, by focusing down on just music, Sony’s engineers have been able to give playback more attention than it might commonly get in a fuller-featured smartphone. The result is 11.2MHz DSD native playback and 384kHz/32-bit PCM playback. If you’d rather go wireless, there’s Bluetooth and support for the newer aptX HD audio codec.
Listening to a media player during a trade show like IFA isn’t the most ideal situation, but the NW-ZX300 did its level best to impress. Sony had loaded a selection of MQA and FLAC files, across a variety of genres, and the high-res audio delivered some punchy bass and high-end sparkle. Really, though, you need to settle down in calmer territories to give the Walkman its due deference.
Whether that’s something you’re willing and able to do will depend on how music fits into your lifestyle. Sony’s pitch makes most sense to audio-fans who want to take time out to enjoy their tracks; it’ll even act as a USB-DAC when plugged into your PC, so you can take advantage of its amp and such with audio stored there. Of you’re more in the habit of throwing on some tunes while you wait for the bus, mind the NW-ZX300 is probably overkill.
Of course, if you’re anything less than completely dedicated there are other options which don’t require carrying a second device. The new LG V30, for instance, is the latest of the company’s high-end smartphones to have an impressive DAC onboard. Sony’s own Xperia range has borrowed audio tech from the Walkman team, and while you won’t get the same from an Xperia XZ1 as the NW-ZX300 delivers, you do get things like aptX HD support.
That makes the $699.99 sticker Sony is expecting the Walkman NW-ZX300 to arrive with look steep. The Walkman certainly isn’t dead – there’s value indeed in quality hardware, a music-dedicated UI that’s clean and easy to navigate, and plenty of physical controls you can operate in a pocket – but its niche is only getting smaller.