An MP3 player in 2019?
That was the first reaction when I showed someone my new Sony NW-ZX300 Walkman.
Yeah, they still make them. Yes, I paid that much for it. No, it doesn't have Spotify/Tidal.
In a conscious effort to get out of the music streaming ethos, I had decided that actually purchasing music was the way forward. And one way to commit to that was to ditch the phone as a portable music source and get a DAP (dedicated audio player).
Well, that was one of the reasons I told myself to justify the purchase...
For around $650-$800, the Sony NW-ZX300 Walkman is a no nonsense DAP. Audio files go in (FLAC, DSD, MP3, WAV etc), glorious music comes out. No Android OS, streaming, apps or games (read: distractions and detractions). Physical buttons for volume, pause/play and skip. Milled aluminium construction. That's what I love about it, refined simplicity.
Two headphone outputs. 3.5mm single ended and the 4.4mm Pentaconn balanced out, with power outputs of 50mW and 200mW at 16Ω respectively. With high gain activated, there is plenty of power to drive all but the hungriest headphones. For its intended portable use with earbuds or in-ears, I'll tap out from pain before I run out of steam.
Wireless connectivity is great, with the LDAC and aptX HD providing CD quality over the Blueteeth. The ZX300 surprised me by being able to function as a Bluetooth receiver, meaning I could stream music from Tidal on my phone to the Walkman.
64GB of internal storage and a microSD expansion slot means I have plenty of space for my currently limited music supply. You can use the Sony Media Centre to copy files onto it or the old school "drag'n'drop" works perfectly for me.
There's a bunch of audio processing goodies that can be applied too. 10 band EQ or tone control to shape the music as well as an upscaler, turntable and analogue amplifier emulators and a volume normaliser. "Direct" is where I spend most of my time though, occasionally flipping on the EQ to try something new.
The screen is matte glass, which is amazing at rejecting fingerprints. At only 800 x 480, the image quality isn't going to knock your socks off. The capacitive touch panel is responsive and more than enough pixels to display album art, or the sexy VU metres that rhythmically swings with the beat.
Once I had loaded it up with tunes, I threw all the single ended 3.5mm headphones I had at it.
The clarity and openness is what blew me away. The instrument separation and dynamics are next level. My old portable rig was my phone (Nexus 5X) with the Fiio Q1 strapped to the back of it. The ZX300 is a huge leap ahead, in sound quality and portability. Having this level of audio resolution and authority in a single, hand held device with a 20+ hour battery life is outstanding.
My hard to drive headphones like the Audio Technica ATH-R70x and Hifiman HE400 got to ear damagingly loud levels off the 50mW 3.5mm output, but need more grunt to really shine. Some replacement cables for those two will grant me access to the extra 150mW offered from the balanced output.
Knowing I'd need some new cables and/or headphones to listen to the 4.4mm output, I grabbed the VE Monk+ SPC 120Ω terminated with the Pentaconn plug and a new cable for my IEMs. I tried my ATH-E40 with both jacks, allowing me to understand what this balanced malarkey was all about.
The balanced output is where its at. More power and control with less crosstalk between channels increase soundstage presentation and precision, making this the best way to use the ZX300. The difference is there and it's audible. If you haven't dabbled into the world of balanced audio, it is worth it.
Just a quick aside, the 4.4mm Pentaconn connector is amazing. Its sturdy five poles slide into the jack with a satisfying thud. It should be the new standard for all balanced headphone connections.
With a choice of either LDAC and aptX HD for lossless Bluetooth, I paired it to my B&W PX with impressive results with both codecs. After coming from low quality SBC Bluetooth, the additional resolution and depth was instantly noticeable and welcome.
As you can tell, I'm thoroughly enjoying this little Sony Walkman. A huge stack of portable gear lashed together is cool and all, but being able to slim everything down and carry a single, highly capable unit as polished as the ZX300 in your pocket makes putting in some headphones and pressing play so easy.
Having a dedicated device for music playback is a luxury purchase, with phones getting better and better at music playback. But stepping back from the world of mobile phones and their interruptions, a DAP lets you get into the music and away from reality. It's just different somehow.
Long live the Walkman.