updated 06:25 am EST, Wed February 8, 2012
We get a feel for Sony's new music oriented range
Electronista has had the opportunity to go hands-on with the forthcoming Sony Walkman Z Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) media player and its core range of high-end Balanced Armature in-ear headphones. Although both product lines were announced late last year, due to the natural disasters in Japan and Thailand, Sony are only now in a position to bring them to the US and other markets. We came away impressed, but particularly with the new Balanced Armature earphones, which are the best in-ear headphones Sony has released.
The Walkman Z is Sony's first Android-powered Walkman product and it is a solid first-up attempt. Importantly, the focus of the device is music-first, although it does incorporate a vivid anti-reflective 4.3-inch LCD with a 800x640 resolution that is great for viewing movies on. Sony has built in its S-Master MX digital amplifier technology, which helps to set it apart from other devices which focus on audio signal processing to improve their sound quality. Here, Sony has opted for a hardware-first approach to improving sound quality by building in a better than average DAC (digital to analog converter) in the first instance. At the same time, it also offers its own signal processing technology to further enhance the listening experience by incorporating its Clear Audio Technologies.
The listening experience is excellent and lives up to Sony's long standing tradition of making high quality audio devices. The sound it produces is crystal clear, without any signs of distortion even when turned up to higher volumes. While it is definitely one of the better audio devices running on a modern mobile operating system, some audiophiles will be disappointed to note that it does not currently offer FLAC support in addition to support for MP3s, AAC and WMA files. It will, however, also play back Linear PCM files.
As an Android-based device, the Walkman Z incorporates a similar interface to Sony's Xperia line of smartphones currently running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). It offers full access to the Android market, including music and movies as well as incorporating Sony's own Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited subscription services. Additional music-specific features include a quick-access Walkman button situated on the side, much like Sony Ericsson's previous Walkman-branded handsets, as well as range of additional music enhancing settings including a built-in, manually adjustable, equalizer with pre-amp control. Listening to the Walkman Z with Sony's new XBA-3 headphones ramped up the listening experience several notches. The Walkman Z will be available this spring a 16GB model for $280.
Electronista was also given the opportunity to listen to Sony's new line of Balanced Armature headphones, in sequence. Each of the four core models the XBA-1 ($80), XBA-2 ($200), XBA-3 ($280) and XBA-4 ($350) incorporate a varying number of Sony's new micro-sized drivers (see image below) as the model name indicates. The size of each pair of headphones also increases correspondingly with the addition of each micro driver. Although the entry-level option, the XBA-1 is still an excellent pair of in-ear headphones. At the same price as the superseded EX Monitor headphones, they demonstrate a noticeable improvement in tone offering a less harsh and direct sound, but retaining all the detail and clarity that its 13mm driver produced. As one might expect, the addition of a discreet driver for the bass and a separate driver for the tweeter in the XBA-2 line produces an even better listening experience. The XBA-3 adds a discrete mid-range driver that produces a well-rounded and balanced listening experience that we found completely satisfying.
While still impressive we found the XBA-4, which also incorporates a 'super-woofer' bringing driver the count to four, to be the least natural sounding in the range. However, it will suit DJs and other music fans who listen music where the bass sound is emphasized. Regardless of the number of drivers, each of the new XBA line all preserved what can only be described as a beautiful tonal quality that will make them well worth the price of admission. The XBA-1 is still leaps and bounds ahead of most the standard in-ear headphones that ship with mobile devices and is excellent buying at $80. However, we found that the pick of the bunch was the XBA-3 and worth plumping for if you have the cash and love your music.
It is also worth noting that Sony also offers each of the new XBA headphones as a separate iPhone-compatible line, adding line-control functions, volume control and a mic for making phone calls.