You couldn’t get near the Emilai table for most of the weekend. The queue was nearly always at least three deep. The reason? The Oppo PM-1 and its ‘companion’ HA-1 DAC/headphone amplifier.
Fortunately, an invite to a private listening session of this very same combo had fallen into my lap not 24 hours earlier. Across town, I’d tagged along with some very eager Head-Fi-ers to pay a visit to Kono-san at Oppo Digital Japan‘s HQ. After a brief listen, it had me thinking about how Alex Rosson (of Audeze) might not be sleeping as well as he once did. It might lack the scale and overall resolve of the LCD-whatevers but the PM-1 is a headphone that’s lighter on the head and easier to drive. And depending on where you live, it’s cheaper too. Kono-san tells me that the local price will be equivalent to around US$1500. That’s more than the USA, a smidge less than Australia and whole chunk o’ change cheaper than the UK.
Back at the Emilai booth, ‘Technology Evangelist’ Matsuura-san handed me a pair of PM-1 to try with my Astell&Kern AK120. There was no issue with foot-to-the-floor power but the presentation lacked effervescence – too meek, too mild. The top end of the PM-1 isn’t the airiest I’ve heard but you could turn that around claim greater acquiescence with longer listening sessions. Perhaps Oppo envisaged the use of tighter/brighter smartphones as providing cayenne sprinkles.
I called upon the more vigorous energy of an ALO Audio headphone amplifier. Strapped neatly to the back of the AK120, Ken Ball’s International+ extended proceedings at both ends of the frequency spectrum for an altogether more satisfying PM-1 experience. This was closer to that which I’d heard with the HA-1 at the wheel.
AK240 owners shouldn’t need to phone-a-friend for to bring the Oppo orthos to life. The top of the line Astell&Kern DAP is considerably livelier and more resolving than the warmer, softer AK120. The AK240 more tonally vivid too. And if you want to go all out with showpony head-fi, Astell&Kern will sell you a ‘gold’ AK240 for close to three thousand clams.
The JVC/Kenwood table was also super popular and it took me three attempts to get a sit down. Here, another bombastic-sounding portable DAC/amplifier is coming to market and the SU-AX7’s engineer, Miwa-san, was on hand to talk me through it: is similar in size to CEntrance’s HiFi-M8, packs line, USB and optical digital inputs and (unusually) uses an AKM chip for D/A conversion. Switchable gain and ‘K2’ DSP sound enhancement round out a comprehensive feature set. No word on availability beyond Japan but there it will sell for the equivalent of US$600.
The loooooong Sony table was staffed by as many product engineers as sales guys; you can talk with the designer of the product at hand. That’s almost as impressive as the number of exhibitors who speak superb English. I had no issue conversing with Nishino-san, the engineering brains behind the PHA-2. I covered this portable DAC/headphone amplifier when it launched in 2013 but its build quality and feature set still impress almost a year on: 24/192 PCM, single- and double-rate DSD, two master clocks handling a PCM1795 converter. The roll-cage keeps the volume pot and your headphone jack out of harm’s way. Its sound was warm, rich and chock full of tonal mass, far more congealed and thicker than the Sony NWZ-ZX1 to which I had it digitally lassoed (using Sony’s proprietary connector) . The NWZ-ZX1 sounds altogether crisper, airier, lighter.
For my money, Sony’s flagship Walkman is one of the most impressive DAPs to date. Sony made a smart move with the operating system by customising Android to their needs instead of starting from scratch. Android also brings with it the ability to run apps as you would on a smartphone (WiFi only) and that means Spotify, Deezer, MOG/Beats or whatever streaming service floats your boat – a killer blow to the competition.
Some nitpickers have complained about the NWZ-ZX1’s 128Gb internal storage not being expandable but the numerous positives of this ~US$780 unit will likely cast such complaints into the shade: it feels great in the hand, the rubberised grip on the rear means you won’t drop it easily and the screen, although not the best of the best, still looks gorgeous. I’m told a recent firmware update brought DSD playback into the picture but even with Redbook content this Walkman sounds detailed, clean and a thinner tonal mass (than the PHA-2) sees layer separation jump out as one of its primary talents.