Like a grand old dinosaur that’s being left behind by the evolution of the tech industry, Sony is in desperate recovery mode here at IFA. The company has new phones, a rather nice pair of noise-canceling headphones, the imminent PS VR, and... a truly outlandish combo of music player and headphones that costs a mighty $5,499.98. I guess there had to be some outlet for Sony’s classic wild-eyed grandeur.
Sony’s new Signature audio series consists of the gold-plated NW-WM1Z Walkman, which weighs in at 455g (1lb) and $3,200, the $2,300 MDR-Z1R closed-back headphones, and a desktop headphone amp whose price I haven’t even dared to look up. First impressions? The portable media player barely qualifies to be called portable. This new 256GB Walkman glints beautifully under IFA’s bright lights, and its hefty case is machined to a perfect finish, but its weight is overwhelming. I simultaneously love it for its looks and hate it for its impracticality. Typical Sony, then!
Who needs practicality when you can have a gold-plated Walkman?
The headphones are a merciful 385g (14oz) and sit very lightly on the head. Their comfort is irreproachable, but I’m a bit more dubious about the need for a four-stranded Kimber Kable to hook Sony’s two new products together. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the sheer excess on display here, but that’s the sort of thing that wears off rather quickly, leaving people with a setup that’s bulky, heavy, and not nearly mobile enough to be shown off to the maximum number of people.
All that being said, when Sony decides to build a kickass set of headphones, it usually does a pretty good job, and the Z1R do indeed sound dramatic and dynamic. Their bass response goes deep (and may be a little elevated for the sake of a more thrilling sound), while vocals come through forcefully and prominently. I didn’t listen to them long enough to draw firm conclusions, but the WM1Z plus Z1R combo was certainly not laid back — Sony says it wants you to feel the music rather than just hear it, and its tuning appears to be in the service of that goal.
'Sony Signature' is the perfect name for this over-engineered opulence
I’m probably being silly in trying to assess Sony’s Signature series in the usual manner. It’s rather obvious that Sony is aiming to delight fans of its brand and its signature over-engineered opulence. Comparing these against things like the recent $999 Focal Elear misses the point of why you’d buy the Sony set. Getting Sony’s solid-copper, gold-plated Walkman along with its partnering headphones is a rather opulent approach to obtaining a matched set of audio gear. It’s the sort of thing you’d probably dedicate a room — or at least a corner — of your house to. Listening to it would be a ceremony. The UI lag (yes, the Android-based software is slow) would be like waiting for a fine wine to mature.
Lest you think Sony has skimped on any of the construction here, the headphones feature magnesium diaphragms with aluminum-coated edges, sheepskin ear pads, and a titanium headband. A solid block of oxygen-free copper sits beneath the gold veneer of the Walkman, which can play practically every music format, and runs for 26 hours while playing back FLAC files or 11 hours with the highest-quality DSD files.
A lot of the cost of Sony's new Signature series goes into obtaining the best materials and achieving the highest quality. But we'd be kidding ourselves if we thought that would be the reason for people to own a set. This is a pair of extravagant gadgets whose appeal resides in that very extravagance.