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Sony HAP-Z1ES Hi-Res Music Player review

Leave digital music storage and playback to this outstanding component

Computers are amazing machines, but they aren’t optimized for audiophile sound quality. Compensating for their shortcomings means adding an external digital-to-analog converter, quality cables, and playback software capable of getting most from your music.

But there’s another option – the Sony HAP-Z1ES. It removes the computer from the playback chain while offering stunning sound and lots of storage in a single, high-performance component. It’s also compatible with high-resolution music files, for sound quality that eclipses CDs. Enticed by the prospect of amazing sound and freeing my computer up for other tasks, I excitedly took it home to check it out.

Sony HAP-Z1ES hi-res digital music server

The HAP-Z1ES hi-res digital music server.

Store your entire music library

With a built-in 1 TB hard disk drive under the hood, the HAP-1ES offers plenty of on-board storage – enough to hold around 23,000 CD-quality songs or more than 7,000 high-res recordings. Not enough? You can expand by adding an external hard drive connected via the rear-panel USB input. This drive must be formatted by the HAP-Z1ES – there’s no plug-and-play capability for using it with a computer.

Full-color display

A full-color display, large jog dial and selection buttons make navigating your music library easy and intuitive. There's also a free remote app for smartphones and tablets.

File transfer between your computer and the HAP-Z1ES (and a connected external hard drive) is done over your home network – either using the player’s built-in Wi-Fi or the Ethernet connection. You can use the free HAP Music Transfer software to automatically copy files to the player’s hard drive – it can even automatically scan for new music in a particular folder on a networked computer. Or, you can simply drag and drop files into the player’s memory with your computer.

File transfer is very slow. A wired connection speeds it up a bit. Once you’ve transferred your entire library, you won’t need to do it again except when you want to add new songs or albums.

Studio-quality sound with high-res playback

If you’re after top-performance sound from a digital (or any) source, you need to check out high-resolution music. Sites like HDtracks offer a huge selection of better-than-CD downloads. The HAP-Z1ES is compatible with high-res files up to 24-bit/192kHz. It also handles DSD files up to 5.6Mhz, so it’s good with just about any digital file you can throw at it.

Rear-panel connections included balanced XLR outputs

The HAP-Z1ES offers balanced and unbalanced analog outputs – the RCA outs will work with any amp or receiver, while the XLR outputs allow a low-noise balanced connection to high-end amps like Sony’s companion integrated amplifier, the TA-A1ES.

Built for serious sound quality

The first thing I noticed when I went to pick up the HAP-Z1ES in the Crutchfield Labs was how heavy it is. This thing is built like a tank and has the fit and finish you’d expect from audiophile-grade equipment. The gleaming silver finish of the streamlined chassis conceals the heavy-duty construction. Every component is designed and placed with an eye on minimizing distortion, from the separate large-capacity power transformers for digital and analog circuits to the dual-plated base and the rigid internal framing.

Test drive

With so much attention to detail in the design of this machine, my expectations were pretty high. Once I got it up and running, the HAP-Z1ES consistently surpassed them.

I compared it to my MacBook® which I paired with the Sony PHA-2 DAC – an excellent device in its own right. I sampled high-res and CD-quality tracks to see how much of an upgrade the HAP-Z1ES represents over a more than respectable digital front-end. Both sources were connected to my Onkyo stereo receiver via AudioQuest RCA cables.

Free Sony HDD Audio app

The free Sony HDD Audio app lets you control the player and view album art and file type and resolution on your smartphone or tablet.

I started out with the title cut from Paul Simon’s Graceland, a song I’ve often used as a reference track. I cued the song up on both the HAP-Z1ES and my MacBook with the PHA-2 DAC, so I could jump between each source for comparison. Before I even got a chance to compare, I knew the HAP-Z1ES was the clear winner. Immediately, my PSB Image T5 tower speakers sounded better than they ever have.

As good as the MacBook/PHA-2 combination is, every part of the performance was sharper with the HAP-Z1ES – vocals were clearer, the overall sound was cleaner, instrument separation was better, the soundstage was larger, and the background was dead quiet. More listening yielded the same results – the HAP-Z1ES is completely awesome. The PHA-2 is a very good DAC, but the HAP-Z1ES resoundingly trumped it by offering up more smoothness, deeper bass, and better overall clarity.

Excited by what I was hearing, I convinced my wife to humor me and listen to this fabulous machine. She’s not into all this audio business, but she could pinpoint the Z1ES’s ability to deliver exquisite vocal clarity. It wasn’t long before she wrested control of the player from me and was picking out music, getting caught up in this player’s outstanding sound.

DSD files offer up smooth sound

DSD is a format Sony originally developed for Super Audio CDs. It’s enjoyed a comeback lately thanks to the availability of DSD downloads and compatible equipment from Sony and other manufacturers. I had never listened to DSD files before, so I was excited to hear what all the fuss was about.

DSD compatible

I played a DSD file of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” a song I’m neither enamored with nor excited about after being bludgeoned by it continuously for years by classic rock radio stations. But listening to it in DSD with the HAP-Z1ES made me love that song like I never could before. Clapton’s classic guitar melody spread out across the width of the massive soundstage with lots of natural reverb ringing out. Every instrument was breathtakingly clear and meticulously placed in the massive soundstage. The lead vocal image was positively huge. When the backing vocals come in, the voices blended together beautifully while each remained clearly distinguishable. I felt like a producer in the studio listening to the master tapes.

The DAC inside the HAP-Z1ES can upsample all signals to DSD. I decided to see how much of a difference, if any, this upsampling would make. I cued up Wilco’s “Forget the Flowers,” a country-style acoustic tune. With the DSD remastering engine engaged, the bass sounded fuller, the vocal image got larger, and the soundstage had more depth. You may be well served to leave this setting on all the time.

App control with your smartphone or tablet

This player’s network connectivity lets you control the player with your smartphone or tablet using Sony’s free HDD Audio remote app. It makes it easy to search through a large music library stored on the player’s internal hard drive. The app is great, but I also loved using the front-panel jog dial and color display to scroll through music. I never had a reason to take the included remote out of the box.

Sony's HDD Audio remote app for Apple and Android

The remote app lets you browse your entire music library, choose from hundreds of Internet radio stations, and select a player-generated playlist based on your mood (SenseMe channels).

A network connection also lets you listen to free Internet radio stations. Honestly, I was so busy flying through music stored on the player’s hard drive, I didn’t even sample any online radio streams. But it’s a great feature to have if you just want to discover new music or simply let someone else play DJ for a while.

Free your stereo from your computer

Having ripped my entire CD collection to an external hard drive, my computer is my main source for music playback at home. While I love having my entire library at my fingertips, the HAP-Z1ES makes it even more convenient. It takes just a few seconds to boot up – my computer is slow to boot, and I have to open software to start playback. Plus, the computer’s fan can disrupt quiet musical passages with its noisy whirring. It’s also nice to have all your files backed up on the ‘Z1ES’s internal server, just in case your other storage device fails.

Most people (like me) use their computer for much more than just music. The HAP-Z1ES frees it up for homework, bill-paying, video-watching, and web surfing.

A lower-cost alternative

If you’re looking for a less expensive option, Sony’s HAP-S1 is a scaled-down version of the ‘Z1ES. It features a 500GB internal hard drive and also has a built-in amplifier for driving a pair of bookshelf speakers.

The bottom line

The best audio gear makes you want to run through your entire music collection to hear it be reborn. That’s exactly what I did with the Sony HAP-Z1ES – I couldn’t get enough of it. Every track I sampled brought a new thrill. And it took my high-resolution music to soaring new heights. Plus, I loved how it freed up my computer for other uses besides music listening. This superb all-in-one digital server/player has shot right to the top of my wish list.

  • David Brown from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/27/2017

    Jounster, this player is not compatible with Pandora or Slacker. You can only listen to streaming apps for which it has built-in support. Currently, that includes Spotify and TuneIn internet radio. You can use your iPhone for control, and the music will play through your connected speakers (you'll also need a receiver or amp, of course).

  • jounster from Eugene

    Posted on 6/25/2017

    Can music be streamed through the system bu an iPhone? For example, can I stream Pandora or Slacker radio through the phone apps and connect to the system (to use the good Bose speakers we have) to hear the music?

  • David Brown from Crutchfield

    Posted on 2/13/2017

    Randy, TIDAL is not available on the HAP-Z1ES. But Sony did add Spotify to the player via firmware update in 2016.

  • Randy from Denton

    Posted on 2/12/2017

    Can the HAP-A1ES be used to access online streaming services like TIDAL?

  • David Brown from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/7/2016

    Charles, you do need to connect this unit to your Wi-Fi network in order to use the remote app. A remote is included in the box for play/pause and track skipping. And you can navigate the menu system and your library using the front-panel controls. The scroll wheel is pretty effective at moving quickly through a large library, though the app is definitely easier.

  • Charles Bridges from Klamath Falls

    Posted on 12/5/2016

    I don't think the SONY player frees one entirely from the computer. Isn't Wi-Fi a necessity in order to use the app on an iPhone or iPad?

  • David Brown from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/30/2016

    Hi Jim, To answer your questions: Yes, yes, and yes! Sony has done a fantastic job of updating this player to add new features. There's only one USB connection, so if you wanted to do all three of these, you'll need to get a powered USB hub. Check Sony's support site for details on the latest firmware update.

  • Jim Ryan from Auburn

    Posted on 11/19/2016

    (1) Does the current firmware for this unit permit the use of an external DAC? (2) Can CDs be loaded directly into the HAP-z1es via USB Mac CD drive? (3) There is mention of a USB drive attached for backup of files. Can a USB drive be attached to the HAP-z1es for direct access and playing of music files stored on the attached drive? thank you!

  • David Brown from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/31/2016

    Joel, you can connect an external hard drive to the HAP-Z1ES's rear USB port. Then you can back up music files stored on the player's internal hard drive onto the external drive. This feature was added through a firmware update a while back. Click the link for specifics: http://docs.esupport.sony.com/homeav/Hi-Res_Audio/HAPS1_guide/en/contents/TP0000222026.html

  • Joel Wolf from Katonah

    Posted on 10/29/2016

    How do I back up files that are on the Sony HAP-Z1ES? I understand that the build quality is excellent, but drives fail. I would not wish to repeat the process of creating 1TB of music on another device.

  • David Brown from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/14/2016

    Joe, I'd say the biggest difference is build quality. The HAP-Z1ES was designed for pristine sound. It has separate digital and analog circuits with independent power supplies for each. This reduces digital noise for clearer, more accurate sound. The HAP-S1 was designed to be a bit more versatile, with an built-in amplifier so you can connect it directly to speakers.
    I haven't heard these two side by side, but I've listened extensively to the HAP-Z1ES. In fact, I ended up buying one! I think if you want truly outstanding sound from digital files, the Z1ES is going to deliver.

  • Joe from East Marlborough, PA

    Posted on 10/13/2016

    So: why not buy the S1, since the only differences (at least the only differences that Sony wants us to know about) are balanced inputs and 500 gigs more internal hard-drive? I mean, if you can add an external hard-drive for it to play from, why spend another $1,000.00? But, then again...what are the "hidden" differences between these two units? Anyone at Sony willing to reveal anything else?

  • The Doctor from New York

    Posted on 7/6/2016

    What would be the point of this for most modern recordings or music which is sub-par, at best? It's really no wonder, since people have decided that the artists trying to make a living through their art are the greedy ones, and not the listeners, who have devalued music to the point of making most artists live like they work the register at McDonald's. They only see the few who've made fortunes, and don't consider that most artists make a poor living. Anyway, Kanye and Justin Beiber are just as dreadful at studio quality as they are at 96k MP3.


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