Sony TA-ZH1ES Headphone Amp/DAC
AT A GLANCE
Solid as a brick build quality
Handles ultra-high resolution 768-kHz/32-bit PCM, and DSD native (up to 22.4 MHz) files
Variety of single-ended and balanced headphone outputs
Not the most transparent sounding headphone amp
The Sony TA-ZH1ES is beautifully designed and built, though it doesn’t quite bring the MDR-Z1R headphone to its full potential.
Not content with just launching a new flagship headphone in the MDR-Z1R, Sony simultaneously launched the TA-ZH1ES headphone amplifier/DAC; like the MDR-Z1R, it’s intended to be a statement of Sony’s best technology. To begin, the TA-ZH1ES uses a hybrid switching/analog amp. It features Sony’s S-Master HX technology on the switching side, which boosts the signal; it then applies feed-forward correction with an analog stage to reduce distortion. Unpacking this desktop amp, I was surprised by how heavy it is. It weighs in at 9.7 pounds, and the chassis feels like a solid brick! The silky-smooth action of the volume control reminded me of those found on the best flagship stereo receivers of the 1970s and ’80s.
The front panel offers an unusually generous array of headphone connection options to fit most popular headphones. From left to right, they are: balanced XLR4, unbalanced 3.5mm and 6.3mm, balanced 4.4mm, and separate balanced left- and right-channel 3.5mm. As mentioned in the main review, the new-generation 4.4mm input accommodates the balanced cable that Sony supplies with the MDR-Z1R headphone. More on that below.
The rear panel, meanwhile, shows off the TA-ZH1ES’s versatility as a preamp. It’s outfitted with analog RCA stereo inputs and USB-B, coaxial, and optical digital inputs, plus analog RCA stereo preamp outputs. The right side of the chassis sports a Walkman digital input as well. The digital decoding skills run up to ultra-high-resolution 768-kHz/32-bit PCM and up to 22.4-megahertz DSD native. A full-function remote control is included.
When I tried out the TA-ZH1ES with the MDR-Z1R ’phones, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the outrageously potent low, low bass. While bass from headphones never matches the visceral impact of what you literally feel from a large speaker system, the low end from the Sony combo was just astonishing.
I spent some time comparing the sound of the MDR-Z1R via two of the TA-ZH1ES’s outputs: the standard 6.3mm single-ended one and the 4.4mm balanced jack. I was expecting that the balanced connection would supply more depth and more low-level, quiet detailing from high-resolution tracks, but I consistently heard those qualities from the 6.3mm single-ended jack instead! The balanced connection didn’t do a thing for me.
At that point, I started comparing the TA-ZH1ES with the Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amp, a well-regarded reference that, at $3,500, is considerably more expensive than the Sony. The two amps sounded surprisingly different, though the Sony was richer and fuller, which by contrast made the Pass Labs sound too lean. But, as I continued listening, I felt that the Sony’s honeyed rendering went too far, mellowing out the sound balances of familiar recordings (albeit in a very agreeable way). I came to prefer the more transparent sound of the Sony headphones paired with the Pass Labs amp. Of course, you might go the opposite way and crave the lusher sound of the all-Sony combo; it’s a matter of taste.