To paraphrase Spock of the USS Enterprise (at least the Spock of the UK comedy song ‘Star Trekkin’’ by The Firm), the Sony HAP-Z1ES is a network streamer, Jim, but not as we know it. It cannot stream data from Network Attached Storage. It's not a USB or S/PDIF equipped DAC, so it cannot be used to play files straight from a PC or laptop. And it's not a CD or SACD player, so you can't slip in silver discs and play them directly.
So, what is it, and what can it do? It's is a high-end music player, which stores music files on a one Terabyte internal hard disc and plays them from there. It can also stream music via a wired Ethernet, or its own built in WiFi.
The really nice thing about the Sony HAP-Z1ES is that it is also not a regular computer and so does not rely on flaky, quickly outdated, virus- and crash-prone operating systems. Of course, notionally at least anything from a CD player and beyond is a computer of sorts, and the HAP-Z1ES is no exception. It runs on a basic Linux core, however, rather than a full domestic operating system bent into shape. The result: there are a few good old-fashioned knobs to twiddle and press to select your music, as well as options from a menu. With a clear colour display to show what's available and what's playing. it could hardly be simpler. There's a rather cheap plastic IR remote, but I never used it. I just downloaded Sony's rather neat and easy to use HDD app, available for Android and iThings, and the interface became so easy quick and seamless that the remote was not necessary.
The only computer in the equation is the one used for ripping or downloading music files. Once the files are stored on a PC or laptop, they are 'transferred' as Sony describe, or more accurately copied, from the computer's hard drive to the Sony's. To enable transfers, all that's required is to download an HAP app from the Sony website and connect both the computer and the HAP-Z1ES by Ethernet cables to a router.
So, how quick and easy was it to transfer? I had about 65 ripped CD's and a few hi-res files on my laptop and these took the best part of the afternoon to transfer, on and off, (because the wired Ethernet link between the HAP-Z1ES and the computer dropped out a few times). It may seem like a long time, but it was quick compared to the two hours it took recently to download just one high resolution CD length 24/96 music file over the internet.
Apart from the unexplained pauses, the Sony unit handled it all smoothly, starting up from where it left off seamlessly, even checking with Gracenote and downloading its own cover art, (though if it gets the wrong image, it's not clear how it may be corrected). If you add files to your computer, it will add them to the hard disc of the HAP-Z1ES to match. And, if 1TB is not enough, you can add a hard drive via a USB socket at the rear and the Sony will use that as if it were internal. It will reformat this drive to Ext4, destroying any stored data on the drive, but it allows for considerable expansion needs if you want.
This might seem a sideways step. The convenience of computer audio is that it’s, er, convenient. The files on your computer can be fed easily to a DAC and the files stored on a NAS can be fed to a streamer. Once the initial setting up is completed, everything is stable and seamless. The HAP-Z1ES doesn’t do this; it creates a point of isolation between computer and computer audio, which sounds counter-intuitive, but explicable. The idea has three distinct advantages. First is the overall amount of networking skills in the prospective buyer; locking the Z1ES into an existing Ethernet network in the home is potentially fraught with problems, because Drop-outs can be a problem in the home network isn’t built for robustness, especially if you are planning to listen to music at the same time as your eldest is blatting aliens online through his PS4. Then, there’s the potential for a lot of computer components behind the Z1ES to introduce RF and EM noise, there’s the emotional link that people make with their home devices, and how that differs from laptops, and finally there’s the ‘right tool for the job’ mindset that precludes using a multi-purpose computer for a dedicated task like music replay. If one or more of these ideas resonate with you, the Z1ES might offer a solution that’s not easy to come by elsewhere.