Sony NetMD Walkman MZ-505
I bought a Minidisc recorder when the first models shipped. At that point, affordable CD burners were a figment of the imagination, and there was no globally adopted compression standard. This meant that if you wanted to carry around your own mix, there was only one way to do it: on cassette.
Sure, the mixtape is an American obsession for guys like me. We toiled with vinyl and cassettes for hours on end in the quest to make that perfect mix tape. The order had to be perfect, the levels had to be perfect, and the timing had to be perfect so that the songs fit perfectly in the 30 minute slot per side you had to work with.
For kids whose sanity depended on mobile mix tapes, the toiling was a small price to pay for a prized mix tape.
I am now a lot older. I still have a passion for a good mix tape, but the last thing I want to do is goof around with albums, cassette decks, and all the accouterments that go along with such a delivery system. I want something fast and easy. Something I don't have to the think about, and something that doesn't take expensive media.
When the Minidisc recorder made its appearance, it was basically a fancy digital analog recording device. You could record onto it just like a tape recorder, through an audio input, but with a twist. You were then able to mix and match the tracks! Sometimes, you are driving around in your car, and there is an obvious twist in the mixtape that you did not foresee. This is unacceptable. In the past, it was a matter of pulling all that vinyl and making yet another tape to take its place. With Minidisc, you simply rearranged the order. There was still the annoying (to a techie, at least) matter of trusting the consumer grade analog to digital converters to do a good job at ripping your material. A second shortcoming was that the material had to be recorded in realtime.
If those shortcomings could be fixed, life would be wonderful.
Enter Sony's NetMD line. Sony introduced this line in direct competition with the current slew of flash memory portable devices, and for the life of me, I cannot understand why NetMD didn't eclipse them all.
In summary, here are the improvements Sony made that bring its product into the forefront:
Rather than being tied to an analog realtime input, Sony has added a USB input to its device. What this means is that it is just a simple matter of dragging your currently existing MP3, WAV or WMA content directly into the player. The hype boasts 32x transfer speeds to your Minidisc player, but keep in mind that this is only at the highest compression settings. I would not recommend using this feature. Even at lower compression rates, the time to burn is minimal.
The player ships with recording software that allows you to import pretty much any music format directly onto your system. What the software does is converts the format to Sony's native format, ARTRAC. Ever mindful of copyright issues, Sony has left its mark on this technology, too. You have a limited number “check-ins” for each file. This means, you can have up to three minidiscs with the same song on it, and after that, you're done. This is a valiant effort, but easily circumvented with a little thought to the matter (I will not go into that here.)
Sony has partnered with RealMedia to allow you to directly move RealAudio files onto the player. This makes it possible to listen to massive amounts of spoken word files available on the net.
Sony has revamped its ARTRAC compression scheme to allow up to 5 hours of material on one Minidisc. This amount of compression comes at a pretty noticeable effect on audio quality. While this might not be a good thing for a mix tape, you can easily fit an entire audiobook on two Minidiscs with negligible audio compression artifacts.
For music, I never use a more than the 2 hour per Minidisc compression scheme. This allows a massive amount of music to fit into a small camera bag.
Taking into account the USB interface, software GUI and compression scheme, the minidisc player moves directly into competition with the flash memory players. While the flash media players are great in their own right, the minidisc players hedge them out on several counts:
* Cheap Media: a new flash card can easily run into the $60 range. This means that for every new hour of music you want to carry around, you must pay the piper a sixty spot. Say you have spent $180, and now have three hours of music from which to choose. If you want to add another hour, you must pony up the money, or erase one of your prime mixes. This is okay, as you can store your playlists on your computer quite easily, but if you are going on a road trip, your three hours of material will not even last until you leave the state.
Blank minidiscs come in a pack of 5 and cost about $8. This means that you can put together 10 hours of music for $8. As with all road trips, you might grow especially fond of a mix tape, and give it a permanent place on your shelf. Not to worry, it didn't even cost you $2 to do so.
* Tradability: if your friends are on the bandwagon and have picked up a minidisc player, you can swap minidiscs and not worry about spending loads of cash in the process. I know when I was a kid, it was a big deal to trade these mix tapes back and forth, and I am sure kids have not gotten too jaded to do this.
* Battery Life: I have pretty much resigned to the fact that I will have to keep a huge stock of NiMH batteries in my house. That being the case, I have never run my player on off the shelf alkalines. I have also never run my player dry. Every few weeks, I pull the the battery (it takes one AA battery to live!) and replace it. I did go on vacation for a week this year, and took extra batteries in case it pooped out. After a week of countless hours of use, it never lost any bars on it's battery life meter. Impressive! In order to maintain such a small form factor, many flash memory players incorporate an on board proprietary battery. This means that if you are on vacation in BFE and your battery dies, you are sunk. With the NetMD, you can borrow one from any of your other gear. Nice!
* Simple Burner: this is an add in that comes with the player and allows you to just drop a CD in your cdrom, and pull the songs off quickly. Think about this as old school mix tape recording. This is the ultimate in mix tape burning in that you can pull 2 hours worth of songs over, CD after CD, then use the OpenMG jukebox to rearrange the mix however you see fit.
Despite its obvious dominance in features for mixes, there is one glaring shortcoming that makes it less usable for audiobooks. In most cases, these are ripped as one very long file. The problem is that most folks don't have five hours to listen to an audio book. At the point that you decide you must do some real work, and shut the player off, or inadvertently hit one of the job buttons, your place in the file is irretrievably lost. This means massive amounts of holding down the forward button. Since the file is basically “read only” once it is on the system, you cannot insert a track break or anything that simple. It would have been nice if Sony would have included a “bookmark” button, akin to the index feature on CD players to keep the listeners place.
It should be obvious now that I am hooked on Sony's NetMD products, and that they are a better alternative than flash memory players. What next? The hard drive players are looking like they might be able to throw Minidisc out of the running in my book, but alas, I am too broke to afford one and find out.
Next on my quest for the perfect Mix? Yes, hard drive recorders.
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