Saturday, 28 August 2004

Time for a new portable music player?

Back in 1999 I bought a Sony MZ-R55 MiniDisc recorder (in yellow), in part to replace the increasingly-unreliable cassette players, for the princely sum of £250. I'll admit there was an element of comfort purchase about it - women buy clothes, geeky men buy techie toys...

Now it's over five years old and on the whole it's doing OK - it's got a slight dent in the top cover where I must have dropped it (or something on it) pretty hard, and the battery cover has lost a lot of its metallic paint - the rest of the shell is anodised aluminium. It's on its second rechargeable 'chewing gum' battery (the battery is about the size and shape of a pack of chewing gum) and the second set of earphones - the first set I'd used previously with a number of cassette players and had lasted about eight years (!), the second I bought last year after the first set's junction between the main stereo cable and the cable to the right earphone finally failed. The unit shipped with crap earphones as always. Despite having a short cord and a long extension, making them suitable for use with the remote, I always use the extension and never the remote. Basically I don't like showing off that I have it - all anyone can see is the cable going into my pocket.

However, it's started to report DISC ERROR periodically, particularly with discs I've only recently recorded. I did get a cleaning disc which may have helped a little. I have to punch in track information manually, although my newer stereo, bought a couple of years ago, outputs the track mark information on the optical cable so I no longer have to mark the tracks myself as I did when I first bought it. And the battery life is pretty short: the original spec says four hours but it seems less. The NiMH chemistry deteriorates over time. Creating a new MD from source material means recording in real-time. And the player only supports the original bitrate (now named 'SP') or the ability to double recording time... by recording in mono.

So I'm contemplating a new player. I can think of a few choices:

  • A new NetMD player
  • A hard-disk-based player
  • A RAM-based digital music player
  • Using my Dell Axim x30 with 128MB+ SD cards

Let's look at these options. The RAM-based player and the Axim are much the same, except that the Axim is obviously not a fixed-function device. I've tried this option, but it's a bit noisy, and leaves gaps between tracks. You can't get a whole album at a decent bit-rate into the RAM. By my calculations, music recorded at 192kbps takes up about 113MB for 80 minutes. SD cards at 128MB cost £16 from dabs. I'm not paying as much, or more, for the blank media as I did for the music. OK, I could put multiple originals on one card - I'm not sure if the Axim would support a single 1GB media at £84/card, but we're still looking at about £11 per album (depending of course on the album!)

RAM-based players either have the same problem as above, or only have internal RAM, making it time consuming and irritating to change media. If I want to play something else at the moment, I can carry a number of media around with me and simply change discs. With an internal-memory player, if you can't put your whole collection on it, you can only change what's on it by synchronising with a PC. That's not for me. With the portable MD recorder I can hook up to an optical digital or an analogue source (if I remembered the cables...) to capture new music.

OK, that's two options discarded. What about hard-disk players?

They're bigger than my old R55. Sony have managed to squeeze their new MZ-NH1 down even from that, which is pretty impressive considering they're dramatically limited by the size of the disc. An iRiver H120, like Ian Griffiths recently bought, weighs nearly twice as much (although both weigh considerably less than the '55). However, the H120 costs £215 from Amazon, whereas the NH1 costs £225. That's pretty comparable, considering that the NH1 has essentially limitless upgradability. Standard MDs have 80-minute capacity with the old 292kbps ATRAC encoding, but a Hi-MD player can squeeze 305MB out of a standard disc, allowing (allegedly) 140 minutes with the new Hi-SP codec.

To be honest, though, I don't want to cram all my music collection onto one disc or player. I don't use shuffle much - I like to hear albums as the artist intended. It may not be an issue in the pop world, but I'm a rock fan, particularly progressive, alternative rock, or indie, where the album as a whole tells a story. Organisation is a key feature for me. At only a little over £1 per disc for an 80-minute MD (a little under if you buy a 50-pack!) expandability is fine. I can't find out how much the new discs cost, which is a bit of a warning light.

Another feature of course with MiniDisc is direct interchangeability of discs with other players/recorders. My car currently has a cassette player, but I've thought about changing it for something else. Pushing your high-quality digital music through a cassette adapter or FM broadcast is a bit on the stoopid side, IMO.

Battery life seems, incredibly, a little better on the newest MiniDiscs than on the HDD players.

Looks like it's going to be MiniDisc, again. I might be able to pick up an MZ-N10 from eBay, since there's a few retailers that still seem to have a small stock (and there are 'buy it now' prices at £120). Otherwise I think an MZ-NH1.

[Edit: rashin' fruffin' mashin' (speak like Muttley) double-encoding bug, note cool new WYSIWYG editor on]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My ipod is simply the best for me at least...

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