Sony Net MD Walkman MZ-S1
Using Net MD technology, the ten-year-old MiniDisc format edges closer to MP3
Net MD Walkman MZ-S1
Windows 98/2000/Me/XP
It was ten years ago that Sony launched the 7-cm magneto-optical MiniDisc (MD) format in Japan, and I remember that in 1994, there were three brand-new MiniDisc products on the North American market: a portable MiniDisc music player/recorder, the MD Electronic Book, and a small MD Data removable-media drive, each at around $800. Much as I liked the idea of e-books, I thought the MD unit had too small a screen, and I didn't like the ATRAC 5:1 compressed audio on the MiniDisc player. My thought was that if anything, the MD Data drive would outlive them all once the price went down.

You've probably never heard of the MD Data drive or the MD Electronic Book, because they didn't survive the year. But a curious thing happened with MiniDiscs: the compression technology improved--or maybe we just got used to hearing compressed audio by way of a little something called MP3. Either way, the result is that the MiniDisc audio format has been quietly gaining in popularity, as it combines the best aspects of CDs (durability, random access) and MP3 players (rewritability, selective track deletion, small player and media size) while adding a few of its own (track split/combination functions, permanent track reordering). Best of all, the media is stunningly cheap: a blank 80-minute MiniDisc can be had for as little as $3, compared to $55 for the 64 MB SmartMedia card required to hold a little over an hour's worth of decent audio.

MiniDisc recorders only suffered from one long-standing problem: while you could record from any audio source using an optical cable or a standard audio connection, you had to do so in real-time. That was just so, well, analog.

Sony's solution was Net MD, a method whereby audio is downloaded from a PC to a MiniDisc through a USB cable. Unlike an MP3 player, the actual file isn't transferred; the audio is encoded on the MiniDisc like any other recording. The upshot is still the same, though: rather than waiting over an hour to transfer Massive Attack's Mezzanine, I can get it done in 37 minutes. That's not as quick as transferring to an MP3 player--thank the MiniDisc's slower write speed and the need to convert to ATRAC first--but it's definitely an improvement. Recording in one two of the MiniDisc long-play (MDLP) modes drops the total convert/record time down to just under 11 minutes, though of course some audio quality is sacrificed.

Sorry, let me back up a little here: MiniDiscs can be recorded in one of three speeds: standard play (SP) and two long-play modes, LP2 and LP4 (not all MiniDisc players recognize the LP modes; trying to play an LP track on a non-MDLP unit just gives you silence). SP, LP2, and LP4 are 132 kbps, 105 kbps, and 66 kbps respectively, though those values aren't really analogous to MP3 as they use a different algorithm.

The particular MiniDisc player/recorder model that I received was the MD Walkman MS-Z1, Sony's first sports model. Naturally, it has usual sports-Walkman waterproof coverings and anti-skip protection. But in terms of audio transfer functions, there's no difference between the MS-Z1 and the other MiniDisc players that use Net MD or MDLP.

The Sony models use two pieces of bundled software for audio transfer: OpenMG Jukebox 2.2 and Net MD Simple Burner 1.0. (Both use the GraceNote CDDB music database for album information.) As its name implies, Net MD Simple Burner is the easiest to use: it digitally extracts tracks from a CD and directly copies it to the MiniDisc recorder, though only in LP2 or LP4. OpenMG Jukebox is a full-fledged music organization and playback program which recognizes audio in MP3, Windows Media, WAV, CD-Audio and OpenMG formats. (I'm sure you're not in the least bit surprised that OpenMG is a Sony development.) OpenMG Jukebox uses a "check-in/check-out" system which allows you to copy (check out) the same track onto three separate MiniDiscs; before you can copy a track a fourth time, you have to remove it by using the software to check it back in. (You could delete the track using the recorder's own edit functions, but then the software wouldn't register it as being checked in.)

It's during check-out that music is actually recorded, and this is where Sony gets their speed ratings for transfer. SP is supposed to be at 4X (four times faster than real-time), LP2 at 16X, and LP4 at 32X. However, the first time you transfer a song, it has to be converted to ATRAC, which adds a considerable amount of overhead. Subsequent transfers use the cached data, and transfer speeds then approach the actual rating. As I mentioned earlier, my first LP2 copy of the 63-minute Mezzanine took almost 11 minutes; the second time around it took almost six--not quite 16X, but still a respectable 11X or so.

Although people used to MP3 players might balk at the less than speedy transfer times, it seems a small price to pay for the flexibility afforded to MiniDisc recorders--not the least of which is the ability to easily record from analog devices or, in many cases, a microphone (the MZ-S1 being an exception). And it's hard to argue with the price and availability of blank media (you can find MiniDiscs in many music and electronic stores). MP3 isn't going anywhere, but by aligning themselves a little closer to it Sony has probably made the MiniDisc format a few new friends.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (August 2002)
All prices quoted in Canadian dollars.
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