M-Audio MicroTrack 24/96 vs. Sony MZ-M100

[M-Audio Microtrack 24/96, $499, m-audio.com; Sony MZ-M100, $439, sony.com]Fresh off of its prelim scrap against the Edirol R-1, the MZ-M100 knuckles up to the MicroTrack. Oooh, this is going to be good.
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My pal John Vallier wrote me an email a couple months ago with a link to the MicroTrack and asked me what I thought about it. It was a serendipitous moment in that my old, reliable, pocket-sized Aiwa cassette recorder finally bit the dust and I was told it couldn’t be repaired (can’t get parts). Then I found that it’s nearly impossible to find this kind of unit anymore. I struggled with an old minidisc recorder for a while but it just couldn’t take the SPL level of a live band. So I was really in the market for a small, concealable, reliable, quality recorder.

Mr. Eugene helped me get my hands on the M-Audio unit for review and also sent me this Sony recorder for a shootout. I, however, admit to bias as I’m extremely leery about both machines and their relationship to the place where the rest of us live: the REAL world. But the M-Audio uses compact flash and the Sony uses either regular mini-discs or the new HI-MD mini discs that hold a gig of information. (I’m a bit more confident of the compact flash mainly because it’s used in a lot of digital cameras so it would seem that there’s a little bit of staying power right there.)

Both units are light and tiny. The Sony is a 3" square where the M-Audio is 4" x 2". So they’re close in size and of similar weight. The Sony feels a bit stronger in that the jacks seem like they will last longer through the rigors of plugging and unplugging inputs.

The M-Audio accepts 1/8" stereo mics and has two 1/4" mono line/mic jacks, which will feed phantom power if needed. The outputs are 2 RCAs for analog stereo, coax S/PDIF for digital, USB and 1/8" stereo headphones. It has three input sensitivities (line, mic, and hi gain). The MicroTrack records WAVs at 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 in 16- or 24-bit, and MP3s at 96, 128, 160, 192, 224, and 320.

The Sony has two 1/8” jacks. The first one accepts a stereo mic. The second doubles as optical in or analog line in. The record level can be set automatically with Sony’s AGC (Automatic Gain Control). There’s a “Standard” setting and one for “Loud Music.” If you turn the AGC off, the levels can be manually set. The output is 1/8" stereo headphone or USB. The MZ-M100 records in Linear PCM at 44.1kHz with 16-bit or ATRAC3 at 256kbps (hi-sp) or 64kbps (hi-lp).

But let’s talk about recording.

Both have great sound and record really well for normal everyday field recording. In the high SPL department, the Sony wins out in that it doesn’t start to distort until you hit 123dB! This applies to manual mode, as well as AGC. The M-Audio craps out at around 118dB. So, if you’re doing field recordings of cannons (or snare drum at half an inch) you’ll do best to use the Sony but . . . this is the only measure dominated by the Sony.

The Sony’s buttons are small and difficult to manage: I had a hard time figuring out how to turn it on without the manual. To put the MZ-M100 in record requires a bit of fingernail to hit the buttons in succession. The supplied 1/8" stereo mic is cool, but the unit itself makes such a racket that it needs a mic extension (which is supplied). The MicroTrack? Well, it’s simple and straight forward. It’s easy to turn on, plug in the supplied 1/8" stereo mic and hit record. No moving parts. No noise. Both units come with supplied ear buds, but the Sony phones are made for smaller men than me since the cord needs to be at least a foot longer so I can put it in my pocket and not have to walk around like a hunchback.

And getting the recordings off the recorder is another story. The Sony architecture is OpenMG and requires that you install the Sonic Stage software to yank the files off. If you do a straight pull with the software, you can only play them in the software. The files then need to be converted to WAVs before they play in other programs. The program does this really well, but the MicroTrack just plugs into the computer and shows up on your desktop like an external drive. The files are all there and you just drag and drop.

While both units can charge their internal batteries through the USB port, one really cool feature on the MicroTrack is that they use the USB port for both USB transfer and power input. The same USB cable that plugs into your computer, can also plug into a little wall wart to get power from the wall. The Sony has a plate that moves to reveal the USB port, thus covering the power input, however, the Sony has an attachment that allows you to run off of store bought batteries, which could be extremely helpful when out in the bush with no way of recharging for a few days. The MicroTrack only has the option of internal battery or wall power. The internal charge lasted about five hours of constant recording, which is pretty good, but if you are on a week-long hike . . . SOL.

So even though the Sony can take a higher SPL and can run off of external batteries, it’s pretty rare that I’m in the vicinity of sound that is over 120dB. Given the simplicity of the MicroTrack and its complete compatibility with the rest of the world, I’m going to have to give this round to M-Audio.