NO SQUINTING >Capable of showing both graphics and text in an extremely bright blue-on-black background, the Electro-Luminescence display will surely save your butt in even the darkest of gigs.
Twenty-five years after Sony pioneered personal audio with the introduction of the lately absent Walkman line, the company is bringing it back with its latest crop of portable audio products, including the MZ-M100 Hi-MD MiniDisc recorder. Representing a significant leap in affordable field recording, the MZ-M100 utilizes a modern extension to the tried-and-true MD format that allows it, for the first time, to record and play back high-quality uncompressed audio.
Hi-MD is a new MiniDisc format. In addition to recording raw 16-bit, 44.1kHz LinearPCM audio at 1.4 Mbps, it also incorporates the new ATRAC3plus audio-compression technology, which delivers longer recording times than ordinary MDs. The 1GB Hi-MD discs allow as much as 94 minutes of uncompressed recording time and as long as 45 hours in the ATRAC3plus format. Another cool benefit of the new format is that Hi-MD discs can be used as a computer storage medium for nonaudio data such as text, images and video. What's truly special about the MZ-M100, though, aside from the newfound audio quality, is that Sony has finally seen fit to support drag-and-drop file transfer to PCs and Macs. These capabilities — coupled with long battery life; an exciting new-generation, easy-to-read display technology; and a healthy bundle of accessories — add up to one simple fact: Sony is definitely out to make a mark with the rebirth of the Walkman.
For something measuring a mere 3.25 inches square by 0.75 inch thick, the MZ-M100 sure packs a lot of control and connectivity for its diminutive size. Most prominent is a 1.25-by-1-inch six-line organic EL (electro-luminescence) display located in the upper left-hand corner of the front panel. To the right of the display are tiny bar-shaped buttons that control Record and Pause; a longer rocker-style control for volume up and down; a multipurpose Search/Light/Menu button; a Stop/Cancel button; and, finally, a slightly larger main transport (rewind/play/fast forward) and system-navigation control. Tiny buttons may look cool, but I worried about how their size and wimpy-click tactile response would hold up to the rigors of field recording.
Each of the unit's four sides holds a purpose. On the left is an easily accessible pull-tab-style Open switch that releases the lid-assembly disc access. Obviously, in this price range and size, one shouldn't expect smooth servo-based eject mechanisms, but, on occasion, the abrupt snapping open of the lid caused the disc to fly out so fast that it got caught up on its guide rails, and I had to extricate it using my fingers. The bottom edge houses the battery compartment, where you slide open a swing-cover to insert a single 1.2V gum-pack-style nickel-metal hydride rechargeable cell. When the battery is fully charged, Sony reports that it can record continuously for as long as 5.5 hours in LinearPCM mode. This can be extended by two more hours with the attachment of the included dry battery case (AA size), which makes contact with two small terminals located on the right side of the MZ-M100 and is held in securely using a thumb-screw post. Playback times can more than double with both batteries operational. On the right side, the recorder also features a USB port for Windows and Mac OS X connectivity (a mini 5-pin USB — to — standard 4-pin USB cable is included) and a DC in jack to accept the included 3V power adapter. A small cover slides back and forth, blocking off one or the other, so that both power sources cannot accidentally be connected simultaneously.
Audio I/O connectors are located up top, where a dual-purpose miniature stereo line input/optical port (requiring a special optional mini optical cable) allows both analog and digital input sources to use the same jack. A mini stereo microphone jack is provided to accept the included ECM-DS70P stereo electret condenser microphone. Located next to that is a mini stereo headphone jack to receive the included earbuds featuring in-line remote control.
The MZ-M100 has two modes of operation: Hi-MD mode and MD mode. The correct mode is automatically detected whenever you insert a disc. But you can only record in Hi-MD mode using the audio inputs directly. If you want to record in MD mode — for example, to allow the disc to be played on standard MD systems that do not support Hi-MD — you have to connect the recorder via USB to a Windows computer and use the supplied software discussed later. Unfortunately, this is not ideal, nor does such a software work-around yet exist for Mac users.
Pressing and holding the tiny Menu button for two seconds or longer will enter Menu mode, which presents a choice of seven top-level menu items covering many useful functions for recording, playback, editing and general preferences. Spinning a narrow rolling-log-like jog dial (which doubles for Play and Enter when depressed) moves you up and down throughout the menu list. Selecting an item takes you to a submenu layer that lists executable commands. Keeping in mind that this is a Walkman, after all, the recorder also has simple playback-enjoyment features such as playlists, song searching and music-program equalizer curves.
GETTING IT DOWN
The audio formats that you can record on the MZ-M100 vary according to the disc type used and recording method chosen. When a 1GB Hi-MD disc is used, only Hi-MD LinearPCM format audio can be recorded. More critically, Hi-MD discs are not backward-compatible, so only components that support them can read discs created by the MZ-M100 in this mode. When 60-, 74- or 80-minute standard MiniDiscs are used, you can record in Hi-MD format from the recorder itself or in Hi-MD, MDLP or MD format when transferring from a Windows computer. You cannot record in MD mode on the MZ-M100 directly.
From the unit itself, recording options are PCM (1.4 Mbps), Hi-SP (256 kbps ATRAC3plus) and Hi-LP (64 kbps ATRAC3plus), which give you 1 hour and 34 minutes, 7 hours and 55 minutes, and 34 hours of recording time, respectively, on a 1GB Hi-MD disc. Provided they're formatted on the MZ-M100 first, smaller-capacity standard MD discs can be used but will, of course, yield record times a fraction that of a Hi-MD disc.
The MZ-M100 has a full frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, and you can set up recording levels ahead of time or adjust them manually during recording. Left- and right-channel input-level meters with over indicators appear in the display along with a run-time counter. After each recording, a small system file is written to disc and a bright warning is displayed on the LED. If a MiniDisc were a book, the system file would be its index or table of contents, storing track numbers, titles and so forth. The recorder rewrites this file anytime an operation such as recording, adding or deleting track marks or moving tracks has been done. Obviously, with the system file containing such valuable housekeeping information, inadvertently cutting power or having batteries run dry during its creation is something you want to avoid at all costs. Also, be aware that the MZ-M100 uses the SCMS protection system (nondefeatable), which allows only first-generation digital copies to be made from premastered works.
SHOWING A SOFTER SIDE
Bidirectional data transfers between the MZ-M100 and a Windows PC are possible with the bundled SonicStage software. With it, you can not only transfer audio data recorded directly on the Walkman to the computer, where it can then be stored and managed, but also transfer audio data from the computer to the MD at high speed. This makes the MZ-M100 ideal for taking WAV, ATRAC3 or MP3 music, loops or working tracks with you on the go. And because the MZ-M100 Hi-MD format also supports text, image and video data, the inexpensive discs (about $5 to $7) can effectively be used as data archival drives with simple drag-and-drop functionality.
For the Mac, the included Hi-MD WAV Importer is unidirectional and only allows you to upload audio recorded in LinearPCM to the computer, automatically converting them to WAV format. Performing an upload transfer couldn't be easier: By simply inserting the disc that contains the tracks you wish to move and connecting the MZ-M100 to the Mac with the supplied USB cable, both the Hi-MD WAV Importer icon and a “no name” drive icon representing the mounted device appear onscreen. By double-clicking on the WAV Importer, a window appears in which you can select the tracks you want to import. Shift-clicking allowed me to select multiple tracks or an entire disc. Dragging these to a desired destination drive or folder brings up a small progress window so that you can monitor the transfer process. Once tracks are imported, you can change their titles in the main import list window by using the computer keyboard.
Of note, tracks recorded in modes other than LinearPCM are grayed out and cannot be selected. Nor can you select tracks previously transferred to the SonicStage software on a Windows computer (also grayed out), even if they were recorded in LinearPCM originally. Unfortunately, no Mac software utility is yet available to allow faster-than-real-time transfers from the computer to the MZ-M100, and uploading of compressed audio such as MP3 or ATRAC3 (Hi-SP or Hi-LP) is not yet supported to either the PC or Mac platform.
EVERYTHING BUT THE FIELD TEST
So off I went to the streets, clubs and other remote locations to capture audio under typical, often less than ideal field conditions. I put the stereo microphone to more use than I initially bet on, and it sounded surprisingly deep, clear, rich and dynamic on a wide range of sources, from ambient surroundings and spoken word to solo instruments and small ensembles. The attached lapel clip swivels and opens wide enough to grab onto any fabric, protruding flat hard surface or pipelike object as wide as half an inch in diameter. For anyone who has not had previous experience with stereo microphones, the initial shock of monitoring your surroundings with even better two-dimensional response than your own two ears will likely cause a jubilant awakening.
First, I tried recording a street-corner hand-drum circle popular here in town. The wind was moderate, and though the microphone is tiny and concealable, it was consistently getting blown out. So I mocked up a quick wind screen by tucking the mic into the sleeve of my fleece pullover, and all was fine — but it would be a nice accessory to have included in the kit. The mic's solid-sounding frequency response (around 100 Hz to 15 kHz) and excellent stereo imaging really impressed me from the get-go, and I could make out every subtle nuance of hands scraping and sliding on the drum skins. I tried recording with the microphone disconnected from its cord and connected directly to the MD but found that too many of my hand and case vibrations, as well as the sound of the recorder operations, got transferred through to the mic and into the recordings.
Next, I ventured off to capture some ambient music at a small jazz club. This proved quite fun because the size of the recorder and covertness of the mic allowed me to walk around people in the packed crowd to pick up a constantly changing soundscape of music and chit-chat that revolved in stereo as I moved. Later, the sound designer in me decided to capture everyday percussive sounds and loud drum sounds in my sampler. Despite its fantastic sensitivity (finely adjustable through combinations of controls), the microphone proved that it could withstand a fair amount of high sound-pressure-level abuse. At one point, I planted the microphone on the foam cushions beneath the DJ decks (for isolation from vibration) to pick up crowd noise and was delighted to hear just how well it handled the high SPLs of a nightclub. After I switched the microphone Recording Level Adjustment Mode from Standard to ForLoudMusic, the MZ-M100 recorded with less distortion during extreme high-volume input, responding with natural volume transitions similar to the way that a leveling amplifier would. The music and crowd were well-balanced, and after sensitivity and level adjustment, there was not a hint of distortion. The clear-toned result proved perfect in creating a DJ-set CD by blending the captured crowd into the tracks recorded on a separate deck hooked up directly to the club mixer.
Back in the studio, while hooking up gear, I did wish that the line inputs and outputs were professional-grade and balanced. Also, when I used the MD in Record-Pause mode to capture one-shot sounds for sampling later on, I discovered that a new track marker is added every time you press Pause to resume recording from where you left off. Although markers can be edited or erased within the MZ-M100, I really found this annoying.
Given the MZ-M100's petite size, it's well-expected that the onboard controls be relatively likewise. But in the heat of battle, I found them too small and cumbersome to control effectively, especially when nearly everything is made of shiny faux-chromed and slippery plastic. The controls are not only small but also crammed together in one sixth of the unit's already-scarce 4-inch-square front-panel real estate.
To illustrate matters, placing the device into Record-ready mode required a double-index-finger or “rolling flat thumb” maneuver, as the Record and Pause buttons are barely too far apart for one finger to press both simultaneously and too close together for two fingers on the same hand to trigger. I also found the seemingly 4-point silk-screened labeling difficult to read, and the even-harder-to-navigate transport-control symbols embossed on the buttons are ridiculously illegible in anything but the most ideal lighting conditions — while aided by a strong magnifying lens! Until I got the panel completely memorized and discovered the finger gymnastics tricks required to operate it, I was constantly accidentally killing commands and negotiating wrong moves. Design aesthetics aside, I think Sony should have considered the real-world demands of working professionals when designing the interface and provided much more tactile and accessible controls.
After going through all that, you can call it idiot prevention on my part if you like, but I was surprised and grateful when the recorder refused to cough up the disc when I was in a hurry to yank it out and pack things up. You see, as a preventive measure against errors or an unreadable disc due to incomplete data recording, the lid locks and cannot be opened while System File Writing is displayed.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
It used to be quite the chore to acquire high-quality audio using a portable recorder — actually, within the MD format, it was impossible! The MZ-M100 succeeds in putting uncompressed CD-quality LinearPCM audio-recording capabilities into the palm of your hand. Not only that, but the Hi-MD format bridges the portable MD with computers for editing and archival.
For those who want to enter the MiniDisc format, though, or extend the capabilities of their studio or club-based system with a portable solution, the MZ-M100 is an ideal candidate. I should also note that Sony offers a less-expensive model called the MZ-M10 ($329.95), the only two main differences being a plastic lid and a standard LCD rather than the M100's aluminum-enforced lid and OLED display. Otherwise, it's functionally identical and a fantastic way to get into this technology on the cheap.
MZ-M100 > $439.95
Pros: Superb audio quality. Supports LinearPCM and MP3/ATRAC3/ATRAC3plus formats. 1GB storage capacity to affordable Hi-MD Disc. Uploads WAV files directly to Mac and PC via USB using bundled software. Stereo mic and field-monitoring earbuds included.
Cons: Fragile lid and slippery case finishing. Controls too small and difficult to read. Recordings made on MZ-M100 directly won't play on non Hi-MD gear. Consumer-grade mini stereo jacks used throughout. Deficient software support for Mac.