In these days of ultra-high-capacity audio players such as the and tiny solid-state players such as the Creative MuVo TX, is there any room left for a bulkier, media-based device? Sony seems bound and determined to keep the MiniDisc (MD) format alive, and the latest effort, a line of three Hi-MD Walkmans, offers some decidedly attractive features: 45 hours' worth of music storage on each 1GB MD ($7), 25 hours of playtime per AA battery, and prices starting around $200. Unfortunately, compelling as those specs sound, they're not worth the hassles that go with them. The entry-level MZ-NH600D we tested is awkward and often frustrating to use, and Sony's insistence on clinging to its proprietary ATRAC3 format results in painfully slow file transfers. Plus, this model doesn't record from external sources; for that, you'll need to step up to the MZ-NHF800 ($250) or MZ-NH1 ($400). The shiny, silver Sony MD Walkman MZ-NH600D measures roughly three inches square, and just more than an inch thick. It's surprisingly light, weighing a mere 5 ounces with battery and media installed. But although it's pocketable, it's nowhere near as slim and trim as, say, the or the Creative MuVo Slim.
The player's controls are surprisingly awkward and unfriendly. A tiny joystick resides in the center of a jog dial (Sony's term, even though it's nothing like the jog dials found on the company's other devices), which is actually a wheel that requires a fingernail or a good deal of fingertip pressure to turn. You move the joystick up or down to adjust volume, left or right to skip/scan tracks. Pressing the stick plays the selected track or activates the selected menu item, while turning the wheel scrolls through song and menu listings. If you have a lot of songs to sift through, you'll quickly come to dislike this irritating wheel.
Unfortunately, the Walkman's user interface is even worse than its physical controls. Part of the problem lies with the LCD, which is not only small for a device of this size but also inexplicably divided in half. The left side shows menu items, song names, and elapsed play time, while the right side is reserved for a handful of status icons (such as battery and play mode). This baffling design is made worse by the LCD's low resolution, which allows for no more than nine characters to be visible at a time. Needless to say, that makes for difficult song and artist identification--you usually have to wait for more information to scroll across the screen before you know what you're getting. Sony doesn't help matters by including menu items with confusing names, such as SubPMode and Useful. The former selects play mode (your choices are Normal, 1 Track, Shuffle, and A-B Repeat), while the latter leads to exactly one suboption: Search. Call us crazy, but we'd put that on the main menu and call it Search.
There's no clearly marked way to turn off the player, and it was only after poring through the manual that we learned that it turns itself off after playback has stopped for 10 seconds. There's no way to change this option. Conversely, the player doesn't turn off if you're in menu mode, so you could end up with a dead battery unless you return to play mode, press stop, and wait. There's no denying the appeal of this Walkman's storage system. Each Hi-MD cartridge holds 1GB of music and/or data and costs just $6.99. (The player is also backward-compatible with standard MD media, so you can play existing music collections.) It is precisely that inexpensive expandability that gives it an edge over fixed-storage players such as the iPod Mini and flash-media players such as the .
Sony's claim that you can store 45 hours of music on each Hi-MD cartridge is accurate but only if you convert your songs to Sony's ATRAC3plus format with a 48Kbps bit rate. And therein lies the rub: Although the player supports MP3, WAV, and unsecured WMA files, it stubbornly won't play them unless they're converted to some variant of ATRAC first. This not only severely limits compatibility with online music stores (Sony wants you to work exclusively with its new service, natch), but it also slows down file transfers. The old-school USB 1.1 interface doesn't help matters.
Access to the Connect Music Store comes through Sony's SonicStage software, an attractive and easy-to-use music manager not unlike Apple's iTunes. (The Walkman package includes a coupon for five free songs from Connect.) Ironically, SonicStage is a bit misleading when it comes to copying music to the Sony MD Walkman MZ-NH600D. The description for Standard transfer mode indicates files are copied "as is," with no conversion. But when you click Details, you're given a choice of ATRAC bit rates--used when "a file cannot be transferred in its original format." In other words, conversion is required for all MP3s and WMAs.
Sony also provides MD Simple Burner, a basic utility for copying CDs directly to the player. SonicStage can also rip CDs to ATRAC3, but the files are copied to your PC first, then onto the Walkman. One point of contention: both programs insist on using Groups to organize songs and albums, rather than the universally understood Playlists.
The Walkman comes with a comfortable pair of traditional headphones, a welcome change from ubiquitous earbuds, but no wired remote, despite the presence of a remote jack on the player. Unlike many other portable audio devices we've seen in this price range, the Walkman has no FM radio or voice recorder. After listening to the flat, muddy sound produced by the Sony MD Walkman MZ-NH600D, we couldn't help wondering if the headphones or the ATRAC compression were to blame--or a combination of the two. It turns out that the headphones are the primary culprit, as just about every other pair we tried sounded noticeably better.
However, because Sony demands that MP3 and WMA files be recompressed using the ATRAC format, audio fidelity definitely takes a hit. Even with better headphones, the Walkman sounded merely good, at best. Discriminating ears will find that the MZ-NH600D pales in comparison with players that support "native" MP3s and WMAs. Most annoying, however, is that, by default, the device beeps repeatedly when you pause playback (although at least this feature can be disabled).
In our informal tests, it took about 11 minutes to copy one 76-minute audio CD to the player using MD Simple Burner--roughly the same time it took to rip the CD using Musicmatch. But MP3 and WMA files copied with SonicStage were painfully slow--in part because of the USB 1.1 connection and also because of the need to recompress them in ATRAC format. With the conversion to ATRAC3, it took nearly 20 minutes to copy just four albums onto the device, meaning you could easily spend a couple of hours filling one cartridge with music.
As for data files, they're copied using Windows Explorer--the player gets a drive letter like any other device. However, because you need to install its driver first, the Walkman isn't as versatile for moving data between PCs as many flash players are. It took exactly 2 minutes to copy a 55MB file to the player, which is fairly typical for a USB 1.1 connection.
On a positive note, the player draws power from the USB port while it's connected, so the battery doesn't suffer as a result of the lengthy copy process. Interestingly, Sony's Web site promises 30 hours of play time from the single AA, but it says 25 hours right on the Walkman package. In our tests, we beat both estimates, coaxing an impressive 34-plus hours out of the player.