With its Net MD line, Sony has made the MiniDisc format more palatable to online music fans, allowing users to connect the units to a PC via USB and store between 74 and 296 minutes of MP3s on inexpensive media. The MZ-N1, the crown jewel of this line, allegedly offers superfast, 32X transfer speeds as well as the ability to record live audio. There's only one problem: As with Sony's flash-based MP3 players, copyright-protection software turns a silk purse into a something of a sow's ear. With its Net MD line, Sony has made the MiniDisc format more palatable to online music fans, allowing users to connect the units to a PC via USB and store between 74 and 296 minutes of MP3s on inexpensive media. The MZ-N1, the crown jewel of this line, allegedly offers superfast, 32X transfer speeds as well as the ability to record live audio. There's only one problem: As with Sony's flash-based MP3 players, copyright-protection software turns a silk purse into a something of a sow's ear.
Sony gets high marks for the design of this square, magnesium-encased marvel. It's no flash-based MP3 player, but the MZ-N1 is light--4.48 ounces with the battery installed--and takes up little pocket space at 3.0 by 2.88 by 0.75 inches. A navigation jog dial on the unit and a triple-function, pullout control on the thin, in-line, backlit remote enable easy access to all functions and information from either interface (except for Record, which has to be activated on the unit itself). Unfortunately, Sony didn't include a carrying case, but at least you can clip the remote to a bag strap or a shirt pocket while stowing the device elsewhere.
The MZ-N1 sits in its small docking station and recharges its battery using the attached AC adapter. This MiniDisc unit connects to your computer's USB port in order to download music at speeds faster than real time. Other than the USB connection, the MZ-N1 has all the standard MiniDisc connections: an analog line-in jack, an optical line in with a cable included, a mike input, a headphone/line-out jack, and an AC-adapter port.
Sony's OpenMG Jukebox software handles the transfer of MP3s, WMAs, and WAVs from your hard drive to the MZ-N1. You can select normal stereo (74 minutes), or you can choose LP2 (148 minutes) or LP4 (296 minutes) in order to fit more music onto the device. As one might expect, sound quality diminishes as playback time increases. For ripping CDs to the device, Sony includes Net MD Simple Burner software, which converts to only LP2 or LP4; we'd prefer having the option to rip to normal stereo levels to preserve sound quality.
Once you've transferred files onto the unit, you'll find an array of playback features to make listening easily configurable: shuffle and repeat modes; a two-band EQ; an automatic volume-limiting system to protect your hearing; and variable-speed playback, which outputs music at 80 to 110 percent of normal playback speed. Finally, there's a line-out/headphone toggle jack for switching between the two options; a line out sounds better when sending audio to a stereo system since it bypasses the headphone amp.
While recording in analog or digital, the MZ-N1 displays a stereo recording-level meter, which is crucial for clean rendering of live audio. This Net MD also shows you a remaining recording-time meter, microphone-sensitivity adjustment, and track time-stamping. But one flaw prevents this Sony from being the perfect portable recording device: You cannot upload recordings via USB the way that you can with the or the .
The MZ-N1 sounds great, especially when you play songs ripped straight from CDs and use nicer headphones than the included folding pair. However, keep in mind that poor-quality MP3s sound even worse after being transcoded to the OpenMG format.
In terms of skipping, Sony's G-Protection prevented all jolts during testing--impressive for a device this small. Depending on what you're doing with the unit, battery life ranges from 12 hours (recording in normal stereo mode without the extra battery pack) to 110 hours (playing back in LP4 mode with the battery pack attached). Based on our tests, these numbers are fairly accurate.
That said, our biggest complaint in the performance department involves the software rather than the hardware. Unfortunately, copyright protection handicaps what could have been a huge step for the MiniDisc format since MP3 players were previously the only portable audio devices to handle fast transfers from a computer. To be fair, the copyright-protection mechanism will accept any MP3, WAV, or WMA file, regardless of whether they were downloaded from file-sharing networks, ripped from your own CDs, or legally purchased. But before a file can be loaded onto the MZ-N1, the software must import and convert it to the secure OpenMG format.
This process slows the effective transfer time significantly. Counting both conversion and transfer times, our 733KHz Pentium III test machine with 128MB of RAM moved MP3s onto the device at 0.19MB per second in the LP4 mode. That's only 1.52 times faster than real time, hardly the 32X speeds that Sony claims. Filling the MZ-N1 with fresh MP3s takes about an hour, no matter what mode you choose. You'd almost be better off recording from your sound card in real time, except that no song titles would appear on the device's display. Additionally, every converted OpenMG file gets stored on your hard drive. This speeds up subsequent transfers but eats disk space something fierce.
Ripping directly from a CD in your to the Net MD works much better. We transferred a 59-minute album in about 8 minutes, which is 7.5 times faster than real time. A CDDB2 database connection adds song information to CD tunes so that the Net MD can display titles for them as well.
For years, major manufacturers have been dreaming of a device that integrates seamlessly with legitimate, online music-distribution services, and the Net MD line handles portable downloads from both Pressplay and Rhapsody. However, our download attempts failed--we got an "Unknown error 94"--and only a portion of the music on P2P networks is available through these services anyway. If the kinks are ironed out, the Net MD line of MiniDisc units will be much more appealing.
In the end, it boils down to this: Sony got everything right with the MZ-N1 except the software, which really tested our patience. Third-party developers are working on apps to replace OpenMG Jukebox, users have posted workarounds on various Web sites, and there's an online petition asking Sony to add USB uploading capabilities. But for $350, you really shouldn't have to work that hard to get a device to perform the way it should in the first place.