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Sony’s MZ-R70 Minidisc player

Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor Author expertise
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Manufacturer Sony
Model MZ-R70
Price
(street)
$179
Availability Now

The Minidisc player/recorder under the microscope here today is Sony’s MZ-R70. It’s actually not one of the newest models (which were recently announced and are only now becoming available, albeit at a price premium over older models), but it’s a good example of an MD implementation. It shows where MDs excel, and where they fall short. While this is a review of Sony’s MZ-R70 device, I’ll be making some comments about Minidiscs in general along the way, and also about some options offered by other MD devices, just to keep you interested.

I listen to a lot of different kinds of music under a lot of different circumstances, so the R70 got a full workout for this review. You’ll see what all the Minidisc fuss was—and maybe still is—all about.


Look retro to you?

The hardware
Measuring 81 x 26.2 x 74mm, the R-70 weighs in at 115g (155g with battery and a Minidisc inside). Its dimunitive body comes in black, blue, or silver and seems to be solid and sturdy, though I wouldn’t suggest dropping it from any significant height. There is a slight bulge on one end of the unit to accomodate the battery, so the unit isn’t totally squared. I actually found the unit easier to hold with the battery bulge, since it gives you something to grab onto on the otherwise tiny casing.

The casing has several buttons, all very easy to use and intuitively marked. The R-70 also comes with a tethered remote that plugs into one of the headphone jacks (there are two), so you can stick the R-70 in a bag and control it with the remote. In addition to the two headphone jacks, the R-70 also sports digital and mic inputs, and an input for the included power adapter/charger. The R-70 comes with a standard pair of ear buds which, while nice compared with other ear buds I’ve used, don’t match the feel of even low-end ear muffs. It seems every manufacturer skimps and goes with ear buds these days. Maybe it’s just me, but I find buds to be more of a hassle than their small size is worth.

The R-70 also comes with a pretty detailed manual that covers everything you’ll need to know about it. Also included is a cloth carrying case and digital cable for recording.

Rounding out some of the standard features are several playback methods (shuffle, repeat, etc.), and pretty much everything you’d expect from a portable CD player. One interesting feature that I haven’t seen elsewhere is the AVLS (Automatic Volume Limiter System), which caps the volume to avoid ear damage. While you can turn this system off (and I did—sometimes I want things really loud), it’s nice to see Sony include this kind of a failsafe.


Jacks ‘o plenty: 2 headphones, 1 microphone, 1 digital, 1 remote interface.

The only gripe I have with the R-70’s package is the lack of a belt clip on both the unit and the remote. Though you don’t see clips on many portable devices (perhaps it’s a lost art), I find them incredibly useful, especially for remotes. I’m not sure why Sony ditched clips on the R-70 and its remote, or why this is a trend I’m seeing more of, but I would have liked at least a removable clip on the R-70.

Battery life
The battery system on the R-70 is pretty simple, and battery life is generally good. The R-70 comes with a NiCad NC-WMAA Sony battery that will charge when the unit is plugged in. It delivers about 3 hours of recording time or 6.5 hours of playing time on a full charge. Charging up usually takes a little over 3 hours. Battery life isn’t exceptional with the included battery, but it is reasonable.

The nice thing here isn’t necessarily the battery itself, or the automatic charging, but that you can also pop in a standard AA battery and get up to 17 hours of playback time. You won’t be able to charge this battery, but you won’t be left high and dry without your music if the Sony battery runs out. Far too often I see portable devices with fancy internal batteries, and while the battery life may be good and the battery well integrated, you’re stuck if the battery dies and you don’t have anywhere to plug in the charger.

On the battery front, it would be nice to see the 17 hours of playback time on the rechargable that comes with the unit, but realistic tradeoffs have to be made. As nice as it is to be able to charge the battery by simply plugging the R-70 in with its AC adapter, it doesn’t get the same life as a standard AA. At least with the R-70, you have the option of using one, the other, or both.


Fits in the palm of your hand.

The media
Being a Minidisc player/recorder, the R-70, of course, relies on the Minidisc medium for both recording and playback. The MD is, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than a smaller CD enclosed in a plastic body similar to that of a floppy disc. These bodies come in a wide variety of rave-induced bright colors, most of which also include cases for the individual MDs.

The Minidisc body measures 7cm x6.75cm x 0.5cm, while the internal disc is 64mm in diameter. Pretty small, though other forms of digital media like Compact Flash, SmartMedia, and Memory Sticks are smaller. These alternative media are also more expensive, and don’t have as much storage capacity.

This just wouldn’t be a TR review without a graph, so I made one for you to ponder. All the prices were taken for J and R Electronics’ online site. I’m sure you can find X, Y, or Z media/manufacturer cheaper at A, B, or C vendor, but using a single vendor that carries several brands of each media should give us a better idea of how the media stack up against each other in relative terms. In all cases, the brand/product yielding the cheapest cost/MB value was chosen. CD-R/RW media was excluded because, well, we all know how cheap it is, and its significantly larger size makes it unsuitable for anything smaller than a discman.


And you thought RAM was cheap!

You can pack 74 minutes of audio onto each 140MB disc using the Minidisc-standard ATRAC compression scheme, which we’ll look at a little later on. These aren’t write-once discs; you can actually erase and rewrite them up to a million times. If value for your money is what you’re looking for, MDs are all over the competition. You get almost 100 times the amount of audio on MDs than you do on Compact Flash or Smart Media for the same price, and let’s not even talk about memory sticks.

Shock protection
I like to listen to music when I run and when I’m working out at the gym, both environments that aren’t all that conducive to a spinning optical media delivering a consistent stream of data. Because MDs are essentially smaller CDs, they’re prone to the same kind of skipping that plagues the larger optical medium. However, Minidiscs have that protective plastic casing which provides a layer of stability for the disc, making it less prone to the vibrations that cause skipping.

A plastic casing isn’t going to be enough to stop skipping, so Sony has employed 40 seconds of anti-shock memory in the R70. The music you hear coming out of the player isn’t what’s being read off the disc, but what was read 40 seconds ago. Should the device be jarred or shaken enough to cause the laser to lose contact with the disc, the anti-shock memory will pick up the slack, and you’ll maintain an uninterrupted stream of musical goodness.

Two layers of skip protection seems like a good idea, and always one for a challenge, I decided to try to make the R70 skip.

Through what I’d call normal use, the R70 simply refused to skip. I walked around for hours with it playing, had it in my pocket, in a bag, in my hand, going through the paces of everday life, and the stream of music never so much as hiccupped. At the gym, with the player in a pouch, still no skipping. Granted, the gym isn’t exactly a vibration-filled environment, so I decided to take the R70 out for some more strenuous testing.

There were three activities I came up with to stress the R70’s antishock that I figured were reasonable: running, mountain biking, and skiing. It’s now May, so skiing wasn’t an option, but the running and mountain biking were no problem.

First up: running, where I was only really able to get one skip. While running with the R-70 in my hand, there was no skipping at all. However, when I tried running with it in a pouch/belt designed for walkmans, energy gels, and the like, things got more complicated. Holding the unit in my hand, my arm was necessarily dampening a lot of vibration and bouncing. Not so with the pouch. In order to get uninterrupted music, any kind of pouch/belt should be tight, and small enough to hold the player tightly to avoid bouncing. Once this is achieved, skipping is virtually nonexistent. I was able to get the R-70 to skip once while running. I was running a brutally steep downhill that was so jarring my quads and knees were begging for mercy—a rare and worst-case scenario, but worth mentioning.

Unable to hold the R-70 in my hand while mountain biking, I was forced to go with the pouch, or alternatively, a camelbak that I often ride with anyway. As with running, as long as the player is securely placed in the pouch or camelbak, skipping isn’t an issue. However, since mountain biking presents a much rougher environment, there was more skipping, notably on washboard descents that had everything on the bike rattling anyway. Unless you’re riding a full suspension bike with gobs of travel, you’re going to have a minidisc player skip. It’s inevitable. But with terrain that rough, you’re not going to be able to hear much over your bike’s rattling anyway.

Note: All the riding I did was on, for the most part, empty trails. Don’t be riding with headphones on, listening to music, on the road with those big, nasty cars. That’s just stupid, mmmkay?

It’s worth noting here that, due to the solid-state nature of the storage on the vast majority of MP3 players, an MP3 player won’t skip. Ever. The R70’s anti-shock system survived all of what I would call the reasonable tests, so I really can’t fault it. Under more extreme conditions, however, the spinning optical medium is going to invariably miss a few beats. As for skiing, my guess is that skipping would be pretty rare unless you were doing some really harsh moguls. I’m sure I could even run slalom gates with it in a secure pocket and wouldn’t have a problem.

Recording
You’ve got a couple of recording options with the R-70. Unfortunately, speed isn’t one of them. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to the R-70. Portable Minidisc recorders all record at 1X speed. In an age of 16x burners, that’s slow. The R-70 packs a digital cable out of the box, probably your best option for recording, but also has the ability to record off a traditional single-plug stereo cable. Other models (R-70PC) also include a USB-to-analog audio converter.

Recording is dead easy with the R-70, and you can do it from a PC’s sound card outputs, a stereo, a microphone—whatever you can get an analog or digital signal from. While recording at 1X isn’t nearly as fast as burning a CD or copying MP3s over a USB cable, you don’t have to go through the process of converting everything to a digital format on your PC. Those of you with massive CD collections will certainly appreciate the ability to record directly from a stereo, rather than having to rip everything first.

If the recorder is recording a digital or analog stream of audio, how does it know when the music is going from one track to another? Silence. When changing tracks on a CD player, there’s a momentary period of silence, and the R-70’s syncro-recording option indexes a new track automatically. Off a CD player this works great, but it also works well if you want to record things off your computer, since you can stick an ’empty’ sound file of a few seconds of silence between songs on your playlist. Occasionally, if a song has a prolonged period of silence in the middle, the R-70 will mistakenly divide the song into two tracks. Fortunately, deleting track markers is a painless process that takes only seconds.

When recording with the R-70, you have two options: normal or monaural. For music, you shouldn’t be using anything other than the normal mode. Monaural is really only for recording voice, where quality is less of an issue. The upside of monaural is that it will double the recording capacity, so you can fit 148 minutes of sound onto a 74-minute disc. It’s worth noting that some newer Sony models allow you choose between several other recording options to extend disc play time at the expense of audio quality.

The R-70 also sports automatic sound level adjustments, so you won’t have to keep adjusting the volume for tracks recorded from different sources. If you want to muck around with the recording level yourself, there’s an option to do that, as well.

At any time, even during recording and playback, you can enter names for tracks or for the disc as a whole. These names will scroll across the LCD during playback. With the limited number of buttons on the device, they’re a bit of pain to enter. I didn’t really bother with them much, since I had either labeled the disc’s case with the tracklisting and disc name or knew what track number I wanted anyway. Because I listen to CDs on my stereo so much, I’ve been conditioned to remember songs more by their track number than their title, but maybe that’s just me.

Sound quality and compression
This is where I pretend to be a hard-core audiophile, having ears and speakers good enough to pick apart audio created using various recording methods, or something. I’m not an audiophile; I don’t have incredibly expensive headphones or speakers, and my ears aren’t yours, so it’s really hard to make any evaluation of the R-70’s sound completely objective. I have, however, tried to be thorough in what I’m being subjective about.

Minidiscs use the ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding) system to slim down digital audio so it will fit onto the disc’s 140MB capacity. As with most audio compression schemes, ATRAC is lossy, which means that there is necessarily some loss in quality. The question is, are your ears and equipment good enough to notice? I could go into great detail about how ATRAC works, but that’s done far better in this paper. Instead, I’m going to tell you how it sounds.

For audio quality testing I used a set of computer speakers (with sub), headphones, and my stereo. Music was encoded using the ‘normal’ settings on the R-70, with MP3s being recorded using the Fraunhofer encoder, at 128, 192, and 256 with VBR on. All encoded audio was tested against the original digital source, in this case all from originally mastered CDs. I tried to hit all genres with the following tracks.

  1. Nine Inch Nails – Wish
  2. Tool – Stinkfist
  3. Econoline Crush – By the Riverside
  4. U2 – Beautiful Day
  5. R.E.M. – Daysleeper
  6. Tori Amos – Hey Jupiter
  7. Dido – Thank You
  8. Meat Beat Manifesto – Prime Audio Soup
  9. Moby – Natural Blues
  10. Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire
  11. Geto Boys – Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta
  12. Orff – O Fortuna
  13. Beethoven – Fifth Symphony
  14. David Bowie – Space Oddity
  15. Rolling Stones – Street Fighting Man

An eclectic playlist, to say the least. I wanted to include some Britney Spears for all the fans out there, but was unable to track down an actual CD of her work to provide a pristene enough digital copy for comparison purposes. All you bubble-gum pop fans will just have to extrapolate.

So how does it sound? Well, remember, this is all subjective and very dependent on both my ears and the equipment I used. In general, the R-70 versions of all songs had sound quality somewhere between 192- and 256-Kbps MP3s. The sound quality leans significantly more towards the 256 end of the scale, with only a couple of songs being slightly lacking compared to the 256-Kbps VBR MP3. All in all, the R-70 sounds great, and blows 128-Kbps MP3s out of the water. The ATRAC version of the songs, for the most part, sounds more rich than their MP3 counterparts. Again, this is with my ears and my equipment; take that with a healthy grain of salt.

Comparing to the original CD source is difficult, as the results from both 256-Kbps MP3s and Minidisc are virtually indistinguishable from the originals. MP3s encoded at 192 Kbps are more easily spotted, especially with headphones, but in general, both the 256-Kbps MP3s and ATRAC encoding were as “near CD” quality as my equipment and ears were able to determine.

Conclusions
The Minidisc format has had almost a decade to mature, and the refinement shows. I can nitpick about things like battery life, which isn’t exceptional unless you use a standard AA, or the lack of a clip, which is really minor. But there’s really only one major problem that I saw with the R-70, a problem that will plague all Minidisc player/recorders: recording speed.

However, recording at 1X proved to be much less of an annoyance than I originally thought it would. Because MD media is incredibly cheap, you can afford dozens of MDs for the price of even a small CF card that holds next to nothing. While you can only record at 1X, you can create a huge Minidisc library for an incredibly low price. Recording each disc might take the full 74 minutes, but swapping discs in and out takes only seconds, and is a freedom you just don’t have with other digital media, at least not at anywhere near the same price. Because of the 1X recording speed, you can record off normal streaming audio sources, so with the speed hit comes additional recording flexibility.

The R-70 is the perfect portable digital audio device for anyone who is on a budget, likes great sound, and wants to listen to lots of music. MP3 players comparable in size, but with only 64MB of memory, run for around $50 more. 32MB models are marginally cheaper than the R-70. When you factor in media costs for storage (64 or 32MB just isn’t enough, even for MP3s, unless you want radio quality), the R-70 and a couple of boxes of Minidiscs gives you hours of digital music at a great price.

For a technology almost a decade old, the R-70 impressed me. In fact, it impressed me enough to ignore everyone telling me that Minidiscs were so 1991. I don’t mind, though, and if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on some acid-washed jeans, pull on a neon T-shirt, and take the R-70 out for a walk.

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Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor

Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor

Geoff Gasior, a seasoned tech marketing expert with over 20 years of experience, specializes in crafting engaging narratives that connect people with technology. At Tech Report, he excelled in editorial management, covering all aspects of computer hardware and software and much more.

Gasior's deep expertise in this field allows him to effectively communicate complex concepts to a wide range of audiences, making technology accessible and engaging for everyone