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MP3 players: the unobvious choice

Posted on May 24, 2007 by daviding

For most people, the obvious answer would have been: “get an iPod”.
Sony MZ-RH910 minidisc recorderI’ve been an advocate of Sony minidisc recorders for some time. The introduction of the technology in the early-1990s was a digital jump from the compact cassette. Through the early 2000s, I maintained that minidisc was a technology of the present. The recorder has been popular in professional use, such as news recording. The removable minidisc media is rugged, the battery life is great, and sound quality is high. Unfortunately, Sony maintained its proprietary ATRAC format a bit too long, so it was only since 2004 that digital-to-digital transfers from the Hi-MD format have been possible (at least on originally-recorded content, since other transfers were copy-protected).

I’m continuing to use minidisc technology for recording1, but recording and listening to prerecorded content are really two different activities.

A few visits to my favorite used CD stores — Sonic Boom (in Toronto) and Amoeba Records (in Berkeley) — resulted in a stack of over 20 unlistened CDs. Transferring the content would span multiple (probably 4 or 5) minidiscs. Each minidisc, at 4x compression, stores 320 minutes of music. To date, minidisc players are lighter in weight than hard-disk-based audio players (e.g. the original iPod), but carrying multiple minidiscs is inconvenient. With a rumour that hard disk players may become a technology of the past), the direction for MP3 players is flash memory technology. Today’s 4GB to 8GB models — at under $200 — are light, and have the capacity to store music that will play on for days and days.

iPod NanoThe market leader in this segment is the iPod Nano. I went to Best Buy and picked one up. My (second) son Eric recommends iPods because he’s found Apple builds the most durable hardware. However, if you watch Apple’s television advertising, they promote “iPod + iTunes”. Their path is to encourage purchasing content downloaded from their web site.

The way I like to buy my music is by trolling used CD stores. I don’t store music on my computer, and CDs are good media for long term storage. I do download audio, but mostly as free lectures from sites such as itconversations.com. I track feeds with Feedreader. Apple really wants me to use iTunes.

I can adapt pretty well to software, but I’ve found iTunes to be a pain. There’s also a significant issue of lock-in, as content transferred to the device loses its file name, so exporting the music from one player to another player is quite annoying. (I tried a freeware iPod transfer utility, but it crashed, requiring a reset of the iPod). I would have replaced the iPod operating system with Linux, except that works only on hard-disk iPods, not the flash-based Nanos.

Within 24 hours, I had returned the iPod Nano to Best Buy for a refund.

Creative ZenMy (third) son, Noah, has been using a Creative Zen V Plus. It’s half of the length of an iPod Nano, but thicker. The sound it produces with MP3 is superior to the Nano. With Windows XP, it has a drag-and-drop file manager, so it’s easy to move content over (and back). I bought a 8GB version of the Creative Zen V Plus at Future Shop.

The “Creative Media Explorer” does “rip audio CDs”, with the annoying choice to convert digital audio into the Windows proprietary WMA format. Creative sells the program to rip directly to MP3, as a download. As an alternative, I’ve been using the freeware version of Media Monkey. This not only helps keep my content organized, but rapidly looks up and tags the album art from Amazon.

Sandisk Sansa e280While I was considering whether the Zen would be the best choice, there was another leading contender: the Sandisk Sansa e280. It’s slightly thicker than an iPod Nano, and the thumb wheel is mechanical rather than touch-sensitive. It’s unique in offering an microSD expansion slot. The missing feature that dropped the Sansa from my consideration list was bookmarks: since the lectures I download can be more than an hour long, not having a bookmark could mean a lot of thumb-scrolling to pick up where I left off.

Through all of this searching, I’ve found the anythingbutipod.com web site to be most informative (and entertaining). The primary author over there suggests that you “Think for yourself. Be an individual“. While I really do prefer Apple’s OS/X operating system over Windows XP, the iPod-iTunes lock-up just rubs me the wrong way, philosophically. I don’t pirate either recorded music or software. The fact that I still buy CDs seems to put me in the minority of purchasers, which may mean that the way I use my MP3 player is not the same as the way that others do.

Oh, and for headphones? I prefer foldable over-the-head sport headphones, but JVC HA-FX33 “marshmallow” in-ear headphones have proven to be a cheap alternative when I want more isolation.


1. My days for recording on minidisc may be numbered. Minidiscs record in ATRAC format, which I have been converting to WAV, and then to MP3. Sony is continuing to upgrade its software for transferring content, but the ATRAC-to-WAV conversion will be gone if my laptop becomes a Vista machine. As much as I’m not a fan of Windows XP, this is a motivation for me to not advance my technology.

Correction, 2007/05/26: In the minidisc forums, it’s been explained to me that WAV conversion, as a standalone application will no longer be supported in Vista. However, the WAV conversion feature had previously been moved into the Sonicstage product proper, so I will continue to be able to convert minidisc recordings from .oma to .mp3.

I guess that I will be able to continue to use my minidisc recorder for some years to come!

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13 to “MP3 players: the unobvious choice”

  1. Dave Riley says:

    You are correct: you need to be eclectic . Away from the computer my podcast listening is a mp3 player — iRiver — but for recording you cannot beat the HiMD format and in my recent switch to Linux(Ubuntu) I have that complication born of Sony’s stupid, rigid and formal approach to its media software.

    If I were a keen listener of music, I mean a addict, I think the MD format is the way to go for listening too as the Mp3 squish is so sterile and almost a second hand way of listening to music.

    there’s these other flash style players coming on the market like Edirol which are more flexible and adaptable — but consider that a mini disk player plays disks. It plays media in a sort of hard copy format — a format that lasts and lasts and lasts — even longer and with more durability than a compact disk.

  2. Mike Rofone says:

    Yay. Yet another person telling me I should get an Ipud.

  3. Stewart Hart says:

    I also use MD for live recordings.
    I also get all my recorded music from used CD stores. but have no
    problems using & itunes to tranfer music to my ipods or burn CD’s for my
    car. The Cd’s I burn for my car using itunes lists the songs & other info
    on my car deck which the purchased CD’s don’t.
    I use Senuti to transfer music from ipods to itunes
    without any problems.
    Having related my experience…….I’m for whatever format works for you

  4. chobin says:

    I perfecly understand your point of view.. as a long time MD user, it took me a while to encourage my brother to buy an mp3 player (samsung YP-Z7 – absolutely not an Ipod!!). Anyway, I recently acquired an Rh1.. and my brother starts to desire again an md player, why? Simple, because of sound quality!! I’m a sort of audiophile, I try not to listen to mp3s so what could be compared do rh1? I go home, I plug it to the main amp with Line out and I got astonishing quality, I go into the car, I do the same with a rude chinese amp.. sounds good! Removeable media for me is a must, not to be always forced to turn on the pc.. and then ther is recording.. live recording but also analog and digital line in recording.. Uploading Cds form the pc it’s not the same.. Anyway.. I can understand your point of view, I also hate Sony’s mood in dealing with md’s matters.. but Md ives me a pleasure in music listening like no other flash player can do.. by now!

  5. md-freak says:

    You can transfer .oma files directly into .mp3 via the HI MD Renderer Freeware. It works well.

  6. Steve W. says:

    Your comment “I don’t store music on my computer” probably explains why your experience with iTunes was frustrating. I DO store music on my computer (well, on an external HD connected to my eMac) and iTunes makes it almost trivial to import music from CDs and download to iPod. I still buy most of my music on CDs (since the genres I listen to aren’t widely available as downloads) and have my entire music collection stored in iTunes. My household currently has 3 iPods and it’s no problem for them to all get their music from the same iTunes library; transfer between iPods just isn’t necessary. I still use my MD recorder for live music but that’s all…

  7. thomas says:

    Hello. I just started getting interested in mini disc recorders (as i will use it for live recordings and analog and digital). My friend, lucky guy, has an compulsive-buying-aunt that gives her useless buys away after a short time. Anyway, he got a Sony mini disc player-recorder and I was really impressed with the sound quality. And while digging the Net to make a smart (or at least informed) buy of a Sony product, I come upon mentions of the Sharps mt77 and mt899. Okay, so MD is not only Sony. Here goes the clicking again…unless some experienced folk could give me his or her advice on the Sony / Sharp case…

    Thank you.

  8. genghisbunny says:

    Go to http://forums.minidisc.org for really helpful feedback on the MD situation.

    Thomas, I use and recommend the Sony MZ-RH10, with a nice backlight and support for 1GB (Hi-MD) disks, external battery support and very good battery life. I’d recommend the Sonys a hundred times over the other brands because the Hi-MD specification is superior to the older MD spec. Check them out at the forums listed above, and happy hunting!

    Yes, Hi-MD sound quality slays MP3-players.

  9. McCoodle says:

    If you go look on Head-Fi you will find lots of people getting the best SQ out of iPods and other DAPs. People dismiss DAPs without doing enough research to get the best out of them. Diito you don’t have to use iTunes. I use MediaMonkey for all my devices, creative, samsung, apple. Only with HiMD do I need SonicStage. MD/HiMD are great for recording, the SQ is ok but personally the right MP3 player properly used is at least on a par and probably, better IMO. The HiMD have questionable ergonomics and UI and tiny screens. I/O is too slow, but otherwise its a great format.

    Like others I use my HiMD for recording and a range of devices for playback. Its simply a case of use whatever suits the situation, rather than a rabid fanactism to a specific device/technology.

  10. hearthealth says:

    Shortly after my my value for money MP3 reviews was finished, came the release to the public of the iPod Touch. A shame, would have loved having a poll on it.

  11. Thomas Jefferson says:

    Ok, then so, How does one convert a *.OMA file into an *.MP3 one? No one seems to know the true answer. I tried downloading the so-called Hi MD Renderer, which really is called BitDownload and it’s Bittorrent-based, but doesn’t convert anything. Maybe I’m not proceeding well. That would lead me to my next question: What’s the right procedure to do the just-named conversion within the BitDownload context? Although I’d rather take for best an answer to the first question. Most accurate approach appreciated.

  12. daviding says:

    Converting an .OMA file to an .MP3 is a two-stage process for me.

    I use Sony Sonicstage to transfer the audio files onto my Windows XP computer. When it’s put into the library, there’s an immediate option to convert from .OMA to .WAV . I then use Total Recorder to encode the audio to MP3.

    I archive the .OMA files as originals, but I think that the days of Sonicstage are numbered. I’m just moving off in favour of recording on a Marantz PMD-620. I don’t have enough experience yet to judge the quality (i.e. direct to MP3 versus decoding and then re-encoding), but having audio recorded just in .OMA is a long-term risk.

  13. engellenkatu says:

    I bought a new 2009 mzrh-1 and downloaded the 2009 version of sonic stage and simple burner. No more DRM hassles…transfer to hi md for over 13 hours music depending on bit rate selected, choose mp3 (if you like the shitty sound of mp3s-I don’t) or record or transfer in wave. Or use the std md discs and still use Hi-md mode..just a bit less recording time of course. Sound is terrific.
    Just be sure to install windows xp 32 bit. I downgraded from vista just for this reason…plus vista didn’t work with a whole host of legacy software. Or add a 2nd harddrive and run vista on one drive and xp on the other. I do the same only I’m running Ubuntu Linux on one drive and xp on the other. Much better than dual booting and partitioning on the same drive…which messes up windows.

    Or just plug line into the player and hit record and play into player. Or do what I also did…bought a cd/md deck there are consumer ones still around used on ebay or buy a pro deck tascam etc. Only con here is most support LP2,LP4, and mono but not SP or any of the Hi-Md modes. My old=MXD-3 will even let you copy cds to mds and it automatically inputs text…no typing needed. No gracenote either…or express it and you just get track numbers…and your music. It has analog inputs so you can use it to capture cassette or records….which I then input into computer to clean up with audacity or spin it again. Or just keep as is.
    Sony really improved the software this time…wish they’d done it at the start and forgot about DRM. But its gone now and works.
    Look for a mini disc player that has mic and line inputs both and hi md. Line alone won’t work with most decent mics. I use my for live recordings of my own compositions with slick built in editing and no computer to lug about or mixer.
    Without mic and line in you basically have a removable media ipod any with a minidisc player/recorder.. I have a ipod just hate itunes…but realplayer lets you input music into a ipod if you must have one, I have a mindisc car deck also..haunt ebay….no more scratch cds to mess with..no jammed cds ala my kenwood cd changer. The kw I used it for target practice after it jammed with my rare jazz cds inside… it took a set of vice grips to pry it open. Solid state will be the way of the future..then you can loose terabytes of music permanently the next time some car repair jocky unplugs the wrong wire to your new Flash Car deck. And you’ll have DRM from hell built into the hardware..maybe even nagging ads on your car’s monitor suggesting possible purchases.



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