Since introducing the MiniDisc format in the early 1990s, Sony has been busy year after year redesigning and shrinking the size of its various recorders and players.
We have gone from the first MD, a battle tank called the MZ-1 (with its huge NiCad battery, optical line in and out capabilities, backlit LCD and direct entry keys), to MDLP and NetMD machines operating on a single AA.
My first Sony
My first MD recorder was the MZ-R3. I followed the development of the technology and by 1995 felt confident enough to purchase an R3 while on a stopover in Hong Kong.
Product CapsuleThumbs Up
Excellence of design/ergonomics
Extensive group folder functions
Onboard mics and speaker
Single AA power
Overly long times for
TOC Edit/Data Save
FF/RR still slow to engage
Motor noise still significant
For more information contact Sony in New Jersey at (201) 930-1000 or visit www.sony.com/proaudio
I immediately began using it as my main portable recording device as I reported for the Voice of America in Southeast Asia (although doing direct phone feeds from portable MDs is quite another matter).
The MZ-R3 operated on two internal AA batteries – regular alkaline or rechargeable – along with an LIP-12 lithium in an external case attached to the left side of the unit.
To recharge the LIP-12 batteries, however, required a separate AC unit, capable of charging two batteries simultaneously and also capable, with the addition of a separate cord, of running the MZ-R3 on AC power.
I start with the description of the MZ-R3 to preface my review of the new Sony MZ-B100 because I believe the early Sony recorders – particularly MZ-1, R2, R3, R50 – had features that users of MD dearly wish had been retained.
But I focus here on two of the most important aspects of portable operation – reaction time of the mechanism to commands and the time required for Data Save/TOC Edit.
My MZ-R3, with which I still have with no plans to part, has extremely quick reaction times in FF/RR, as well as the super fast mode with the Pause button depressed. This makes editing a joy. Within a half second or so of pressing a button, the machine engages.
After recording or editing changes, upon pressing Stop, the TOC Edit process is no longer than 2 seconds. The same is true on my companion MZ-B3 (which I acquired new via the Internet).
The price we pay?
While I am no expert in MD motor design or power consumption issues, I can only assume that the price we have paid for miniaturization is longer TOC edit times and maddeningly slower FF/RR. Sony’s revision of its splendid MZ-B3, a solidly built field performer, was the MZ-B50.
Those of us who either purchased the B50 or who were able to test them immediately noticed the problems – TOC edit times of 10 seconds or more, and frustratingly slow FF/RR. There were ergonomic issues as well.
The B50 was somewhat uncomfortable to hold in the palm of the hand – far too boxy. The volume control, placed on the right side of the machine, nonetheless was difficult to access with one finger, an issue linked to the overall size of the unit as well as the thumbwheel itself.
The LCD window on the B50 also had a cheap appearance; the clear plastic seemed to have been plunked down on the face of the machine – on my unit, it took little time for dust particles to make their way into the display, an issue that has been raised of late in MD discussion groups on the Internet.
The B50 also suffered from loud motor noise. This could be heard clearly on the recording being made. If the actuality (sound) wanted was in the first 15 or so seconds after activating Record, chances are you would hear the whirring of the motor as it accelerated to “cruise” speed.
So, with the B50 the main problems were the long TOC edit times, slow FF/RR engage and the loud motor.
Onto the B100. Let me begin with a positive. Sony gets high marks for its design of this unit. Its ergonomics are a joy to behold. It has a light bluish silver color, and the first thing I noticed was the curved design of the machine’s top half.
The overall size has been reduced from the B50. The stereo mics have been moved in from the top edge of the machine, as the LCD itself was relocated to near the very top of the unit. As well, the Easy Search buttons, formerly two long silver sliver buttons at the bottom of the LCD on the B50, have been rounded on the B100 and moved up below the LCD. These also double as cursor locators when in labeling mode.
The track mark button has, with apparent considerable forethought, been placed at the bottom right of the machine just near the side volume control wheel. This is excellent – when holding the machine it is very easy to move the thumb across the range of button options, from Stop on the left to track mark and record mode on the right.
The small LEDs for REC and VOR have been relocated – they are now above each other over the still thankfully large REC button. FF/RR has been turned into a single toggle, and thin at that. And while I am on the size reduction, the small vertical buttons under the LCD, including Enter, Play Mode and Display, are also quite small.
On the B50, the Erase button on the right side of the machine is a round silver button. This has been changed on the B100 to a red rectangular one – a most welcome change since it has a very different feel.
Similarly, on the left of the machine, the Bass control is a gray rectangular button. As for inputs, the B100 retains the single jack for analog and optical, next to the microphone jack. The mic sensitivity control is on the left side of the B100, a simple two-position slide switch.
Shifting between record modes on the B100 is accomplished via a button to the right of the VOR LED. Sony has placed the record Sync button on the right side of the machine.
Which came first?
It is not yet clear if the MZ-B100 was designed after the MZ-B50, possibly in reaction to the flaws of that machine. I have my doubts about that because the B100 rolled out in Japan quite quickly after the B50.
Perhaps the two designs were put into production almost concurrently. It also seems that Sony’s main objective with the B100 was to add MDLP capability.
Regardless, Sony deserves praise for the look of the B100. It has a wonderful, sleek appearance and is easy on the palm. The Stop, Play, Pause and REC buttons, along with the track mark button, are located in an indent that is part of a bump that includes the FF/RR toggle bar and the record mode selector.
The speaker is in the depression leading to the nicely designed LCD, which is framed (unlike that of the B50, which seemed merely to be a LCD slab glued to metal) in an attractive dark gray.
On the very front of the B100 are the Mic/Remote plug, the Eject slide switch and the Hold button. Eject also has been redesigned. The disc now jumps out upon eject activation, a nice touch.
As for the remote, it is terrible, overly simplistic and seems to have undergone absolutely no redesign from the B50. Ergonomically, it is a flop. It is uncomfortable to use because of its flatness and small size, and it is extremely difficult to activate the controls on its thin edge.
While on general complaints about construction, let me add this. Sony, please give us back the little black ribbon in the battery compartment ribbon which aids extraction of the AA or other battery types.
Improved response time
Returning to the key issues of the B50 and the question of what Sony has done to improve with the B100, it appears that Sony has improved the response time of the FF/RR. You can expect a 3- to 4-second delay on hitting FF or RR. It is clear that the delay is caused by the need for the motor to spin up.
Hitting FF or RR for about 1 second or a bit more, releasing, then immediately hitting FF or RR again, results in an instantaneous response. As I have had only a Japanese language manual while assessing the B100, I am not sure whether Sony includes this advice in the section dealing with FF/RR, but if they do not, they should.
On the issue of TOC read times, I am sorry to report that there seems to be no little or no improvement. Tests yield TOC/Data Save times of up to 13 seconds. The only explanation that comes to mind is the power/voltage tradeoff.
Frustrating issue for journalist
A test with an MZ-R50 yields a 6 second TOC/Data Save time. Again, my old MZ-R3/B3s are in the 1- to 2-second range.
This is most frustrating. For a journalist, it is important to be able to go quickly from recording material to editing. Having to wait 13 seconds is a time-waster.
But here’s where it gets interesting. When the B100 performs a Data Save and TOC Edit, rather than only a TOC Edit, read times are much longer. This also seems to have something to do with battery power. When the B100 does only a TOC Edit (0 to 5 seconds) read times are about 7 to 8 seconds.
For me, motor noise can be a relatively minor concern – as long as one is aware of the issue. But it is interesting to observe, or more accurately, hear the problem itself. To activate Record requires a single push of the largest button on the machine. This sets the motor in motion, and the machine begins recording almost instantaneously.
Between 0 and approximately 6 seconds the motor seems to go into a preliminary startup mode. From 6 to approximately 15 seconds, it is in a slightly less-noisy stage, finally settling down to a relatively quiet state. I must still report, however, that this motor noise is quite noticeable on playback, particularly in the first six seconds of a recording.
Thanks goes to Sony for the useful jog wheel on the left side of the B100. It functions for labeling and track moves, as well as speed control. I have not gone into the Group function in this review, as I do not use it in my work with MD.
As for MDLP, it is a nice feature to finally have in Sony’s single business recorder. In my testing, LP2 is quite good, and it is handy to have the option of using LP4 when in need of cramming more material on a single disc.
The bass control, by the way (which is labeled Sound), operates only when using headphones or playing through a car cassette adapter. The Voice Up mode, which appears in the LCD, only operates with material recorded in stereo mode.
Two final recommendations: There is no reason in my view for Sony to have left out the ability to set record mode manually. And one excellent feature would be a button allowing the user to skip backward in a track in small increments; such a feature is used by Marantz on its large 650 machine. Considering the labor required with the B50, and the B100 to an extent, to engage quickly in FF/RR a skip back control would be highly useful.
Sony is still the only manufacturer with a portable speaker/microphone MD recorder. The MZ-B100 has enough features to justify its purchase by news organizations or individual journalists looking for a well-built, compact machine, with long battery life on a single AA and MDLP capability.
This evaluation is based on my hands on use of the MZ-B100 for a few weeks, using a Japanese manual. I have not had the opportunity to correspond with a Sony representative.
Sony responded to my observations on the B50 with explanations emphasizing that machine’s focus on business users (thus the Voice Up function). Sony did, however, say that Sony engineers would be working on the issue of battery longevity and FF/RR times.
Perhaps we still have yet other models in the business/pro recorder line to look forward to. Sony is still the only manufacturer with a small portable speaker/microphone MD recorder.
My thanks to minidisco, the Internet MD retailer, for providing the test unit on which this review is based.