Thursday, October 06, 2005

Review of Sony MZ-RH10 MD Recorder

Some months ago I was looking around for an affordable portable audio recorder. After my usual extensive research I came back to Sony's MD technology, which has been updated now to Hi-MD, a high-density format with significant benefits. Here follows a detailed review of the unit I purchased, the MZ-RH10.

Purchasing and Package Contents

After doing diligent research I quickly realised that buying from a store here in Ireland is pointless. Staff know nothing about what they are selling; there is no service; prices are sky-high. Not to mention that no-one even carries the latest models.

Researching on the net I realised that the MZ-RH10 model was right for me. I found that it was easily obtainable directly from Japan.

There are some distinct advantages to buying the Japanese model:
• a choice of colours (black, silver, blue, orange) instead of just black
• a charging stand (in matching colour)
• a backlit LCD remote instead of one sans screen, coloured as well.
• a universal charger for international operations
• a higher capacity battery (1350mAh)
• units in Europe have crippled EQ and output amp since there is some daft EU law saying how loud headphone outputs can be.

After comparing prices and service, I went with a Japanese EBay retailer. The experience has been nothing but a joy from start to finish. So here is an endorsement: check out "sunnylife_jp".

I bought at a fixed price of US$299. The additional shipping charge of $40 included EMS courier internationally and local parcel service here in Ireland. This is a distinct advantage in my eyes. A web tracking page kept me in the know, and the retailer was always prompt in their email replies to my queries.

Further, I was able to simultaneously purchase Hi-MD 1GB disks at $8 per, with no additional shipping charge. I splurged and got ten, since this is about a 40% savings over what the high street store wants.

It doesn't end there, though, because included was a prong modifier for the AC adaptor. An English copy of SonicStage 3.0 was thrown in, so I could get up and running immediately. I had previously downloaded the operating manual in English as a PDF, so I knew the exact steps to take to change the MDs interface to English.

The only disadvantage I can see in buying from Japan is not having a local warranty. But I have found that they are so very rarely useful for consumer devices, which seem to break exactly one day after the warranty expires. :-)

A few more notes on the package contents. A dry cell add-on for the player was included, as were the usual crap headphones. These are actually not so completely garbaceous (new word) as others, but have the shortest cord known to man. The written manual is in Japanese (hence the download). A fine selection of magnetic cord shield thingies are added, for reasons likely related to regulatory agencies. Oh yeah, you get a soft grey Sony bag too.

One thing you do not get is a disk! The European packages include one, so this is an odd omission.

The front of the box is in English and shows a black unit. But little coloured stickers on the sides of the box say "orange" (in my case). Sure enough, opening the box finds an orangey gold silvery thing, so all is well.


Me Being Helpful

For reference, here is where you get the English manual.

To get your Japanese unit displaying English:
1. press the MENU button until the menu is displayed
2. rock up once to get to Option (suitcase icon) and click
3. rock up once to get to Language and click
4. select English

Please note that Japanese models have only two language choices.

The next thing you should do is go to Option->Menu Mode and select Advanced to turn on all the menu features.

Installation of SonicStage went ok, though there was an error about a bad archive at one point. But someone should tell Sony not to screw around with the traditional method of downloading and installing from an archive file. Sony have their own download manager. The upgrade is a *huge* bundle, so someone should also tell Sony to hire better coders. Or, more likely, get managers with a clue.

I have subsequently upgraded to version 3.2, which solves many problems. The helpful folk at minidisc.org have put together their own installer as a standard zip file1. This gets around the problem of the proprietary download manager. Better yet, you can put this installer on a MD and then, when you get to a new computer:

1. Attach the MD unit which will show up as a drive.
2. Copy over the software.
3. Install it.
4. Run it and use to transfer audio.

Bingo! No separate install disks or internet connection needed.

1 You need to register with the forum before getting the installer.

The Hardware and User Interface

OK, so I really hate this remote control. Mostly I do hate remotes, since they are just another piece of hardware that companies can use to bump up the feature count on their units, when really they should be putting the money into better mic pre-amps. :-)

The remote is unusable. It was designed by an idiot. A very tiny idiot, with fingers like straws. There are no fewer than nine controls on this little thing. To change the volume one has to twist the end, which feels like it may just twist right off any time now. To switch the Hold on you will find yourself touching several other buttons, so you do not end up holding what you wanted to hold, if you follow.

The Sound button creates pretty animations but I do not know what it does to the sound. Don't expect the manual to tell you. There's a rocker for previous/next with a centre push for play/pause. There are cheap little plastic push-buttons for Folder -/+ and Stop. Why isn't this on a similar rocker arrangement for consistency? Who knows; the entire UI is arbitrary. And none of this is remotely usable (pun intended) when the unit is clipped to some part of your clothing, as designed. Especially as the headphone connector comes out the left side, which is opposite to how 90% of people would want it. Otherwise, the display is upside down.

Let's have a look at the main unit itself. First, it is very cute. I like the implementation of the orange colour and the nice metal heft to it. It would be far cooler if the silver side band was also coloured, but maybe there wasn't enough orange metal at the factory. The much-touted EL display is almost invisible when off, and very readable when on. Unfortunately one has little control over when it will turn off. About 10 seconds after last touching a control, the display dims. From here it turns off or stays on forever, depending on the "Option->EL Light" setting. But if there is nothing playing, it will turn off even if you have told it not to. Erg.

The controls are all too small, leaving lots of space for "important" things like the Walkman logo, Sony name, etc. Why this is the case, I cannot comprehend. Bigger, more usable buttons would be much more useful. The assignment of functionality is also less than ideal. The up/down rocker navigates through the menus, or songs. Nearby back/forward buttons also skip through songs. I guess we need two ways of doing the same thing. But there is no review/fast-forward functionality.

Let me say that again. There is no way to fast-forward through a song without using the remote. Since I keep the remote in a closet, this sucks.

Actually, the navigation controls *do not* do exactly the same thing, since when looking through a file list the back button serves to go to the folder view, but in the song view it takes you to the previous song. Which is also what rocking up does. Except that rocking up also takes you to the song/folder list. Sorry, but I cannot explain it better than that!

Above this setup is a small Cancel/CHG button, which is also a stop button. You may not notice that fact at first. It is set too close to the previously mentioned rocker complex to easily use at all angles. Besides, if you stop and then use rocker combinations to navigate though songs, you will find yourself starting the music again, since the rocker does that as well.

Further, the Stop button does not technically stop at all, but rather pauses. Which is to say that the position in the current song is retained. So when used together the centre rocker button and the Stop button act as a play/pause combo. It makes no sense to me to separate these functions. Why can't the play button toggle between play and pause?

Moving up one more button we get to Search/Light/Menu. If the light is off this turns it on. If the light is on, this takes you to the search menu. If you hold this down for 2 seconds you get into the menu. Every time you choose a menu option you get thrown out again, and must hold down this button for 2 seconds. This is stupid. But at least the interface remembers the last major menu option you were on, so you can navigate to a new submenu a little quicker.

BTW, there is no Display button. To change the display (to get from time elapsed to time remaining, for example) you must go into the menu. There is no program button, so to set up shuffle or repeat play or something you must again use the cumbersome menu. In any case, these settings are not remembered when the unit is restarted, which is inane.

The next button up towards the top of the unit is volume up/down which works and also turns on the display. Hmmm... guess they didn't need that Light button then! The volume range is not great, so you'd better have efficient headphones.

Finally, above all this are Record and Track Mark buttons, but I'm not going to cover recording in this section.

The Hold slider is on the top face of the unit, next to the audio in/out sockets. I like this, as I generally like the overall ergonomics of where the ports are.

I should mention that you cannot decide to turn the unit off. It decides for you. Boot-up time from unit off to playing a track is almost exactly 2 seconds in Quick Mode, which is an excellent figure. When starting the unit is continues play from where it was last time. Disabling Quick Mode saves battery life and results in a start time of about 10 seconds.

Noise when accessing the MD is minimal and not distracting.


Audio Quality

The sound is notably worse coming out of the remote than it is if you plug straight into the main unit. I don't think that should be a surprise considering the extra circuitry the remote puts between you and the sound source.

However, the sound itself is not as good as I would have hoped. I tested with a set of Grado SR225s and some LAME encoded MP3 files. I found the bass indistinct, the mids muffled, and the highs not very high. Setting up a custom EQ setting I was able to remedy this somewhat by setting up the bars at 1/0/0/0/1/2. (This may make sense if you realise there is a six-band parametric with +/-3 units of adjustment.)

However, EQ is no substitute for a better headphone amp. My little MP3 player, an MPIO FL100, sounds much better than this Sony MD.

I have not compared using uncompressed files, since my MP3 player does not support them. Comparing to my computer output would be a no-contest as you would expect from an RME digital interface.

In summary: with EQ tweaks and decent headphones (I usually use Koss PortaPro on the road) the MD sounds good enough for general listening. However, this still leaves room for improvement.


Recording Features

While recording you use the two tiny buttons next to each other: REC and T Mark. First, press them both together to enter "record pause" mode, from whence you can enter the menu and adjust settings. Then press REC to release pause and begin recording. Press it again to pause during the recording. It actually took me a long time to figure this out, because I didn't see that REC was also the Pause button.

While in "record pause" the unit will thankfully not shut off. So you can set up your recording to this point and wait for the correct moment before "rolling tape".

If you pause while playing, a new track is started automatically. There is no way to turn off this "feature". All of these tracks are put in the same group until you press the stop button. A new recording after this will then start a new group. This feature *can* be changed so that no new groups are created.

Just a note that you do not need to explicitly advance beyond the last track to safely start recording, as you did on older generation Sony MD recorders. Recording automatically starts after all other tracks. Thank goodness.

This unit records only in Hi-MD mode. Choices are PCM (uncompressed) with 94 minute capacity on a 1GB disk, Hi-SP with 475 minute capacity, or Hi-LP for about 34 hours. The Hi-SP format sounds to me very good; I have used it for speech and recordings where I knew my mics were the limiting factor.

While the unit is stopped there are five different displays that can be set through the menu. However, while recording you have no choices. The display shows track and group numbers plus elapsed time, an indicator if time mark is set, the type of recording, remaining time, and input meters.

Most of this seems well designed. The one truly annoying characteristic is that every time you start a new recording you must go into the menu ("REC Settings -> REC Level -> Manual") and switch the automatic gain control (AGC) off in order to adjust the record levels manually. I truly hope this menu option becomes "sticky" in a future upgrade (if such things exist).

When using analogue input, a new track is started automatically when the volume dips too low. The manual states that this happens after two seconds of below 4.8mV input (or -89dB digital). If you don't want your recording sliced up in this way, go to "REC Settings -> Time Mark -> On" and set this to the maximum of 60 minutes.


Software Operation

The much-maligned SonicStage software is indeed a gigantic piece of bureaucratic junk, exactly the type of software I would normally never let near my computer. It rips, it burns, it catalogues, it slices, it dices, and all in an inferior fashion. SonicStage cleverly tries to catalogue using ID tags, which I do not have on many of my tracks. But I do have a hard-drive full of carefully collated and organised music, which I would dearly love to simply see as a bunch of files and folders. Hey Sony! Is that so difficult to understand?

After letting the software import my music collection I ended up with a list of artists, alphabetised by the first character in their names, meaning incorrectly. Artists from various compilations were included not under the compilation but rather scattered all over the alphabet with single song entries; to clear this up they need to be deleted and the compilation manually imported as a playlist. Small variations in spellings in ID tags meant that some artists were listed several times. It may come as no surprise that by far the largest entry I had was for a blank artist, including all of the files that did not have ID tags, likely because they are my own sound files or something from miscellaneous sources. So that mess needs to go too, and then be all manually re-imported. Urg.

It would be ok for software to be this dumb, except for one critical problem: correcting entries takes forever, even though it's just a database field change somewhere. This is the final straw that breaks the app.


File Transfers

Behind the scenes the MD unit simply mounts on the file system as another drive, needing no special software to copy files to and fro. But these files cannot be played as music; in this mode the minidisc is just portable storage for any files you want. It would be incredible if Sony made it possible to manage all of the music content in this way as well. But this seems unlikely, as they like to control all aspects of our music lives.

The logic of this is baffling. Since I can easily copy copyrighted music files *as files* to the RH10, and then copy them from the MD to any other computer, what is the point of all the rigmarole about encoding, digital rights, etc. etc.? The same technology that helps the rights of copyright owners also helps circumvent them. The only loser is the customer who has to use crap software.

Bring on the reverse engineering projects!

While bitching in like fashion, I used SonicStage to transfer a few albums worth of MP3 files to the MZ-RH10. This worked well enough. Thankfully the software is multi-threaded, so one can do some file management while queued files are copied. But again things are not quite so happy in Sonyland. If you try to copy an album and there is not enough room, it will start the copying, warn you which files won't fit, but continue with the few that will, anyway. It would make a lot more sense to prompt the user as to whether they really want a partial album copied. There is a stop button to terminate an ongoing process, but this is not very responsive. And I did experience a software lock-up at least once.

Also, some multitasking simply cannot be done. For example, don't try to import a playlist while copying files to the unit.

And while the software *will* import M3U playlists, and even lets you create your own, there are many documented bugs and shortcomings in this process.

Once the MD unit is connected via USB it trickle charges and cannot be used to play or record. The trickle charge cannot fully charge the battery, so it makes sense to only connect when you need to transfer.

In older versions of SonicStage transfers of recorded files to the PC could be done only once. This limitation is gone. The first time the process of writing the OMA file is complete, you will be prompted with an option to automatically convert this to a WAV. This works without prompting for all future transfers, a rare sign of intelligence in the interface. The duplicate OMA file is not deleted, however, so you will need to do some manual cleanup to avoid disk pollution. The path for where files will be saved can be set as an option and is remembered.

All-in-all the upload process is painless, but not as nice as drag'n'drop.


Feature Roundup

The MD format has a lot going for it. A 1GB disc is a lot cheaper than 1GB of flash RAM or a CF card or any alternative except a hard drive. But hard drive players are not nearly as robust or immune to damage. If you damage a single MD your heart will not break, as I imagine it would when you break you 40GB iPod. I know people on their third unit, so this is not a theoretical problem!

The disk form factor is big in comparison to the alternatives, but the player size is not unreasonable. (In one dimension it's actually smaller than an MD case!) You won't confuse this with a tiny flash player, but the capabilities are not comparable either.

Battery life is excellent. The fact that the gumsticks are easily replaced is a huge bonus. You could simply charge up a few and carry them around for enormous playback longevity. HD DAPs cannot compare with this.

The build quality on the main unit appears very good. I am not about to torture-test my unit to see if this is true, so only time will tell.

Power-up time in Quick Mode beats most of the competition hands-down.

There is no radio and hence no ability to record from the radio. The cost to add this must I think be minimal, so I'm surprised it's missing.

There is also no clock or timer functions. A sleep timer, timer recording, and other functions would be trivial to implement and add significantly to the feature list. I would love it if recordings could be timestamped, for example.

The software is bulky, buggy, stupid, and monolithic. We hates it. I want to drag'n'drop files from my file system to the MD file system. If Sony wants some stupid encryption in the way, ok, go for it, just make it invisible to me.

The UI on the unit is so far from optimal that I recommend Sony hires me or one of my interface designer friends. I could design something better over a cappuccino. There is no reason that a MD recorder like this could not be entirely optimised for one-handed operations, with no common function more than a second away, and no need for a remote.



Improvements

This is the best portable recording device for the money. Nonetheless I'd like to see the following improvements:
• enable drag'n'drop audio file transfers
• improve the mic pre-amp to compete with external devices
• added a clock and timer functions
• redesign the hardware interface for usability
• menu options settings should be remembered between shutdowns
• improve the headphone amp
• gapless playback of audio files
• ability to queue files while another is playing
• add a radio (and record from radio ability)

Most of these are quite do-able and would result in a brilliant product.

RELATED POSTS

4 comments:

robin said...

Here's another review complete with pictures of the blue unit. Minidisc.org is full of such.

Anonymous said...

It does have an FF function on the unit: hold down the "next track" button...vice versa for rewind! :-)

Zbigniew said...

mz-rh10 IS NOT an mp3 player - why didn't you compare it's sound quality when decoding attrac format?(compare the SQ: the same track encoded to mp3(160 or 256Kbit) on your mp3 player and attrac(160 or 256Kbit) on mz-rh10) This unit mutes frequencies above 13Khz in "MP3 mode"- visit minidisc.org for details . Sony wants mp3 sound far worse than attrac.. unnecessarily. Try using it's native format and you'll get decent SQ - far better than achieved on iRiver t10 with MP3 encoded at 320Kbit (compared to sony's Hi-SP). With MD(biterates above 160Kbit) there is no such a thing as hi tone's "artifacts" - main issue with MP3. This unit is not for people who donwload music form internet.. rather for someone who rips it from CDs (with unfortunately _annoying_ SonicStage).
mz-r501 sounded good but mz-rh10 is much more accurate, especially when recording via optical input.

robin said...

My review was not primarily concerned with sound quality... other people have already focused on that. However I did say "I found the bass indistinct, the mids muffled, and the highs not very high." So I'm not sure why you think I ignored the weak playback reproduction.

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