By Simon Wilson
Scan: My MZ-R90
I've been using MiniDisc since 1997 when I received a Sony MZ-R30 for my birthday. If you knew me, you would know that I am very fond of gadgets. Only a few months later I was hooked and I found myself buying its successor, the MZ-R50. Unfortunately this unit had an early retirement when I spilt the contents of a kettle over it! Surprisingly, after it dried, it worked for a good few days before stopping during an important recording and sealing a disc inside it that Sony themselves could not even remove! Onto the MZ-R55 which I had for a week before a list of problems so long forced me to return it. The second unit had the same problems (mainly with the battery and mains power supply), so I gave up on Sony for a while.
I moved from England to the States for my second year of University and picked up an Aiwa AM-F70 for an extortionate price at a local dealer (just so that I could get a local extended warranty). Unfortunately I began having problems with this after five months when blank spaces began appearing in my recordings. This unit could also not be fixed so I was awarded with a shiny blue MZ-R90. This is where my story begins.
For recordings, I find a portable recorder to be more useful to me than a deck. I do however prefer the sound quality offered by the top-of-the-range players, so I also bought myself a Sony MZ-E90. I am going to give my personal thoughts on the Aiwa AM-F70 and the Sony MZ-R90, along with my thoughts on owning both a portable recorder and player.
Feature Comparison: Aiwa AM-F70 / Sony MZ-R90
The Aiwa is slightly smaller than the Sony MZ-R50 but a lot larger than the MZ-R90. The Sony is currently the smallest and lightest recorder, so I was pleased with the size difference. Normally smaller size means smaller buttons, but I found the buttons large enough; no complaints there. The Sony also feels sturdier than the Aiwa, but I wouldn't like to drop either! The display on the Aiwa is bigger of course, but it makes you wonder how small the recorders can go before the displays become available only on the remote controls.
Speaking of buttons, the Aiwa has excellent controls. Finding an option on the Sony is sometimes like finding a needle in a haystack. A menu on the Sony provides everything that's not given a separate button, like bass control and play mode. They did think out the menu a bit - to edit the track name, you just press "menu/enter" three times. To change to "time remaining" on the display, you press "menu, up, menu, up, menu". Not as quick as pressing the "display" button once on the Aiwa, but I can live with it. There is however a separate "display" button on the remote, so all is not lost.
You will find the jog-dial on the Aiwa very handy when titling and adjusting the volume. The Sony's "jog-dial" is really a spring-loaded up/down lever in disguise. It can be pressed inwards to invoke an option that you select on the menu by moving the lever up and down. I personally like the menu on the Sony - it's easy to use. I would like to see an extra button for switching the output from "headphone" to "line out" because every time you stop playing, the unit defaults to headphone output.
The Aiwa has an excellent backlit display on the unit and another fantastic feature - play, stop and skip buttons that light up. It really makes a difference as I rarely use the backlit remotes you get with portable recorders. The display on the unit makes it easy to use anywhere. Both come with backlit remotes (don't all recorders nowadays?)
The Aiwa is a good unit for recording, as it provides features such as the ability to manually adjust the recording volume during recording (without pausing) and the option of placing track marks automatically at given intervals. The Sony has neither of these features, but I personally never used them.
I like the way that the Aiwa always moves to the blank space on the disc before recording. Message to Sony: why not automatically move to the blank space before recording? I find "end search" useful however when playing as I can move to a track near the end quickly. Hint: the way around this on the Aiwa is to enter "repeat-all play mode" and skip backwards from the first track to the last. It's also easier on the Sony to start recording in record-pause mode. On the Aiwa, you have to slide and hold the record switch for a few seconds to put it into that mode - there's an annoying wait. On the Sony you just hold pause, slide record and viola!
The Aiwa has the edge on the Sony in terms of recording by the sheer amount of features provided. I'm not impressed however by the way the recorder started missing split-seconds of recording towards the end of its life! I'll assume this is because it was broken.
The new Sony is unfortunately as slow as the Aiwa in terms of starting playback from "off" and changing tracks. The older Sony's were always the fastest players on the market in my opinion. The Aiwa overtakes the Sony here again in terms of features with a programmed-play mode. You can select the track you want played and then have them play in that order. Strictly-speaking, you can do that on the Sony, but it involves moving the tracks around on the disc!
The most useful feature of the unit (and definitely a reason to buy) is the ability to move track marks in a "rehearsal" mode before you lay them down finally. It's great for those analogue dubs that come out in one long piece. It feels very professional to rotate the jog dial left and right to position the track mark accurately.
The jog-dial was also nice for titling tracks (it is just as easy to use as the jog-dials on the older Sony recorders), but I despised the upper limit on the number of characters for a track title. The Aiwa only allows 50 characters per track; the Sony allows four times this amount. I found this annoying when making compilations for my car as I like to enter both the artist name and track title. The MZ-R90 also has a completely new feature not found on any other recorder (aside from the larger MZ-R91) - the "Phrase Bank". You can store up to 40 commonly used words into the recorder's memory for retrieval at any point during recording. For longer words used often, this can really speed things up. I also like the way you can title during record or playback, but the thing I like is that playback doesn't pause after titling a track like it did in older units.
I paid the extortionate price of $300 for the Aiwa from Soundtrack in Boulder, Colorado. I suppose that's because "Coloradians" don't have much experience of MiniDisc. The Sony was an extra $50 when it was offered as a replacement eight months after I bought the Aiwa. I got the Sony as an exchange for my broken Aiwa for the difference in pre-tax price (approximately fifteen dollars).
To me, the Aiwa and Sony have similar battery lives. The Sony does in fact have quite an edge on the Aiwa, but I think the playback/recording time for each is great. I rarely use the extended battery cases that come with portables now that the playback times have increased since the early days. Remember when you couldn't record a full 74 minute disc on a single charge? No? Then you didn't own a Sony MZ-1, did you!
I don't care about loudness, I care about the quality. I've always liked Sony's for their sound quality, but recently I think the recorders have been getting worse. My MZ-R30 sounded great. The MZ-R50 was indistinguishable from CD decks costing hundreds of pounds (I'm thinking back to when I was in England)! The MZ-R55 was worse, and the MZ-R90 is "different". My MZ-E90 player sounds far superior to the Sony recorders I've heard, including the MZ-R50 and 90. I also preferred the bass on the Aiwa. Don't get me wrong - the Sony has excellent sound - it's just that their players sound better and the Aiwa has stronger bass. For your information, I'm comparing the sound of the units with the same pair of earphones (earbuds) - a $30 Sony pair.
Now for something strange - the Sony only sounds "different" from the older players through the headphone output. When "line out" is selected on the menu and the unit is played through speakers, it sounds just as good as the older MZ-R50 (to which everything will be benchmarked by me!)
To Sum Up...
I prefer the Sony for its size. I hardly used the extra features offered by the Aiwa, but that doesn't mean that everyone won't. The main thing that caused me to favour the Sony was the line output so that I can connect it to my stereo system. You can achieve a similar result on the Aiwa by putting the volume on full and switching off the bass, but I feel the Sony sounds better in this respect. Funnily enough, the bass sounds better on the Sony through the line output!
My Sony MZ-R90 is mainly blue with silver "trim" all around the edge, around the display and has silver buttons. It looks very nice indeed, much better than the blue MZ-R55.
on the MZ-E90
I bought the Sony MZ-E90 whilst I was still using my Aiwa recorder. I bought the Sony player for its size and mainly for its long battery life as I do a lot of travelling. When I got the Sony as a replacement for the Aiwa, my first though was "oh no, I wasted my money on the player". Not true. The player excels when compared to the recorder in that it has double the battery life and sounds much better. The player is also thinner and lighter than the recorder and so I prefer taking it out with me.
It's nice to be able to keep the recorder connected to my stereo system and keep the player (which has no line out) free for use as just a walkman. I can also do MD to MD copies, although only with an analogue lead. It would be nice if Sony had an optical output on their MiniDisc players and/or recorders.