A few points and tips about the Sony MZ-R91 (Tourist Model)

Glen Wintringham ([email protected])
February 2000

  • Go straight to the meat or read the waffling preamble.
  • Find out where to buy cheap blank MDs in Osaka.

  • When I came to Japan I really wanted a recorder. The Sony MZ-R55 was the latest MD unit then available, but I couldn't bring myself to buy it or any of the other units, as I felt my brother's MZ-R50 (at that time already unavailable in Japan) was better than any of the newer models. So I waited. . . When the Panasonic SJ-MR100 arrived I took notice. When the Sharp MT831 came out I almost bought one, but wanted to see Sony's response. When the R91 came out I was sold, I waited until the tourist model came out (international warranty, universal AC adapter, optical cable) and got it that week, so I've had it about 2 months now.

    Why the 'R91 as opposed to the 'R90?

    I find the R91 prettier. I can't tell the difference in weight, and I suspect Sony only made a variant with a magnesium lid so they could fractionally surpass the competition & say "World's Lightest" in their advertising. (The ads on the trains there are full of "World's Smallest" "World's Thinnest" "World's ****est" - Sony & Panasonic are the best in the "world", while Sharp is the best in the "universe". ) I think the buttons on the R91 are slightly better too, bigger, more tactile. Plus the R91 is around 3000 yen cheaper. A matter of taste really.

    Why the Sony as opposed to the Sharp?

    The Sony is solid and rigid. It feels good. It ejects with a nice sound, and you can press the lid anywhere to close it. The Sharp feels a bit flimsy. If you press the open lid in the corner the clamshell flexes, binds, and won't close. The hinge on the clamshell looks weak. (In fact I saw a display model that had broken at the hinge, the clamshell was hanging freely by the ribbon cable - not a great display. The display models in certain shops in Den Den Town have a really hard life, so it's good after a month or so for seeing how equipment holds up, externally at least.) I also wanted the option of an AGC for certain recording situations. And the Sony is smaller. And has the jog dial. Again, depends what you consider important.

    I did like the Sharp's charging cradle, battery, and display though. There wasn't much in it, it was the rigidity of the Sony mostly.

    It turns out I was wrong. The Sony has proven to be less reliable in service than the Sharp. I've personally had no problems, but repairmen such as David Popovits haven't been impressed by the design.

    There are already several well written reviews of the R90/91, so I'll just add a few things that I don't think I've seen covered explicitly. I assume you've already read something about the R90/91. It may seem like I'm ragging on the thing (I do cover a few negatives), but I love it really.

    The Line Out/Headphone Jack

    I wasn't keen on the combining of these two, but it seems to work OK. The "Line Out" setting on the menu is actually equivalent to the headphone output being set at full volume with no bass boost. This is useful to know because one annoying "feature" of the the R90/91 is that the output resets to headphone every time the unit powers down. I sometimes leave it plugged into an amplifier for days on end, and don't want to play around with the menu every time I use it. By turning off the AVLS and bass boost, and turning the volume to full I can leave the menu alone. Just have to be careful when putting the phones back in.

    The Battery Life

    Sony claim 12 hours playback from the internal battery, which is somewhat analogous to the old PMPO output claims made for amplifiers. Maybe they kept the unit at the optimal temperature for the battery, and had no load, and gave the battery a rest every few minutes to recover, and used a specially lightened MD with a super low friction casing or something. I have followed their battery care instructions religiously and I only get about 7-9 hours out of a charge. It's plenty enough for me though. (Makes you wonder how much the MZ-R55 with a claimed battery life of 4 hours really does.)

    The battery life indicator is pretty useless. >From a full charge it reads 4 bars for about half an hour. Then it sits on 3 bars full for most of the discharge, and about half an hour before the end drops down through 2 and 1 to "Low Battery". (I exagerate only a little.) So you really have to just remember yourself roughly where you are in the discharge. Also it usually indicates full charge every time you turn it on, you have to wait half a minute or so to actually see what it really thinks the state of the battery is, and it goes up and down depending on whether it is reading or not.

    If the battery gets low when recording, the unit will stop recording, write the TOC and turn off.  You can playback for a bit over an hour after this.


    The tourist model cannot title in katakana, but it can display katakana if the MD contains them. One little quirk is that when you begin titling, if you change character sets (i.e. upper to lower case) before entering any characters, a katakana "a" - "ア" is displayed which you can then enter. No problem, just odd.

    The name bank is great. One perhaps less obvious(?) use for it is entering common parts of words e.g. "ing" "ed" "igh", it saves a lot of time.

    The Earphones

    These are labelled MDR-E805. I think they are the same as the 1500 yen MDR-E821LP earphones but with a shorter cord and different connector. I don't like them, very harsh high mids and trebles, no bass, distort easily. The phones with the MZ-R50 (MDR-D77? or 55?) were much better. I don't understand why Sony have created this mismatch, the R90/91 is a nice sounding unit but the supplied phones do it no justice at all. Sony have never been particularly great at transducers but they've done better than this in the past. This guy thinks the MDR-E821LP earphones are great so maybe you'll like the R90/91 earphones, who knows?

    The Remote

    Nice looking little thing. But the viewing angle is exactly wrong. The LCD can only be read from one angle, and it's an angle most suited to someone facing you. You can't read it while it's clipped to you, you have to twist it around. The clip doesn't hold it in place, and the push controller needs a lot more force to operate than the old twist style. Not a great remote really.


    The R91 can be sensitive to shock when recording. Walking while recording is sometimes enough to make the beam skip and erase some other part of the recording. This leaves annoying silent gaps on the final result. Be sure to keep the unit still when you stop recording otherwise the TOC could be damaged, and then you'd have to say some rude hurtful words.

    The AGC is fairly good as these things go for mic recording, doesn't pump too much. It has sufficient gain for really quiet sounds. The sound quality is reasonably good, some mic preamp hiss. The preamp cannot cope with a very loud microphone input. If you have a high output mic and are recording a loud band it will overload (at 28mV RMS to be precise). You can set the gain lower manually but this only works to a point, you're not actually turning a physical pot, so extreme volume can overload the input even on minimum gain. The R55 had a switch to reduce the gain of the preamp which helped a little, but it's gone on this model, so Sharp would be a better choice if you're doing a lot of microphone recording.

    If you are recording from a mic, you'll quickly find that you must use the battery only. The power supply injects a terribly large mains frequency component which is greatly amplified by the mic preamp. Recording from a computer's soundcard is also improved by using the battery. It's not noticeable recording from the line-in, but I'm sure it's there, just much quieter in relation to the signal. Quite probably the ATRAC decides it's inaudible anyway so it's chucked, but not ideal.

    If you record a lot of short sounds (say 20-30 seconds long) in one session, and delete or divide some of them, sometimes the TOC update/data save can take 3-5 minutes. (Not a misprint.) You might wonder if the thing has crashed, but it probably hasn't.

    Differences of the Tourist Model

    The International Warranty is one year parts worldwide, one year labour in Japan, 90 days labour outside Japan. I prefer to have some kind of warranty to get me through the burn in period, seeing as I no longer live in Japan.

    The Universal Power Adapter is a tiny switch mode power supply made in China. A consequence of the high frequency switching is some radio interference. Switch mode power supplies really aren't an intelligent choice for circuits dealing with small signals, as they're inherently and unavoidably noisy. This one is no different. If you're in a quiet room, put some headphones on, and with the unit off, insert the power jack. You'll hear the mains hum clearly on the headphones, take the power jack out & it's gone again. So basically it's a crap design. I don't know if this is just the SMPS or if the conventional Sony adapters do it as well.

    Anyway you can travel anywhere with this and it'll work. Handy.

    The Optical Cable is fairly cheap and nasty, but conducts light from one port to another which is all it has to do, so no matter. Nice that they included one.

    As mentioned above Titling is English only. I would have preferred to have katakana as well but never mind.

    Where I bought it

    I bought it from Sawada Denki. They were the cheapest of the tax free stores, and seemed the friendliest. Their tax free price in the first week of November 1999 was 35500 yen. They have a good range too but are expensive for blank MDs and accessories. I was very happy with their service as the first R91 I bought had some dirt under the display, and they exchanged it without fuss - they must have thought I was a complete tosser though.

    Up the road are the Sony Pro Shop and Joshin and a couple of others I can't remember the names of. The Sony Pro Shop is expensive. Joshin seems to have very little range. If you buy a tourist model you are going to pay maybe 2000-3000 more than the domestic one. It just depends whether you want the extra features or not, the universal power adapter is possibly worthwhile if you come from a 220/240V country.

    But if you don't care about getting a tourist model you can go anywhere, and probably find one for about 32000-33000 (even less as it's a few months old now). There are many discount appliance shops, one I know of (because I lived near it) which is a bit odd is ERG or Erugu. If you take the Kintetsu Nara line from Namba (central city south) or Nippombashi (next stop from Namba, next to Den Den Town) or, well anywhere really, and go to Tsuruhashi station (5th stop from Namba), as you exit the train you'll be facing ERG (south of the station). It's a big building with neon and strobe lights on the sides. Exit the station and find your way there. ERG is weird because they sell the R90 cheaper than the R91, an R90 goes for 31000 I think, and they have one day specials, where I have seen (on different days) both the Sharp 831 and the Sony R90 for 25000. It's unlikely you'll be able to time your visit to take advantage of these specials, but you could go to one of the Korean Yakiniku restaurants the area is famous for instead, and anyway 31000 for an R90 is OK.

    If you're in Japan don't buy blank MDs from any of the tax free shops. They're a real rip. There are many media shops which only sell recording media and they are much cheaper. The best I have found is Tanikawa Denki (谷川電機). If you are walking through Den Den Town southwards (i.e. from Sennichimae Suji or Nippombashi Station toward Shinsekai, Tanikawa Denki is on the left side, after the green pedestrian bridge, but before the overpass. They sell many varieties (Sony, Maxell, TDK, Axia etc.) of MD in 10 packs for 1500-1600 yen (excl. tax). And better still you can buy a box of 30 TDK SP74EX MDs for 4380 yen, that's 4600 including tax - brilliant - 153 yen per MD maybe US$1.45. You can also splash out and buy those aluminium cased ones or any of the real exotic expensive ones there.

    More Map Notes - You can buy tax free at most any shop, but only the explicitly labelled tax free shops sell international or tourist models. There are a few more tax free shops than I've marked, some of which were closed on my days off, so I've never been inside. There are also more media stores. There are generally a lot of stores. Disc JJ is a great second hand CD shop. A lot of the stock is completely indistinguishable from a new CD, and some of the stock is new, but still at a secondhand price. Japanese CDs are too expensive so if you want to try some Japanese music Disc JJ is pretty good. Kuromon Market is a famous Osaka marketplace worth a look to see all the stalls selling odd Japanese foodstuffs. It also has the famous weird pet store at its Sakai Suji street entrance, which I somehow never saw either. If you are in Japan around January 8-10th you should go to Ebisu Shrine. Ebisu Festival is held at this time, a national merchants festival, and Ebisu Shrine is where it originates from, so it's really packed and very Japanese. Tennoji Zoo is not so wonderful, but the accompanying Tennoji Park is, and you can see many homeless people here dancing and singing karaoke on systems they've cobbled together out of the rubbish, the flip side of the Japanese economic miracle. Shinsekai is a unusual place for Japan, comparitively rough, many transvestites and odd people hang out there. It's very cheap for clothing, food, haircuts etc. It also contains Tsutenkaku Tower - something like a small Eiffel Tower, Festival Gate - an amusement park, and Spa World - where you can spend 24 hours in Japanese baths themed after various international locations for about 3000 yen.


    I am fond of the MZ-R91, it's so small and light, hardly know it's in my pocket. Potentially great sound, great recording, easy to use, tremendous gadget value. Just wish they'd included some decent phones, power supply, & and could get the mic preamp right. Do not get this model if recording from microphones is your primary objective.

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