The Perfect Recorder

Sony MDS-JA30ES Review
-Massimo Basile ([email protected])

About one year after Sony's introduction of the high-end MDS-JA50ES MD deck in Japan, I finally managed to find a Sony unit equipped with the brand new 4.5 version of the ATRAC compression scheme here in Italy. It was not the MDS-JA50ES however, which still remains the top-of-the-top MD recorder from Sony, but its ``little brother'', the MDS-JA30ES, which costs about one half the JA50ES and four times the price of the excellent MDS-JE510. The question is, are there really significant differences between these two models with such high prices and similar functions? And how does the MDS-JA30ES differ from the other top MD player/recorder coming from Sony?

MDS-JA30ES: The Affordable Version of the Top JA50ES

Since the introduction of this incredibly powerful recording media, I have been a proud owner of MiniDisc machines. I bought one of the very first MZ-1s in Tokyo, then an MZ-2P (player only) and then an MDS-501 immediately after its introduction on the Italian market. After that I waited about two years before changing my home deck, or rather, before adding a new MD unit to my system. The MDS-501 was so expensive (even though inferior to the simplest MD machine available today) that I decided to keep the recorder instead of selling it for loose change. In February 1997 I bought an MDS-JE500, waiting for the MDS-JA50ES which Sony Italia seemed to quite reluctant to import. Then, after many months, they finally decided to import both the not-so-new MDS-JA50ES, which is now a one-year old model, and the newer MDS-JA30ES, which is quite similar to the 'JA50ES but a little cheaper both in construction and price. And this made me decide to leave the too-expensive machine to other high-end users. For me the ' JA30ES was sufficient, since the most important feature I was searching for was the 11.6 ms editing functionality of the JA50ES.

Yes, there is a ``big'' difference between the two units: it is related to the A/D circuitry that has 24 bits precision in the JA50ES and just 20 bits precision in its cheaper brother. But one may wonder: after a 5 to 1 bitrate reduction, could the differences between 20 and 24 bits conversion be noted? (And remember that they refer only to the analog recording, as digital signals go directly to the ATRAC converter.) Of course the answer is not so simple, and there are many aspects to consider.

Here in Italy Sony does not seem to be really interested in these technical particulars which, instead, I think are the really important for these sorts of machines. Sony Italy does not publish the ATRAC version of the codec, nor the editing capabilities or other hi-tech stuff. Just S/N, frequency response, number of inputs/outputs, etc. I managed, asking a Sony technician and, meanwhile, checking the MiniDisc WebPages for further info about this machines functions: the answer was positive, so I ordered the unit!

A Precious Golden Box

Open the heavy package of the MDS-JA30ES and you will find a precious, high-tech audio machine from the year 2000. If you decide on the gold version, as I did, surely you will be a proud owner of a not-so-little jewel.

A heavy, robust chassis hides and protects an incredibly ordered and finely assembled electronic device, built by means of research towards maximum audio fidelity. There's something strange, however, when you realize that while recording on the silver-diskette this machine throws away the 80% of the original data... but it does that so well! A very big display camps on the center of the front panel, showing at the same time the name of the track (or the disc), the track number and time (or remaining time), the layout of the disc (total number of tracks to be played), and the recorded level via a really precise level meter, made up of 23 segments both for left and right channels. A monitor of the input data sampling frequency is added together with indicators for the output data precision, the non-clipping function and various play mode signals. If all this information bothers you, the JA30ES allows you to switch off some or all of them, by clicking repeatedly on the display button. Some functions were curtailed however: the display is capable of showing 11 characters only, instead of 12 as in older home decks and it also does not scroll the track title during normal playback, but only if you press scroll or if manually select a track or skip a track.

Look at the front panel and, if you have been a user of previous Sony's MD units, you will note something really new. First of all the tray loading mechanism that replaces the slot-in mechanism of all the other home MD-decks. Now you have to put your precious disc in a little plate, and you will not have to push it through a slot forcing the mechanism to ``eat it''. So now it's all like a CD or DAT unit. Better, worse? At first I thought they had eliminated one of the most interesting aspects of MD units, but now I understand that this is not the case. Soon you will get used of this new feature and you will thank Sony: the fact that there will be no more scratches on your TDK or Sony transparent MDs is, surely, one of the simplest but funniest consequence of this new feature. The others are related to stability and precision of the entire system, but this is obvious.

And the second thing you'll notice? It's this ``third'' knob. What is this? Simple, we all knew it before, since the introduction of the JA50ES: these new Extreme high Standard machines are able to control the digital input signal, varying the recording level and also the playback volume. The third knob is exactly the digital level control, which allows one to raise the digital signal a maximum of 12 dB, or to lower it down to mute level. A consequence of this is that the unit is also equipped with automatic fade in and out functions, which can be programmed to occur in from 0 to 15 seconds, with the possibility to choose also between a linear, sinusoidal or logarithmic function for the attenuation over time. The last is preferred, as it resembles the human ear's behaviour, but the sinusoid is far more practical both when using the knob or the remote control and gives, for my tastes, better results especially when fading out. So I decided to use the sinusoid for the digital level control and automatic fade out, and the logarithmic function for the automatic fade in. Yes, fading functions can be chosen differently both for fade in and fade out and for the manual recording level control!

Powerful Editing: No More Frontiers

Is interesting to note that the JA30ES and the JA50ES are the very first consumer digital recorders equipped with this digital level control: now you can fill up your disc easily from different sources, making them uniform in level and without compromises in quality, as you can avoid multiple D/A and A/D conversions.

Apart from this control, the unit is equipped with state-of-the-art editing capabilities, the best you can ask from a MiniDisc unit. Of course you can divide, combine, move, erase and name tracks, you can also name the entire disc, and if you set-up the clock unit, date and time of recording will be automatically stamped onto your MDs. The editing menu is now a bit different from the one found in other MD recorders, and while it is more powerful, it is also a little bit more complicated and less practical.

With other units, such as the MDS-JE500 or older MDS-501 and 503, by pressing the edit/no button you gained access to all the editing functions in sequence (combine, divide, erase, etc). Pressing yes, or pushing the knob again, you could activate the function and the unit waited, wanting a confirmation. Now if you press edit/no, you enter the first submenu, and you must choose if you want to access the edit menu or the setup menu. So to edit you must again press edit/no to browse among the editing functions (or wait half a second doing nothing), and then you can choose the type of editing you like. To erase, combine or move tracks this is a little bit longer but it does not cause any problem at all, it is when you have to divide that the situation is more complicated.

To divide, after pressing edit/no and waiting half a second, you must find the ``divide'' menu with the knob, and then push the knob or press yes, but now the unit does not enter the ``divide'' rehearsal, instead it asks which track you want to divide. If it is the same one you are playing (and that surely would be the case most of the time), you must push the knob a third time, this enters divide rehearsal mode centered on the position where you just pushed the knob. Here you can browse through the track frame by frame, second by second, or even minute by minute. To chose between these options you must press the skip buttons on the remote, otherwise the default mode will be frame by frame. It is not possible to use the AMS button to search on the track while ``divide'' is blinking, as it was with previous machines (this means that the first raw choice of the cut point is much more tricky), nor you can put the unit in pause to go fast forward or backward within the track, you can only play.

However, there is also a ``deus ex-machina'', surely suggested by a Sony employee user genius: to divide a track you can also listen to it and, when the cut point approaches, simply press the AMS knob. After that, the unit switches in the rehearsal mode and then, without browsing between menus, you need only press Edit once and then Yes to confirm the split.

Each second is divided in 86 frames, which means that the editing precision is 11.6 ms, like the professional and multitrack units. And this is really good, probably the best feature of this unit. Making an edit is far more simple now. If you compare it with the 60 ms precision of other units, this is a world apart. I feel this is what ``non-linear-editing'' is really all about! It is interesting to note that the editing precision is higher than the precision offered by professional CD players for DJing, for which a second of music is divided in 74 frames (13.3 ms).

Other differences with previous MD decks are related to the combine function. On this machine when you press ``combine'' the unit will not combine the beginning of the track you are playing with the end of the previous one, but the end of the current track with the beginning of the next, quite a difference! The first time I used this feature I made a real mess because, as might be expected, after four years of using this feature I didn't look at which tracks I was combining (and I didn't care to listen to the rehearsal). This is not necessarily a drawback, but just something to be noted. In addition there is also something more powerful now, which should be strongly stressed. You can combine tracks even if they are not consecutive on the disc, at last! After choosing ``combine'' the deck asks you which track you want to concatenate with the one you are playing, and you can browse within all the tracks of the disc. It seems there are no frontiers now.

Finally, there is another thing to note regarding editing capabilities: the rehearsal time is shorter now. This means that especially for combining purposes, you have less chance to understand whether what you are editing sounds good or not. Because of this I now sometimes prefer to try completing the combination and then, if it was not so good, ``undo'' it. (Regarding Undo functions, the Super-Undo of the MDS-JE500 and other modern decks does not work in this unit, has anybody found whether the Super-Undo exists in some other form?). If you are combining music, you must ``feel'' the rhythm to understand whether the cut point is audible as a ``spike'' or as a change in the rhythm or not, so the longer the rehearsal time the easier it is to hear it.

Regarding titling, you can now copy track and/or disc names by pressing a button, instead of re-entering them. The set of characters is limited as it is in the MDS-JE500: the JA30 cannot enter or display parenthesis, [ ], and other symbols like ^ { | } ~ that older units like MDS-501, MZ-1 and car decks MDX-C150 and MDX-C670 can. Moreover, special characters are not placed at the end of the list, so that you could reach them just by rotating the knob counterclockwise, rather they are placed between the digits and lowercase letters. Really unwise, as numbers can easily be entered with the remote! The remote, also, now lacks of the apostrophe, which has been substituted with the comma, and this is a pity, as in my experience comma is far more rare than the apostrophe! Why did they make these foolish changes?

The Sound of Compression

Last but not least, how does it sound? Incredibly good is the answer. If you only remember how the first generation units sounded, you will imagine that you are not listening to the same sort of recording device. Sony did a really good job improving the ATRAC algorithm to its present quality. A digital copy from a CD player sounds like a clone, and with this unit, capable of converting analogue signals with 20 bit accuracy, analogue recordings from MDs, LPs or other sources sound really fine as well. The extent of the high frequency range is natural and wide. If you switch between the different output filters, you will understand how well the highest frequency band is represented by the ATRAC compression scheme. Bass and mid frequencies also sound powerful, dynamic and realistic. I could not find any artifacts at all. The first and second generation MiniDisc recorders did introduce various kinds of re-equalisation, coloration and unpleasant artifacts, especially on the high frequencies, which sounded harsh. Now everything depends on the quality of the original signal being recorded, and not on the quality of the recorder. ATRAC seems to be transparent! Also, second generation copies from one 4.5 machine to another sound quite good, even if I can now hear the presence of something ``new'' that is different from the original. With second generation copies, high frequencies are less detailed and the scene sounds a bit less wide and rich, but the result is probably better than an original ATRAC 2.0 recording. Regarding the quality improvement from ATRAC 4 to ATRAC 4.5, I must be honest, I could hear little difference. All the recordings I made with my previous MDS-JE500, digitally from CD or DAT, sound very good on the MDS-JA30ES. If compared with the same recordings made with this new unit, the results are really similar. Of course you cannot compare the analogue recordings, as the A/D converter of the MDS-JE500 is much less accurate.

I am really impressed by the results of ATRAC encoding. I have listened to better sound only from my DTS decoder, which can offer, from properly coded movies or live concerts, a much more accurate reproduction of details and high frequencies. So I tried to copy a DTS recording (after analogue conversion) on to MiniDisc, just to hear if the 20 bit A/D converter and the 4.5 version of ATRAC can really preserve the details of a true 20 bit sound. They do! You lose something, of course, especially on medium-high range details and reconstruction of the scene, and you obviously cannot record in more than two channels. However what I can honestly say about it is that if you compare just the quality and the fidelity of material coded with DTS on LaserDisc or CD vs. the same material encoded in AC-3 on LaserDisc (or DVD) vs. the same material encoded in PCM Dolby Surround on LaserDisc or CD, and then recorded in analog onto a MiniDisc using ATRAC 4.5 compression (or digitally copied in the case of PCM Dolby Surround LD and CD) you will gain these results: DTS original sound is the best, and superior in resolution, but... the analogue recording on MiniDisc of DTS material is better than the original AC-3 and 16 bit PCM versions, and the PCM version is better than the AC-3. Of course in these cases I am only comparing the quality of the two main channels.

I think that Sony has achieved better results than Dolby in improving the ATRAC algorithm, as the AC-3 still sounds extremely harsh, as it did four years ago (for me it is not hi-fi, especially in theatres, however on LaserDisc the results are better), while MiniDisc can now be compared with CDs and true 20 bit recordings. Secondly I was able to verify, as with previous ATRAC generations, that the Dolby Surround matrix of PCM material is perfectly preserved when recording to MD. Something should also be stressed about the output level of the JA30: it is really high! Certainly it is one of the highest output levels I have presently in my heterogeneous hi-fi system, and this leads to better S/N ratio, better low frequency dynamics and extension and so on. You can also use the remote to decrease the output level while playing back a MiniDisc or converting a digital input, so you have all you could ask!

I could go on writing about this jewel of audio technology, but I think I have written too much already. It is clear: my impression is that you cannot ask anything more from a consumer hi-fi recorder than what the MDS-JA30ES can offer, especially if you look also at the quality/price ratio. The MDS-JA30ES is a must!

Return to the MiniDisc Community Page.