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Sony MZ-N10 Review, December 2002


Over the last decade, the MiniDisc format has evolved from being marketed as a "replacement" to the CD format, to a viable replacement to the cassette format, and more recently to a competitor in the portable MP3 player market. The incredibly tiny and feather-weight MZ-N10 is Sony's offering in their 10th Anniversary line-up of MiniDisc units. While the N10 does not play MP3's directly (MiniDisc does not currently have a native ability to play mp3 files), the NetMD equipped MZ-N10 is Sony's best effort to combine the convenience of an MP3 player with the versatility, recording capabilities, and sound quality of the MD format.

If you are not familiar with the MiniDisc format, I highly suggest taking a visit to www.minidisc.org. There is enough info there to answer most questions, and the forums there should provide answers for anything else you can't find.

Picture of grey model Sony MZ-N10

What's new about the N10?

Make no mistake - Sony has pulled out almost all of the stops to make this 10th anniversary model a special one - at least on the hardware side (the NetMD interface still leaves a lot to be desired). Most of the key improvements are in the way of added features and improvements in the user-interface.

  • Sony has made a few improvements to the NetMD interface, doubling the transfer speeds (32x for LP2 recordings, 64x for LP4) and streamlining the software interface in the newest version of SonicStage (which replaces OpenMG Jukebox).

  • The new ATRAC Type-S uses the same ATRAC codec as the Type-R version, along with an improved ATRAC3 codec for the LP2 and LP4 modes.

  • Sony has given the N10 a significant facelift, going with a thinner Li-ion internal battery, resulting in a unit that is incredibly light and incredibly thin.

  • The N10 comes in two colors - silver and grey - both of which feature a glossy paint finish, a departure from the usual anodized finish on the N1 or other past units (the glossy finish is similar to that found on the white model R900 and R91).

  • The design of the control-stick has been vastly improved - it is now easy to push the stick in the desired direction with minimal frustration. The jog-dial has also been redesigned, and is exposed on the left side of the unit; the dial still operates in largely the same fashion as on the N1.

  • Sony has added a user-adjustable 6-band EQ with two user presets, and four factory presets, along with 4 new virtual-surround settings.

  • Sony has implemented track-division rehearsal - usually a feature only found on home decks. Single-frame track divide precision has finally been restored to MZ-R55 levels (which despite not having divide-rehearsal, had the ability to place track marks at any frame location, whereas later models only allowed track marks to be placed at roughly 6 frame intervals). While we're on the note of precise track-marks, let me note that if you want to do music loops, you still must place the N10 into 1-REPEAT before you start playback of the looping track; if you enter 1-REPEAT mode during playback of a track that you want to loop, there will be an audible gap at the first repeat.

  • The menu system has been slightly reorganized, with a handful of new menu options (including a PowerMode option which, when set to QUICK, will result in instantaneous playback from a powered-off state, along with swifter tracking/FF/RW response, at the cost of shorter battery life)

  • The N10's remote is slightly redesigned, with the Play and tracking functions reassigned to a shuttle-switch on the body of the remote (the turning knob at the end is now used strictly for controlling Volume). The remote's display has FINALLY been turned right-side up! The actual LCD is also quite an improvement from the Japanese N1's remote display, now with black text and fonts that don't appear to be so overly stretched when displaying English titles (Kanji/Hiragana display capabilities are still in the new remote). The backlight can also be switched to be always on/off, as well as the usual auto setting. The clip is also removable/reversible. The remote is an RM-MC35ELK model.

  • A couple of other new features include a BOOKMARK function, and an option to reverse the orientation of the jog-dial , among others... (more details on pages 4 and page 6).

What's NOT new in the N10?

While Sony has put out a solidly polished product in the N10 with some significant feature additions, it doesn't offer any ground-breaking improvements in the way that the MZ-R900 introduced MDLP, or the way that the MZ-N1 introduced NetMD. While the speed of NetMD transfers may have been doubled, the N10 still requires a TOC EDIT (Table Of Contents EDIT) after each track is downloaded, which adds anywhere from 8 - 15 seconds per song. So while a 4 minute song recorded in LP2 may transfer in less than 8 seconds, the entire transfer/write operation will still take about 16 seconds. So if you are transferring 20 songs, 4 minutes each (totaling 80 minutes of music), the actual transfers will only take about 150 seconds (2 and 1/2 minutes), but the TOC EDITS will take roughly an additional 2-3 minutes themselves. Sony may have done better to redesign the NetMD engine to just do one TOC EDIT after all the songs in a transfer operation are written to disc, as is done with realtime recording.

NetMD uploads are still nowhere to be found, and the clunky "check-in/check-out" interface of the OpenMG/SonicStage software makes transferring MP3's to your minidiscs more of a hassle than it should be (essentially for any MP3 to be transferred to MD, a 2nd copy of it must be created in ATRAC3 format; thus importing your entire music library to OpenMG Jukebox/SonicStage would effectively double your hard-disk usage.) And it is still not possible to do true SP (292kbps ATRAC) transfers via the NetMD interface.

The LCD on the main unit is still lacking a backlight, and the readability of the main LCD has slightly worsened due to the poor contrast (which can't really be rectified by adjusting the contrast level in the options menu).

Import Notes

As of the writing of this review (November 2002), the MZ-N10 is only available from Japan; a domestic release in the US or Europe has not yet been announced, but don't expect it before Spring 2003. Typically Japanese Sony MD units have always been fairly "import-friendly", with instruction manuals containing extensive English sections, and even English OpenMG Jukebox software which was included with the Japanese model of the MZ-N1. This seems to have changed for this particular model, as the N10's instruction manual does not have an English section, nor does the included software CD come with an English option (unless you have Japanese support on your version of Windows, the menus in the software will show up as complete gibberish).

However if you can track down an English version of OpenMG Jukebox, you can choose to install just the N10 drivers (the 2nd option from the included CD-ROM's installation start-up screen), and you will have all of the desired functionality (including the faster download speeds). This method will be much preferred if you cannot read Japanese, and if you don't have Japanese language support installed on your system. More about this on Page 7 of this review...

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