Rio MP3 player evaluated against the
Sony MZ-E35 MiniDisc player

Daniel Currie ([email protected]), January 1999

I received a Rio MP3 player for Christmas, and since I have been a happy MD user for a few years now I thought I would compare the two formats and players. I have not yet read a review of the Rio that I thought was really fair, or that hit upon its real merits and weaknesses.


The Rio unit I have is the basic model with 32MB of memory. I download songs to it from my laptop. Concerning the rest of my hardware, I have an IBM Thinkpad 600 laptop that my company provides me, and an older Compaq Presario home PC. I have about 300 MP3s on both systems. My friends are all into MP3 songs as well. My MD hardware is a MZ-E35 portable player and a Sony MDS-JE510 for recording. I have the JE510 hooked to my Compaq PC with a Turtle Beach Malibu card by means of a MIDIMAN coax to optical converter.


The first and probably most important consideration is the intended use of the players. I primarily use the units for jogging, hiking, and walking the dog. I have also done a little skiing and ride public transportation with them as well. My musical interests are mixing songs together in different order based on my mood that day and taking them with me for a run or wherever I go. I also record Realaudio broadcasts off of the Internet and take them with me. Quality of the playback is less of an issue for me than reliability and speed of putting random songs together to take with me. I especially rely on a player for a jog or hike that is long (3-4 hours).

Player Quality

As far as the individual units go, the Sony MZ-E35 portable is obviously a very high quality machine. I like the small recharger they give for the Ni-Mh battery pack, which I can plug into any 110V shaver outlet anywhere in the world and recharge the battery. While jogging, I get about 3-4 hours of playback from the standard battery. The unit is overall very sturdy. Quality of music played back from a digital copy is excellent.

In terms of construction, the Rio is pretty low quality. It takes an AA battery to power it for 10 hours or so. I believe eventually the Rio will break on me, probably in the next year or so. If it did not come with a 5 year warranty, I would be worried. I look forward to higher quality units in the future. Quality of music played back is very good, but not as good as a digital MD recording. It is acceptable for me however.

Format Flexibility

The MD format allows me 75 minutes of stereo, or 150 minutes of mono recording at 44.1Khz. All recording is done in real time. If I want to go out for a 1 hour run and take some MP3 songs with me that I downloaded earlier in the day, it takes me an hour to record the songs to a blank MD before I can leave. The same ``downloading'' process into the Rio takes less than 5 minutes. I am also limited to a maximum of 2.5 hours for mono Realaudio broadcasts on an MD. Yes, I can bring multiple MD disks with me, but when I record Realaudio it is generally done unattended, and at night, so I am unable to swap disks during the recording process. It is also a pain for me to swap disks while I am jogging.

Recording onto the Rio is a breeze and is one of the huge unsung benefits of the machine. I download MP3s off of my laptop very quickly and arrange them easily through the GUI. If there is a song I want off of a CD in my library, I rip and encode it using MusicMatch. This is a very fast process. I can choose the encoding bit rates and sample rate of the music I want to load onto the Rio. This is a big benefit for Internet Realaudio broadcasts, which are generally low quality. The 32MB of memory provides me with 30 minutes of 44.1Khz 128Kbps stereo encoded music, but at lower quality I have fit over 3 1/2 hours of 16kps 16Khz mono Realaudio broadcasts. I like the fact that I can choose what quality I want to record. Not having to wait for real time recording is a big plus for me.

While in use, the MZ-E35 (even with 40 seconds of shock memory), skips unless I hold it in my hand while I run or hike. I believe it would skip even if it had 80 seconds of memory. Walking, skiing and riding public transportation is all right. I have tried many different cases and ways of strapping the E35 to my body, but it still skips. It is really irritating. The Rio, having no moving parts, does not skip at all. I just put it in my pocket, hit play, and go jogging.

I probably have only a dozen or so MDs that I have recorded onto that I label and keep around. This is still very handy though for taking with me, on one disk, the best of Oasis or whatever band I want to hear that day. I generally do this while using public transportation. I like that I can take 2 disks with me, one for the ride in and one for the ride back.

The Rio has no such feature. What is in memory is all that is with me. On long trips this is all right since I have my laptop with me and can reload the memory, but is impractical for commuting. In the future is would be nice to have cheaper memory cartridges for the Rio that would allow this type of ``swapping''. Since I would only need 1 or 2 of these myself, the price point I would tolerate would probably be $20.


The Rio offers me personally many benefits. I do not have a lot of free time, so fast downloading to the unit is a big thing for me. I am easily able to download MP3 songs based on what I want to hear that day. Also, the Realaudio listening that I do on longer runs and hikes is really not even possible with an MD unless I get up in the middle of the night to switch disks half way while I am recording.

My MD is still pretty cool, but I will probably try and sell it and buy a cdrom burner so that I can share songs with friends. There just are not enough of my friends that own MDs, and it is fun to share songs, so MP3 is the best way. Until somebody comes up with a portable MD recorder for under $100, I personally do not think the format will take off. Maybe not even then. Solid state is the way of the future. Rio might not be the answer for everyone today, but something else like it will be in another year or two.

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