MiniDisc has always been one of our favourite portable audio formats, offering great sound quality from cheap discs and a device that fits in your pocket. The main drawback comes from only being able to plug it into your stereo to get music onto disc. Sony has addressed this, however, with a range of NetMD players that hook up to your PC via a USB connection.
Unlike most portable digital music players, in an attempt to reduce piracy the MZ-N707 uses Sony's own music compression system instead of the more common MP3 format. This system can fit up to 320 minutes of music on a single 80-minute MiniDisc using a high compression setting, though this is a similar level of quality to radio and is best reserved for speech recordings. There's also a superior quality mode that is a similar standard to MP3 and will squeeze 160 minutes of music onto a single disc. You can even save music in the standard MiniDisc format so it can be played on older devices.
This is all achieved by hooking the player up to the USB port on your PC. It comes with all the software you need to transfer music from your computer, and supports MP3's digital labeling system so details such as the artist and track names will be displayed on the screen. If you're transferring your CD albums onto MiniDisc it will automatically hook up to an online music database and download this information, saving you from having to type it all in.
You can also arrange tracks into groups, which is great for navigating multiple albums on one disc. G-Shock protection is employed to stop your music skipping, while a cradle is included so you can keep the player charged when it's not in use.
You can transfer MP3, WMA or WAV music to MiniDisc, which is a boon for the music collector. However, the software that comes with the device makes things a bit complicated. Before music can be copied onto MiniDisc it has to be converted into Sony's music compression format, which is similar to MP3 but has added anti-piracy features.
Not only is this a time-consuming process but it forces you to keep a second copy of each of your existing MP3s on your hard disk. Even then the software keeps tabs on your music. Copying a file to MiniDisc can only be done three times before you have to re-record the music onto the PC.
The value for money with this product comes from MiniDiscs themselves. A £1 MiniDisc will hold the same amount of music in good-quality mode as a £70 Memory Stick.
The rate of music file conversion will depend on the speed of your PC. On our test machine, a 5Mb track took 38 seconds to convert. Transfer speed depends on the amount of compression – near CD quality tracks will transfer to disc at 16 times normal speed.
Playback quality also depends on the level of compression and how good the original recording is, but it compares well with rival MP3 players. Music transferred in the format that can be played on older MiniDisc systems is indistinguishable from playing them through a standard player.
NetMD is a great for MiniDiscs – we wouldn't buy a recorder now without it. But it's not quite as great as it could have been. The clunky software and the fact you can't upload tracks from MiniDiscs back to your PC are the main problems.