Sony Memory Stick Walkman is not an MP3 Player

By Richard Menta- 8/03/00

The first thing that we need to say is very important. The Sony Portable Memory Stick Player is a digital music player, but it is not an MP3 player. Instead, Sony uses a proprietary compression scheme called ATRAC3 (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding 3) that is a competitor to the MP3 format.

While the unit comes with software to convert MP3 files to the ATRAC3 format, anyone who plans on purchasing this unit must be fully aware of what this means so there are no surprises.



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The Hardware

The Memory Stick player comes with 64 MB of memory on a proprietary flash card called appropriately, the Memory Stick. Actually, there are two versions of this card, the Memory Stick and the MagicGate Memory Stick. The latter includes the first of several encryption technologies called MagicGate used to protect music copyrights. Only MagicGate Memory Sticks will work with this player, so owners will have to pay attention when they purchase additional ones.

The Memory Stick player uses a USB connection to download tunes from the computer. Power is supplied by a rechargeable lithium battery, the best feature about this unit.

The physical unit itself is pretty nice. The slim case easily fits into the pocket and feels solid and dependable, as one comes to expect from a Sony.

The price of the Sony is another matter. The unit retails for $399.00 for the 64MB unit, double what most 64MB players sell for. Furthermore, a number of players including Sensory Science's RaveMP 2100 and 2200, the i2Go eGo, and the Creative Labs Nomad II offer several additional features for the price. This includes FM Radio, voice recording, text capabilities, metal case, and car kits with cassette and cigarette lighter adapters.

Getting started:

OpenMG Jukebox is the software package Sony provides with the player and from what we have heard on from around the Net, a great cause of consternation. In an effort to protect its copyrights, Sony Music thrust upon Sony Electronics what many feel is an unwieldy and awkward upload process. You don't upload the tunes per se. Instead, Sony makes the user go through a check-in/check-out process when it comes to transferring songs to the unit.

The user cannot check-out a song more than three times before checking back in a song already being used. You also can not check-in songs to a different computer than the one you checked it out of. That goes for your work computer too.

Unfortunately, our demo unit from Sony did not come with the OpenMG software so we were unable to fully evaluate the ease or convenience of loading tunes to the unit. Sony did provide us with a unit already filled with songs for the review.

Controls:

The controls on the Sony, which surround the perimeter of the unit are excellent. The rocker switch deftly handled switching and scanning through the song list. The recessed buttons were out of the way without being vague or difficult to activate. The hold and eject switches were large worked well. They are among the best we have tested to date.

The Display:

The display was clear and, despite its small dimensions, excellent when the back-light was on. Take the back-light off and the screen was a more difficult to read. Contrast controls make it better, but the lithium battery offers plenty of power so we simply recommend just leaving the back-light on.

Sound:

Excellent. Sony claims that the ATRAC3 format is superior to the MP3 format, but from what we can tell it sounded pretty much the same as the better MP3 units. Realize also, if the ATRAC3 file is created from an MP3 original, the best it can be is equivalent to the source and in the real world there is probably some degradation though it may not be perceptible. Recording from CD is another matter as the source is of higher quality.

Conclusion

If we just focus on actual box itself, the Sony Memory Stick Walkman is a damn good player that gives terrific sound. It's when we go beyond that box is when we start to have reservations.

First, the player's $400 price tag is too high for a basic unit, even by Sony's standards. For $200 you can find several equivalent or better units out there. Next month, for $100 more than the Memory Stick player, you can move up to Creative Lab's Jukebox that can hold an entire CD collection in its 6GB laptop drive.

Second, the check-in/check-out protocol, that the user is forced to comply with, sounds like too many hoops to jump through to get a song uploaded. We have had plenty of experience with 64MB players and we are the first to tell you it is not enough memory as you constantly find yourself running back and forth to refresh tunes. Many people get tired of this after a while and frequently let the same songs lay in the player, eventually not using the unit for long stretches of time. The OpenMG security protocols seem like it can only exacerbate the problem.

Finally, there is the ATRAC3 format itself. Sony has every right to use its own format, especially if it is a good one. If it is indeed a viable alternative to MP3, it's because Sony has committed to the format for its mini-disc line and on its just recently opened download site where the users can purchase Sony's music directly from the company.

The thing is, if you already have a couple of hundred songs in the MP3 format on your hard drive, isn't it just easier to buy an MP3 player…for $200 less.

Even Sony's most loyal consumers have asked this question. Some of them asked similar questions twenty years ago when they had to decide between Beta and VHS.

We are Sony fans ourselves. But until that price comes down we think that there are better values out there.

Final Score: B

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