Sony in-dash unit rips CDs on the fly

By Robert Menta - 01/16/02

We have had MP3 players for the car for a while now and generally they work on one of two principles. The first and most common is the unit with a CD player that reads MP3 encoded CDs like Kenwood's Z828. The second is a unit like the Rio Car that has an internal hard drive to store music. When you want to load tunes you remove the unit from the vehicle and attach it to your computer to transfer music.

The Sony MEX-HD1

Now a manufacturer has gone one better. An automotive CD player with a hard drive that RIPS CDs directly into the unit's drive.

The Sony MEX-HD1 is the first unit we have come across that can do this, an idea that makes perfect sense with respect to consumer convenience. The user slips a standard CD into the head unit, selects which tracks they want ripped, hits the button and the chosen songs are compressed on the fly and saved to the drive. Eventually the CDs can stay home as overtime your entire collection of music is transferred to the unit.

"This new hard drive head unit offers consumers the latest technology to provide convenience and customization in the car". said Steve Haber, senior vice president of marketing for mobile electronics at Sony Electronics. " It's another step towards personalization on demand".

"Personalization on demand" is an interesting phrase coming from Sony Electronics considering Sony Music calls the ability to rip tracks "piracy". But then Sony Electronics was burned on their first digital music portable offerings when they capitulated to Sony Music's demand that these portables add disruptive music security features and protocols. This included eschewing the unsecure MP3 format for the company's proprietary ATRAC3 format (see review). The players - which we found to be pretty good until you had to download a song to them- died on the shelves once disatisfied buyers got the word out.

Unless Sony Electronics wants to walk away from the digital player market they have to provide products that compel consumers, not products its sister company Sony Music feels are "safe". Electronic manufacturers agree with the expectation that digital music will become ubiquitous in automobiles over the next several years, meaning huge potential for profit. The convenience of storing a copy of your entire record collection in your car is the exact type of product that compels consumers to part with their dollars. On paper, the Sony MEX-HD1 is such a product.

Sony claims the MEX-HD1 can hold up to 165 hours of music, which means a 10GB hard drive if Sony is talking about standard 128kbit compression rates. Unfortunately, Sony has not provided us with the hard drive size in their press release and in the past they have tended to use the low quality 64kbit rate when describing capacity using "hours of music". We will confirm the hard drive size and report back.

The MEX-HD1 also has a dedicated MagicGate Memory Stick media slot for Sony's proprietary flash memory card. This will allow users to transfer songs stored on the unit to a Sony MP3 portable. As far as we can tell, the MEX-HD1 doesn't use the ATRAC3 compression scheme at all, an important note if you already own one of Sony's earlier digital music players. As we said before, these older portables play ATRAC3 tunes but not MP3s, so while they have MagicGate Memory Stick slots, they may not be able to play anything taken from the MEX-HD1. Again, we will try to confirm this and report back.

The Sony MEX-HD1 hard drive CD-receiver comes with a wireless remote control, custom file memory and folder options and reads both CD-R and CD-RW discs for those who have already as set of burned MP3 CDs.

The MEX-HD1 ships in April and will list for a healthy $1,500. That's pretty high for an MP3 car stereo, even by Sony's premium pricing standards. Still, they are the first with an in-dash player that rips a CD and as we have said in articles past the automobile market is ripe to replace the aging cassette technology. If the MEX-HD1 delivers on its promises, it will find its audience.

The 4GB iPod Nano is available on Amazon

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Review: The New Pay Napster
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