Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Devil is an MD Recorder: Sony MZ-R 900 Review

You might ask: "Has she gone mad now?" No, she hasn´t. But an MD Recorder can be devilish good, that´s for sure. While the recorder I wanna talk about does not come from Spain like me in the movie "The Devil is a Woman" (pictured above) it still is able to embody the typical passion spanish Latin Lovers are known for. Well, I´m not a woman known for clichés and as much as my movie partner Cesar Romero actually was born in the U.S.A I never have been in Spain... nevermind. I´d really like to write about the Sony MZ-R 900 instead which is another MD recorder. In my last article I reviewed the Sony MZ-R 30 while also explaining the several ATRAC revisions Sony did over the 19 years the MD lasted. I also tested the Wide Bit Stream capability of my Sony MZ-R 30 and much to my surprise it was able to process digital data with a bitdepth of 24 Bit through its optical line-in. There was one obstacle though: its combined A/D/D/A converter works only at a bitdepth of 16 Bit; the 24 Bit ATRAC-processing was therefore useless. But a few days ago I was lucky and bought the Sony MZ-R 900 for very little money and that particular unit behaves a bit differently. When released in 2000 it cost 350,- Euros which makes it more expensive than my MZ-R 30 (300,- €) from three years prior. During these three years a lot happened with portable MD recorders... they became incredible tiny and loaded with features.

Sony MZ-R 900 compared to a cigarette

It´s exactly as big as an MD case (except height) which poses more problems than you might think: due to its small size and light weight it will move by itself when for example the recorder is lying on a table and one pulls on the headphone cable / FiiO E6 only slightly. It feels fragile even though its build quality is astonishing nonetheless. The precision Sony assembled it with is wonderful to look at, touching the housing feels lovely. The drive however... from my MZ-R 30 I cannot hear a thing when it records or plays a MiniDisc but the MZ-R 900 is loud as hell in comparison. According to the Manual this is normal behaviour but it still betrays its manufacturing quality in my opinion. This tiny recorder contains so many new features compared to the MZ-R 30... to write them all down here would be too much. I suggest you read about them on MZ-R 900' MD Community page should you be interested in them. Features are lovely, problems are not: our Kenwood exhibits some difficulty playing MDs recorded by the MZ-R 900. It will skip in the middle of one track to the next, it will even skip entire tracks. A few seconds prior one can hear its drive working hard to maintain the reading process. I guess the DM-5090 is starting to break down because the MZ-R 30 doesn´t have any problems whatsoever with these discs. Another thing: the headphone shares its output with the line out so you have to configure which one to use in the menu of the recorder. This wouldn´t be so unnerving if the recorder would actually remember this setting - the moment you change a disc or remove power it has "forgotten" everything. From what I´ve read the successor to the MZ-R 900 (MZ-R 901) rectifies this - a wise decision, Sony!

Sony MZ-R 900 in/ outputs

The MZ-R 900 is equipped with an ATRAC 4.5 IC, an improved version of the ATRAC encoder compared to the one built into my MZ-R 30. Through higher computational accuracy Sony managed to improve distortions by roughly 3 dB while also including a feature called "Adaptive High Band Control". The latter would ideally be responsible for an extended frequency response into higher frequencies. Just like the MZ-R 30 it also has a combined A/D/D/A converter, again from Asahi Kasei. This time it´s an AK4562, according to its manufacturer capable of recording and playback of 20 Bit signals. You shouldn´t hold up your hopes too much though: the tiny MD recorder and its converter IC are manufactured with portable use in mind and Asahi Kasei rates the D/A-part of the converter having an S/R of only -93 dB. This is not even barely good enough for pure 16 Bit performance with the result that I won´t expect too much from this unit when it comes to measurments.

Sony MZ-R 900 measurments (used as a D/A converter only through its analogue output)

ATRAC 4.5 measurments with the Kenwood DM-5090 (only through its optical output)

The measurments through its analogue output reveal nothing interesting for it behaves similar to many of my vintage portable CD players. But the chart above also reveals - just as I expected - that the D/A-converter isn´t really 20 Bit, it performs at 16 Bit at best (if I ignore the missing 3.8 dB). I have to add a little explanation: its true resolution probably reaches 20 Bits - useless though when it´s swallowed by noise resulting in a far less impressive usable resolution. For the ATRAC chart I used a testsignal recording digitally made with the MZ-R 900 that was subsequently played back by the Kenwood (it´s the only MD recorder I own that sports a digital output. Its digital signal was recorded using my Creatives' optical input. THD + Noise indeed have improved for 2 dB, IMD + Noise are better as well while the Noise level is 1 dB higher. Well done Sony... (small) step by (small) step you managed to improve the codec all those years ago (irony intended). Now I just need an ATRAC 4.5 Typ-R (according to tests it´s much better) capable MD recorder and everything will be perfect. As I mentionend during my last review I had a hard time hearing differences between the original and the ATRAC encoded version - but since then I encountered some forum posts stating that there are indeed signals able to "trip" the ATRAC ICs. I might perform some tests with these signals myself in case I should be able to purchase a unit equipped with 4.5 Typ-R.

Sony MZ-R 900 detail

The MZ-R 900 sounds very well indeed. True to the title of this review it shows explosive dynamics which on occasion tend to get too harsh and forwarding, sometimes they feel contrived and aggressive. In general it prefers high frequencies instead of presenting a completely balanced soundscape while base and mids are slightly underrepresented. This leads to a sound that can be described as euphonically charming, not the truth but tasty nonetheless. Because of its well articulated treble it presents details with analytical precision; even then the highest frequencies are diminished leading to a sound that´s drier and edgier than my references. I believe all of this to be caused by its mediocre jitter peformance; high frequency jitter brightens up the sound, low frequency jitter muddies lower frequencies. To me both results are evident here. The staging is another thing: it´s not as wide and layered as it should be, dimensions are reduced a bit. Performers mixed to the center for example tend to be too distant, on the other hand everything else surrounding these performers is encapsulated in its own 'stage bubble', including reverberation. The virtual room doesn´t sound like the original, members of an orchestra seem to change their places, reverb tails don´t seem to be as long as they are on the reference. In short: it replaces the original Ambiance with its own, highly characteristic one. Timing is another thing... while high frequency agility is excellent, mids and bass are slightly slower and miss punch and snap. All of this combined creates a dynamically powerful, slightly edgy yet charming sounding machine. It certainly is superior than other MD recorders, even superior than many of my portable CD players.
One word about its headphone output: usually I don´t talk about these, in this case I´ll make an exception because it sounds so well. The sound coming out of the MZ-R 900 when the FiiO amplifies my Sennheiser HD-448 does not change from the sound of its own amplifier. I´d use it all the time... if it wouldn´t be so weak. It simply isn´t strong enough to yield enough gain with my 32 Ohms HD-448 - a shame really.

Sonic Balance:
Stage / Ambiance:

Sony MZ-R 900 side
Sony MZ-R 900 with one of those famed white ES MiniDiscs

Concluding my review I´d like to say that I have mixed feelings about this little recorder. The finishing quality is wonderful but it´s too small for the purpose of residing on my desktop. Yeah, I´m stupid here, I know. I´m well aware that it is a portable MD recorder and that its size makes it very convenient to carry it around. But for that purpose its headphone output isn´t strong enough to power low impedance headphones convincingly. And while the sound oozes charme and explosive dynamics it can be too edgy and aggressive at times. I think that I will indeed search for a third machine to buy, maybe one that also is NetMD equipped, I don´t know. Stay tuned!

Sony MZ-R 900
Last update: 24.07.2012

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