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In the beginning there was the audio tape. Actually thatís a lie but for the purpose of this op Iím going to ignore vinyl and the older tape formats because, to the best of my knowledge, nobody designed any personal battery-powered gadgets to play them on the move. (Presumably, in the case of vinyl, because the stylus jumped too much when you walked)
Anyway. In the beginning (of this op) there was the audio tape. And lo, people were mightily impressed but they wanted to be able to listen to the audio tape while sitting at the bus stop waiting for the bus that, unknown to them, had actually broken down a few miles down the road.
The makers were listening and so the walkman came to be. And lo, people were again mightily impressed. Now able to listen to their audio tapes where and whenever they wanted, they were a happy bunch.
But the power of the audio tape gradually waned. After excessive use they had a habit of getting chewed up and snapping.
Fortuitously it was about this time that the makers created the compact disc. They were a big hit with the people and soon became more popular than the audio tape. Everyone bought their audio tape collection again on compact disc and lo, were even more impressed.
The makers were happy because they were selling their entire back-catalogues on the new format. The people were happy because there were no more chewed tapes and no more waiting to rewind or fast forward to their favourite songs. Could the people want for anything more? Of course they could.
The people soon found that they had trouble fitting the new fangled compact disc in their walkmans and demanded something more suitable. The makers responded with the CD walkman and so once more the people were able to listen to their music when and where they liked. And the people were once again happyÖ
Öuntil the day someone created the first mp3.
OK, so that was my brief and perhaps not so accurate history of consumer personal audio products. Things are always changing and we now have more choice than ever about how we listen to our music when we are on the go. And in these days of digital music the humble mp3 has played a big part in that due to its enormous popularity.
Here comes the science bit. An MP3 is a digital audio file. All music contained on a CD is digital but in itís raw form one single track can take up about 40 or 50 megabytes (mb). But by converting it to mp3 format the data is compressed to make a much smaller file, usually around 3 or 4 mb. The mp3 format became hugely popular in a very short time and these days you would be hard pushed to find a piece of audio software that isnít capable of converting your cd collection into mp3 files, much of it for free.
Even better, you are no longer limited to listening to your MP3 collection on your PC. Some hi-fi and mini systems are able to play mp3s but when it comes to personal audio players it seems that every passing day brings a few more tempting gadgets on to the market.
The trouble is that most of these mp3 players are still fairly new and usually quite pricey. Iíve been looking to spend about £60 and for that sort of price you can choose from quite a large selection of what are called solid state players.
Unlike walkmans they have no internally moving parts, so rather than physically place your music inside (as you would with a cd or tape) you simply attach them to your pc and transfer your music across. As a rule this makes them pretty compact and very reliable. The trouble is that they donít often come with much memory. For about £60 you are probably looking at 64mb or, if youíre lucky, 128mb. Considering that an average mp3 takes up around 4mb you would probably only get about 30 tracks. Additionally you need to be sat at your PC in order to save a different selection of tracks on the player so if you are on a bus or train for a number of hours and get bored with your selection then tough luck.
There are much higher capacity gadgets available although they are not solid state because they often contain mini hard drives. One popular example is the ipod which is available in 20gb, 30gb or 60gb versions which means you would probably have enough space to carry round your entire music collection with you (the 60gb model is 60000 mb or about 15,000 tracks Ė now thatís what I call a choice). All very well until you take a look at the price which is usually a few hundred pounds.
Fortunately there is a happy medium. A cd walkman (or discman) which is also capable of playing mp3s as well as regular audio cdís. Simply record your mp3s to a cd using any cd writer and away you go. A CD can hold about 700mb of data, which should allow about 170 tracks. If you get bored of your selection simply swap cds and you have another 170 tracks available.
I had bought one up a couple of years ago and was very pleased with it but after several serious knocks some of the controls have become a tad temperamental. Itís also quite hungry on the battery front. All in all I decided it was time for a replacement.
A month or two back I found myself on Amazon.co.uk looking for something to the value of about £3 to take my order over the £25 mark in order to qualify for free delivery. I ended up buying a Sony D-NE511 Atrac / Mp3 Portable Discman for £60. Oops.
Sony produce a range of these Atrac discmans and as you would expect the more you pay, the better the features. But I went for the D-NE511 model because it seemed to have everything I needed, despite being the cheapest in the range.
Beside the player itself the box contains a power adapter, software cd, user guide, software instruction booklet and headphones. The units come in a few different colours if that sort of thing concerns you. You can choose from red, blue or the one I opted for, bog-standard silver (although that may not technically be the correct name for the colour!)
The player itself is only slightly larger than a cd diameter-wise and it is quite thin. Itís almost completely spherical apart from a small control panel containing six buttons at the front of the unit. This panel also accommodates a two line LCD screen that displays track information such as the length and track number. If youíre playing mp3ís it will show title and artist information. It also shows remaining battery life and what type of cd is being played.
The usual control options (play, search, pause and stop) are accessed via one d-pad control on the right of the panel. A jog dial button can also be used to quickly search through the tracks available. The remaining buttons allow you to select from a number of random and repeat play options and accesses different directories on the cd if you have a number of folders containing mp3ís on your CD .
The unit is powered by two AA batteries (not included) and the quoted battery life is around 50 hours for regular audio CDís and nearer 80 for playing MP3ís (regular audio CDís require more power because the disc is spinning more often). I use mp3ís and on the one set of batteries Iíve used so far Iím up to about fifty hours of play and itís still going strong.
The unit is quite light and although well-made doesnít look like it would stand up well to any hard knocks so some sort of case is definitely recommended. Sound reproduction is excellent although the headphones supplied with the unit are a little on the cheap side. They are quite comfortable and work well but I canít see them lasting all that long.
One bonus of this range of players is that in addition to regular CDís and mp3ís they support Sonyís very own ATRAC format (which stands for ĎAdaptive Transform Acoustic Codingí Ö obviously).
All the software required to convert files to this format comes on a CD with the discman and using it Sony claim you can get around 430 tracks on one standard CD. Well, weíll see about that. To create a cd you will need a windows PC, quite a bit of hard disk space, a cd writer and either a CDR or CDRW disc. The software is called SonicStage Simple Burner and once installed on your PC itís quite a simple process to create your disc of atrac files.
The screen is split into two windows. The left-hand window is used to select tracks from either an audio cd or existing mp3s. If you are connected to the internet the title and artist information is available via Gracenote CDDB (free registration is required when you first run the software). When you find a track you want to include select it and click add. That track is then displayed in the right hand window. Once you have finished creating your compilation click on the burn icon and away you go.
For those who are interested hereís another science bit. Both MP3 and Atrac format files can be created at various bitrates. The smaller the bitrate, the smaller the file size but the audio quality reduces as well. For CD quality music, mp3ís are usually encoded at a bitrate of 128 kbps (kilobits per second).
Simple Burner allows you to encode to the Atrac format using either 132, 105, 66, 64, or 48 kbps. To achieve Sonys claim of 430 tracks is quite possible assuming you select the lowest bitrate (48kbps). If all this talk of bitrate is confusing, donít worry. Simply try them out and see which one you are happy with.
On the downside the Simple Burner software is only compatible with windows operating systems so if you are a mac user you wonít be able to take advantage of the atrac compatibility.
Also, it can take quite a while to compile your 400 odd tracks and unfortunately you are not able to save a compilation mid way through creation. Unless you burn the tracks selected before you close the software the next time you run it youíll have to start from scratch. That said you can burn multiple sessions on one cd although by doing this you do waste a little space on the cd.
But the big question is whether itís worth the effort to convert a large collection of mp3s. The resulting atrac audio files will only be compatible with other Sony products that support the Atrac format and I havenít seen too many of those around. On the other hand if you donít have many existing mp3s then the simple burn software makes light work of converting a stack of audio cds into one cd that works on this player. And once done it will probably keep you going for a very long time.
All in all this is a fantastic player and youíre getting some very nice features for a very reasonable price. The fact it can handle mp3 files as well as regular cds will probably be enough for many but Atrac compatibility is a bit of a bonus if you have the time or inclination to mess about with it.
An excellent battery life is a feature of the whole series and while the more expensive models claim to last for 150 hours on one set, Iím more than happy with the 50-80 hours that this one can manage. Overall some minor gripes with the software (or major gripes if you are a mac owner) doesnít stop making this very highly recommended if you like to have plenty of music with you when you are out and about.
According to Sonyís website the RRP is about £80 although Amazon are selling it for £59 and for a limited time are offering a free case and a pack of 5 CDRís with it. It may be too late to buy it for Christmas but if Santa brings you a load of cds then you may want to keep your eyes open come the January sales.
Thanks for reading.
Discman information -------------------- Sony D-NE511 Atrac / MP3 CD walkman
ATRAC / MP3 compatible Battery life up to 80 hours with 2 x AA batteries (not supplied) JogDial operation Dot Matrix LCD (2 lines) Digital MEGA BASS G-Protection anti-shock system CDR/RW compatible Program play Includes headphones & AC adapter Available in Silver, Blue, Red Dimensions - Depth 13.6cm, Height 2.6cm, Width 15.6cm , Weight 202 g,
Hardware requirements ------------------------------- Pentium 2 300 mhz or better 1.5 gb of hard drive space recommended (depending on the size of your music files) CDRW drive Windows XP, ME, 2000 professional, 98 second edition Internet access (for CDDB services)
Some websites worth a look --------------------------------------- Amazon - http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00008XYIQ/qid=1071871642/sr=1-2/ref=sr_1_0_2/202-3209923-2218247 Official Sony website - http://products.sony.co.uk/productdetail.asp?id=1_62_2594