The NW-MS70D is the latest product in Sony's Network Walkman family, released in the UK in late March 2003. It features 256MB of internal memory, expandable if you can afford to shell out for Sony's new MagicGate Memory Stick DUO, impressive battery life, and some sharp looks.

But is it any cop? Read on to find out.

Background.

Just over two years ago, I was introduced to the wonderful world of portable minidisc recorders, and out of the window went the portable CD player and the walkman - actually the walkman broke (before I threw it, I hasten to add) so I was on the lookout for a replacement anyway - and in was ushered a glorious optical age of music copying. Last year I finally bought myself a PC, and set about converting my fairly extensive (>400CDs) music library to MP3.

Eventually, I was going to need a portable MP3 player.

A lot of thought went into deciding how to move on from my Sony MZ-R900, but looking around, I quickly realised my ideal portable MP3 player just doesn't exist. So, I decided to prioritise, in true corporate project management style. Whatever I buy, I reasoned:

  • Must have:
    • Good playback quality
    • Rechargeable battery
    • Decent battery life
    • At least 256MB memory
  • Should have:
    • Music playing device stylings
    • Expansion slot for more memory
    • Drag and drop ability to copy files to device
  • Could have:
    • Massive storage capability
    • A nice cradle for that rechargeable battery
    • In-line remote control
  • Won't have:
    • Bulk - both size and mass
    • Godawful design
In short, I wanted to keep all the best features of my MZ-R900, such as the battery life, and decent storage while maintaining audio quality.

And my budget for this? I figured if the right player came along, I would know it, and that would be my budget. (Its not hard to see why I'm in debt at the moment, is it?)

I started to look at a few MP3 players in earnest, along with some MP3-CD players, and a couple of USB-enabled Minidisc recorders. An MP3 CD Player, I decided would be too bulky to use as a primary player, although I love the idea of being able to slip in 700MB of music at a time, and CD-R is pretty cheap as media goes. Updating my portable minidisc recorder with a Network Minidisc Recorder looked for a time like the best option. The media is cheap (not as cheap as CD-R, but MDs cost less than £1), and storage capacity comes in at 148 or 160 minutes (depending on whether you use 74 minute or 80 minute MDs) using the completely acceptable MDLP2 sound quality.

I was slightly reluctant, though, to continue down the Minidisc route. My MZ-R900 is already hooked up to my PC via a USB to optical converter, and although I can only record in real time, and tracks aren't labelled, neither of these bugged me enough to make a replacement essential. I needed a new direction

So what of the MP3 players on the market then? Well, if Digitalway had only put a rechargeable battery into the otherwise excellent looking MPIO FD-100, I'd have snapped up a 256MB model, and the i-BEAD is a small, rechargeable, excellent-looking device. Sadly, it's not expandable, though. (Having said that, I'm seriously considering snapping up one just to hear if it sounds as good as I hear it sounds. If you see what I mean.)

And then along came the Sony NW-MS70D, previewed in T3 Magazine (March 2003). And I knew, from the moment I saw it, that I was going to order one. I remembered how I felt when I got my first minidisc players. The Sony has a little extra quality that I can only describe as 'yescoolyes'.

I ordered my unit from avland (www.avland.co.uk) at the beginning of March, not expecting it to arrive until at least April (the official release date), by which time I would probably already be away on holiday. A little surprisingly, it arrived less than three days after avland were unable to confirm a precise release date.

First impressions

Oh my. I've seen and been excited by Sony gadget boxes before, so I know what to expect inside. In the UK you get the following:

  • One NW-MS70D
  • One pair of in-ear headphones
  • One extension cable (allows you to connect headphones with a standard 3.5mm jack)
  • One neck cord (allows you to 'wear' the NW-MS70D)
  • One Charging and USB transfer cradle
  • One AC Power adapter
  • One USB cable
  • Two instruction manuals - one for SonicStage, one for the NW-MS70D itself

The unit is delightfully small, the titanium casing shines, design is beautiful. and it's oh so light. I hold and grin for a few moments, figuring out what the few visible controls might do, and then I have to go to work. Testing will have to wait for now.

Most people at this point mention how crap or (rarely) surprisingly good the headphones are that came with their device. I only ever use supplied headphones to check a player works, so I have no idea how these sound. For all I know I'm missing out on the best free headphones in the world.

First Recording

When I get home, I connect the power, and the USB, and slip the NW-MS70D into its cradle. Neat. Neat and easy. Happily, the unit appears as a drive on my XP machine. Unhappily, you can only use it as a storage device this way. To transfer music files across you first need to install Sony's SonicStage software, and use that to convert files on your PC to ATRAC3 or ATRAC3plus Eek.

Luckily, installation only takes a few minutes from the supplied CD, and I'm ready to transfer some music. Except I need to import some tracks into my SonicStage library first, of course. Still, I don't mind. I import a few tracks, and slot 'Us' by Mull Historical Society into the CD drive to make sure I can convert straight to ATRAC from CD.

A few minutes later, and I've transferred my first tracks to the player. I disconnect and have a quick listen to the opening track - "The Final Arrears". Not bad. Not bad at all. Even as highly compressed as these tracks are, the sound quality is perfectly acceptable. At this stage, I blame any imperfections on the supplied headphones.

I'm happy.

Second impressions

After a few weeks of recording, charging, checking in and checking out of files, how does the NW-MS70D stack up?

The truth is, I still love it. But not completely. Not unquestioningly. There are, you see, a couple of niggles. The first of these is SonicStage, Sony's network music recorder software, and the second is ATRAC, Sony's compression algorithm.

Sonicstage

To allow you to transfer music to and from the NW-MS70D, Sony have bundled SonicStage V1.5, rather than OpenMG, with this walkman. For the record, I don't have a problem with the concept of checking files out from my PC to my walkman, and checking them back in again to remove them from the walkman. Admittedly I deal with document version control every day at work, so I'm pretty comfortable with the whole idea, but I have to say I'm just not getting the copy-protection angst I'm led to believe I should feel if I want to side with the consumer against the nasty big ol' corporation. So I can't have the same file concurrently checked out more than three times? So What? Why would I want to? I have one network walkman, because I'm not super-duper rich, and if I want to make copy after copy of any of my MP3s, I will, but I won't be using SonicStage. Just don't tell Sony, OK?

I also haven't had issues I've heard others moan about with the software crashing on them when they try to import more than a couple of hundred MP3s into their SonicStage library.

No, the reason I don't like SonicStage is because it's just a bit shit, really. It feels all wrong, it's far too slow for my liking, and although I think I'm working with it pretty effectively (TIP: you should be able to safely import all your MP3s without too much pain as long as you opt not to convert them when you import them. Save the conversion to ATRAC for when you actually want to move a song to your walkman) it just feels, well, wrong, like it was designed for a less technically competent user-base.

However, actual transfer speeds are pleasing, and unless you're unusually impatient, shouldn't cause any problems, especially since you can queue transfers.

The good and bad of ATRAC3 and ATRAC3plus

I love ATRAC, I really do. Ever since I first recorded onto a portable minidisc recorder I've been impressed by the sound clarity and quality, slightly in awe of these tiny portable recorders that could take the optical signal from a hifi and etch it so beautifully onto their media.

ATRAC3 is simply splendid, offering 132Kbps, or 105Kbps if you don't mind a little dip in sound quality for the extra space you save. Considering the amount of compression going on, you get a pretty neato sound for your byte.

ATRAC3plus is, to be honest, pretty stunning. OK, 48Kbps isn't going to get you CD quality audio, but at 66Kbps, and this is coming from someone who likes his music to sound good, or not to sound at all, you get a sound that is perfectly acceptable, depending on the complexity of the source. Stick a decent pair of cans in your jugs, and you got sound.

Using a combination of ATRAC3 and ATRAC3plus at 66Kbps, my NW-MS70D is generally stacked with around 7 hours of music, which is not bad from 256MB, and turned out to be just about enough for two weeks in the sun.

So what's the problem if ATRAC3 is so great? Well, great as it may be, and however much I favour ATRAC to MP3, I can't escape the brute fact that the 30GB on my hard drive currently occupied by compressed audio files is... MP3... not that it takes very long to ATRACise each file when checking it into the walkman's memory, but this is hardly lossless compression, so somewhere, however satisfied I am with the end audio quality, I'm losing fidelity.

And that's a pain in the ears.

Second thoughts...?

But hey, it's not all bad. So far, I don't think I've concentrated enough on what I DO like about the NW-MS70D. Such as:

  • Size

    It's small (36.4 x 48.5 x 18mm). No two ways about it. What you get is effectively a minidisc remote control, slightly squashed, with an undercarriage. And a light undercarriage at that - 54g is not a bad weight considering somewhere in there is an excellent battery. See below for that.

  • Looks

    Shiny, shiny, shiny piece of titanium. Even though mine seems to have lost a small amount of its luster since I opened the box, it still brings a smile to the face, whether its sitting snugly in its USB/charging cradle, or in the palm of my hand. The backlight is the usual attractive blue, and all the controls sit tight together as if sculpted from a single titanium block. Lovely.

  • Battery life

    I haven't measured exactly, but the claimed battery life doesn't, for once, seem to be an outrageous exaggeration. Sony claim 33 hours battery life, thanks to the Virtual Mobile Engine, which reduces unnecessary battery usage (and a thumbs up to the Sony marketing boys again for a name almost as good as the PS2's Emotion Engine). This battery life is unrivalled in the MP3 market to my knowledge. If you want more, you'll have to sWitch to a recent portable minidisc recorder. Recharge times, on the other hand, seem mercifully short.

  • Ease of use

    If you've used a Sony MD recorder lately, especially one with the RM-MC11EL remote control, moving between tracks, and changing your settings, will cause no problems, thanks to the ingenious shuttle switch on the NW-MS70D. The play/stop button can be found at the other end of the walkman from the headphone socket, while rotating the shuttle switch next to it is used to move between tracks, and groups of tracks. Being able to move between groups of tracks is particularly useful, especially if you wanted to effectively create multiple playlists on the walkman. Playback options such as repeat, repeat all, and shuffle, can be applied to single groups as well as to all the groups collectively. The only slight drawback is that I don't know of a way of scanning to see what tracks you have on the device while you are listening to a track. Flicking the shuttle switch seems to commit you to moving to the next track.

    The menu button on the back of the walkman gives you access to a decent range of settings, including equaliser settings you can select and save, and display options. The shuttle switch is again used to navigate between menu items. To lock the keys, just pull the magic gate across to activate the "HOLD" function. Voila. Simple as chips.

    Although not quite as handy as clipping a remote to an inside pocket, with a little practice you should be able to navigate through all the songs on the NW-MS70D with the greatest of ease. No need to see the device, or remember which button is where.

  • Noise and access time

    Having grown accustomed to having to wait for, and listen to, a minidisc motor get going in order to access tracks from the media, it's a pleasant change to have a silent walkman, almost instantly grabbing my chosen track.

I think what I'm trying to say is that I do really like the NW-MS70D, for all the software limitations, and awkwardness of converting to ATRAC3plus - although in an ideal world we'd all use ATRAC...

The NW-MS70D looks great, is easy to use once you've transferred music to it, sounds great, and weighs next to nothing. Another quality audio product from Sony.


T3, for what it's worth, have now fully reviewed the NW-MS70D, and awarded it a paltry three stars (out of five). Their main gripe is also with SonicStage, reporting that it crashed whenever they tried to import a substantial number of music files.


Links:
http://www.everythingusb.com/hardware/index/Sony_NW-MS70D_Network_Walkman.htm
www.avland.co.uk
ww.sonystyle.com

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