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Look Ma No Hands!

The latest digital technology gives you the ability to exercise, walk, fly, or anything else in total digital sound.

There has been quite a proliferation of digital music formats in recent months-all of which are portable. The CD is only one. Now there’s MD and MP3 too. All of these translate into what you want: small,unflappable, and high fidelity. Now it’s just a matter of choosing which one of these three criteria are most important to you.

New Wave of Portable CD Players

The main problems with early-generation portable CD players were skipping, short battery life, and overall clunkiness. These, we’re happy to report, are pretty much entirely eviscerated. The first issue, skipping, has been resolved through pretty much the same technology as RAM-it is called shock-resistant memory, and the longer the memory, the less likely the disc is to skip. Also, the longer the memory, the more RAM has to be installed in the player. It’s a pretty simple scenario: The laser moves along the disk, and the data gets stored in a buffer memory. If the laser is knocked off track, the buffer takes over until the laser finds its place again; and the listener hears no discernable difference. Portable CD players now have 8, 16, 24, and even 40-second buffers, the latter of which allows you to pretty much whack the thing and it keeps on playing. But you can’t whack it too many times in a row, or it will skip or just stop playing altogether.

But the buffer memory technique has its drawbacks, and these center on battery life and around sound quality. The longer the buffer memory capability,the more drain it is on the batteries, and the more compressed the sound has to be in order for it to be contained in the chip. Obviously compression is a bad thing for people who want to hear the entire bandwidth. But some folks feel that in a portable application with outside noise, etc. compression doesn’t really present much of a noticeable difference, even to the most hardened audiophile.

The batteries are another issue. Activating the anti-skip buffer memory will certainly deplete your battery life and will cause your CD an early retirement. This issue, however, is mostly offset by much-improved battery technology. Some of the higher-end portable CD players feature lithium ion batteries, which can deliver up to twelve hours of continuous play. So you can now have your cake and eat it too.

Additional anti-skipping technology revolves around the suspension and isolation of the laser mechanism-many are damped with all sorts of exotic liquids and gels to keep vibration out.

Other new, cool features in portable CD players include digital signal processing, “eargasmic” vibrating headphones, and bitchin’ neon-type colors and styles. The other accoutrements available as part of the package deal include a wireless remote so you can set up your portable CD to do multi-tasking as a home and portable unit; and a car stereo interface kit.

The car kit allows you to get power from your cigarette adapter and plug the sound through a dummy cassette that delivers the CD’s signal through the tape heads in your car cassette deck and right through your car’s speakers. As you can imagine, this solution is long on convenience and short on sound quality, as it is limited to the quality of an antiquated (sorry mom) analog cassette.

Another wrinkle in the fold is that now you can record your own CDs! [In the next issue we will discuss digital recording in more detail]. Philips, Marantz and some other manufacturers have recently come out with CD recorders at popular price points. Now you can make digital compilations of your favorite tracks, and even “digitize/immortalize” your LPs. And of course, take them with you to listen on the go.

The Plight of the MiniDisc

One major issue with portable CD players is that the medium itself is quite fragile. This writer is already on my third copy of Pat Metheny’s Secret Story (an exemplary bike-riding disc, by the way). No matter how nimble I think I am during my outdoor, motor-less travels, I always seem to do some damage to my CDs. That’s because the polycarbonate substrate layer-once billed as impenetrable-is actually about as wimpy as the nori around a Maki roll.

Sony recognized this issue, and they developed a medium called the MiniDisc, which is a laser-read medium ensconced in a protective plastic caddie, much like a 3.5-inch computer floppy. Since the disc itself is never exposed to one’s klutzy antics, discs don’t get scratched.

However, this is only a minor selling point surrounding MD. The bigger, hipper feature is that MD records. Sony mostly touts their MD Bundles-a two piece package featuring their full-size home recording unit coupled with a cassette-tape-size playback unit. I once heard Sony VP Vic Pacor espouse his vision of the audio future. He claimed that people don’t want to handle their CDs any more than they have to. They want to load them once into their 200-disc mega-storage CD player and forget about them. When they want to take their music with them-either via portable or car stereo, they make a recording on the MiniDisc player.

Through the MiniDisc method, you can protect your fragile CDs, by recording them on a protected MD. And, as any JazzTimes reader can attest, the cost of your software outweighs the cost of your hardware by about 10:1!

Not to mention, that because the disc itself is 40% smaller than a CD, the size of the players are commensurate- and are far easier to tote around in your bikini bottoms.


Ah, the sweet sounds of controversy. In case you haven’t been keeping up with the times, MP3 is the latest thing to piss the big record boyz off. It simply is a technology that dramatically compresses two-channel audio into an easily downloadable package off the net.

Futurists and the like forecast that MP3 will be the end of the record industry as we know it. Every artist will have his or her own Web site and you’llget 100% of the profits when you process your secure transaction to buy your own music and cut out that pesky record label middleman. The legal and commercial ramifications of MP3 are yet to be seen, but the RIAA has decided to counter with a pay-per-view type of format dubbed the Secure Digital Music Initiative. Meanwhile software dudes are introducing MP4-so powerful a compression program that you’ll be able to e-mail tracks to your friends!

Any of you closet rock ‘n’ roll fans remember when Aerosmith posted a track to their Web site a couple of years ago, but no one had the patience to wait the eight hours for it to download, and take up half your hard drive? Well, those days are evidently long gone.

Unless you have a lap-top permanently mounted to the side of your head, MP3 has to have its own small player to bring with you. And there is one-by a little known company Diamond Audio. The probable reason why the Sonys of the world haven’t gotten into this big-time is kind of obvious-they also have a label to support, the revenues of which are bypassed by MP3. And even companies like Panasonic and JVC who don’t have immediate ties to record labels want to wait and see what happens with all of the pain-in-the-tush legal snafus which will obviously proliferate around this issue.

The good news is that MP3 only requires a “chip player” so you can record right out of the port on the back of your computer onto a stationary storage medium, and take these large credit-card chips with you easily. And no moving parts means no skipping, and hopefully less breakage. More on this as it unfolds.

Digital Dazzlers: The Latest Travel Companions

A. The RQ-SW55V Panasonic Shockwave series AM/FM cassette player has a “Brainshaker” system that vibrates the headphones so you can actually feel the bass. It sports a rugged water-resistant design, and 45-hour playback with rechargeable batteries. Full Logic feather touch tape controls are easy on your cassettes. It sells for under $200.

B. This Sony DE-S52CK Sports Discman Portable Compact Disc Player has a Car Kit that plugs into your car’s cassette player to deliver sound through the speakers. It has a water resistant and rugged sports design. Its ESP2 Electronic Shock Protection protects against both vertical and horizontal motion. It sells for about $180.

C. MZ-E40 Portable MD Player. Records up to 74 minutes worth of your CDs on the home player/recorder, and play them back on theportable unit. Home unit has powerful editing: divide, combine, move, undo, erase, as well as advanced time shift recording. Both units combined sell for under $350.

D. For the recordist on the go, check out the MZ-R30 Sony Portable MiniDisc Player/Recorder. Record DSS, DAT,and CD digitally through the Optical digital input. LCD on unit shows playback modes, titles and battery life. Jog dial for easy editing and track name search/select. Get up to 15 hours playback time with supplied lithium battery and two AA batteries. Remote controller, stereo headphones and case supplied. It sells for about $250.

Originally Published