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The Incredible Shrinking Stereo

It has been more than 20 years since Sony introduced the Walkman cassette player. Since then, an entire category has been created-portable music. Consider that before the late ’70s, people had to jog, bicycle and roller skate in glorious silence. Folks jogging together had to actually have a conversation! Now we can meander in our own worlds listening to whatever catches our fancy that day.

Besides the radio, there are quite a few different media that one can choose as source material for a portable stereo. The cassette is the most ubiquitous, but its popularity has been waning each year due to its poor fidelity and bulky size. The compact disc has become the most popular device, with portable Discman-type devices and CD boom boxes selling at the rate of two or three per home.

Skip-Free CD

The biggest challenge to the portable CD player is keeping it from skipping during one’s exercise routine. At first, manufacturers explored shock-absorbing laser pickups and cushioned disc spindle platters. Now they rely almost exclusively on digital memory chips. Simply put, these shockproof memory chips work like the RAM on your computer-they are in-line between the CD output and the digital-to-analog converter. The digital signal passes through this so-called buffer chip and a few seconds worth of the data is stored in memory. When the laser skips, the memory chip keeps on playing until the laser can find its spot on the disc again. The more data this buffer can hold, the longer the laser has.

When these shockproof memory chips first came out, they held only about four seconds worth of data. So you could go over a small ditch on your bike skip-free, but you weren’t going to hit any mountain bike trails listening to Kid Rock. As the price of memory went down, manufacturers put longer and longer memory buffers into their CD players. Now they come with 40-second chips, which means that you can pretty much sky dive without a parachute and Shania Twain will still be singing after you land.

The two leaders in portable CD players-Sony and Panasonic-both boast CD players that are all but impervious to skipping. The Sony technology is called G-Protection and it boasts a memory buffer that holds up to 10 times the data as standard memory buffers. The combination of this large memory chip and the shock resistant laser assembly and spindles validates the G-Protection Discman’s claim to be skip-free.

The DE-J915 is the top-of-the-line model, which Sony bills as the world’s smallest and lightest Discman. Sony has developed a sophisticated battery system that allows the DE-J915 to play for 62 hours at a time. This model features an LCD remote that is attached to the headphones, which allows you to put the Discman in your backpack and still control the functions such as volume and track selection. MD link digital output allows a digital interface with a MiniDisc recorder for a perfect digital recording (more about MiniDisc later). Complete with carrying case, the Sony DE-J915 sells for around $200.

The next model in the new G-Protection line is the DE-J815B. It has an even longer battery life than the 915-82 hours! But it is larger than the diminutive J915. The DE-J815B sells for about $150.

For under $100, you can pick up a DE-J615 that has a shorter battery life, no LCD remote or carrying case. But it still has the G-Protection circuitry that makes it nearly skip-proof.

Panasonic is the other leader in skip-resistant portable CD players. Their Shockwave series features their proprietary Anti-Shock Memory II technology. Similar to Sony’s G-Protection, Anti-Shock Memory II allows for 40 seconds worth of laser skip before you can hear it. The SL-SX469V features a remote control, as well as a digital AM/FM tuner. It allows for a 43-hour playback with its rechargeable batteries. You can pick one up for around $120.

A more modest-priced portable CD player is the Panasonic SL-SX270A. This model features the 30-second Anti-Shock Memory 3.0. It delivers 28 hours of playback and sports a heat-resistant polycarbonate body. It sells for under $60.

Sony MiniDisc: The ultimate portable recorder

If you like to make your own recordings, then take a serious look at MiniDisc. This technology has been around for a few years now and still delivers some of the best fidelity of any portable digital recording device. MiniDisc uses a system that is a hybrid between laser and magnetic technology. This system allows for a robust recording that is similar to “burning” an actual compact disc. And you can re-record on a MiniDisc up to a million times!

MiniDisc boasts better fidelity than MP3-type recorders because it uses a compression technology that stores seven times the data of a standard MP3 CODEC. It’s called ATRAC and here’s how it works: ATRAC looks for similar notes played simultaneously where one is much louder then the other. Assuming the human ear cannot discern the difference between two similar notes if one is much louder than the other, ATRAC data reduction will eliminate the softer note. Most people cannot tell the difference between music whose data has been reduced by ATRAC and a full-blown CD sound, especially when using a portable Walkman-type stereo outdoors with a lot of background noise. But real audiophiles and music lovers can distinguish between the two because data compression or reduction systems remove much of the timbre, overtones and subtleties that make music special.

Sony’s newest MiniDisc player is the MZ-R70, and it is a pocket-sized recorder/playback device. It has a dual headphone jack so you and yours can listen to music privately at the same time. And it has a 40-second shock-resistant buffer to help eliminate skipping when you’re on the go. You can edit your recording via remote control, which makes live recording a lot more manageable. The Sony MZ-R70 sells for about $230.

Memory Stick

Sony also has introduced an MP3-type player that uses their patented Memory Stick technology to store music. Memory Stick is Sony’s flash memory technology that is similar to Panasonic’s Sandisk in that it is a motionless RAM type of memory that currently holds 64K of memory (and will hold more and more in the upcoming months/years). Memory Stick can be found throughout Sony’s audio/video and computer line-it stores digital photos on their Mavica cameras and Handycam camcorders, and is used instead of a floppy disk with their VAIO laptop computers.

The latest manifestation of Memory Stick is their Memory Stick Walkman. There are presently two models: one with a removable memory and one with an embedded flash memory. The major difference between Sony’s Memory Stick Walkman and other MP3-type units is SDMI-Secure Digital Music Interface.

Until now, music that is downloadable from the Web has been free, a phenomenon enjoyed mostly by teenagers. They can grab a free song off of a Web site and either keep it on their computer, burn it onto a CD, or transfer it onto an MP3 player. Generally these songs are by up-and-coming artists who have not yet been signed to a major record label. This is great for the short term, but eventually musicians want to get paid-even unsigned ones! Things will start to switch over from free to the use of the SDMI encryption process. This system allows for the personal consumption of music but prevents people from making unlimited digital copies. Each time a user downloads a song, and pays with his or her credit card, it is tantamount to a licensing agreement for the song. Depending upon the terms of the individual agreement, you can “check out” the song off your hard drive a set number of times (usually three). That means that you can make three digital copies, and that’s it. If you want more, you’ll have to pay again.

Sony is the first to introduce a portable digital music player that utilizes the SDMI standard. It uses the Sony-developed flash storage medium called Memory Stick. The newest model, the NW-MS7 Memory Stick Walkman utilizes a removable version called MagicGate. This data store device can hold 64 MB of data. A standard CD holds 640. But using Sony’s new ATRAC-3 10:1 data reduction system, this Walkman can hold up to 120 minutes of data depending upon the bit rate used.

The NW-MS7 is about the size of a stick of butter. And you can change out the Memory Stick cards, so you won’t have to re-record over the same songs every time you want to download something. As with any first-time technology, the Memory Stick Walkman isn’t cheap. This model sells for about $400 and additional Memory Sticks are more than $150 each!

An alternative to the removable MagicGate media is to go with the cheaper embedded flash memory Walkman, the NW-E3. This is smaller than the MS7-about the size of a cigarette lighter. The only issue is that once you’ve used up the 64 MBs, you have to record over the songs.

CD Boom Boxes

CD players have been in boom boxes for years. But what’s gotten better about CD boom boxes is bass. Manufacturers have discovered how to use the chassis of a boom box to mirror a vented enclosure so that the bass has more depth and power. The end result is a sort of subwoofer within the boom box. The Sony CFD-G50 boasts an ample 20-watt total power output and has a Power Drive woofer for dynamic sound. Coupled with the Mega Bass sound system, the CFD-G50 produces some pretty amazing bass from a small box. Plus, it has a remote control so you can set it up as a home stereo system. You can pick one up for under $100.

The RV-B90AG boom box from JVC is better known by its alias, Kaboom. This feat of urban wonder closely resembles a bazooka and is considered to be one of the best-sounding boom boxes available. It delivers 40 watts of total power and has dual six-inch woofers. Coupled with the Super Exciter Bass Circuit, the Kaboom delivers some serious bass. It also has a remote control, as well as a full-logic auto-reverse cassette. It sells for around $300.

Originally Published