(click thumbnail)Sony MZ-M200 MiniDisc Recorder
Field, studio, broadcast
Transferrable files, USB battery charging, linear PCM recording
When do my singer/songwriter, wedding and event video shooter, radio news interviewer, concert taper and podcaster friends ask me about inexpensive, high-quality (as in, at least 16-bit/44.1 kHz) recording thingees? Always, always, and then, mostly always. It’s like the search for the Holy Grail. How much money do they want to spend? Sorry, that’s how LITTLE do they want to spend? What do they want to do with the audio? How fussy, how fragile, and how much does the media cost?
For all of my assorted friends, the answer today, at this very moment, especially when a small, inconspicuous device capable of 16-bit/44.1 kHz is needed — is the Sony MZ-M200 Hi-MD recorder ($439). At just over four ounces with a 1 GB Hi-MD disc inserted and with 3.25-inch x 3.25-inch x .5-inch dimensions, this $439 quarter-pounder is not cheesy. I am, however, a little concerned by the fragility of the drive slot that opens to receive the MD or Hi-MD discs. Overly rushed or inexperienced hands could bend those more delicate parts that shouldn’t be bent. Gentle and gingerly operation will insure longevity with many happy recordings.
There are several significant features differentiating the earlier MZ-M100 from the MZ-M200. In addition to linear PCM, the MZ-M200 supports ATRAC, ATRACC3 and ACTRAC C3Plus formats and will playback MPEG-1 Layer 3 (MP3) files from 32 kbps to 320 kbps, fixed or VBR.
You can use your existing MD disc supply for Hi-MD or regular MD recording, although, obviously, you’ll use them up a lot faster. You can charge the 3.7V, 370 mAh lithium ion battery either by using the external power supply or by simply connecting the MZ-M200 via its USB cable to a powered USB port on a computer. Although you can use the included power cube for full operation under AC power, using only the USB cable as charger incapacitates the MZ-M200 for anything other than charging and offloading files to your computer.
The MZ-M200 records digitally via a mini optical S/PDIF port, or via separate mini TRS mic or line level analog inputs. When you insert a mini TRS mic plug into the mic jack, the display indicates the recorder senses the change and automatically shifts from line to mic. Levels can be automatically or manually adjusted. Using Manual Record, which allows manual control of the input level, was a problem with the older MZ-M100 because the system reverted back to AGC mode every time recording was stopped. Once Manual is selected, the MZ-M200 stays in manual record.
It takes about two seconds for the MZ-M200 to go from dead off into record. Hit the Record toggle button and then pause. Check and adjust the record level and hit pause again and you are recording. While recording you can also toggle the Manual Record level up or down – a very important feature. Like many disc recorders, when you hit the stop button after recording, the system needs to close that file and prepare for another. This takes a number of seconds. If your job entails recording files in quick succession, it’s probably best to hit pause rather than stop. Each time you hit record, you can configure the MZ-M200 to create a new numbered Group of recordings. Each time you hit pause while in record mode, you increment a new index number within that Group number. That’s a very handy and logical way to organize your files and you can also turn that feature off if you don’t like it.
Although the Hi-MD Music Transfer software for Mac users shows cut number, duration, file size, codec, bit rate and YYYY/MO/DD, Group numbering isn’t indicated. It may be on Windows machines, but I’m a Mac shop. The Simple Burner program “comes with” and allows audio from a CD operating in one of your PC CD drives to pass directly through your PC to the MZ-M200.
The MZ-M200 has an extremely valuable Hold button, I call the “nervous groom disaster preventer” for wedding videographers. During any operation, including record, engaging the hold button locks out all of the buttons from functioning. So when the groom fumbles around in his pocket for the wedding ring during the ceremony, he doesn’t turn off the recorder. The hardwired remote control still functions even if the hold button on the MZ-M200 is set. If the hold button on the remote control and MZ-M200 are both set, all switches are locked out.
Playback pitch and +100/-50 speed control are supported as are sync recording from a digital source. You can Move and/or Erase individual tracks, parts of tracks or groups of tracks. Tracks or parts of tracks can be played back repeatedly. Several ambience programs, a six-band equalizer and a level normalizer are also included.
In addition to acting as a headphone extension, with playback volume control, the hardwired remote control has its own small LCD display and hides a few extra features not accessible from the MZ-M200 itself. Its black-on-black control legends are very difficult to read. Not having a record button on the remote control isn’t a deal killer, but it would be nice for surreptitious recording. However, if you toggle the record button on the MZ-M200 first to begin recording, you can use the Play/Pause/Ent nub on the remote control to toggle from Record to Record Pause, as long as you hold the nub down for about half a second or more. Quick closures are ignored.
The MZ-M200 is a great bedside tool for singer/songwriters and busy executives, either of which may wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts that should be recorded before they are forgotten. The little stereo clip-on mic that comes with the MZ-M200 may not be of the best quality, but it plugs directly into the MZ-M200 or via a three-foot, RF suppressed, albeit vibration conducting, extension cord. You don’t even have to turn the lights on. Just grab the recorder, toggle the RECORD button, wait two seconds and then spill your guts. Do so at a modest distance, the mic is very pop sensitive.
For higher quality recordings, simply use a better mic. I really like the Sony ECM 88 lav, which can be powered by a AA cell in its power supply. With a female XLR-to-mini TRS cable with Pin 2 wired to both tip and ring, I was able to get much better recordings with much less noise. To hear MP3 versions of the WAV files I recorded, go to and look in the Sony MZ-M200 folder in my online archive at www.tyford.com. The Sony ECM 88 with power supply, of course, costs more than the MZ-M200. You may already have other solutions in your audio bag if you need better quality recordings. Through my laptop speakers, the self-noise of the little stereo mic was inaudible and its brightness did make it punch though better, but I still prefer the quieter, smoother ECM 88.
You could also attach the MZ-M200 to the unbalanced stereo output of any mixer and use it as a primary or backup audio recorder. For more pristine recordings, you could record with high-end studio gear and A/D converters and port that audio via the optical S/PDIF port on the MZ-M200.
Having experienced the MZ-M100, the MZ-M200 brings some fun features to the party. The menus aren’t very deep. No, it doesn’t have phantom power or even XLR inputs, but where inconspicuous size and 16-bit/44.1 kHz stereo audio are appreciated or needed, the MZ-M200 delivers. Choose the pocket you put it in carefully.