The Playlist: Sony and MP3, Together at Last

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The big news in digital audio recently was Sony's NW-HD3, the company's first hard-drive-based digital audio player to support the MP3 format right out of the box.

If you haven't been following the saga of Sony's attempts to enter the compressed audio market, that last sentence may sound a bit odd--but unfortunately, it's correct. Before the NW-HD3, Sony didn't have a hard-drive-based digital audio player that could play MP3s. That's a shame, because while Apple makes some great MP3 players, it could use some credible competition. Sony has the marketing muscle, the brand recognition, and the industrial design know-how to fill that role. It's too bad that even after this announcement, Sony seems determined to screw up.

Proprietary Pains

First off, here's a quick rundown of how things got to this point. Sony has its own proprietary compressed digital audio format called ATRAC (for Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding), which it claims offers better sound quality at lower bit rates than MP3 files. ATRAC also supports digital rights management, which Sony uses as the backbone of its Connect online music store.

You can imagine Sony execs saying "Well, we've got an audio format that's better than MP3, and we'll build a store where customers can get all the downloads they want. Why do we need anything else?"

So Sony built its first digital audio players with ATRAC support only. To play MP3 tracks, users first have to convert them to ATRAC files with a process called transcoding. That takes time and processing power, and it's about the last thing you want to do if you're trying to fill up your flash player in the morning before you head out to work.

The ATRAC-only approach was ludicrous--like building a PC without a CD-ROM drive or a car that runs on only one brand of gasoline. Customers had spent years building collections of their favorite MP3s on their home PCs. Why should they have to convert the files to play them on their new MP3--I mean digital audio--players? Actually, that's the problem right there: People call these devices MP3 players. That's how ubiquitous the format is. Who's going to buy a device that doesn't support it?

Sony's Connect store was a dog, too, plagued by poor interface design, an underwhelming selection, and a logo that looks way too much like an orange tennis ball.

One Step Forward, One Step Back

All that's changed now that Sony's announced a new player with MP3 support built in, right? Well, sort of. The NW-HD3 launches next week in Japan and this winter in Europe. Sony hasn't yet decided if it'll sell the player in the U.S. (Hint: It might be a good idea.)

But that's okay, right? I mean, surely you'll be able to add MP3 support to the older players with a firmware upgrade, won't you? Not exactly. Yes, Sony will offer a firmware upgrade that adds MP3 capability to its older hard-drive-based audio players. But you can't just plug your Network Walkman into your PC and flash the firmware as you would with a digital camera or optical drive. Instead, you need to send your player to a Sony service center or drop it off at one. And the upgrade will cost $20.

If that's how Sony plans to roll out MP3 support, it certainly doesn't bode well for the company's entry into the market. A year from now, Sony will probably be in the market simply on the strength of brand recognition. (Remember how long the MiniDisc stayed around?)

Quick Hits

Powerful Portable Speakers: Just after I'd finished up last month's column on PC speakers for music fans, a new set of speakers fell into my lap. Fortunately, they were small, so my legs weren't crushed.

Klipsch's $100 ProMedia Ultra 2.0 speaker system packs some great sound into a (barely) portable package. If you're looking for desktop speakers, I'd still recommend a system with a subwoofer; but if you'd like a sound system you can tote around, check out my review.

In Heavy Rotation

Yet More Buckner: Yes, I'm mentioning Richard Buckner again; that's twice in three months. His latest disc, Dents and Shells, came out a while ago; but lately I've been hooked on the re-release of his debut album, Bloomed. It's an amazing collection of introspective folk tunes. Give it a listen; if you find that you don't want to sing along with "Surprise, AZ," well, I'm not a doctor, but you should probably get yourself checked out.

Eric Dahl won't bore you with one of those lists of the top albums of 2004. Or at least he won't this month: In January, all bets are off. To comment or ask a question, send him an e-mail.

This story, "The Playlist: Sony and MP3, Together at Last" was originally published by PCWorld.

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