Sony gets high marks for the design of this square, magnesium-encased marvel. It's no flash-based MP3 player, but the MZ-N1 is light--4.48 ounces with the battery installed--and takes up little pocket space at 3.0 by 2.88 by 0.75 inches. A navigation jog dial on the unit and a triple-function, pullout control on the thin, in-line, backlit remote enable easy access to all functions and information from either interface (except for Record, which has to be activated on the unit itself). Unfortunately, Sony didn't include a carrying case, but at least you can clip the remote to a bag strap or a shirt pocket while stowing the device elsewhere.
The MZ-N1 sits in its small docking station and recharges its battery using the attached AC adapter. This MiniDisc unit connects to your computer's USB port in order to download music at speeds faster than real time. Other than the USB connection, the MZ-N1 has all the standard MiniDisc connections: an analog line-in jack, an optical line in with a cable included, a mike input, a headphone/line-out jack, and an AC-adapter port.
Sony's OpenMG Jukebox software handles the transfer of MP3s, WMAs, and WAVs from your hard drive to the MZ-N1. You can select normal stereo (74 minutes), or you can choose LP2 (148 minutes) or LP4 (296 minutes) in order to fit more music onto the device. As one might expect, sound quality diminishes as playback time increases. For ripping CDs to the device, Sony includes Net MD Simple Burner software, which converts to only LP2 or LP4; we'd prefer having the option to rip to normal stereo levels to preserve sound quality.
Once you've transferred files onto the unit, you'll find an array of playback features to make listening easily configurable: shuffle and repeat modes; a two-band EQ; an automatic volume-limiting system to protect your hearing; and variable-speed playback, which outputs music at 80 to 110 percent of normal playback speed. Finally, there's a line-out/headphone toggle jack for switching between the two options; a line out sounds better when sending audio to a stereo system since it bypasses the headphone amp.
While recording in analog or digital, the MZ-N1 displays a stereo recording-level meter, which is crucial for clean rendering of live audio. This Net MD also shows you a remaining recording-time meter, microphone-sensitivity adjustment, and track time-stamping. But one flaw prevents this Sony from being the perfect portable recording device: You cannot upload recordings via USB the way that you can with the or the .
The MZ-N1 sounds great, especially when you play songs ripped straight from CDs and use nicer headphones than the included folding pair. However, keep in mind that poor-quality MP3s sound even worse after being transcoded to the OpenMG format.
In terms of skipping, Sony's G-Protection prevented all jolts during testing--impressive for a device this small. Depending on what you're doing with the unit, battery life ranges from 12 hours (recording in normal stereo mode without the extra battery pack) to 110 hours (playing back in LP4 mode with the battery pack attached). Based on our tests, these numbers are fairly accurate.