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Flash, MP3 Anchor Sony Portable Lineup

Sony is rounding out its assortment of compressed-music portables with an expanded selection of flash-memory headphone portables and expanded support for the MP3 format.

In its 2005 lineup unveiled here, the company expanded its selection of flash-memory portables to 10 SKUs from four to take advantage of an expected surge in demand for flash-memory models. The surge, the company said, will be fueled by lower prices and higher memory capacities that enhance the size, weight, and battery-life advantages that flash-memory models already enjoy over their hard-disk-drive (HDD) counterparts.

Sony already offers two HDD models.

Also to expand its share, Sony stepped up its support for the MP3 codec by enabling all new Hi-MD portables and all new flash-memory music portable to play native MP3 files as well as files encoded in Sony’s proprietary ATRAC, ATRAC3, and ATRAC3plus formats. Native MP3 playback eliminates the time-consuming chore of transcoding MP3 files into an ATRAC-family format for playback on the devices.

In Sony’s previous Hi-MD line, no models played MP3 natively, and only a limited number of flash-memory models did.

Here’s what’s in store:

Flash-memory portables: Nine new Network Walkman portables expand the company’s selection to 10 SKUs from four. Two are in the youth-oriented Psyc series.

All feature embedded memory and lack memory-card slots. The lineup includes the company’s first two 1GB models and first four with low-power-consumption organic electroluminescent (EL) display. Some are USB drives; others have a circular shape with LCD screen and up to 70 hours of playback on a single AAA battery. All play native MP3, ATRAC3, and ATRAC3plus files. Windows Media Audio (WMA) and WAV files can be transcoded on a PC to the ATRAC3 formats.

In the 100 series, the flash-memory selection starts with a 256MB model at an expected everyday $99 and includes a $100 512MB model and a 1 GB model at an everyday $149. All three feature backlit LCD screen. Four models in the 400 series feature three-line EL display and a rechargeable battery delivering 50 hours of playback time. The selection features two models with 512MB and 1GB capacities at $130 and $180, respectively. Two versions with FM tuners retail for $150 and $200, respectively.

An armband model was also launched.

Hi-MD portables: The Hi-MD Walkman selection remains at four with the launch of four new models, which include the company’s first Hi-MD music player/digital camera and Sony’s first Hi-MD model with EL display. The opening price drops to an expected everyday $149 from $199.

“MiniDisc and Hi-MD have reached a certain sales level and are meeting expectations,” said Allan Jason, marketing VP for portable audio and mobile products. “It’s not like [MD] years ago,” he said, but Sony “will continue it.” Sales were in the “hundreds of thousands” in 2004, he said, quickly noting that he was not talking about 200,000 units.

Product manager Kelly Davis pointed out that Hi-MD “will not be as mass-market as flash memory or hard drives” for music portables, but she noted that the format “speaks to the MiniDisc customer” who prefers a small caddy-protected removable disc and battery efficiency. Because the $7 1GB Hi-MD discs can be used for data storage, she noted, the discs are a cost-effective alternative to equivalent amounts of flash memory.

In the 2005 lineup, the top-end MZ-DH10P, at an expected everyday $499, incorporates a1.3-megapixel camera, 1.5-inch color LCD screen, and 4x digital zoom. Music and photos are stored on Hi-MD discs.

The $199-expected MZ-RH910 features line-in and mic-in jacks. The $299 MZ-RH10 adds six-line EL display and delivers up to 33 hours of operating time on the internal rechargeable battery and add-on AA battery.

The opening price model retails for an expected $149.

Two models feature mic-in. Battery life is unchanged from the previous line.

NetMD Walkman: The selection of MD-based portables slips to one from two as the company transitions to Hi-MD. It’s the Psyc series MZ-DN430, which stores music files in MP3 and in all ATRAC-family codecs: ATRAC3plus, ATRAC3, and ATRAC. One AA battery delivers 56 hours of playback time.

CD Walkman: The number of 2005 SKUs was pared slightly, to about 11, and focuses more on multicodec models that play back MP3 files and all ATRAC-family files, a spokeswoman said. Two multicodec models are in the Psyc line. Some of the new models are already available.

Multicodec models start at $50 for the D-NE319BLUE, which is powered by a single AA battery. An $80 model is sold with an integrated speaker stand/recharging station and 41-hour AA rechargeable battery. At the top, the $200 D-NE20 is thought to be the world’s smallest and lightest headphone CD player. It features magnesium body and delivers 100 hours of playback time on a gumstick rechargeable battery paired with a single AA battery.

Two other CD Walkman at $30 and $40 will play standard CDs.