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Sony Spressa CRX160E

  November 22, 2000 Author: Tim Zakharov  
Thanks to Sony Electronics for providing the evaluation unit.

Introduction

Sony Corporation is well-known as a leading manufacturer of a wide array of audio and video technologies worldwide. To give you an idea of just how diverse the company is, there are eight principal operations in the corporation, including music entertainment, pictures entertainment, and electronics. Their optical drives are manufactured by the component company of the Media & Components Group under the Electronics Division. Simply navigating Sony's Outline of Principal Operations in search of their CD rewriters can be a daunting task.

Sony's Spressa line of internal CD-RW drives includes a "value" ATAPI model (8X/4X/32X), a professional SCSI model (10X/4X/32X), and a professional ATAPI model (12X/8X/32X). In this review, we'll take a look at the professional ATAPI unit (CRX160E). Featuring 12X writes, 8X rewrites, and 32X max reads, the CRX160E on paper matches up well with today's top burners excepting only the rewrite category, where the competition has reached 10X. Random accesses are spec'd at 150 ms and Sony includes a 4 MB buffer. Unlike the latest burners from many competitors, the CRX160E does not include any buffer underrun prevention technology. A standard analog CD audio-out (no digital out) and a 1-year warranty round out the vitals. To see the rest of the specs, click here.

System requirements, as specified by Sony on the packaging, include a 400 Mhz Pentium II and 32 MB of RAM and a bus-mastering EIDE connection. Interestingly, the product page on Sony's website lists a minimum processor speed of only 233 Mhz. Our optical testbed remains at 450 Mhz.

Included in the retail box is a software CD-ROM, one blank Sony 12X CD-R, one blank Sony 4X-10X CD-RW, an IDE cable, audio cable, mounting hardware, Quick Start Guide, and a detailed drive manual. No printed manuals accompany the software, which is simply covered in the Quick Start Guide and the Help menus within each program.

The software suite consists primarily of CD Extreme (which looks suspiciously like Prassi's PrimoCD Plus) and abCD (packet-writing software). Unfortunately, abCD is only compatible with Win9x, while CD Extreme is compatible with all the major Microsoft operating systems. If you use NT or Win2K and plan on packet-writing, the software included with this drive won't cut it. You'll have to buy someone else's software (like Adaptec's DirectCD) to get the job done. Also included on the software CD are Retrospect Express (backup and disaster recovery), Mixman Studio, and Spressa Liquid Player. Mixman Studio is not compatible with NT or Win2k, while Spressa Liquid Player is not compatible with WinNT. For further details on the included software, click here.

How does this drive perform? Follow along as we investigate.

For an overview on methodology, click here.

CD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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Compared to the other three CD-RWs we've tested so far, Sony's CRX160E comes in near the bottom in sustained transfer rates, though only by 3%. Its transfer rates are well within the specs for a 32X CAV reader.

The Sony surprised us in our random access time measurements, though. With a measured average of 115 ms, the CRX160E comes in a full 35 ms faster than Sony specifies, 2nd only to the Ricoh out of the four CD-RWs. Let's see if these speedy results lead to high Winmark scores, as one would expect.

CD-ROM Winmark 99

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In another surprise, the CRX160E did not meet our expectations in the Winmark test. With access times significantly faster than both of the Plextors (along with equal transfer rates), we expected the Sony to pull ahead; instead, it nestles between the two with an mediocre score of 1051.

File and Disc Copy

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The CRX160E edges out Plextor's 12/10/32A in our sequential file copy test. Its average time of 3:15 grants it miniscule lead of less than 1% over the other three burners. Put into perspective, this equates to a bit over 3 MB/sec, or around 22X, about what a well-tuned 32X CAV reader should be pulling in such a test.

However, in our disc copy test the Sony does quite poorly. Remember the mediocre Winmark scores despite the quick measured random accesses? It looks like a replay of the same scenario here. Our disc copy test generally rewards drives with fast random accesses, but the CRX160E averaged 4:08, the slowest of the bunch. The fastest CD-RW in this test, Ricoh's MP9120A, averages about 19X, while Sony's drive averages 17X, roughly 10% slower.

How does the Sony do when extracting digital audio? Let's find out!

Digital Audio Extraction

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Prior to testing, there was some question as to what the CRX160E could do here. After all, Sony does not list DAE speeds in any of their specs for this drive, so curiosity ran high prior to tests. As we can see, the Sony extracts audio at 12X CLV (constant linear velocity) speeds, not the fastest we've seen, but adequate for most situations. However, compared to the competition the Sony is a bit slow. Examined against average extraction rates across our entire test CD-DA, the CRX160E came in 3rd out of four drives. Even the 4th place Ricoh is where it is only because it had difficulty reading our test CD-DA at its full-rated speed (14X-32X CAV). We feel that for today's burners, 12X CLV is the bare minimum acceptable speed for DAE.

On a positive note, the Sony showed outstanding extraction quality in our tests. CDSpeed99 gave the CRX160E a perfect 10 in extraction quality and detected support for accurate streaming. Our real world tests with CDDAE99 confirmed 12X extraction rates for all tracks on our test disc, zero extraction errors, and subjectively excellent audio quality when listening through our Grado headphones. Trouble is, the competition has equally outstanding DAE quality, leaving the Sony trailing in overall DAE performance.

CD-R Media Compatibility and Performance

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When it comes to CD-Rs, the Sony had no problems reading our test discs at full speed. Measured results were nearly identical to its pressed CD performance-15.7X at the inner tracks and 32X at the outer tracks. Random access times with our CD-R test disc were even quicker at 112 ms, confirming our pressed CD results. We find it very odd that this drive's impressive low-level figures don't translate to the expected application-level performance.

CD-RW Media Compatibility and Performance

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Our CD-RW tests show the CRX160E slowing down its read speeds to 10X-20X CAV, roughly the same as Plextor's 12/4/32 SCSI drive. This is again on the slow side compared to the competition (Ricoh's drive transcends 32X while Plextor's 12/10/32A surpasses 24X), but should suffice for most applications. Our random access test with CD-RW media clocked in at 132 ms, a bit slower than pressed CDs and CD-Rs, but still well under Sony's 150 ms spec. No compatibility issues were found using Verbatim, Sony, and Memorex media.

Overall, we found the Sony CRX160E to be a mediocre CD reader compared to its competition (only Plextor's 12/4/32 was a slower reader overall). Let's see if it can pull a comeback in our burning tests.

Write/ReWrite Tests

CD-R Based Duplication

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The Sony rebounds quite nicely in our CD-R duplication tests! When duplicating our test audio CD, it was the fastest of the bunch by over 5%, despite the ATAPI Plextor's better DAE speeds. Time to image our 65-minute CD-DA was 7:20, while it took just over 6:38 to burn the image to CD-R. Total duplication time was just under 14 minutes.

When duplicating our data CD, the CRX160E stays ahead of the two Plextors, but this time the margin is a less significant 2%. Nonetheless, the Sony is the quickest we've yet seen at duplicating both audio and data discs. How does it do when rewritable media is used? Let's see.

CD-RW Based Duplication

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Sony's 8X spec for burning to high-speed rewritable media is 20% slower than its competition's 10X rating. Because the time to image our data CD does not change from our CD-R duplication tests, our focus is on the burn portion of this test. With an average burn time of 9:45, the CRX160E clocks in about 18% slower than Plextor's 12/10/32A, slightly better than expected but still noticeably slower overall. If you primarily use CD-RWs, you're better off with one that rewrites at 10X. However, if you primarily use CD-R media, the Sony is the fastest in our comparisons.

CD-R Based Stress Tests

Here we subject our test drives to situations that are likely to deplete their buffers in an effort to see just how much stress they can take and still successfully complete a burn. Previously reviewed drives from Plextor and Ricoh came equipped with buffer underrun prevention technology, which allows the drive to pause mid-burn if the buffer runs dry, in order to let the buffer refill. Sony's CRX160E does not come with such technology. The result? It successfully burned at 12X during our Unreal Tournament stress test, but created coasters in our CPUmark99 stress test at all speeds greater than 4X. Interestingly, it did better in this test than Plextor's SCSI 12/4/32, which could only complete this test at 2X speeds. This calls to question many users' preconceptions that SCSI burners are less likely to create coasters than ATAPI burners (when buffer underrun prevention technology is not present). Presently we do not have enough drives in our database to make a decisive conclusion, yet our gut feeling is that as long as an ATAPI burner is configured properly, it is no more or less likely to create failed burns than an otherwise equal SCSI burner. Modern ATAPI drives have become very good at utilizing DMA, which keeps down CPU utilization. Just be sure to enable DMA in your OS!

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DirectCD Formatting

We were a bit surprised to see the Sony perform a full format of a high speed CD-RW in only 15:20. This is over a minute faster than the next-fastest drive we've test so far, Ricoh's MP9120A. Based on the first three drives we tested, format performance appeared to be based on rewrite speeds. After all, Plextor's 4X SCSI rewriter formatted its media roughly half as fast as Plextor's 10X ATAPI rewriter. However, results from the Ricoh, and now the Sony, indicate that there may be some headroom for engineers to tweak format speeds here.

Subsequent quick formats were completed in a speedy 18 seconds, also the fastest we've yet seen.

DirectCD Packet-Writing Performance

However, when we get to our packet-writing performance test, there is no doubt that 8X is slower than 10X. Sony's average time to copy our 195 MB test folder from HDD to high-speed CD-RW is 3:26, 21 seconds slower than Plextor's 12/10/32A and 40 seconds slower than Ricoh's MP9120A. Put into perspective, the Sony is 10% slower than the Plextor and 20% slower than the Ricoh.

DirectCD CD-RW Erasing

Finally, our CD-RW erase tests averaged less than 34 seconds, equal to Plextor's 12/10/32A and 11 seconds slower than the Ricoh.

Conclusion

Sony's latest ATAPI CD-RW offering is a mixed bag. When compared to the competition, it lags at reading CDs, in digital audio extraction, and writing to CD-RWs, but our tests show it to be one of the fastest 12X CD-R writers around. We were also impressed with the CRX160E's utter operating silence and cool operation. It appears as if Sony took great pains to soundproof this drive, as even high speed random seeks were nearly inaudible. Our stress tests showed admirable performance when faced with high CPU loads, despite the lack of any buffer underrun prevention technology. Still, BURN-Proof or JustLink enabled drives have an undeniable leg up on the CRX160E when it comes to eliminating buffer underruns.

The included software package was average, not outstanding, in our opinion. Sony's CD Extreme premastering software looks identical to Prassi's PrimoCD Plus, save for a different name and Sony rebadging. Subjectively, we found CD Extreme to have an unintuitive interface. It gets the job done, but we would've preferred a different package. The lack of a printed manual adds to the frustration of learning to use CD Extreme quickly. The included packet-writing software is abCD, which is only compatible with Win9x.

The software suite also includes Retrospect Express (Win9x/WinNT/Win2K), Mixman Studio (Win9x only), and Spressa Liquid Player (Win9x/Win2K). It's disappointing that Win2K and WinNT are not fully supported. In particular, we felt the packet-writing software should have been fully supported by all major operating systems as is Adaptec's DirectCD. We did like the thick printed drive manual, but again, were disappointed to see no printed manuals for any of the bundled software.

A check of StorageReview.com's new online price comparator shows the Sony available for as low as $235 plus tax and shipping. The average price from the top-10 retailers was $244. For comparison, Plextor's 12/10/32A was as low as $229, with an average price of $246.

Sony's CRX160E warrants consideration to those primarily interested in CD-R writing, strictly because of its outstanding CD-R write speeds. However, with the competition offering superior CD read and CD-RW writing performance, faster digital audio extraction, a better software package, as well as buffer underrun protection at a similar price point, its difficult to recommend this drive over units such as the Plextor 12/10/32A.


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