Not all CD burners are created equal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We counted more than a dozen manufacturers that sell CD-R and CD-RW recorders, including Sony, Plextor, Teac, Creative Labs, Ricoh, TDK, Hewlett-Packard, Yamaha and Iomega, and Philips and Pioneer for audio-only components. There are mostly minor differences in the kits and prices, but some are worth noting.

Here's a select look at a few on the market:

VeloCD from TDK ($229)

The VeloCD's high-speed drive system gives it advantages over the competition when time is a benchmark for comparison.

The kick with TDK's CD Blender software is its "audiomatic" processor, which, under perfect PC circumstances, can extract audio data from a prerecorded CD at 20 times normal speed, which is more than twice the speed of most CD burners.

This tweak translates to three minutes for ripping an hour-long compact disc. With the recorder's ability to record at 8x (or eight times) normal speed, we ripped and recorded Aimee Mann's "Bachelor No. 2" during halftime of a basketball game, and had time to relax with a Stewart's Root Beer before the third quarter began.

We didn't demand the highest-quality audio - the slower the recording, the less likely are skips or "bumps" in the final product - but the copy was more than satisfactory. TDK does offer an option in the software - called Disk Damage Compensation - which makes the extraction method more deliberate to read source CDs that may be damaged, scratched or defective.

The installation instructions are more complicated than they need be (ditto the Creative Labs machine noted below), but the included videotape is cool.

Sony Spressa CRX100E (about $229)

The external Spressa is bells-and-whistles-free - a connection to the PC's USB port, an on-off switch, and practically noiseless operation.

The Spressa's buffer has no problems handling writing speeds of 4x for a CD-R and 2x for a CD-RW (a newer Sony CD-RW unit, dubbed a professional model that needs to be installed inside the PC, writes at up to 10 times normal speed). Although we didn't use bench equipment to test the Spressa's performance, it generally does very well in technical evaluations.

Pioneer PDR-W739 (about $600)

Here's a CD-RW recorder that makes a strike for independence. Just plug in the AC and a pair of headphones, and crank out the copies.

The Pioneer is delicious fun if you can do without the details and manipulation possibilities that PC software provides. The black box has two slots: One holds up to three music discs, the other "target" slot holds a single blank. The only real useful recording control here is the programming function, which allows the mixing of tracks from up to three source CDs.

The PDR will accept music from any other digital (MiniDisc, DAT and other CD players) or analog (phonograph, radio, cassette deck) source. And because it has conventional line outputs to fit any stereo system, the recorder doubles (or can be used only as) a fine multidisc CD player.

The trade-offs here are the prices of blank discs (about $2.50 each) and a rather inelegant clunk when the CD mechanism shifts its discs. And the piece is limited to a 2x recording time.

But the quality of copies is as good as any of the players mentioned here, and the ease of use-instant gratification factor is high; you'll feel like an expert audio engineer in an hour.

Iomega ZipCD Drive, External USB ($250)

Unless looks are a high priority, the Iomega falls to the bottom of the list.

From those wonderful folks who gave us the Zip drive for storing data (not so useful now in the days of 60-gigabyte hard drives) and the Buz and Clik! products, which were designed to add video functionality to PCs, here's a shocking purple piece that begs to be shown off.

But the ZipCD is slow for a PC recorder. It's billed at a maximum of 4x recording speed, but we didn't get it to do much better than 2x. (Iomega does offer an internal burner with 12x recording.)

For those seeking the convenience of an external device, the Zip, which plugs into a USB port, looks great on the desktop. But performance-wise, it's strictly ordinary, and overpriced.

Creative Labs 8432 CD-RW (about $300)

Creative Labs markets a variety of peripherals that work. And most of them are actually useful in the day-to-day quest for fun: a wonderful sound card, a DVD/CD-ROM device for those who want to cocoon with "Apocalypse Now" in front of a monitor, and a spectacular Dolby Digital Surround Sound package for home theaters.

The internal 8432 drive is pretty fast - 8x normal writing speed and 4x rewriting speed. The drive spins regular data CD-ROMs - games and any other software application - at up to 32 times normal speed, which makes for smoother retrieval. The kit is supplied with cabling to most of Creative Labs' soundcards, for playing audio CDs through the computer's sound system. The software is OK, though not up to Adaptec's for versatility.

As with most Creative Labs products, we'd expect this one to have reliability and long life.

Hewlett-Packard CD-Writer Plus 9310i (about $300)

As one of the first companies into CD recording via computer -one of the first companies into home computers, period - HP is consistent, and usually conservative, in its marketing.

But it has its loyal following - many consider HPs the Hondas of home PCs.

We looked at one of HP's internal burners, which writes CD-Rs at a very comfortable 10x and has a built-in 4-megabyte buffer (all burners have buffers, which store bits of data in reserve so that there are no lapses in the stream; the bigger the buffer, the better, and 4 megabytes is big).

The 9310 comes with Adaptec software and, for a limited promotion, a copy of Sonic Foundry's ACID program, a sophisticated bit of software for creating custom music tracks. The HP is not a spectacular example of the genre, but the reputation of reliability will win over many.

Be sure PC, discs up to the task

Creating a flawless copy of a CD at home is part luck, part skill - and all preparation.

Before investing in a burner to add to a desktop computer, read the "minimum requirements" on the recorder's box. The faster the PC's processor speed, measured in megahertz (MHz), the more efficient the recording process. Usually 64 megabytes of RAM is the minimum for recording. And a high-capacity hard disk - 8 gigabytes or better - is good, too.

Brand-name blank discs are often "certified" for better performance. We've found that Sony, TDK and Yamaha discs work well.

Buying in bulk - a spindle of 50 blanks, for example - is the cheapest way to go. No-name brands, of course, are usually cheaper. Watch to ensure that the blank is compatible with the writing speed of the burner (it's usually noted on the box).

Before getting down to a big burn, close out all the open Windows applications running on the PC. Some software also recommends disabling the screen saver during a burn, so that its activation doesn't "interrupt" the CD data flow.

It's also a good idea to do a test-burn after installing the recorder (and periodically thereafter). The test burn is a trial run: It's the full process minus the actual recording, and it avoids wasting blank discs if any errors are discovered.

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