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Farewell Sony MiniDisc

by February 06, 2013

Sony quietly announced the release of the last stereo system that will ever feature its MiniDisc format, effectively killing the format. Frankly, we were surprised to hear the 20-plus year old disc format was still alive at all. MiniDisc never caught on with the mainstream and outside of a few professions that regularly use digitally recorded audio.

But if you listened to music in the ’90s, before the age of digital distribution, chances are good that you heard a bootleg concert that was recorded directly onto a MiniDisc player - even if you’d never even heard of Sony’s MiniDisc format. In a time when even tape-recording devices were bulky, MiniDisc offered mobile, digital over-air recording in a compact form factor.

While MiniDisc has been hailed by some for putting the first portable, recordable digital music devices into our sweaty palms, it’s scorned by others as the fore-bearer of the Dumbing Down of Audio. But Sony’s controversial format etched its magneto-optical groove into the hearts and memories of technophiles and music enthusiasts the world over as an interesting idea that arrived at the wrong point in gadget history.

It was late 1992 when the first the MiniDisc player was introduced into the US. It arrived as a fully functional mobile format, ready to drive the final nail into the coffin of the cassette tape and provide a stable alternative to portable CD players.

MiniDisc had a truly unique value proposition, unattainable by any other consumer technology at the time. As a portable player it wasn’t as volatile as CD, which tended to skip and jump while you were bopping down the boulevard with your headphones on. It produced superior audio quality to cassette tapes which were already fading away. Digital music (on CD or MiniDisc) not only sounded better than cassette tapes, but rewinding those tapes was fast becoming the bane of the existence of music lovers who had tasted digital convenience.

But the real secret weapon of the MiniDisc was that it could record either over-air or from an analog output to its digital discs. That was no small feat at the time. A box that could fit into your jacket with an external microphone jack could be used to record CDs, your neighbor’s conversations or even a live performance of Stone Temple Pilots (this is the ’90s remember) in relatively high quality digital audio.

The general public was already in love with digital audio. The heretofore exclusive cassette and vinyl-using public weren’t accustomed to easily skipping to the next song at the press of a button. Nor were they accustomed to a near silent background behind recorded music. At the time, the average consumer-grade cassettes and vinyl playback devices were known for background hiss and pops.

The acoustic superiority debate continues to rage between digital and analog, but by the ’90s word was definitely out that digital CD offered certain conveniences over your old record albums and cassette tapes.

MiniDisc the Harbinger of Acoustic Doom

Sony’s MiniDisc format represented another first in audio that would fester like an infection. With its emphasis on portability, MiniDisc arrived with the world’s first consumer-grade lossy compression algorithm – Sony’s ATRAC (Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding), which is still in use today.Portable MiniDisc Walkman

In the annals of digital, CD was comparatively pimpin’ with its uncompressed 16-bit at 44.1 kHz stereo linear PCM audio. Sony’s ATRAC algorithm would shrivel your CDs 1.4 Mbps stream down to a 292 Kbps data stream; that’s about a 5:1 reduction in sound. Sony says it required a high-quality compression algorithm because the disc was smaller than CD and needed to provide 74-minutes of playback time. Sony developed ATRAC to employ psychoacoustic principles with non-uniform slitting in frequency and time axes. On the horizon were advances in portable digital music that would outstrip the MiniDisc. In ’97 while Sony was in the midst of a $30-million dollar marketing campaign to push MiniDisc in the US and the UK, some of the first portable MP3 players were about to hit the market.

In ’98, the Diamond Rio with its flash-based 32 MB of storage sold well over the holidays, proving people were interested in portable digital music. Interest in digital music was helped by the notoriety of the lawsuit, RIAA vs Rio. The RIAA’s attempts to stop digital music would be a recurring theme through the 2000s. When Apple released the first iPod in 2001 there would be no looking back. Digital audio files were here to stay and, unfortunately for Sony, it wasn't going to be the ATRAC file or MiniDisc – the openly licensed MP3 would become the format of choice.

By 2004, the MiniDisc had got a long-overdue facelift with Hi-MD. It upped the capacity of new MiniDiscs and allowed them to record the same lossless PCM audio as CD. But it was way too late. By 2004 portable HDD and solid state MP3 players dominated the portable music market and there was no turning back to a hardware, disc-based solution.

Why Didn't MiniDisc Catch On?

In the end, MiniDisc was an evolutionary step from the place media had already been - but had no part in the revolution where media was heading.

Even though MiniDisc filled legitimate holes in consumer electronics markets when it was released, the first strike against it was the price. As a portable music format it was probably going to enjoy popularity among teenagers, but the first model to market, the MZ1, had a price tag of $750.

The MiniDisc enjoyed some measure of success in Japan, where popular albums were released on MiniDisc as long as the musician was signed to a record label owned by Sony. But in the US, ten years after the launch of CD, MiniDisc could not compete as a record format so it tried to fill a niche as a digital recording and portable playback format. But it was doomed to be eclipsed by rewritable CDs as well as hard-drive and flash-based MP3 players. MiniDisc in North America would only see a small market among technophiles and certain audio professions.

Following the standard Sony business-practice script, MiniDisc was completely proprietary and quite locked down. No record label outside Sony released music on MiniDisc and consumer electronics manufacturers were hard pressed to invest in MiniDisc or use ATRAC audio files.

So, if Samsung or Philips wanted to build a gadget that included MiniDisc compatibility, or if anyone wanted to develop PC software for MiniDisc players or use the ATRAC audio codec, it all had to be licensed through Sony. The cost must have been steep, as few were ever willing to invest.

MiniDisc – The Future That Never Was

Neo MiniDisc

There was a shining moment for MiniDisc, even if you had no idea what it was – it had a look and feel so futuristic that it found itself in the spotlight of Hollywood sci-fi.

A modified portable MiniDisc player made up the technology behind Strange Days (1995). The SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interface Device) was used in the film as a digital recorder that captured memories, including the final experiential moments before death – a futuristic thrill acting like a controlled substance in the movie’s underworld. See MiniDisc feature prominently in the trailer for Strange Days.

The format also appeared in The Matrix (1999), and we’re left with the question: what was on that MiniDisc Neo sells to his club-hopping cohorts for $2000? It appeared in the movie’s pivotal scene, just before Neo is tempted out of his apartment by a tattoo of a white rabbit.

But despite its Hollywood fame, in the end, MiniDisc arrived at an unfortunate crossroads. It was born as an intriguing option meant for an age of proprietary hardware, when store-bought media came wrapped in cellophane. But the world was about to be propelled into an era of easily licensed codecs and world-wide sharing of media over the Internet. Even the newer improved MiniDisc, Hi-MD, just couldn’t compete with MP3 players and cheap rewritable discs. In the end, MiniDisc was an evolutionary step from the place media had already been, but it wasn’t part of the revolution of where media was going.

Good-bye MiniDisc. As a tech curiosity may you rest in peace.


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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