(Re)discovering MiniDisc

About two weeks ago I got myself a MiniDisc player/recorder.

Other than browsing through some pop/rock MD albums at Heathrow Airport several years ago (back when they were still considered a “current” media format) I had never had first-hand experience with the actual hardware, so I couldn’t skip the opportunity when a colleague was selling all his gear via the company bulletin board.

40 bucks later I was the proud owner of a Denon DMD-1300 recorder, and a few discs thrown in for good measure.

This particular unit was released/manufactured in 1997, at a time when CDs had firmly established themselves as the de-facto standard for pre-recorded music and consumers were getting tired of the old analogue cassette.

Then, of course, there’s the “tape” factor. Tapes (or rather, the cartridges) contain moving parts and succumb to mechanical stresses. Tape can jam and get mangled, and tapes lack the benefit of “random access”, a reputation even its successors were unable to shake off. Outside of professional use, even DAT had never really found favour with the public at large, and the DCC, however clever and promising a transitional format, was stillborn — all on account of unfortunate timing and due to the fact that consumers themselves are reluctant to commit to a format that has no track record. This was again proven by the recent HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray hold-out, confirming that most people would not have chosen the red pill.

As is evident by the excellent condition of my new/old MD recorder (and the rest of the gear in his collection), the previous owner was certainly a fan of the MiniDisc format, and I can almost understand why:

  • It’s optical media (although the actual data is written by a magnetic head), with the practicality of random access;
  • It’s quite a robust carrier because the (magneto-)optical disc itself is permanently housed within a cartridge (similar to a 3.5″ floppy disc);
  • They can include track data such as song titles, and track markers can be reshuffled or edited within the TOC;
  • They can be written onto several thousand times, with no degradation in audio quality;
  • Portable players reportedly have a very long playing time / battery life;
  • At approx. 7 x 7 cm the cartridges are physically small (for the time), yet still able to accommodate up to 80min of audio.

And that’s the crunch: in order to squeeze that amount of audio onto a 64mm diameter disc, some means of compression had to be employed — ATRAC, in this case. The follow-up format, Hi-MD, pushes the boundary even further and adds several other facilities like data storage and uncompressed PCM audio.

Judging by the sound quality of the one pre-recorded MD and the few recordables in my humble collection, I’d go as far as agreeing that the claims of sound quality being superior to MP3 are very substantiated (further tests at 320kbps required).

Now, while this little blog post is by no means a detailed or scientific analysis of the MiniDisc and its vast possibilities, usage applications and compression algorythms (minidisc.org does a much better job), I will reiterate that the “near-CD” (perceived) audio quality is not an exaggeration.

Equally impressive is the thought-out protective casing of both the re-recordable media (a simple plastic slide-in pocket with places for labels) and especially that of commercial, pre-recorded MiniDiscs: a hinged design similar to CD jewel cases, with ample space for a detailed booklet and paper inserts and a shock-resistant holder for the actual MD cartridge. The industrial engineering skills of the boys at Sony are usually top-notch.

Sadly, I think it was a combination of several factors that lead to the downfall of the MD:

  • There was no way you could rip your CDs and digitally transfer these to MD, nor was there a convenient way to do the same in reverse (NetMD aside);
  • MP3 files, in the meanwhile, got increasingly popular, especially as CD-burners became affordable (in turn, almost supplemented by DVD*R and broadband internet access with P2P networks);
  • Most modern flash- or hard drive-based players are smaller than the jewel case of an over-the-counter MD, and those can play video files, too. Some you can even phone with! In short, MP3-playing gizmos come in all shapes and functions.

Taking factors like portability/battery life, cost, size, fashion/style/marketing, and the ease of transportability of music files across devices into consideration, it’s truly no wonder that the iPod and its competitors are the king of the roost at the moment. Add to that my bold assertion that people are more content with the convenience/inferior sound quality that a laptop (or desktop) offers as a multimedia device as opposed to a large, bulky, cabinet-restricted component HiFi unit, I fear the end of boomboxes without a 30-pin connector or memory card slot is upon us.

Nonetheless, MiniDisc appears to have its devout fans and is, in fact, still on the market while this Denon unit is definitely a worthwhile addition to my humble collection of electronic gadgetry (the Sony MZ-M200 Portable Hi-MD Recorder appears to be another one well worth having).

Sony MD advert

Still, there’s another war silently raging: SACD vs. DVD-Audio.

Who will emerge as the victor? Neither, I reckon.

Both will die and fade into obscurity as yet another failed format, survived by the ubiquity of CD, MP3 and… wait for it: vinyl! Yes, vinyl is making a comeback.

And, speaking of wars and music: there’s a another “battle” being fought between yours truly in one corner, and my friend Rufus on the other hemisphere. We’ve decided to duke it out by joining forces on a couple of mix-CDs.

Yo, DJ hmvh is in da house…

Image credits: Sony advert via Flickr

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4 Responses to (Re)discovering MiniDisc

  1. Bob says:

    I’ve used MD to record speech (language learning, lectures, etc.) for about 10 years. It’s recording and editing capabilities are great for language learning. Strangely, I never used them for music. About a month ago, I put a CD on one and was shocked by the quality. I was hearing backup vocals and instruments that I have never heard on my iPod.

  2. hmvh says:

    As a point of interest, how did you copy the CD over to MD: digital or analogue?

    Either way, on most any system the difference between MP3 and Atrac (via decent headphones even more so) is very evident.

    The saving grace of MP3 is convenience and size, although I’ve seen a distinct move towards higher bitrates thanks to bigger hard drives and more bandwidth which, in turn, spells the death of CD-Rs as far as I can predict.

  3. Drohnwerks says:

    I love Minidisc as a format. Its detractors always used to point out that the sound quality wasn’t as good as CD, however they forget that Minidisc was a replacement for cassettes, rather than CDs/Vinyl.

    if you get a HiMD there is official sony software (an add-on to the sonic stage software) that will allow you to download content and convert it to .wav. This software was only supposed to work on discs that were recorded through the analogue ins, however my experience is that it worked with all discs (Prerecorded and netMDs also). All of which means I can transfer my 400 discs of demos onto a harddrive :)))

  4. Bob says:

    hmvh, I used SonicStage to load the music and it’s PCM uncompressed. Furthermore, I used cdparanoia to rip the CD to the hard drive. Cdparanoia make a clean rip, cleaner than other methods.

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