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BLUFFERS GUIDE TO MINIDISC

 

Oh no, not another disc format?

Well, actually this one has been around for a little while. You may remember it came out at about the same time as the Philips DCC system, back in 1993. They were both meant to be the long-awaited replacement for the audio compact cassette.

 

Awaited by whom?

The world’s consumer electronic industry has decided the compact cassette has reached the end of its life-cycle. The trouble is the market has not responded to the news as quickly as they’d hoped and the audio cassette seems in no hurry to pop its clogs. The big take-over has begun, but it’s been a little slow to get going.

 

Whatever happened to DCC?

Officially it’s still going, though in reality it’s being quietly put to sleep, which has left the way open for MiniDisc.

 

But that went quiet too, didn’t it?

Maybe we haven’t been hearing so much about it in the UK, but it’s been going down a storm in Japan  -- 10% of Japanese homes now have a MiniDisc machine  -- they account for one third of the market. The other two thirds are split between the USA and Europe. Sony reckon around 3.5 million MD machines will be sold world-wide this year, rising to 30 million by the year 2000.

 

But is it any good?

It certainly has got a lot going for it. Discs are very convenient and easy to use, they’re about two-thirds the size of a computer diskette, and each one can hold up to 74 minutes of CD quality digital sounds. As it’s a disc system access times are much shorter than tape, track replay can be easily programmed, and there’s extra data space on the disc, for titles, lyrics and other vital info.

 

How does it work?

It’s basically an optical system, a lot like CD in that replay-only discs are read by a laser, though the information is quite heavily compressed, to give the necessary running times. In essence the compression system ignores sounds we can’t hear, and the end result is actually very good. MiniDiscs shouldn’t wear out, at least that’s the theory, but they’re off to a good start as they’re protected against fingermarks and scratches by small plastic ‘caddies’. Portable MinDisc players have clever anti-shock mechanisms;  the data is read off the disc, and temporarily stored in a digital memory. If the player is shaken,  the sound information is read from the memory instead of the disc. Some players have ‘sound buffers’ that can store up to 10 seconds worth of music

 

You mentioned replay-only discs, what other sorts are there?

There’s a recordable disc as well, though not all players have that facility. Those that do used a magneto-optical recording system; discs can withstand a million or more record-cycles without any significant quality loss. One Sony deck (MZB3) records in mono as well, giving up to 148 minutes recording time per disc.

 

Is MiniDisc only used for personal stereos

No, there’s around thirty products on the UK market at the moment, including at least half a dozen Walkman style personals, about half of them can record. Prices start at around £199 for the cheapest replay-only model from Sony (MZ-E40), to the all-singing, all dancing Sony MZB3, selling for £700; in between there are two Sharp machines (MDS50 and MD-MS100) for £200 and £400. There’s also several in-car models, full-size separates, micro and mini components, plus two DC/MD combi players.

 

So is this curtains for the audio cassette at last?

No, it still has a few years left to run, but sales are on a downward turn. If the software companies get their act together and really get behind MiniDisc, the end could come quite quickly.

 

2. GETTING STARTED -- SATELLITE TV

There’s never been a better time to buy a satellite system. This year there will be more than a dozen new channels, moreover the equipment has never been cheaper or better specified, so what are you waiting for?  If you’ve been putting off getting a system, because of all the talk about digital satellite broadcasting, forget it. That’s not going to happen until next Summer, at the earliest, and it will be a while before there’s enough new channels and services, to justify the extra cost of the equipment.

 

At the moment the analogue satellite receiver market is split into four fairly distinct areas. Entry-level systems -- i.e. a receiver and dish --  are the cheapest and most basic, prices start as low as £70, though most sell for the headline price of ‘£99’.  Next comes the mid-market systems, that includes several models suitable for home cinema applications, they sell for between £150 to £250. The third group includes the top-end home cinema systems, with advanced features like Dolby Pro Logic; you can expect to pay anywhere between £250 and £350 for one of these. Finally there’s the multi-satellite models, designed to be used with multiple LNBs and steerable dishes. Generally you have to buy the dish and receiver separately, prices start at less than £400 for a receiver and positioner but the sky’s the limit and you could easily pay more than £1500 for a motorised dish installation.    

 

Those sub £100 systems deals look very tempting but you have to look closely at the small print. To begin with you have to sign up for a year’s subscription to the full BSKYB movie subscription package, which currently costs £26.99 per month, then there’s the mandatory installation fee, which together adds up to more than £430 in the first year. The other problem is that the receivers in these packages tend to be quite basic, and not really up to home cinema use. They may have too few AV sockets, crude noise reduction systems and limited channel capacity, or all three, so we’ll move on to the mid-market systems.

 

This is where you should start looking. Systems like the Grundig GRD 280 at £200 and the Pace MSS100, for £180 are definitely worth considering; Grundig receivers also appear with Philips badges, so they’re worth shortlisting too. If you can afford to spend a little more, and want something a bit more interesting in the sound department, then have a listen to the Pace MSS290, which costs £230. It has a 3D spatial sound processor, it’s not a patch on real Dolby Surround, but it is a whole lot better than plain old stereo, and there’s no need for any extra speaker boxes.

 

Moving up to the specialised home cinema systems, there’s two models that you should see. The first one is the Pace MSS1000, now selling for around £350. It has a built-in Dolby Pro Logic decoder, and it can form the basis of a competent surround sound set-up. The other one is the Nokia Sat 1800, which costs £300. It’s the first satellite receiver with a built-in Video Plus+ timer, so put it on the list if you tape a lot of movies.

 

If you’re interested in scanning the skies, and seeing what the rest of the world is watching on their TVs, then you’re going to need something like the Pace MSS 1008 IP,  or the add-on positioner box for the Nokia Sat 1800, which can be used to control a motorised dish. The Pace receiver has the positioner built in, and that’s in addition to a Dolby Pro Logic decoder, so it’s incredibly versatile, and a pretty good deal for just £450, unfortunately the dish is extra...

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1996 0210

 

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