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MiniDisc is a survivor. Having successfully beaten off the challenge from DCC, Rick Maybury chronicles MD’s now seemingly unstoppable take-over of the home audio recording market, and beyond...



MiniDisc looked like being a winner from the word go, it’s just taken a while to get there. By now, six years after launch, this technically elegant, digital audio recording system should have consigned ageing, and increasingly flaky compact cassette to the technology scrap heap, but there was that little bit of trouble with Digital Compact Cassette (DCC). Rivalry between the two formats left everyone feeling very confused. Not surprisingly few relished the prospect of being used as guinea-pigs again, in a re-run of the video format wars of the 1980’s. However, the battle is now over in the all-important far Eastern and US markets, where DCC got off to a bad start and MD is now surging ahead. Europe seems destined to follow as interest and awareness of MD grows apace.  


So is it now safe to buy MiniDisc? The answer has to be a guarded yes, with a increasing number of manufacturers throwing their weight behind the system. The supply of pre-recorded albums on MD is still quite limited in the UK but since most owners use it to make their own compilations, for playback on personal players and in-car decks, it’s not a big deal. Hardware prices are tumbling and the choice of equipment is expanding almost daily; the question is, how long will you be able to hold out?




* What is it?

MiniDisc is a close relative of CD. It’s an optically-based media based on shiny 64mm diameter discs, that live inside protective caddies. They’re about two-thirds the size of a PC diskette, and can hold 74 minutes of high-quality digital stereo sounds. MiniDisc can also store a mix of music and data, which is used to display album and track titles, and potentially lyrics and background information as well. Unlike tape, access times are very fast -- it takes only a second or two to get to any track on the disc -- and like CD, tracks can be programmed to play in any desired order. Recordable magneto-optical discs have the same kind of capacity as play-only MDs and can be re-written a million times or more, before there’s any noticeable deterioration in  quality.


* How does it work?

Digital information on the disc is represented by a layer of reflective ‘pits’, read by laser beam. In order to achieve the same kind of recording and playback times as CD, data is compressed using the ATRAC (adaptive transform acoustic coding) system. Essentially this ignores sounds beyond our hearing range and on adjoining frequencies and those masked by other, louder sounds. The magneto-optical system on recordable discs uses a second, more powerful laser inside the deck, to briefly heat a layer in the disk, containing microscopic magnetic particles. Whilst at the so-called ‘Curie’ temperature (180 degrees C) they are re-aligned by a magnetic recording head, altering their optical characteristics, in a way that that can be ‘read’ by the playback laser.


* What’s the quality like?

Initially hi-fi buffs expressed some concern over the amount of information discarded by the ATRAC system. However, in practice this has turned out to be less of a problem than many people anticipated, moreover quality is improving all the time. Subjectively a good MD recording sounds little different to CD, in fact most people would be hard-pressed to tell them apart. CD to MD copies sound very good indeed, so good in fact that all MD decks with recording capability have to be fitted with SCMS (serial copy management system) chips, that allows single copies from CD to be made, but prevent subsequent MD to MD digital copies or ‘clones’.


* Who makes MD hardware?

More than twenty companies are now manufacturing MD equipment around the world, with new converts signing up all the time. In the UK Sony, who developed the format and Sharp, have been setting a cracking pace; they’ve been joined by Clarion, JVC and Kenwood, and in the next few months, by Aiwa, who are introducing micro-hi-fi systems and components. Most of the hi-fi manufacturers we’ve spoken to seem to agree that the biggest influx of new equipment will come towards the end of this year, and the beginning of 1998, when they forecast that MD will really start to take off in Europe.


* Will they get any cheaper?

The first MD decks from Sony cost over £700; in the past few weeks they’ve just announced details of the cheapest MiniDisc Walkman to date, priced at just £179.99. Obviously it will be quite some time before they’re as affordable as today’s personal compact cassette players. Manufacturers have had more than 30 years to reap the benefits of economies of scale, but it seems likely that we’ll see the first sub-£100 MD players within a year or two. MD deck mechanisms are actually a lot simpler than tape decks, there are fewer moving parts, and less to wear out. Recordable decks are a little more complicated and it’s likely they’ll retain a £50 to £100 premium for some time to come.


* Where can it be used?

MiniDisc can do anything compact cassette currently does, plus a whole lot more. The first and still the most popular application is for personal stereos. The system is very stable and immune to physical shock. On most personal players several seconds worth sound data is continually read off the disc, into a microchip ‘buffer’, so even if the laser mis-tracks, the sound continues uninterrupted. This technology also helps maintain playback stability on in-car stereos. A range of units have been developed, including multi-disc changers and recordable models. MD is also making an impact on mini and micro home hi-fi systems, replacing the traditional cassette deck as the main audio recording component, for making CD copies.


* How about pre-recorded software?

Currently around 800 pre-recorded titles are available on MiniDisc, though it has to be said that only a fraction of them are available in Britain, and then through only a relatively small number of music shops. Clearly the software market still has a long way to go, though keen ‘early-adopters’ can obtain discs via mail order from overseas suppliers, and a healthy trade is emerging through retailers advertising on the Internet, and other on-line services. Most of the major record companies are taking a wait and see attitude in the UK, though many of them are producing software for Japan and the USA where the MD population has reached the necessary critical mass.


* How easy is it to record?

It’s no more difficult than compact cassette, in a lot of ways it’s even easier as virtually all component and hi-fi decks automate the CD to MD copying process. Once a recording has been made it can be edited. Each disc has what’s known as a UTOC or user table of contents. This contains all the information about each track, including the running order. That can be changed, so tracks can be re-sequenced. On some decks tracks can be split, with new material inserted into the gap, and blank sections filled, to make the most efficient use of the space on a disc.


* How long do recordings last?

No-one really knows but based on the enormous experience gained from compact disc, it seems fair to assume that pre-recorded discs, which are made in the same way as CDs, will last at least as long. The current best guess is 30 to 50 years, but it could be longer, discs are well protected against scratching and damage from ultra-violet light inside their caddies. Sony claim that recordable discs can undergo more than a million record/erase cycles before there’s any reduction in quality, and they’re not affected by strong magnetic fields as the information can only be erased when the magnetic layer is heated to a very high temperature. 


* What else can it do?

MiniDisc is still at the very beginning of its life-cycle and new applications are being developed all the time. It has already begun to have an impact in the professional recording and broadcast markets, as an alternative high-quality portable audio recording system used by journalists and musicians. They’re being used in studios, as replacements for tape ‘carts’, for jingles and advertisements. One of the most promising areas of development is digital data storage. With a capacity of 140 megabytes MD could be used like a miniature re-writable CD ROM, for use in PCs and laptop computers. It could also have a big future in portable recording devices like digital cameras and data acquisition systems. Watch this space.








Stylish add-on MiniDisc player/recorder for JVC’s newly launched UX-D88 micro system. Features include a 20-track memory, 5-mode editing system and syncro-recording facilities.


JVC XM-F1GD, £600

Component MD recorder, designed to integrate with their Digifine F 1 mini hi-fi system.



Micro-sized MiniDisc component deck, a companion for their HM5 and HM7 micro hi-fi systems


KENWOOD DM-7090, £500

Full-size MiniDisc recorder component, all the bells and whistles, including advanced DAC processor and deck mechanism


SHARP MD-R1E, £330

Mini MD deck, designed as an add-on for their CD mini hi-fi systems. Good range of CD copying facilities


SONY MDS-S37, £300

Component recorder for Sony mini systems, plenty of editing options and advanced digital processing, including sampling rate converter for 48, 44.1 and 32kHz sources



Full-size, high-end component MD deck with multiple sampling rate converter and advanced pulse DAC. Many editing functions and full optical digital connectivity  


SONY MDS-503, £550

Full-size mid-range MD recording deck featuring hybrid D/A converter, a complete set of editing functions and sampling rate converter


SONY MDS-JE500, £300

Full-size entry-level separate component deck, also with hybrid pulse D/A conversion, editing functions and sampling rate converter


SONY MDS-S1, £550

Mini-sized MD component, designed to co-ordinate with Sony’s La Scala mini hi-fi system. Full editing capabilities and hybrid pulse D/A conversion


SONY MDS-MX1, £500

Micro-sized component MD recorder, designed as an add-on for the Cubic micro hi-fi system


SONY MXD-D1, £800

First ever fully-specified combined MD/CD component separate, available from next month






Due in the second half of 1997, Aiwa’s first hi-fi mini system with a built in MiniDisc deck. At around the same time there will be an add-on component MD unit for the newly launched XR-M30 mini system. Prices have still to be announced.


KENWOOD XD-980MD, £600

One box mini hi-fi system with 3-CD autochanger and  3-band RDS tuner (available May)


KENWOOD XD-9580MD, £800

Top-end mini hi-fi system with 6-CD autochanger, 3-band RDS tuner and 80 watts per channel (RMS) amplifier output, (available May)


SHARP MD-X3H, £700

MD-centred mini hi-fi system, with 3-disc CD, AM/FM tuner, auto-reverse cassette deck, SRS 3D sound processor and matching speakers


SHARP MD-X5H, £TBA (October)

Combination MD-CD micro component hi-fi system with advanced CD copy and edit facilities, RDS tuner and SRS 3D sound system.


SHARP MD-X6H, £TBA (October)

High performance MD-CD mini component hi-fi system; 3-CD autochanger, RDS tuner and SRS 3D sound are the main features


SHARP MD-XV300H, £1000 (June)

Smart looking two-box micro component system with 3-drawer CD deck and advanced edit facilities. Also available as RT-XV300 with matching cassette deck


SONY MDT-5, £600

Affordable mini hi-fi system with MD deck, 3-CD autochanger, 3-band RDS tuner and single tape cassette deck


SONY CUBIC M11, £800

Classy two-box micro system with advanced MD recorder, high-performance CD deck 3-band tuner and smart-looking active speakers


SONY MHC-W55MD, £900

Well-specified mini component hi-fi system featuring MD recorder, 3 CD autochanger, RDS tuner and 2 x 55 watt amplifier


SONY PMC-M2, £1000

MC-CD combi one-box micro system with distinctive 2-way bass reflex speakers. Featuring a full set of MD edit functions, single disc CD and 2-band tuner


SONY MJ-L1, £1300

Eye-catching ‘Lifestyle’ system combining MD, CD and 2-band tuner in neat sliver table-top enclosure




SHARP MD-S50H, £300

Ultra compact MD player with LCD remote, anti-shock memory and up to 4-hours running time on a re-chargeable battery


SHARP MD-MS100, £350

Lightweight MD recorder with front-loading mechanism, anti-shock sound buffer and a full set of editing functions


SHARP MD-MS200, £350

Replacement for the MS100, arrives in June. New features include 9.5 hour running time, multiple sample rate converter and improved control layout


SONY MZ-E3, £250

Playback only MD Walkman with 10-second shock memory, bass boost LCD remote


SONY MZ-E20, £180

Currently the cheapest playback-only MiniDisc Walkman, built-in sound buffer,  supplied with earphones and carry-case


SONY MZ-E30, £280

The world’s smallest MD Walkman, barely larger than the disc itself and weighing in at just 76 grams. Features include LCD remote on headphone cable and low power consumption with up to 10 hours play on one set of batteries


SONY MZ-E40, £200

Jacket-pocket sized playback only MD Walkman with 10-second sound buffer, variable bass boost and automatic volume level control


SONY MZ-R3, £400

Pocket-sized MD recorder with a full set of editing functions, and 74/148 minute (stereo/mono) recording capacity, bass booster and 10-second shock memory


SONY MZ-B3, £700

Compact MD recorder with built-in microphone and speaker, voice-operated recording function LP (mono) recording speed for up to 148 minutes duration, quick erase function and variable speed playback





CLARION MD-J474, £850

DIN-sized dash-mountable MiniDisc autochanger, holding up to four MDs, compatible with all Clarion Combination car stereos



Due out next month, this is a boot-mountable 6-disc MD autochanger, again compatible with Clarion Combination range stereos


KENWOOD KMD-C80, £1000

MiniDisc autochanger, with six disc capacity, compatible with the following in-car units: KRC-358RA, KRC-558RA and KRC-G58R


SONY MDX-C150RDS, £500

In-dash MD player with RDS EON display, 3-second sound buffer, detachable front panel and alarm


SONY MDX-40, £500

Dash or boot mountable 4-disc MiniDisc autochanger with 10-second shock memory and 1-bit D/A converter


SONY MDX-61 £500

Compact six MiniDisc autochanger, glove-box/centre console fitting with direct loading (no magazine) disc mechanism, 10-second sound buffer and 1-bit D/A converter


SONY MDX-C670RDS, £400

Newly launched in-dash player with RDS tuner, 4th generation ATRAC processing and option to upgrade to 10 disc autochanger


SONY MDX-400RDS, £1200

Top of the range in-dash player with built-in 4-disc autochanger. Features include RDS tuner, large LCD display screen, 10-second sound buffer 1-bit D/A converter, joystick control and detachable front panel with alarm




MiniDiscs are turning up in some rather unlikely places. In Japan Sharp have just launched the MD-PS1 MD Data Camera, nicknamed ViewHunter. It’s a little fatter than a normal compact 35mm camera, yet it can record up to 2,000 images, audio captions and text information on a single MiniDisc. The MD-PS1 uses the MD Data recording  system to store images with a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels in one of two quality modes. It can playback on an ordinary TV, or download data into a computer, using an optional PC connector and software. It also plays and record normal music MDs as well. There’s no news yet of a UK launch or price but the Japanese model sells for the equivalent of £660   


Work is underway to increase the storage capacity of MD and variants that can hold up to 700 megabytes of data are under development, we’re expecting more news on that later this year. That kind of capacity would be enough to store moving video -- using advanced video compression systems -- making a much anticipated MD camcorder a distinct possibility. Meanwhile, engineers working for Sharp in Japan have succeeded in developing encoding systems that enable up MiniDiscs to store up to 48 hours of speech-quality audio, on a standard 74-minute disc.


MD Data has a promising  future and Sony, amongst other, are actively investigating a wide variety of applications, that range from intelligent photocopiers, to distributing games software on MD, as well as more predictable data storage roles, in PCs and Laptops.




Ó R. Maybury 1997 0603


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