Twenty-seven years ago this month, Sony introduced the MiniDisc (not to be confused with the 3” CD single) to North America and Europe, having debuted the technology a month prior in Japan. Perhaps some of you are too young to know what the MiniDisc was, or you have (understandably) forgotten about this unique music storage format. In honor of the anniversary, I am going to look back on this interesting invention.
Think of the MiniDisc as a smaller, cuter version of the Compact Disc. Invented in 1992, Sony originally intended its MiniDisc to replace the cassette tape, going so far as to label one input on all of their receivers as “MD/Tape”. Like a tape, the MiniDisc could be recorded over and over again, up to one million times claimed Sony. Each blank MiniDisc was capable of storing between 60-80 minutes of audio. Fitting as much music as a standard CD, but on a physically smaller disc, was made possible by Sony’s proprietary lossy compression called ATRAC (Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding). A small plastic tab could be positioned to prevent re-recording over a recording you wanted to keep, akin to breaking off the plastic tabs on a tape. In addition to being able to purchase blanks for recording, one could also buy pre-recorded commercial music titles (primarily drawn from Sony’s music catalog). You needed to have a MiniDisc player to play them back, as the discs would not work in a standard CD player. MD home decks, portables, and car head units were manufactured by several different brands including Sony, Pioneer, Onkyo, Sharp, Panasonic, and JVC. Unlike cassettes, editing recorded material was relatively easy, making the MiniDisc popular among musicians, news reporters, and music lovers who liked to make their own custom “mix tapes”. Even a few radio stations used MiniDiscs to play music. Metadata like artist, album, and song information was visible on the player’s display, another nice feature lacking from analog tapes.
The discs themselves came permanently housed in plastic cases. The playing surface was never exposed until the disc was being read in a machine, thus keeping the surface free from scratches and debris at all times. Commercial music titles were packaged in their own clear plastic jewel case and each included a small booklet. Brand new and used MiniDisc titles can still be found on eBay today, with rare titles fetching beaucoup bucks.
Without a doubt, the strangest release was UK electronic music band Gescom’s MiniDisc (that was the name of the album) from 1998. It was the only title to be issued on MiniDisc exclusively until it was re-released on standard CD eight years later. It contained a whopping 88 tracks (the cover states “45 tracks”), but the majority of them lasted only a few seconds each. It was essentially an experimental recording designed to take advantage of the MiniDisc’s zero lag time between tracks in Shuffle mode. The listener was to set his/her player in Shuffle mode during each listen to hear a different mix each time. I bought my rare original, pictured above, from an MD enthusiast in France for $50.
My first MiniDisc hardware purchase was the Sony MZ-1 MD Walkman. I purchased it when I worked for Cambridge SoundWorks at one of their big annual “Friends and Family” warehouse sales. It had all the controls conveniently placed on the top along with a basic two-line scrolling display, and a very cool motorized load/eject door on the front. Unfortunately, the smooth aluminum case made it very slippery. I recall losing my grip and dropping it on a concrete floor after successfully smuggling it in to a Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon concert one cold October evening in 1997 at Foxboro Stadium. The drop resulted in a dimple in one corner of the aluminum shell and it never worked correctly after that. My homemade Stones’ bootleg recording came out so faint it was unlistenable. I could just barely make out Mick Jagger yelling “Hello, Foxboro!” after bounding on stage. In all candor, I am not that huge of a Rolling Stones fan, but at the time I reasoned I should see the legendary rock band live before they retired. Little did I know they would still be touring 22 years later.
Later, I purchased another Sony portable, the MZ-R700. This model was less than half the size of the MZ-1 with the added ability to record in mono and at slower speeds (called “MDLP”) to maximize recording time (albeit at the sacrifice of sound quality). It still had that darn slippery aluminum shell, but came with a pouch to carry it in. I also bought a used Sony MDS-JE480 home deck on eBay to connect to my Como Audio Musica’s optical input.
Toward the end of the MiniDisc’s life span, Sony rolled out “Hi-MD”, their “audiophile” alternative to ATRAC. It offered uncompressed, CD-quality recording and playback. Few players/recorders adopted the new format, perhaps sensing the MiniDiscs’ days were numbered. Sony shipped the last MD home decks in 2013, having ceased making their portable models two years earlier.
So what made Sony’s MiniDisc go the way of Betamax? The advent of the portable MP3 player (i.e. Apple iPod) was likely the largest contributing factor. MiniDiscs were also never really taken seriously by the audiophile community who preferred the superior sound of CDs (yet at the same time maintaining the CD was inferior to vinyl records). Fast forward to September 2019 when young British rocker Sam Fender released his new album, Hypersonic Missiles. Fender issued it in multiple formats including vinyl, cassette tape, and an extremely limited-edition MiniDisc, making it the first new commercial MiniDisc title in almost a decade (Sony was still manufacturing blank MiniDiscs as recently as 4 years ago). I actually tried to order one of Fender’s MiniDiscs when it was available, but alas, his website would not sell them outside of the UK. Rumor has it only 100 were made.
I am certain I will continue to enjoy my MiniDisc recordings and albums for a long time to come, regardless of how audio history judges the format. Besides reminding me of my younger days, it was a fun format that served its purpose, and the fact that not everyone owned one made it that much more special to enjoy the music.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016 as Vice President of Product Development. If you have a comment or would like to suggest a topic for a future Tech Rap, Peter can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org