The Ides of March: Farewell, Sony MiniDisc Player

It's time to bid a nostalgic farewell to Sony's MiniDisc format -- those of you who remember it at all, anyway.

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It’s time to bid a nostalgic farewell to Sony‘s MiniDisc format — those of you who remember it at all, anyway. After upwards of two decades, the MiniDisc is finally on the way out: The BBC reports that Sony plans to ship its final MiniDisc stereo system in March.

The MiniDisc almost made sense in the early 1990s: Compact discs were amazingly thin, but wider in diameter than cassette tapes, which predated them by over a decade. If little analog, magnetized, write protect-notched rectangles of plastic (compact cassettes) could eventually supplant bulky eight-track tapes (Stereo 8), wasn’t a tinier compact disc the future of optical media?

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Compact discs seem positively enormous nowadays: nearly five inches in diameter, or four times the width of Apple‘s stamp-sized iPad Shuffle, which at 2 GB storage can easily hold the audio content of 30 MP3-compressed CDs. The jewel cases CDs still most often come in are nearly six inches wide by five inches high (to say nothing of how scuffed, gouged and generally battered they can look over the years). Ever try cramming a CD in your pocket? I used to jam three or four into a pair of cargo shorts (without the cases, of course) if I was going to be on foot for three or four hours straight, a Sony CD Walkman with cutting-edge “skip” protection in my hand or hooked to a belt loop.

You may not remember this if you identify compact discs with the later 1980s, when they were readily available, but the very first commercially sold CD was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, on Oct. 1, 1982 (the first actually pressed was ABBA’s The Visitors), after which CDs trickled into the market for several years — the first artist to break the million-CDs-sold mark was Dire Straits with Brothers in Arms, released in 1985 — before finally outselling cassette tapes over a decade later.

Sony’s MiniDisc format seemed like a logical next step when the company debuted its MZ1 MiniDisc player in 1992: a drop from the CD’s 4.7-inch diameter spec to a squarish 2.8-inch wide by 2.7-inch tall and just 0.2-inch thick cartridge with a sliding door like a floppy disk’s (not unlike the format Sony later adopted for its PlayStation Portable games handheld). Where the CD could hold a little over 700 MB of data, later versions of the MiniDisc could hold up to 1 GB of data (though both formats topped out at 80 minutes of audio).

And MiniDisc players were au courant in audiophile circles: audio quality comparable to CDs (higher than cassettes, anyway), less prone to skipping, considerably better battery life and — arguably the most alluring feature — you could record digital audio using an incredibly cool-looking, button-riddled device that was as portable as a cassette-based Walkman. While no one has actual data on this, I’m guessing an entire era of music concert bootlegging belongs to Sony’s hardwearing little MiniDisc player.

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Still, the format never really went mainstream (outside Japan, anyway). For starters, the players were pricey: Sony’s recordable MZ1, introduced in the U.S. in December 1992, cost a whopping $750, while a playback-only alternative went for $550. The BBC notes sales were a “flop,” and that only 50,000 were sold by the end of 1993. Sony tried to push the format forward in 2004 with the introduction of Hi-MD discs, bumping data storage from 140 MB to 1 GB, but with the iPod’s arrival in October 2001 and sales of Apple’s digital media wunderkind dominant by late 2004, the writing was on the wall.

I never owned a MiniDisc player, but my younger brother did while studying at the Berklee School of Music in the mid-1990s. Here’s what he passed over when I asked him how he used the technology at the time.

For about $700 in late ’96, I bought a stereo component MiniDisc player/recorder Sony MDS-JE500 that was special because it came with a playback-only MiniDisc Walkman (the MZ-E40). I’d originally wanted a portable recording device similar to a DAT [Digital Audio Tape], but smaller. I took the MDS-J home and, using an 1/8-inch mini-plug Y-cable, connected my computer to the analog RCA inputs on the component recorder. I’d record playback (in real-time) of CDs and even 128kbps MP3 files to MiniDisc, then pop the disc into my MD Walkman and traverse the city.

The MD Walkman was insanely small back then and ultraportable; battery life was really good, too. I used the heck out of the thing until around the time I left Boston and moved to Minnesota (and thereby switched to driving — no more public transport commutes). I sometimes brought my recorder to shows and, if the engineer allowed it, tapped the main outboard feed and recorded everything. In addition to backups of studio recordings made while studying at Berklee, I still have some of these shows archived.

While Sony pulling support for MiniDisc sounds like its death knell, the format won’t simply disappear: Asashi Shumbun Digital, the Japanese source for this story, says Japan-based Onkyo may continue manufacturing comparable hardware. There’s also the secondary market to consider, e.g. Craiglist, eBay, Amazon and others, where MiniDiscs will doubtless soldier on indefinitely.

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