Requiem for the MiniDisc

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The Sony MiniDisc
  • The Sony MiniDisc
Last week Sony announced it's producing its last MiniDisc components next month, marking the official end of the relationship between the technology megacorp and the format it launched in 1992 as a potential successor to the then-decade-old compact disc, which Sony co-owned with rival electronics giant Phillips. The MiniDisc consisted of a small magneto-optical disc contained in a cartridge that could hold over an hour's worth of music, and which offered not only CD-quality playback but similar fidelity for recording and copying audio, making it a seemingly ideal format for a number of purposes. And yet, unless you've lived in Japan, are a home-recording enthusiast, or know a lot of audio geeks, it's unlikely that you've ever laid eyes on one.

Home recording and various other forms of audio geekery were part of Sony's plan for the format, but straightforward adoption by an unspecialized consumer base was the ultimate goal, and in most of the world the MiniDisc fared only slightly better than Phillips's doomed Digital Compact Cassette on that count. Consumers seemed happy with the CD—and would until the MP3 became the dominant format another decade later—and were presumably uninspired to repurchase their record collections again when the audio was the same quality as CD and only slightly more portable.

But in a pre-GarageBand era where digital recording remained well outside the budget of most nonprofessional musicians, the MiniDisc was something like a miracle. The average music listener might balk at paying $500 for a handheld MiniDisc player (pricing was another problem with the format), but to an amateur musician looking for a better quality than the cassette-based four-tracks that were the best alternatives at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable. With a MiniDisc Walkman and a decent compact microphone you could record demos of almost unreal (at least for the times) clarity and quality. Within just a few years of its debut there were already dedicated home-recording devices based around the format.

But the arena (sometimes literally) where the format really made its mark was bootlegging. Portable MiniDisc decks were almost inconceivably small and smugglable compared to the bulky analog tape machines that the industry previously relied upon. A MiniDisc Walkman that fit easily into a jacket pocket and a couple of microphones tiny enough to clip to a lapel or the bill of a baseball hat were enough to transform a person into a stealthy live-recording setup that delivered sonically pristine goods. In the decade-plus between the MiniDisc's introduction and the availability of flash-memory-based recorders of equal portability, affordability, reliability, and audio quality, it was the standard format for bootleggers. And even with the new technology that's available you will still regularly see people at shows fiddling with the familiar squarish form factor of the MD Walkman before the headlining act comes on.

There are still a few companies producing MiniDiscs and players, but the announcement that its parent company has abandoned the technology is most likely a fatal blow. While it may hang on for a while in niche corners of the audiophile world, it's almost definitely bound for the great junk pile in the sky, where the eight-track, DCC, Super Audio CD, and god knows how many other formats await it.

Or else, you know, it'll suddenly become a new hipster affectation, in which case look forward to a slew of trend pieces about tiny DIY MiniDisc labels.

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