the MiniDisc story

Sony MDS-JA555ES

Mid-nineteen eighties Tokyo was a frenetic place. Japan’s economic miracle looked unstoppable, as decade after decade of near double digit growth had lifted the country out of poverty and up to the world’s second largest economy. But Shizuo Takashino, president of the Sony’s personal audio-video products division, was still complaining that Japanese retailers were desperate for a new product to sell. Although cassette machines were still selling high volumes, prices had fallen to the floor and profits were in decline. CD was running off dealers’ shelves but that couldn’t last forever, so what Sony needed was a whiz-bang new format to bring customers in and get them to pay money. In 1986 the company’s president Norio Ohga duly asked his product developers to make a recordable disc-based audio system to complement the Compact Disc.

There were rumours of Philips and Matsushita developing a new Digital Compact Cassette (DCC), but Sony’s management gambled that their new MiniDisc system, with its optical disc-based random access design, would prevail in a future format war. Back then however, MD was far easier said than done, The technology was especially difficult for portable products – power consumption from its laser pickup was very high, as was the weight. CD players were still a major technological feat back then, so a miniaturised recordable version was a big ask.

Sony naturally rose to the challenge however, using its many sub-divisions to produce answers for their various problems. They completely redesigned the laser pick up system, cutting its weight by a factor of ten. But this required miniaturisation of the sort even machines couldn’t handle; the result was the Sony’s Bonson plant, which once made 8.1 million cassette Walkmans a year, was retasked to make the ultra precise components which were too small to ride on an automated assembly line. Hundreds of women sat making the pickups by hand, using tweezers to assemble parts as small as a grain of rice.

No less clever was the compressed digital audio coding. With the cooperation of the Sony Information Systems Research Centre, the company developed ATRAC (Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding), which chopped out the inaudible parts of the music data, to scale the music files down to one fifth of that of CD, with a bit rate of 292kbps. Special chips were developed to do this whilst consuming lower power than would otherwise have been possible. Special memory buffers were built-in to make the portables ‘shock proof’, unlike CD Walkman of the same era.

The new format finally arrived in Japanese shops on December 1st, 1992. I was there in Tokyo at one of Sony’s flagship stores on that very day, and can still remember the excitement. Customers loved it, and it certainly created more interest than the rival DCC format launched almost exactly at the same time. Even so,the space-obsessed Japanese still found MD portables bulky by cassette Walkman standards. The MZ-1 was the size of a paperback book and consumed 4W, meaning it ate batteries; unlike the slick cassette portables of the day. Still, compared to DCC portables, the format still seemed more practical, and the full size machines were in another league; it took seconds to skip from track 1 to track 10 on a MiniDisc, whereas it was minutes with the DCC. The little 64mm fully enclosed discs were also far more sophisticated in look and feel; for Japanese buyers at least, there was no contest.

Sony didn’t rest on its laurels, pushing hard to get the power drainage down – juicy spindle drive motors were replaced by flat motors that used a third of the power, and the number of Motorola ICs used was paired to the bare minimum. In Sony’s fiftieth anniversary year of 1996, the market for MD portables suddenly doubled, and again the next year, as the machines finally became compact and easy to use; at last their size was being limited by the physical dimensions of the discs themselves. The dinky new playback-only units were now using just 280mW and measured just 13.5mm thick; they took over half of all portable MD sales in Japan. Selling for £199, a Sony MD portable was ten times more expensive than the cheapest cassette Walkman, but sales were buoyant. In 1995 a 74 minute MD had cost £5.50, but prices were now down to £2.25 in their home market.

Although MiniDisc enjoyed a healthy start in life in Japan, where customers – often commuters on packed trains – placed miniaturisation and features at a premium, in Europe this was less of an issue. Instead, the key was sound quality, and in its early days MD didn’t score well on this point. The first versions of Sony’s ATRAC coding system sounded audibly inferior to its rival DCC (which used a variant of MP3), giving a dry and clinical sound that was light in the bass and fizzy in the treble. To their credit, Sony engineers realised this early on and worked hard to rectify it; the new third generation machines launched in 1996 sounded considerably better. The company duly sent marketing men to Europe, to meet hi-fi magazine editors and demonstrate the difference. Allied to a new marketing push, this really propelled the format forward in Europe, with a million units sold (the same as Japan three years earlier). When the new ATRAC 4.0 machines launched in 1998, the worries over sound finally faded away, and by 2000 Sony was selling eight million across the European Union. In the US though, sales were just a fraction of this, despite Sony’s best marketing efforts. Yet the United States never really got MD, and this was what ultimately stopped the format from becoming a runaway success.

MiniDisc’s next big moment came in mid-2001 with the introduction of Net-MD. Launched towards the end of that year, the portable MZ-N1 was the first recorder to use the new technology which allowed direct music transfer from PC to MD via a USB link. The main advantage was a fast transfer rate, which meant you could ‘rip’ your CDs to the machine in your computer rather than having to record them in real time via a digital link from your CD player. It certainly reflected the massive interest in using computers for audio, but by this time a whole new generation of MP3 portables had appeared on the market, giving Sony a serious headache.

Around this time, Sony again tweaked the ATRAC system for better sound and the final DSP-Type R variant became acceptable for serious audiophile home use. Sonically however, the high watermark of MiniDisc came in 2004 with Hi-MD, the most sophisticated version of the format ever, and arguably what it should have been from the off. It offered a variety of compression options as well as the ability to record completely uncompressed, at true CD-quality. Sony launched a 1GB blank disc that was able to record an hour and a half of such music.

By 2005, MiniDisc’s star was very much in the descendent. It didn’t make it as a serious audiophile format until right at the end of its working life, whilst its portable prowess was becoming increasingly eroded by the MP3 boom, and then Apple’s iPod which launched in 2003. Indeed, it was this product which finally put paid to the format; it could carry hundreds of albums and/or store uncompressed music. Factor in a vast supply of free music (albeit illegal!) from Napster in the early part of the last decade and it was curtains for the MiniDisc.

With 22 million units sold, the format was never a failure, but nor was it the stellar success that Sony had hoped, especially outside its native Japan. The reason was that the format always seemed to be just behind the curve – the early portables were a touch too big and crude sounding, whereas the later machines were great to use, beautifully built and packed with features yet still couldn’t compete with the flexibility of Apple’s new wonder gadget. Sony tried mightily hard to play catch-up, but events beyond its control such as the stratospheric rise of  downloadable music frustrated their efforts. It’s fair to say that MP3 speared MiniDisc, with the iPod as its poison tip.

For this writer, MiniDisc was the last hurrah of Sony’s heroic age – when the dynamism of its founder Akio Morita ruled the consumer electronics world. It was a time when Sony was driven by engineering purity rather than sales and marketing common sense. From the mid nineteen sixties to the mid nineties, the company came up with countless new technologies which were immensely expensive to research, develop, manufacture and market. They did so because they could; if something didn’t catch on, Sony just moved on and tried again. At the same time, almost all their rivals followed meekly behind, making lowest common denominator products that were as risk-free as they were uninspiring. As the last surviving product from Sony’s belle époque, MiniDisc is a reminder of better times, so it’s all the more sad to see it go.

A single 2.5″ square 140MB MD holds a CD’s worth of music, compressed by a factor of five by Sony’s Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding system (ATRAC). This is a perceptual coding system, a data reduction technique that attempts to encode only the information audible to the human perceptual system. The system was improved immensely since the first Sony MZ-1 MiniDisc recorder. ATRAC 1 was noisy, with obvious compression and lossy artefacts. ATRAC 2 greatly improved on this, taking away all those strange whistles and chirps, but was hardly a satisfying listen. ATRAC 3 improved to 24/16bits for word and coefficiency length (previously, it had been entirely 16bit), whereas 3.5 added an input width of 20bits. In truth, this is the first truly listenable incarnation of the codec, and on the high end machines didn’t sound half bad. It wasn’t until ATRAC 4 arrived that MD became a consistently good sounding format – thanks to processing entirely in 24-bits with an input width of 20-bits.  ATRAC 4.5 arrived on the high end MDS-JA50ES, and then ATRAC DSP Type-R, which offered a slightly cleaner treble and more air and space on the magnificent MDS-JA555ES.

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