Launched in 1992, MiniDisc spent its early days in a dogfight with Philips’ now moribund DCC format, then pretty much disappeared off the scene. Despite its superb ergonomics, the format sounded so bad that its premature demise looked assured. But then, some time in 1997, the first generation of machines sporting ATRAC version 4 arrived, and the ailing format seemed to take on a new life.
Sony’s fourth generation data compression system was the first one that sounded musically convincing, suddenly making the format sound fun. It was still obviously not as good as CD, but it had a nice bounce to it that previous generations lacked. But the company didn’t rest on its laurels, and kept developing its codec. ATRAC DSP-Type R arrived in 2001, bringing even more clarity and finesse to the sound, thanks to the move to a 24-bit digital filter complete with switchable coefficients. Everything was incorporated into one single chip substrate, along with the accompanying noise shaper and pulse generator, and Sony was noisily proud of it.
Looking back now, it all seems pretty insignificant, but the MDS-JB940QS was a fine sounding, flexible digital recorder costing under £300 – it offered a lot of features and sound per pound. Compared to the 930 it superseded, there was a sprinkling of better components including selected op-amps for the D-A converter output, and a beefier case with a double top plate which makes the cabinet more rigid (and therefore less resonant). Copper plated screws and washers were used in the casing fixings for the first time too at this price point.
Featurewise, the major change over its predecessor was the use of ATRAC3 compression technology (as seen in Sony’s early Memory Stick Walkman) to give up to 320 minutes of stereo recording from an 80 minute disc. Indeed, you can choose double (LP2) or quadruple (LP4) recording times in addition to MD’s standard double-time mono long play facility. You could mix MDLP and non-LP tracks on one disc, and they could be edited even on a machine that doesn’t otherwise play MDLP tracks.
The machine offered Scale Factor Edit, which let users change the recordings after they had been made. For example, one could normalise the level of each individual track so it didn’t sound far louder than the rest, or you could post-fade (in or out) all your tracks. It was a minor but worthwhile new facility, adding to MiniDisc’s formidable editing capabilities. It retained the oldster’s useful keyboard link (you could plug in a standard computer keyboard for faster titling) and there was a powerful Set-Up facility accessible via the Edit Menu.
There was a real sonic improvement over the 930QS model. Although still a long way from the standards of the top-of-the-range MDS-JA555ES, the machine had a touch more detail, finesse and naturalness. There was just a touch of warmth and bloom to the upper bass and lower midband, as per all post 1996 recorders. The deck had plenty of detail and a fast, lithe character. Only up in the high treble did its failings become apparent, with a slightly thick, cloudy quality devoid of the shimmer that CD at least has a stab at reproducing.
Overall, the Sony was an impressive performer in its day, and buyers would have to spend quite a lot more to better it. Nowadays, £100 or so will secure you a mint, low mileage machine – which is all you can ask from this fine but now defunct format.