In 2003, MiniDisc was well on the way out. Sales were plummeting, and the spurt that the format enjoyed between 1998 and 1999 looked like ancient history. Of course, it was precisely at this stage in its sales cycle that the vinyl made great strides in the sound quality of its players, and so we now see CD doing the same, as it moves beyond the autumn of its life. In MD’s dying days, Sony’s £480 MDS-JA333ES showed the fine sound that the little format was capable of…
This machine wasn’t as well built as the range-topping MDS-JA555ES, but still made the perfectly adequately screwed together £250 MDS-QB940 look like it was made of paper. Measuring 430x124x376 mm and weighing in at 10.4kg, it’s a pretty large and imposing machine even by today’s standards. As with all Sony’s ES players, it sports a chunky aluminium front panel, plus a vibration reducing slanted printed circuit board, plus the last ATRAC DSP TYPE-R, and 24-bit analogue-to-digital, and digital-to-analogue converters. It also has MDLP (which gives up to 320 minutes on one MD, with commensurate loss of sound quality), the usual mind-boggling edit functions (name input/combine/divide/move/erase), a digital recording level control and ‘Jog Dial’ track selection. There’s also Sony’s ‘Variable Coefficient Digital Filter’ (best left in the ‘normal’ position, in my opinion) and – importantly – an R-CORE transformer for clean power.
This player sounds superb. Using bog-standard TDK discs, it makes very clean and detailed recordings that really get you to the heart of the music. Another boon is that if you pull out the MiniDisc and press ‘REC’, the MDS-JA333ES acts as a DAC for whatever digital source you’ve got connected (via one of two optical or one coaxial) digital input. Used in this way, it doesn’t go through the ATRAC processing loop, so you can use it as a serious standalone hi-fi DAC – and it sounds great to boot.
Most interesting for me was how bad it made its budget 940QS little brother sound. It’s nearly twice the price, but far more than twice as good. Kicking off with Jamiroquai’s Space Cowboy, the difference was audible from the opening bars of the electric piano. The instrument had a vibrant, shimmering and ‘alive’ quality through the ‘333, whereas the 940 made it sound bluff and flat, as if to say, ‘that’s the electric piano – what more do you want?’ As the bass and vocals kicked in, there was far more atmosphere to the midband – you got a sense of the studio and the instruments’ place within it. Bass was dramatically better – richer and fatter – but still not quite up to the heroic standards of the ‘555.
Cymbals were brilliant. On the 940 they sounded leaden, with no discernible texture or feel, while by contrast the ‘333 makes them sparkle. Hi-hats sounded natural with no breathing or compression artefacts. The ‘555 is being better still, but prone to brightness which the ‘333 seems to side-step. Janet Kay’s voice on Silly Games was very sweet with no harshness. Detail levels were extremely impressive – the acoustic was very convincingly recreated, with just a small sensation of the acoustic dropping off prematurely at the back of the soundstage. Bass also proved good – very natural and organic sounding compared to the 940’s rather artificial, synthetic nature. Finally, the MDS-JA333ES has far superior dynamics to budget MD machines. It makes music leap out at you, giving a far more enjoyable rendition of whatever you choose to play.
Thumbs firmly aloft then for one of Sony’s very last top MiniDisc spinners. These days the MDS-JA333ES is popular with collectors but has very limited appeal; prices on eBay vary between £200 and £400 depending on condition, and which way the wind is blowing!