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MiniDisc's Second Coming?
The 'new' digital successor to tape that arrived five years ago

By Brian Mooar
The Washington Post
September 26, 1997

"Digital recording is here!" heralded a half-page advertisement that appeared last month in Sunday newspapers across the country. Another excitedly announced that "New MiniDisc technology records digital-to-digital quality sound!"

Reading those ads, you might get the impression that two of the nation's largest home electronics retailers had just discovered MiniDisc technology -- and liked it. In truth, those same megachains have rolled out MiniDisc recorders and players several times since their introduction by Sony five years ago, only to see lackluster sales and consumer ambivalence over high-priced products with limited abilities. MiniDisc has survived those near-death experiences. Now there are signs that the tiny disc with the big sound finally may be on the verge of the mainstream acceptance its supporters say it deserves.

The 2 3/4 -inch, squarish discs combine the high-fidelity sound of CDs with the re-recordability of cassette tape. To fit an album's worth of music on a platter half the size of a CD, MiniDisc uses data compression that discards sounds inaudible to the human ear. The results are, to me, indistinguishable from a CD.

Prices have plummeted recently, and smart shoppers can find MiniDisc home decks for well under $300, shirt-pocket-size Walkman-style players for as low as $99, and 74-minute blank discs (which can be recorded and erased an estimated 1 million times) at just under $5. While Sony is still virtually the only firm selling MiniDisc hardware in the United States, Maxell and TDK recently joined it in marketing blank discs here.

Buy a MiniDisc player, and you'll likely find yourself asking why it didn't catch on quicker. I did, and I do.

MiniDisc allows sharp, clear digital recording, and enables you to jump over tracks with the touch of a button, just like CDs. It also, however, allows users to name tracks, delete them (or even erase the whole disc), renumber them or rearrange their order just as easily. It allows you to display the titles of songs and albums on the player.

"Cassettes are outdated; MiniDiscs are cool and actually ideal in a lot of ways," said enthusiast Eric Woudenberg, editor of the MiniDisc Community Page, the Web's most authoritative source on all things MiniDisc. "For me, the editability is just amazing.... You want to delete a song [and] you just do it. No longer am I subject to the whim of what some producer feels should be on a CD."

Before you think that you can use MiniDisc to make sonic Xeroxes of your friends' CDs, however, note that the MiniDisc's digital compression makes it impossible to record a perfect digital copy of a MiniDisc, and each copy of a copy will sound worse. In that way, MiniDisc is still like tape, where a fourth-hand copy of a tape can start to sound like AM radio.

(Recent price drops on recordable CDs and CD recorders may have you asking if you can 'burn" custom discs at home. Yes and no. Recordable CDs can be written only once; any mistakes are permanent. Rewritable CDs, new as of this spring, can be written and rewritten, but won't work in current CD players.)

MiniDiscs are virtually skip-proof -- though I've had them falter intermittently while jogging -- almost impervious to heat and generally much sturdier than CDs. One MiniDisc aficionado tested their durability by dropping one out of a car at 75 mph, and another accidentally tossed one in the washer with his laundry; both discs survived.

MiniDisc remains barely a smoldering ember here in the United States -- for instance, prerecorded discs are a scarce commodity, distributed mainly by Sony's music label and sold in few stores (prices are about the same as music on CD). But the format has caught fire in Japan, where one industry estimate places MiniDisc hi-fi sales at more than 60 percent of the total market, and is showing signs of doing the same in Europe.

Mark Viken, senior vice president of Sony's audio and video products marketing division, said MiniDisc sales worldwide jumped from 1.2 million units in 1995 to more than 2.9 million in 1996, with projected sales of 6.3 million this year and twice that figure in 1998. (By comparison, more than 7 million VCRs were sold to U.S. dealers in the first half of this year.) Though Sony would not release exact figures, Viken said the company expects MiniDisc sales from 1996 to 1997 to almost double in the United States.

"We are extremely committed to MiniDisc as a company and we are far from giving up," Viken said. "It continues to be one of the products that drives Sony sales, and it will be here for a long, long time. We are not going to stop making it."

The product's success across the Pacific suggests its potential. Price wars in Japan have pushed recorders to the $200 mark; Japanese consumers are treated to a bounteous array of MiniDisc hardware by not just Sony, but also Aiwa, Denon, JVC, Kenwood, Pioneer and Sharp. And while players and recorders marketed in the United States are the size of Walkmans, in Japan Sony sells one model just slightly larger than a MiniDisc itself.

That's prompted many MD enthusiasts to look overseas, and the clamor for smaller and better units than those Sony markets in North America has spawned a small but booming gray market. For $300 to $400, a handful of mom-and-pop mail-order businesses can have the hottest MiniDisc players from Japan on your doorstep in a week.

"There is a huge untapped demand," said Nic Boyde, a banker based in Japan who runs a growing mail-order MiniDisc business. "I think if Sony ever wakes up, it will fly."

Sony's Viken said tiny but expensive MiniDisc players and recorders found on the Japanese market have not made it here because Japanese consumers tend to embrace high-end audio products, while Americans tend to be attracted to products in the middle to low-end price range. But he did announce for the first time that one of Sony's smallest play-only units, the MZ-EP11 (pictured on the previous page), will show up in the United States this March.

"Gray-market" importing businesses like Boyde's may be only the tiniest fraction of worldwide sales, but they point to an excitement that few formats tend to instill in their users. And they invite a simple question: What went wrong five years ago?

MiniDisc had the misfortune of being introduced about the same time as Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) and a few years after Digital Audio Tape (DAT), and the competition -- and the products' huge prices -- resulted in consumer confusion and resentment. Though each new format was exciting in its own way, they were similar enough to convince would-be buyers that they had a 2-in-3 chance of buying the Betamax of the '90s.

But DAT failed to catch on in a big way, claiming a niche market among studio musicians and audiophile recording enthusiasts. DCC, after a lingering death, expired last year when its developer, Philips Electronics, conceded defeat.

And some don't see much life in MiniDisc either. Ken Pohlmann, chairman of the music engineering department at the University of Miami in Florida and the author of two books on digital audio, said he expects rewriteable CDs to dominate eventually.

"I think the need for an incompatible MiniDisc format begins to dim," Pohlmann said. However, he said, MiniDisc's strong foothold in Japan likely will ensure that it will not vanish anytime soon. "If I was a consumer in America attracted to the format, I wouldn't hesitate to buy it," said Pohlmann, an enthusiastic MiniDisc user himself. "It's a shame it didn't take off when it was introduced."

Viken admitted that Sony's initial rollout of MiniDisc was disastrous; a survey Sony took last year before the format's major relaunch found that a majority of people knew little to nothing about it. He said the company has learned from its mistakes and now is aggressively marketing recorders and players a fraction of the size and price of the first-generation models.

"Audio formats tend to take a lot of time to be accepted, but they also tend to stay around a long time," Viken said. "The CD took five years to kick off, but we expect it to be around for a quite a while."

Now that the early competitors have fallen by the wayside, it is time for MiniDisc to stand or fall on its own merits. Big chains and Sony itself are now hawking MiniDisc as the exciting technology its users know it to be, giving it prominent display alongside CDs and Digital Video Disc (DVD).

Sony's latest marketing push emphasizes MD's similarities to cassette tape -- which is exactly how I and most MiniDisc owners I know use them. I have a large collection of CDs, but many of my favorites have only one or two songs I love. MiniDisc allows me to collect those favorites onto compilation discs that I can easily carry. Unlike tape, if I tire of a particular track, I can just zap it away -- or move it to the end of the disc.

After prominently advertising MiniDisc last month and setting up half-aisle displays alongside its DVD products, the Best Buy chain experienced an unexpected surge in sales.

"Without quoting numbers, which we don't want to do for competitive reasons, we're calling back the MiniDisc suppliers and requesting additional product beyond our initial forecasts," said Duane Hoff, audio merchandise manager for the Minneapolis-based retailer. "As we look at what is out there for the future, we feel strongly MiniDisc will be the digital recording medium for the next decade."

And so the faithful continue to await the day when the rest of the world wakes up -- maybe soon. As one MiniDisc fan wrote recently in a mailing list devoted to the format, "It looks like the world may soon see it our way after all."

Questions? E-mail mooarb@washpost.com

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