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  •   Sound Check
    By Brian Mooar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    October 9, 1998

    We reported a year ago that the recordable MiniDisc, Sony's attempt to knock off cassette tape with a digital, near-CD-quality replacement, was making its do-or-die last stand. And we noted that the format was showing surprising signs of life.

    The MiniDisc, it appears, is alive, well and waiting in a store near you.

    Industry sources say a year of dropping prices and intense marketing by Sony has ensured the format's survival; Sony estimates 500,000 players and recorders will be sold in the United States this year, double the figure for 1997. That's better than digital video disc (350,000 sold in 1997), although it trails, for instance, camcorders (3.7 million sold in 1997).

    What had been a Sony-only game from the time MiniDisc was introduced six years ago is now opening to competition from companies such as Sharp, Aiwa, Kenwood, JVC and Pioneer. The past 12 months have seen prices on shelf-size home MD recorders dip just below $200, and prices on 2E-inch MiniDiscs themselves plunge from as high as $15 each to as low as $3 apiece.

    The most impressive price cuts have been in high-end, palm-sized, portable player-recorder units. Sharp's MS-702 player/recorder, a slightly bulky, Walkman-style unit, sells for around $250. Sony's sexier, smaller MZ-R50 player/recorder has dropped from about $399 to just above $300. But prices of entry-level players have yet to break the magic $100 barrier.

    Sony launched an advertising blitz last fall designed to position MiniDisc as the must-have product for everyone from the MTV crowd to thirtysomethings. A survey of area electronics stores over the past year has shown a steady drop in prices and a steady increase in choices; salespeople claim MD products are being snapped up at a respectable pace.

    Still, MiniDisc appears to have barely pierced the average consumer's consciousness. Friends who saw the Sony and Sharp units I road-tested earlier this year were unfailingly interested and impressed, but only two had to rush out and buy their own.

    What about the competition? Recordable CD has muscled its way into the market within the last year, but it lacks the portability and re-recordability of MiniDisc; it can cost less, but only if you use a computer-based CD-R system, with all the cost and and software hassles that entails. Another potential challenge comes from the emerging "MP3" compression format that has allowed youthful computer pirates to translate their favorite CDs into digital files and trade them over the Internet. Developers are now coming out with MP3 player hardware (we'll be looking at this in an upcoming issue), but they, too, lack much of the flexibility and convenience of MiniDisc.

    What is important, however, is that MiniDisc is nowhere near vaporizing in the market – and that itself counts as a victory. Says Eric Woudenberg, editor of the Internet's MiniDisc Community Page: "People who do choose to get into MD won't have to worry about the format disappearing for many years, and that in itself will bolster MD's future."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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