INIDISCS are obsolete," my friend Dave
Hoeffel says. "I only use them because I'm a geek, and because
they're the best way to get the recordings I want."
Saying something is both obsolete and the best perfectly
describes the deep attachment and spiky frustration that many
amateur sound recorders have felt toward Sony's
MiniDisc since it was introduced in 1992. Even now that Sony is
introducing its new generation - the Hi-MD, aimed squarely at Apple's
iPod and making a stab, at least, at placating the MiniDisc's loyal
users - the combination of praise and griping shows no sign of
The MiniDisc is a highly compact recording and playback system,
typically smaller than a deck of cards, that can make high-quality
audio recordings from a microphone or a computer download. The music
is stored on inexpensive discs inside slim cartridges of just under
three inches square.
Like Mr. Hoeffel, Steven P. Jobs of Apple has called the MiniDisc
obsolete. Both contend that the portable audio format has moved
beyond removable tapes and discs to hard drives like the iPod's, and
in the future will go to solid-state flash memory.
Yet the MiniDisc continues to attract adherents like Mr. Hoeffel,
47, who runs Sound Choice, a special-event disc-jockey service in
New Jersey, and edits a rock radio magazine called FMQB. Sony
introduced the MiniDisc for home recording and for portable audio as
a successor to its popular and much-imitated cassette Walkman; it
still offers easy portability, an inexpensive, almost infinitely
reusable medium, and a fairly easy track-editing and labeling
It can now record 80 minutes of near-CD quality sound, and two to
four times that at lower fidelity. Although MiniDiscs caught on as
portable audio devices in Japan and in parts of Europe, most
Americans seem to have graduated directly from the cassette to the
portable CD system and then to the MP3-player format dominating
portable digital audio players.
Sony will not provide sales figures, but it maintains that the
MiniDisc has 15 percent of the market for portable digital
And among users like Mr. Hoeffel, who used to bring high-end
cassette decks or awkward and expensive Digital Audio Tape recorders
to concerts and performances, the MiniDisc certainly found a niche.
With its ability to produce clean sound so cheaply, the MiniDisc
recorder was the coolest toy in years. They are certainly numerous
enough to keep a store like www.minidisco.com, in business.
"It's definitely a niche market, but it seems to be in constant
growth because there are these dedicated people who know about the
format and who are into it now," said David Karon, owner of
Minidisco.com, a site that sells MD players and recorders from Sony
and some of its licensees, including Sharp, Panasonic and Aiwa, for
as little as $100 to several thousands of dollars each for
"Some of our customers are using them like an MP3 player," Mr.
Karon said, "but a big chunk of our business are these amateur
recording people, and they range from people who do church choirs
and concerts to broadcast journalists to people out in nature doing
From the beginning, Sony and its licensees wanted the MiniDisc to
be a load-and-playback system, recording from CD's through an
optical input or from live audio through a microphone. The company
moved closer to the portable audio mainstream five years ago with
Net-MD, which allowed fast downloads through a U.S.B. cable.
I use my Sony MiniDisc recorder, bought for $100 on eBay,
to record family history interviews, bird song and church choir
concerts, although it takes a $300 stereo microphone to capture
music. (In serious MiniDisc recording - including its use by some
for surreptitious concert recording - the microphone nearly always
costs more than the recorder.)
But what MiniDisc players needed to evolve into an all-purpose
digital audio system was high-speed digital output, allowing their
audio to be the basis for clean CD recordings. Sony's spokesmen do
not explain the company's long resistance to adding such a feature.
But Sony does own film studios and record labels, and copyright
issues must have been among its concerns.
Without digital output, MiniDisc owners have to record through
the player's earphone audio-out plug in real time - that is,
recording an hourlong CD takes an hour.
I got around the absence of a digital output by playing my
recorded discs back through a 10-year-old Sony MiniDisc deck that
came with an optical out.
But to MiniDisc users who congregate at www.minidisc.org, the
absence of a high-speed digital output directly to the PC has long
been the MiniDisc's unforgivable flaw. Eric Woudenberg, a New York
software engineer who runs the site, even started an online petition
two years ago urging Sony to supply that last link in the MiniDisc's
evolution. More than 2,100 users signed it.
Sony clearly heard the complaints, for it has developed what it
hopes will be an iPod-killer, called the Hi-MD, with a raft of
improvements: a one-gigabyte disc, offering about six times the
current disc's capacity, and the two-way high-speed data transfer
through U.S.B. that the critics have wanted. (One Hi-MD player,
without a "line in" or microphone input, went on sale this month;
three fuller-featured models will arrive next month.)
Rachel Branch, a Sony spokeswoman, would not quite say that the
company was responding to pressure from users. But she said the
company had heard them. "We knew what people wanted," she said.
So are Mr. Woudenberg and the MiniDisc purists happy? Not
For one thing, while the Hi-MD will download MP3's and reformat
them into Atrac, Sony's proprietary audio compression format, it
will not play or transfer MP3's, the universal language of portable
and downloadable audio. (The IPod does use Apple's proprietary
format but also plays MP3's.)
"If you want to sell stuff in your proprietary format, O.K.,
Apple's playing the same game," Mr. Woudenberg said. "But let me
play my MiniDisc in MP3, for crying out loud."
And while the Hi-MD unit plays discs in the existing MiniDisc
format without a problem, it will not upload them to a computer over
its new U.S.B. link. So the tens of thousands of discs that MiniDisc
owners have already recorded will not yet get the Hi-MD high-speed
digital upload treatment.
"Maybe that's the next petition," Mr. Woudenberg said.