MiniDisc vs DAT

Eric Woudenberg
1996 (with updates)

People seem willing to argue endlessly over the question of which is a better format, DAT or MD. But any answer must first consider the intended field of use. For professional studio work, where lossless duplication is a feature too compelling to live without, DAT is the clear winner. Depending upon the field recording environment, a good argument can be made in favor of DAT due to its relative immunity to shock during recording. But as a consumer audio format, which was Sony's intention for MiniDisc, I think MD is second to none, and here I present an argument in favor of MD over DAT for consumer use.

The Sony D7/D8 portable DAT machines are heavier and bigger than the current MD portable recorders, and no DAT player will ever be as tiny as the current tiny MD players. The mechanics of a 4mm DAT helical scan tape transport are by nature simply more bulky and complex than those required for the MD's small optical disc.

Sound quality
Digital Audio Tape is better, but how much better? As long as we are not discussing the audio fidelity standards of someone who will happily spend several hundred dollars on a set of cables, I think the quality differences between modern MD equipment and DAT are vanishingly small. MiniDisc sound quality is already excellent, and the compression algorithm is apparently being improved further still. There are now even cases where MD quality can be said to exceed 16 bit linear PCM (it has higher potential dynamic range).

Media convenience
Even if music is always played in sequence, DAT tapes must still be rewound before they are put away. And this is the rare case, there are frequently times when we need to quickly position to a specific start point; a function that is trivial on an MD machine and bothersome with tape. And even if there is no need in your application for editing (again, the rare case), once editing is available it is hard to resist using it, simply because it is so convenient. Being able to seemlessly move or replace a segment of audio from the middle of a recording is an incredibly neat feature. The one serious down side to the format is in not being able to make a perfect digital copy. We can only assume Sony (who sells music software as well as audio hardware) has done this intentionally for the same reason that consumer equipment is equipped with SCMS. If needed one can still make an excellent copy through the analog jacks, and how many generations of copy are we likely to need anyway?

Media stability
DAT is tape, with contact wear, dirt, and age problems we all know about. There is also the tape head to worry about and I recommend reading the section on DAT head cleaning rituals in the DAT-HEADS FAQ. I do not know much about MD stability, but in playback it is a contactless medium, if you keep them clean and well cared for there is no reason for them to wear out. (Sony claims in their Magneto Optical FAQs that data may be stored with magneto optical technology for more than thirty years without loss or degradation. Once written to the disk, data are safe from the magnetic fields and heat found in normal environments). Frank Beacham has also written an article saying that archivists warn not to use digital tape.

Media price
In the electronics district of Osaka one can find 74' blanks below $2. DAT 60' blanks are sometimes more expensive. It is true that MD may cost more than DAT elsewhere in the world, but MD blanks are getting cheaper and I think that ultimately they will cost less than DAT tapes. You can save money by going to longer DAT tapes, but then you must wind on tape to find the music you want.

Format longevity
I am amazed at the number of makers and models of MD machines available in Japan. There are machines currently available from Aiwa, Alpine, Clarion, Denon, JVC, Kenwood, Onkyo, Panasonic, Pioneer, Sansui, Sanyo, Sharp, Sony, and Yamaha. I am confident at this point that the format is going to make it, at least in Japan.
I am sorry if all this sounds a bit fanatical. I was a serious doubter on MDs originally, mainly because of the media price and the digital copy problem. But after playing with one for a week I became convinced that it is the perfect format for my day to day audio needs. Should you still be unsure, a very sobering list of 20 DOs and DON'Ts for DATs will help you make an informed decision in any case.

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