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In a Nod to Niche Users, Sony Rethinks the MiniDisc


Published: June 17, 2004

Dave Hoeffel, who runs a disc-jockey service, with Sony's MiniDisc recording technology, which he can use with a mixer to burn CD's. The new Hi-MD, below left, is about the same size but has more capacity.

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Recordings (Audio)

Recording Equipment

Labeling and Labels

MINIDISCS 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 abating.

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 system.

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 recorders.

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, 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, 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 professional models.

"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 birds."

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, 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 entirely.

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.

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