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Tuesday, April 17, 2001

TECHNOPEDIA
MiniDisc is pushing the CD into history


DAVID WILSON


How long until we start using compact discs (CDs) as coasters and frisbees? Their glamour has faded to the extent that some leave them lying about, unsleeved, gathering dust.

When the CD hit the market in 1982, courtesy of a collaborative effort between Sony and Philips, it generated considerable excitement. True, it could get scratched, but its convenient size, crisp digital sound and absence of crackling made it far more seductive than traditional vinyl.

The product proved irresistible, wiping out the record market in many countries within a few years, despite the first CD title being Billy Joel's 52nd Street . Now there are games, software applications, encyclopedias, presentations and other multimedia programs available on CD.

Originally designed to carry 74 minutes of digital audio, the CD can hold up to 650 megabytes of computer data, 100 quality photographs, or even 74 minutes of full-motion video and audio.

In fact, many CDs offer all three.

However, the product's dominance is threatened by the emergence of numerous competitors, particularly the MiniDisc (MD).

The MD is "magneto-optical", which means it is encoded by magnetically aligning crystals heated in the focus of an intense laser. The MD's glory is it combines CD sound quality with recordability - up to a million times on a single disk.

You can re-record on CD-RWs, but this requires a computer to record, and standard audio players can rarely read the discs.

MDs, by contrast, are hi-fi components, with hi-fi level sleekness and reliability. They come in two lengths: 60 minutes, and 74 minutes (or double that if recording in mono), the 74 being the length of a standard CD. But a CD can hold 650 MB of digital audio, while an MD only holds 140 MB. So just how does Sony manage to squeeze all that music on to a MiniDisc?

By using ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding). This compression format follows a perceptual model of human hearing which ensures an audibly identical copy of the original. The higher the ATRAC version, the better the sound quality. Advanced ATRAC can make MDs sound better than CDs.

Adding to the MD's aura of excellence, almost every portable player has shock-resistant memory control. This means you can ride the train, cycle or even jog with one.

Quite how the MD ever came into being is as mysterious as central China's white mud pyramids. MD guru Eric Woudenberg, editor of MiniDisc Community Portal (minidisc.org), said Sony began developing it shortly before it appeared in the early-1980s.

At that time pre-recorded compact cassette sales "were tapering off", and there seemed an opportunity to develop a successor to the cassette, filling the role of a rugged, compact, portable, and recordable audio medium for general consumer use.

"MiniDisc addressed the consumer-recording need perfectly, fixed all the foibles of cassette, and allowed Sony to create cool and useful equipment," Mr Woudenberg said.

He praised the company's success in pursuing "a vision of something wholly new, not simply an increment on what has come before".

However, at first the new product bombed. Reasons included initial high cost and that blank disks were hard to come by, while consumers were reluctant to adopt a new product so soon after the advent of the CD and in a market piled with competing digital formats.

Now these problems have faded, the only minus is the lack of integration with the everyday computer infrastructure - you cannot easily hitch an MD player to a computer and read and write the compressed data directly.

The reason is Sony has purposely made an audio/data firewall in the format (presumably to protect copyright holders). You can record to MiniDisc with an analogue cable, or for better quality, with a digital optical cable.

But the firewall is by no means obstructing sales. With a little help from Claudia Schiffer's presence in MD advertisements, demand for the product has expanded rapidly. Although it may be too early to sing a requiem for the CD, its time is clearly close at hand.

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