MiniDisc vs DAT
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.
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
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.