The breakthrough came last Autumn. Sony had no mercy with prices and offered the full size MDS-JE500 recorder for only 600DM. They can't earn anything with this price. 600DM - as much you'll have to spend for a resonable HIFI tape deck, which can't compete with the sound quality of the MiniDisc, not to mention the comfort. But what use do I have for a cheap full size MD recorder if I can't play the small discs in my car or in my Walkman? Therefore Sony has also lowered the prices for that kind of MD equipment and now offers a car-player for 850DM and a porti-player for 400DM: So the change from compact cassette to MiniDisc became affordable.
The competitors couldn't keep up untill now. They had to buy the key components from Sony (MD drive, ATRAC chips) - and not for what you could call a price for a friend. But recently Sharp began offering the MiniDisc technology too: competition has started and the prices are tumbling. In Autumn Kenwood plans to release 3 full size MD recorders at once. All are equiped with the latest ATRAC version 4.5 and the smallest model costs only 600DM. Sony and Kenwood offer a complete minisystem with MD deck for only 1300 DM. Nearly all big Japanese suppliers will release MD decks in Germany this season: Onkyo offers their first full size deck, MD microsystems come from Aiwa, Pioneer, JVC.
Only Technics keeps on waiting: they've stopped their DCC engagement but it's hard to support the system of your big rival Sony. Furthermore, Technics pushes the DVD very hard and doesn't want to rule out that the recordable DVD could replace the MiniDisc. And what is the European Phillips group doing? It seems that they haven't recovered from the DCC shock until now, but at last their daughter Marantz has joined the MiniDisc side - with a combined CD player / MD recorder, which we have tested in this issue. Indeed, the state of the market speaks well for the MiniDisc, in Germany too: until the end of '95 there were only 90000 MD units in German households, whereas at the end of '96 there were already 200,000 units (according to Sony) and at the end of 97, 500,000 are expected.
The development of prices for blank MiniDiscs is also pleasant. Again it was Sony who was the undercutter and came under the 10 D-Mark threshold about a year ago. Meanwhile the other manufacturers have followed and at the Funkaustellung further price reductions are expected. Nevertheless: 8 DM for a hour of MD recording is still far away from the price level of the compact cassette. In the future, blank discs will definitely become cheaper, whereas you can't expect big jumps in the price of MD decks. Because compared to CD players, which you can get from makers like Sony, Kenwood, etc. for about 300DM, an MD recorder requires more parts: the ATRAC chips, the whole recording subsystem with A/D converter, record level display and the write head, plus extensive edit features and not to forget a display which can display text. The 600DM threshold can't be undercut by a manufacturer simply leaving off some options. At least Sony keeps the price stable this season: the new low cost model MDS-JE510 costs the same as its predecessor (600DM).
Improvement of quality could be expected most in the A/D converters, which could be better in cheap units. But this doesn't count if you record from a digital source. You should make sure that the recorder has a sample rate converter so that you can record from digital radio or the future DVD digitaly. It seems that a sample rate of 48 kHz becomes more and more the standard for those systems. Cheap micro MD recorders can handle only 44.1 kHz signals. The sound quality improvement of the ATRAC data reduction ought to be fine tuning - after all Sony has reached the sixth ATRAC generation [ATRAC 1, 2, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5 -eaw] and has been working to eliminate teething pains for a long time.
Further development will surely take place in the area of the operating features - there are no limits to the fantasy. An interesting feature would be the possibility to copy the text information on the CDs to the MD. The first CD players which will be capable of displaying CD text will be released in the next weeks, but they aren't allowed to transfer the text information with the audio data over the digital output. Kenwood's new DM-9090 top recorder combined with a Kenwood CD player capable of text will copy the text data separately - if they aren't protected by a special copy bit. Let's see if the music industry will play along. Until now they balk against the copying of the text, because they want to preserve an advantage of the prerecorded discs over the self recorded. Though the prerecorded MDs could reach nearly no share of the market. Most labels don't offer any MDs - only Sony released about 130 titles. They cost quite the same as CDs but the demand is extremely low, like Saturn in Munich told us. Another big sound-carrier dealer, World Of Music, removed them from their assortment. That proves once again: the MiniDisc is interesting for recording purposes, not as a prerecorded sound-carrier. It was similar with the compact cassette: Only when the system was established on the mass market, the prerecorded cassette got a share of the market.
Is the MiniDisc the recording media of the future or should we wait for the prerecorded DVD? We think that both formats can coexist in peace. We don't need an unified system which covers all applications from a radio recorder to studio equipment. The MiniDisc is ideal for portables up to high-quality HIFI. DVD-RAM can then cover the highest HIFI segment and the studio area. And you should consider that in the future we quite likely will only be able to make digital copies to 16 bits: the music industry won't allow us digital copies in master quality.
by Ulrich Wienforth
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