If you ever thought hi-fi recorders are fussy to use, then Sony's new £300 MDS-JE500 MiniDisc may change your mind. From the moment you pop in the disc and the machine says 'Welcome', you get the feeling it's been designed with people in mind.
The MD format is easier to work with than all its rivals, analogue or digital. Playing a MiniDisc is like playing a CD, while recording is similar to cassette, but simpler. If you're making a digital recording direct from CD things couldn't be more straightforward, with automatic level setting, track numbering and sampling frequency conversion (from 48, 44.1, or 32kHz). Analogue recording is also far easier than cassette--there's quick track numbering and level setting with small but effective meters, and no messing around calibrating tapes.
After you've made your recording, the MDS-JE500 offers a number of post-editing facilities which users of DAT, DCC and Compact Cassettes can only dream about. Thanks to MD's random access you can renumber tracks you've recorded, move them to any position on the disc, or erase one or all of them. You can also combine two or more tracks under a single name, or divide single tracks into identifiable sequences which can be combined with others.
This might sound a tad complicated, but it can all be done by pressing just a few buttons on the remote, and the alphanumeric display tells you precisely what's going on. So friendly is the Sony's operating system that it's got more help messages than many home computers!
The deck is silent and foolproof in operation and offers track access times of under a second for any operation, far superior to DCC or DAT, and faster even than many CD players.
MiniDisc's durability and lack of fuss make it the ultimate user-friendly format of the Nineties. Try it and you will realize how tedious all the other formats are to use. By contrast, DAT and DCC's serial access are a real drag, while CD's fragility and non-recordability make it look obsolete, since MD discs are protected by a caddy, making them very durable.
Lurking inside the MDS-JE500 is Sony's latest 1-Bit Hybrid Pulse DAC with a 20-Bit analogue-to-digital convertor and new fourth- generation ATRAC coding. All this high-tech trickery seems to have paid dividends, because this Sony MiniDisc really sounds good. In absolute terms it's not up to DAT or high-end CD, but not too far behind either.
Although the idea of ATRAC sends hi-fi purists into fits of apoplexy, its affect isn't particularly audible. In fact, the basics of MD's sound are absolutely right, with quite a neutral tonality, strong bass, clean treble and surprisingly good dynamics. You're quite at liberty to forget its digital data manipulation algorithms and actually listen to the music, should you so desire.
I started listening with direct digital recordings from a Sony X77ES CD player via the optical cable supplied. The MDS- JE500 turned in a musical rendition of Steely Dan's ``Rose Darling'' with powerful bass, strong image projection and a sweet, slightly softened treble. Compared to Sony TCD-7 DAT portable there was a slight lack of clarity and space to the acoustic, but it was marginal.
Moving to Miles Davis' ``Kind of Blue'' CD, MD again made an impressive copy. Double bass was rich, drums and cymbals tight but subtle and Miles' trumpet clean and resonant. There was a subtle change in the acoustic once more, with sounds in the far distance brought forward slightly, but if anything this seemed to improve the stereo effect.
Moving to analogue recordings made from my Michell Orbe turntable, the Sony did itself proud, conveying the full wallop of the bass sequences on ABC's ``King Without A Crown''. Midband was good, with just a hint of clouding and a slightly diminished airiness to the acoustic. DAT also does this, but not quite as much. So gentle was the effect though, you wouldn't know unless you'd heard the original on a capable system. Alex Reece's ``Feel the Sunshine'' was also storming sonic fun, with little deviation from the original. The only differences were a subtle softening of the upper treble region with some loss of lustre, a slight hardening of the upper midrange and a marginal loss of presence.
With pre-recorded MiniDiscs, things were less consistent. A 20-bit sampler disc sounded smooth and spacious, but the bundled Michael Bolton disc came across badly, sound plasticky and artificial--although the jury's still out on whether this was down to the disc or the artist.... Overall though, the MDS- JE500 was most enjoyable recording from a good source through its analogue inputs, a trait it shares with DAT. As I ran the gamut of my vinyl torture tracks, the Sony was hard to fault. Even compared to the best Nakamichi it offers 'good' sound, so for just £300 it's near remarkable. It betters nearly all cassette decks (an obvious exception being Sony's own Walkman Pro, and even then MD is superior in some respects), regardless of tape type or noise reduction. So, for the price of a middling Dolby S cassette machine you get clean sound devoid of hiss, vow, flutter, dropouts, fiddly tape calibration or the need to turn the tape over after 45 minutes. Quite something.
Traditionally MiniDisc has given journalists the heebeegeebees because it breaks hi-fi's most important rule--thou shalt not lose information. MD's data coding does precisely that, so most of the great and good of hi-fi scribbling were agin it from the start. But consider this--if the end product sounds good enough, does it really matter how it goes about the job? This is Sony's answer to MD's detractors, and it's a compelling one.
At £300 Sony's MDS-JE500 has much to recommend it, not least the MD format itself which is great to use--so durable it makes CDs feel like 78rpm gramophone records. MDs are really far easier to handle, store, and transport. And as far as sonics are concerned, even the most hardened hi-fi hack would have to admit that it's good. If I was forced to put my cards on the table and nominate cassette's rightful successor, then MiniDisc is it.
SONY MDS-JE500 £299.95
Sony UK Ltd.,
Surrey KT13 0XW
Tel: 0181-784 1144
WORLD VERDICT * * * * (Actually 4 globes, Hi-Fi World's highest rating, Outstanding)
Impressive sound and unmatched convenience make it an excellent buy. Superb value for money.
MD is an optical disc in a protective case, about two thirds the size of a modern computer floppy disc. With the recording surface fully enclosed, MD is extremely durable, with a claimed life of up to one million recordings. It's also insensitive to shocks and extremely light and compact, making it ideal for mobile use. MD gives a playing time of up to 74 minutes in stereo or twice that in mono, and blank discs cost around £5 each at the moment. Although pre-recorded MiniDiscs are available they've yet to achieve widespread sales. However, an increasing number of new releases are now appearing on MD.
So what of the MiniDisc format? Well, in the Asia-Pacific region it's doing pretty well. In its native Japan MD always had a head start because of the unpopularity of pre-recorded music cassettes (MC). In the late eighties when MC was consistently outselling both CD and vinyl in the UK, they were nowhere to be seen in Japan--CD was all-powerful and vinyl but a fading memory. This means there was a gap for a cheaper, smaller and more user- friendly format than the CD and technologically more advanced than the cassette--MiniDisk in other words.
Having learn lessons from their pre-recorded DAT fiasco (Ryuichi Sakamoto's ``Beauty'' album was the only music DAT I ever saw in Tokyo), Sony decided to target MD more accurately at the high spending, gadget-loving Japanese youth market. Lots of pre- recorded software was made available and the machines were more visible in record shops, department stores, and shopping malls than they were in electronics outlets. Blanks were cheap and on sale in that Mecca for Japanese teenagers, the local Seven-Eleven convenience store. And unlike the first DCC hardware, the first MD machines were of the trendy personal 'Walkman' type, barely larger than a CD Discman. Finally, Sony targeted much of their advertising at music and lifestyle magazines rather than the specialist Japanese hi-fi press.
The strategy worked, and MiniDisc has done well, if not spectacularly. At last Sony has shown itself fully conversant with its market, demonstrating that it knows precisely who and what MD is for in Japan. So the big question is, does that same affluent teenage demographic exist in Europe or the States?
As far as the economically buoyant, gadget-fixated US market is concerned, I'd say yes. As far as Europe is concerned--the home of the compact cassette and with a teenage dance culture still quite committed to vinyl--I'm not so sure. If MD is to succeed here it needs to be cheap, bundled with every mini system, in every 'radio cassette' player, car and Walkman. It should be to the nineties what the cassette was to the eighties, the nation's music software carrier.
Still I'm not so sure that MiniDisc has to be the exclusive preserve of teenagers anymore. It's done a lot of growing up itself, execrable ATRAC 1 now having reached version 4, and it's finally winning real hi-fi credentials. As soon as it can hold its head high in a decent home system, it should really fly in Britain. There are now many--myself included--who believe that time has come.
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