Essay Winners: # 1 2 3 4.

And They Said It Wouldn't Last
Untimely Reports of the Demise of the Minidisc

Gary Bingner
May, 2000

On December 28, 1992, when I stepped up to the electronics counter at my local audio store and shucked out $699.99 plus tax for my first minidisc "portable", the classic behemoth Sony MZ-1, the clerk behind the counter eyed me with a look of amazement and amusement.

"You been selling many of these?" I asked him.

"You're the first," he deadpanned. Then added ominously, "And you may be the last."

Less than a year later, I stood before the same salesperson, this time shucking out $899.99 plus tax for the first home MD recorder (including a microphone input!), the now-prehistoric Sony MDS-101. Fortunately, Mr. Doomsayer didn't recognize me from my earlier purchase, but his prediction for the future of minidisc was equally dire.

"Do you think this format's got a chance?" I asked, waiting for him to launch his latest scud missle against the Sony minidisc.

"Yeah right," he said mockingly. "Just like the Betamax."

He spoke the word. Betamax. Sony's greatest hour of shame. And with that one word, he seemed to have cursed my favorite fledgling format. "How can this format survive", I thought to myself, "if guys like THIS are its only champion?"

Nonetheless, I plunked down the big bucks and happily carted off my new MD deck, along with a handful of 60 minute blank MD' $13.99 a piece. Why? Because I knew Sony was on to something fabulous. Instant random access (children of the CD era would NEVER settle for rewinding and fast-forwarding again), excellent sound (even the MZ-1 was light years beyond cassette sound, in my opinion), and those tiny high-tech discs. They were so looking!

Years past and. despite every prognosticator's portent of doom and gloom, the minidisc continued to survive. Even thriving in Japan and parts of Europe. And thanks to the advent of easy internet access and opportunistic new "etailers", early adapters with an addiction to audio and some spare disposable income, breathed new life into the format stateside.

Then came a big break in the States: Best Buy, then later Circuit City, lauded the new format in circulars and in-store as a way to boost their "cutting edge" images. Sony actually advertised, although often times badly, the rebirth of MD in print, radio, and TV during "The Year of the Minidisc".

Still, despite their efforts, Mr. and Mrs. Frontporch still had no idea what a minidisc was or why they should care. But the KIDS knew. And those with access to a few hundred dollars and a penchant for technology, got one. And advertisers smiled. Because when you can get young people to "buy into" (and buy) your product, you'll probably have a long-term customer.

Still, there was competition. And with every new technological advancement, the minidisc was deemed dead yet again. "CDR will replace minidisc" it was said. "MP3 will kill minidisc" said others. And yet, during all this debate over what was going to be the final consumer death knell to minidisc, many have neglected two important realities about minidisc:

NUMBER 1) RADIO HAS EMBRACED MINIDISC. Yes, the same people who've kept DAT alive long after the world stopped spitting on its grave, RADIO PEOPLE LOVE minidisc. In fact, you won't find a self-respecting station that doesn't use minidisc in some capacity on a daily basis. WHY? 1) Because it's a professional, air-quality recording and playback medium (even with "consumer" gear), 2) Because it's extremely portable and a breeze for reporters to both interview and edit with, 3) Because it's one of the most reliable (and space-saving) long term audio storage available today, and 4) Because IT'S DIRT CHEAP. Any station can sound like a million bucks without spending anywhere close to that.

Which leads me to my second point to why minidisc IS surviving, NUMBER 2) IT'S A MATURING MEDIUM. To us audio lovers, that means the technology continues to improve, but at this point, the improvements are infinitesimal. The units are getting incredibly small, yet performing way beyond their enormous predecessors; the battery life has become astounding (remember my MZ-1? Not only was it huge, but it could only record ONE HOUR on a battery the size of today's smallest cell phones, while my new portable will run over 50 hours on a tiny chewing gum battery); and the sound quality has improved markedly from the days when people regularly (and, I think, wrongly) dissed it.

And what does a "maturing" technology mean to the masses? It means MD's are getting CHEAPER. The R & D costs have been covered, the manufacturing processes are becoming more efficient, and, just like the VCR (god rest its soul), these days you can get so much more minidisc for so much less.

As for CD-R and MP3, they're not going anywhere either. But now that Sony and others are jumping onto the MD/MP3 bandwagon, the easy availability of $2 (or less) minidiscs and record and playback units (pushing the $150 mark) that can fit in your shirt pocket (with room to spare), the versatility and appeal of building a large, personal minidisc library will not be ignored.

So, for me, the question is not "Will Minidisc Survive"? It IS a survivor. It HAS been a survivor for the last 8 1/2 years. And with so many factors working in it's favor right now, most notably reduced prices, greater accessibility, and increasing versatility with MP3 files, I see it continuing to survive for some time to come.

As for "Dr. Death", the nattering nabob of negativism from my local audio store? Well, he went out of business years ago. Couldn't keep up with the trends, I guess, and was tossed into the dustbin of history.

Just like the Betamax.

Return to the MiniDisc Community Page.