Let Us Say Goodbye to Minidisc and Embrace an
Honest Winner: Hard Drive Portable Audio

Eric Woudenberg, April 2003


We admit it has taken us considerably longer than the average techno-freak to see the light, but clearly, gentle readers, the time has come to say goodbye. Ten years ago the budding Minidisc held such promise -- the dream of every home recordist was within reach. Lossless handling of recorded audio had been something only the well heeled could afford, but Sony's little digital disk was about to knock their socks off. Or so we thought.

Sony's first endeavor, the MZ-1, led the way. And while it was clunky and had poor battery life, it was clearly the vanguard of great things to come. Soon the MZ-R2 appeared, a trimmed down model for those on a moderate budget. Seeing this, the recordists surmised that before getting extravagant, Sony first had to build a customer base; and so we patiently waited. Next the MZ-R3 appeared, with better sound and battery life -- but still no digital out! Things seemed to be going in the wrong direction.

Sharp meanwhile had introduced the MD-MT20, a small portable with complete editing functions and full digital I/O's. Some manufacturers, at least, were clear on the concept. Sony followed with their MZ-R30 and MZ-R50 units, the later a delightfully nice machine in many respects, but strangely missing the one thing that made Minidisc magic -- full digital interconnectivity! While the recording hobby held its breath, smaller, lighter, cheaper and less usable machines appeared, one after another.

The MZ-R55 was tiny, important perhaps to some, but it lacked a microphone sensitivity selector, had worse battery life than its predecessor, and was not particularly well built. Next came the MZ-R90, the beginning of years of machines with noisy motors that spun up so slowly that FF/REW handling suffered badly. Minidisc machines now had a built-in operational lag that was somehow reminiscent of cassette. Sony's beautiful little digital disc was moving away from being a useable audio device and year-by-year becoming a consumer fashion accessory! Apparently the only criteria that seemed to matter to manufacturers were size, weight and battery life. Feature-set, ergnomics and durability all took a back seat to a press release that could exclaim "World's smallest! World's lightest!".

In 2000 Minidisc got an important boost: two new Long Play modes that allowed up to 5 hours of stereo recording. This was a genuine benefit that added versatility to the format, but ... why did it take 8 years from MD's initial launch to appear? The coder behind it (ATRAC2) was already available in 1996. Finally, in 2001, the Minidisc world saw the arrival of what could have been the format's crowning glory: PC interconnectivity -- except that Sony neutered it beyond recognition. NetMD, the long awaited "direct" data connection between Minidisc and PC, could unfortunately move audio in only one direction (the better to sell you new top-40 hits with my dear!) -- and awkwardly at that.

Year by year, the disc-based digital audio jewel that Sony had so boldly put forth seemed to fade ever further from its promise and possibility. Where was the DAT killer? Where was the home studio in a shoe-box? Where was the solid and robust prosumer MD portable? Sony could have easily built any of these, but in the end they shrank from it -- their innovation took a back seat to their businessmen.

A New Era

So -- it has been eight years since Minidisc.org was founded, and we admit it was fun. We tried to help the little format along, writing the details down, helping users, urging Sony to do the right thing (drop end search, add PC uploading, build machines with useful features). But in the end we have to face facts: Sony employs bright people who must surely be aware of how much customers would benefit from a portable Mindisc recorder that actually delivered on the promise of digital audio (one model would suffice!).

Today marks the end of our denial. We admit that Sony is building their machines this way on purpose. They know what they are doing (and whom they must kowtow to), and eventually we must ask ourselves, what is the point of trying to set them straight? Imagine -- petitioning Sony!? It is ludicrous! Are we to live as Kafka's "K", the character in The Castle who struggles endlessly against an inscrutable authority to gain admittance to a castle? No, we are not! We are moving on to embrace an open format and a set of manufacturers who serve their customers first and are not beholden to the Recording cartel.

Hard Disk Audio

Archos was the first, but now there are many manufacturers who understand the future. Hard Disk density does not in fact follow Moore's doubling every 18 months, its capacity doubles every 12 months. Couple this with open formats (MP3, Ogg Vorbis), and good interconnectivity (Archos' Jukebox is just as much a 20GB mass storage volume with a USB 2.0 interface as it is an audio player) and you have a very clear winner. Why wait around, pleading and begging Sony to make a tweak so that perhaps, someday, if you please Mr. Sony, I will be allowed to access my own audio? It's absurd. The time has come to get on-board the format of the future and leave proprietary formats to their dwindling user-base. It was quite telling to find in the Wired article on the Civil War Inside Sony that Sony has no plans to make a Hard Disk based portable audio device. Sony, you have run aground here.

Presently Neuros seems to be the manufacturer in the lead, making a flexible player/recorder that runs with either Flash memory or Hard Disk (a flexible mounting sleeve makes these options field swappable) and, most importantly, promotes third party development! This, we feel, is the wave of the future. With outsiders able to particpate in the development of a device, equipment will no longer be shackled by the limitations of its originator.

What is in store for Minidisc.org?

We have quickly converted Minidisc.org over to handling hard disk based players and recorders, and we will be adding more equipment entries as they appear on the market. Wish us well!

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