You can almost sense the sighs of relief coming from Sony UK - three years after MiniDisc was first launched in Britain, it seems like it's at last beginning to sell. The reasons aren't hard to fathom: the price is nearer to being right, and the latest versions of the Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding (used to pack 74 minutes of music onto a disc much smaller than a CD) are now a lot more transparent in operation.
Will it replace tape? Not a polyethylene cat in hell's chance, simply because there are so many tape recorders in use across the world. Also, there's just too much stuff inside an MD player to make a 15 Pound Boots own- brand personal player possible. So howsabout MiniDisc's viability as a quality home recording medium? Now you're talking.
Using established MD thinking plus in-house know- how, the Denon has jog/shuttle control like those found on Sony's decks for editing and title entry, but employs Denon's own digital-to-analogue and analogue-to-digital technology. The ASLC system, designed to make the most of low-level information, is found in some of the company's better CD players, and here it's partnered with a 20-bit digital filter to give higher levels of detail.
As is standard with all MiniDisc recorders, the Denon has both digital and analogue inputs and outputs, although the only digital interface is via an optical connection. We've always found that electrical connections sound better, and many British CD players only provide an electrical output.
Fire the Denon up, load a blank disc and you soon discover that digital recording from CD is just as easy as it's always been. There's no need to set levels; tracks are numbered automatically, and it's easy to erase tracks or shuffle the order. Decide you don't want the second of twelve tracks you recorded, or want it to be track 11, and your wish is the Denon's command. You can even split single pieces of music into a number of separate tracks - handy if you want to go straight to that favourite guitar riff! It's all standard MiniDisc stuff, but it still brings a smile to the face.
As does the sound of the Denon. Provided you don't set it too tough a task - you wouldn't expect it to match a great 500 Pound CD player, for example - it makes recordings that are highly musical and satisfy most hi-fi criteria. Rock and Dance tracks can sound a little more dense that the CD originals, and the layers within the mixes a tad less explicit, but in general they're highly enjoyable, and convey the emotion of performances. Michael Jackson's immaculately produced Blood on the Dance Floor set suffers a little thickening, sounding more like it would on a reasonable sub - 200 Pound CD player, but the quality of the original production is still apparent, and Jackson's vocal foibles remain just as annoying. Similarly the atmosphere of old Hendrix sessions now revealed on the remastered back catalogue is powerful on the Denon's copies, even if the tingle factor apparent when the discs are spun on a fine CD player isn't quite there.
There's some evidence of dynamic compression, for example with the great orchestral and choral blast of Haydn's oratortio The Creation. The joyous outburst is just a little muted, but as with all these effects, only the very finest tape decks, costing as least as much as the Denon and loaded with top-quality metal tapes, could match what this MiniDisc recorder does with ease. And that's almost as true when recording from analogue sources, although care is needed with the manual record- level setting used for analogue-to-digital copies.
The Denon is a good recorder, and makes very fine copies. Only trouble is, this 500 Pound machine has one insurmountable problem.
The Sony uses a new version of the ATRAC system, and also comes with an electrical input. This matches the digital output on most high-quality CD players and sounds much better than the optical feed. Should your player only have an optical output, there's an input for that, too, plus analogue line in/out sockets and an optical digital output, to feed, for example, an external DAC. Facilities and features here are much the same as the Denon's, although the Sony's jog/shuttle dial is much slicker in operation than its rival's thanks to a 'push to enter' facility, which makes editing functions a doddle.
Other goodies here include a 'music synch' system allowing the recorder to start as soon as an input is detected, and 'time machine recording'. This enables you to start up to six seconds after the start of something you want to copy without missing the start: if you record off of the radio a lot, you'll wonder how you managed without it! Add in a remote handset with keys to speed up entry of titles and control track up/down and pause on a Sony CD player, and you've a well-thought-through machine at a very sensible price.
And that's especially true given the Sony's performance. The latest version of ATRAC is extremely good, as is the single-bit DAC used here, and when you record form an analogue source the analogue-to-digital conversion isn't too shabby, either. Digital copies from high quality CD players are all but indistinguishable from the original, and if you're feeding the recorder form a sub-300 Pound Sony player we'd be willing to bet they'll sound identical.
The bass here is powerful and well defined, giving music a firm foundation. Music as diverse as the Michael Jackson dance disc and the Haydn ortortio failed to catch the Sony out, while even close-up jazz with subterranean bass lost little of its impact. Midband and treble projection is similarly impressive - compared with the sound of a top-notch CD player the Sony sounds a shade lacking in ambience, but the nuances missed are very subtle.
Rock and pop is handled with suitable swagger by this machine, the perky pop of Supergrass still zapping from the speakers and all the raw energy of the remastered Hendrix albums captured to thrilling effect. Even copies of vibrant radio broadcasts sound fresh and involving. Just keep an eye on the levels when recording from analogue sources, and the Sony's a breeze to use. Home recording value for money doesn't get any better than this. True, Sony's amazing MDS-JA3ES may just edge it for ultimate sound quality, but then the '510 is 400 Pounds less expensive.
Add in the fact that Sony's recorder performs so well, and the superior ergonomics of the controls - but then the inventor of MD has been at this a bit longer! - and the result here is well beyond doubt. To misquote a slogan, it's the Sony.
WHAT HI*FI? Says Sound Build Ease of Use Verdict Denon **** ***** **** *** Sony ***** ***** ***** *****
It's an interesting price, 300 Pounds. Dangerously near good cassette deck territory. Or to be more specific, only 50 Pounds more than the Yamaha KX-580E, the current version of the holder of our Best Recorder Award. So we know what you're wondering.
And the answer is yes, the Sony makes recordings just as good as those available from the Yamaha loaded with good metal tape. And what's more there's no tape hiss, even in the quietist moments of a recording - even with the KX-580E's Dolby S in use, bias set correctly and at optimum recording levels, crank the amp and you can hear that 'ssss' in the pianissimo moments of an orchestral piece.
And one you're copied a CD onto a MiniDisc, or even made a compilation from various discs, the whole tape business seems to involve unreasonable levels of faffing about. Beside MiniDisc, analogue cassette doesn't feel particularly 'three years to the millennium and counting'; instead, it betrays its early Sixties origin. Yes, it's seen over 30 years of continuous development, and achieved performance levels its originators never imagined - but high tech it isn't.
Of course, all that will be of minimal relevance if you need a cassette deck to make compilations to play in the car - most motors still come off the line with a radio cassette as standard. But if it's a matter of making great recordings to enjoy at home, or you can afford a suitable in-car or personal player, MiniDisc - and more specifically Sony's MDS-JE510 - wins hands down.