Alternate Translation.

Now also on success course in Europe.
The MiniDisc goes on tour.

German Magazine Stereo 8/97

We Westerners cannot get excited about new technologies as quickly as the Japanese. This has one definitive advantage: We wait calmly until the products have matured and the prices have fallen. The MiniDisc has now come to this point. Thanks to the boom in Japan, the machines are produced in large numbers at low prices, and they have reached a quality where no big jumps can be expected. However, the offering of MD-Recorders in all variants increases rapidly. Before we test the most interesting MiniDisc machines in the following pages, we first throw a glance at the current market situation.

The breakthrough came last autumn. Sony then stepped on the pricebreak without mercy and offered the fullsize MDS-JE 500 recorder for 600 Marks. At this price there isn't much profit. 600 Marks -- that is what one also must pay for a semi-HiFi cassette deck, which in terms of sound stays far below the MiniDisc, not to mention comfort. What good is the cheap MD-recorder at home, when I cannot play the small disks in the car or in the Walkman? Therefore Sony has also lowered the prices in these segments and now offers a car radio with MD-player for 850 Marks and a portable player for 400 Marks: The complete changeover from compact cassette to MiniDisc has become affordable.

The competitors cannot yet match that. Until now they had to buy the key components, i.e. drive mechanism and ATRAC-electronics, from Sony -- and not necessarily at family prices. Lately Sharp is also offering the MiniDisc technology: Competition rules, and the prices are falling. This autumn Kenwood will market three new MD decks with the newest ATRAC-version 4.5, and asks only 600 Marks for the entry model. Complete minisystems with MD decks come from Sony and Kenwood for only 1300 Marks. Almost all big Japanese companys will have MD-machines in their German programs this season: Onkyo for the first time offers a fullsize deck, and MD microsystems will come from Aiwa, Pioneer and JVC.

Only Technics stays in hold position: The company certainly dropped its DCC engagement long ago, but turning towards a system of arch-rival Sony is still hard. Furthermore, Technics pushes DVD with fervor and would not wish to exclude the possibilitiy that a rewritable DVD could still dig a hole for the MiniDisc. And the European Philips-group? They have not completely recovered from the DCC shock, but already they now send daughter company Marantz into the MiniDisc community -- with a combined CD player/ MD recorder that we test in this issue. In reality the market development favors the MD, in Germany as well: At the end of 95 there were 95000 MD machines in German households, and according to Sony, 200,000 at the end of 96, and 500,000 are expected at the end of 97.

The prices for blank disks are developing pleasantly. Here Sony has also acted as a price-breaker and went under the ten Mark threshold a year ago. In the meantime the other producers have followed, and further price reductions are expected at the Funkausstellung. In spite of that: Eight Marks for an hour of MD-recording -- that is way above the price level of the compact cassette. As time goes the blanks will be cheaper, while no big price reductions can be expected for the machines. In comparison with CD players, where today well-known brands can be bought for 300 Marks, there are much higher costs in MiniDisc recorders: The ATRAC data reduction, the complete recording chain with AD converter, level meters and write mechanism, extensive editing functions and not least the textcapable display. The 600 Mark level will not let itself be underbid so soon, if the producers want to continue to pay themselves. In any case Sony is holding prices stable for this season: The new entry model MDS-JE 510 costs as its predecessor, 600 Marks.

Qualitative improvements are anyway to be expected for the AD converters, which still can be improved in the low-price machines. That is of no importance when recording from a digital source. Be sure that the recorder is equipped with a sample rate converter, so that you can also record digitally from digital radios and future DVDs. The 48 kHz rate is becoming more and more of a standard in those systems. Cheap micro MD recorders can often only accept 44.1 kHz signals. The ATRAC data reduction can only be improved in fine details -- Sony is already at the sixth ATRAC-generation and has left the era with teething troubles behind.

Further developments of the MD technology will certainly come in the user interface -- here there are no limits to the fantasy. Interesting above all else would be the possibility to transfer text information from CD to MD. The first CD players with text are being introduced on the market these weeks, but they are not allowed to send text information together with the audio bits to the digital output. Anyhow, Kenwood's new top-of-the-line recorder DM 9090 can, together with a text capable Kenwood player, transfer the title names separately -- as long as they are not protected with a special copy bit. We will have to see if the music industry plays along. Up until now they have opposed text transfer, because they wish that prerecorded media should have an advantage over recordable.

Prerecorded MiniDiscs have not reached any market significance. Most labels offer no MDs at all, only Sony is present on the market with about 130 titles. Prices are at CD-level, and the demand is low, that is what Saturn in Munich tells us. Another big media trade company, World of Music, has completely removed prerecorded MDs from their assortment. That proves once more: The MD is interesting as a recording media, not as a prerecorded media. That is the same way it went for the compact cassette: When the system was established with high volumes, the prerecorded Musi-Cassette reached market significance.

Is the MiniDisc then the recording system of the future or should one wait for the re-recordable DVD? We think that both formats can exist peacefully together. We don't need a unified system that covers all uses from radio recorders to recording studios. The MiniDisc is ideally suited for portables up to pretentious HiFi use. DVD-RAM can then cover the upper-most HiFi segment and studios. In this context one has to consider that digital copies will, also in the future, only be possible with 16 bits: The music industry will not permit duplication in master quality.

Ulrich Wienforth

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