Why MiniDisc?

For many, MiniDisc flew under the radar. Why did people use MiniDisc in:

the 1990s?

At the turn of the 1990s, CDs had overtaken vinyl LPs as the primary distribution medium for new music. CDs offered a digital signal that would not degrade over time, did not require changing sides, and allowed for convenient track controls such as track skip and repeat.

But portable and recordable audio was still centered around the Compact Cassette tape. Following a small format war, MiniDisc emerged as the de facto successor to the cassette tape by the mid-90s. Compared to the cassette tape, MiniDiscs:

  • had no background hiss
  • did not need to be rewound or reversed
  • are less than one-third the volume (24.5cm^3 vs. 82cm^3)
  • can contain track and disc titles
  • do not degrade with multiple listens
  • are much more sturdy
  • provide superior audio quality

And compared to portable CD players (Discman), MiniDiscs:

  • have universal anti-skip protection
  • are [much] smaller
  • are recordable
  • boast longer battery life
  • are much more durable

For these reasons, MiniDisc was a welcome successor to the cassette and was a more convenient alternative to the CD player as a portable music format. Professional audio applications benefitted greatly from the MiniDisc's track queueing features and accessible, high quality recordings.

the 2000s?

Once the format had matured, battery life and audio quality improved even more, while player size shrunk. MDLP and NetMD were introduced early in the millennium and allowed for up to 320 minutes of audio to be copied to a single disc from a PC.

Compared to CD-Rs or even MP3 CD-Rs, MiniDisc continued to be more portable, more durable, and supported recording.

And compared to the low-capacity early MP3 players, MiniDisc recorders were more flexible (replacing discs rather than expensive SD cards or built-in storage) and had more presence in home decks and car stereos.

Before the format was discontinued, Hi-MD recorders were released that allowed for larger capacity discs and new audio codec options.

the 2010s and beyond?

We're still here today for a few reasons:

  • Nostalgia - You previously used MiniDisc, and want to learn more about the format, or start collecting / using it again.
  • a e s t h e t i c s - The MiniDisc format is a showcase of 90s and early 00s industrial design, a characteristic that pairs it well with the vaporwave and synthwave genres.
  • Pro audio - MiniDisc was widely used in broadcasting, live audio, and studio recording. A large amount of the format's equipment, knowledge, and recordings are in the professional space.
  • You still have working MiniDisc equipment in your car or a bookshelf system.

There are over 8000 subscribers to /r/MiniDisc on reddit and around 1000 followers on each of Twitter, Instagram, and our Discord server.

Expand on why I should still use a dead music format:

If I'm nostalgic.

MiniDisc was in relatively wide usage for 10-15 years. For some of us, the use of MiniDisc overlaps with our formative years or other significant times in our lives. Because music is so emotionally powerful, playing a piece of music on the same format on which you originally heard it may be even more nostalgic.

There is also a substantial community around MiniDisc collecting, as there is for many retro technologies. Using equipment with restrictions can spur creativity and result in greater appreciation for both the technology and the audio that the technology enables. Creating a mixtape disc that fits on a 74, or 80 minute disc and requires being placed in a dedicated machine requires more dedication to the music than a Spotify playlist does.

By most measurements, the MiniDisc is the last format to be connected to a hi-fi system for recording from the radio or another input to be taken elsewhere.

If I listen to vaporwave.

The Vaporwave scene has seen an explosion in the amount of physical releases, with many classics being pressed on vinyl or dubbed onto cassette tapes. As period-appropriate and enjoyable as these formats are, they suffer from the same flaw of degrading over time or with each successive enjoyment. As a digital format, MiniDisc does not suffer from this same degredation. The discs also take up less space on a shelf and cost less to ship. Most importantly, MiniDisc is a futuristic digital format from the 1990s that saw varied commercial success, and that's about as vaporwave as it gets.

If I still have some of this stuff lying around.

Cars (especially JDM) and bookshelf stereo systems from the era commonly had MiniDisc players or recorders built in. Additionally, MiniDisc was used in the broadcasting and recording spaces, so there are lots of demo tapes, early mixes, and live bootlegs available on the format to be rediscovered. Although discontinued, MiniDisc still provides excellent sound quality and convenience, so there is little reason to not use the MiniDisc functionality if you own it.

If I'm interested in retro tech and media formats?

MiniDisc, as a format that had equipment in production until at least 2013, still has lots of equipment available that works well and is (mostly) affordable - especially if you buy from Japan.

The quality (and ease, with modern methods of copying via USB or dubbing traditionally) is also excellent to this day and is more than suitable for daily use.

MD has both the tactile feel of physical music formats and the convenience of modern digital audio.

But there are things to watch out for:

Why did people NOT use MiniDisc when it was on the market?

There are a number of reasons, and they changed throughout the format's existence. Initially, recorders were large, expensive, with poor battery life (See: Sony MZ-1) and could not compete with the established cassette tape. The North American market also preferred portable CD players and both Canada and the United States faced legislative battles regarding MiniDisc's digital recording functionality. Later, the rise of CD-R drives in PCs (combined with broadband internet) and MP3 players changed how (portable) music was consumed entirely. Sony tried to counter this with the NetMD addition and later Hi-MD, but it was too late to counter technology such as the iPod.

How expensive and easy to find are machines?

MiniDisc recorders vary in price based on the model, condition, and location. Equipment in Japan is usually cheaper than in North America. Because devices are no longer made and interest in the format is increasing, prices are rising and many recorders cost over US$100 on average. See our Buyer's Guide and Buy from Japan guides for advice on what to buy.

What are the common pitfalls of the format?

Recorders themselves have quite small mechanisms that are almost impossible to be repaired by an amateur. As they have moving parts, all players will eventually fail or degrade in performance. Luckily, many machines are well designed and built, but hardware issues are inevitable. Discs are often overpriced, with some listings at more than US$10 per disc. When ordered as part of a used lot (MiniDiscs are reusable near-infinitely) or direct from Japan, a disc should never exceed US$3 (as of 2023).

How much worse than CD is the sound?

Very little. But some depends on how much of an audiophile you are.

Yes, ATRAC compression used on MiniDiscs is lossy. The quality of encoding tracks increased quite significantly over the format's first 5-10 years, and by the time that ATRAC 4 and Type-R came to the market, the audio quality had increased to being nearly identical to CD. If you're sensitive to audio compression, then you probably already know that this isn't the path for you - but for everyone else, you can easily experience a better audio experience through MiniDisc than you can most other audio formats.

Why should I collect MiniDisc instead of…

Cassette tapes?

Cassettes were a popular music format (especially in the '80s and '90s) but were a 1960s technology that was upgraded using technology (such as Dolby NR and Type IV (metal) tape) that is no longer being produced. Issues such as wow, flutter, rewind speed, and degradation over time were all addressed by the MiniDisc format, which can still be used as a convenient and high quality music format to this day.

Vinyl records?

Records have the benefit of being more widely produced, and have larger artwork. They are more vulnerable to the issues of analog media than the cassette tape, and cannot be used portably. A MiniDisc deck and a record player do not compete in a hi-fi setup.

For vaporwave collecting, MD has the benefit of a smaller size (for shipping costs and shelves) and more exclusive releases.

Many vinyl LP releases (such as those on Bandcamp) include a download code with a LP purchase - use this to make a MD copy.

Compact Discs?

CDs, as a ubiquitous music format since the late 1980s, have countless more releases than MiniDisc. For much of its life, MiniDiscs contained copies of CDs, ripped using combination devices or dubbed in real-time as a cassette dub had been.

The advice now is as it was at MiniDisc's height: buy CDs, rip them to MD.

As a portable music format, MD is an obvious winner due to its size, ubiquitous rewriteability, battery life, and skip protection.

  • faq/why-md.txt
  • Last modified: 11 months ago
  • by specialk