MiniDisc Buyer's Guide

This page is intended to be a supplement to the Getting Started guide, with more details about particular generations of machine, decks, and “gotchas” - for someone new to the MD format, please check the Getting Started guide first.

With so many unique pieces of MiniDisc hardware existing (over 1800 models listed on the wiki, with more to come), it can be confusing or intimidating to choose and buy a device. As with many pieces of retro-tech equipment, the best device for you is the one you have available: a well-priced, known-working one is a better use of time and energy than hunting for a “white whale.”

But given the ease of eBay searches and other online marketplaces, knowing what to look for can be a huge benefit. Below are a few general tips for finding the right device(s) for you.

MiniDisc is a recordable format, and most (but not all!) equipment sold outside of Japan was capable of recording to discs. In Japan (the largest market for MD) players were very common as they were cheaper and smaller than recorders.

A recorder is strongly recommended, at least as a first purchase. Players are a good secondary device, or in the (rare) case that you only want to listen to discs recorded by someone else, such as record label. But not being able to record does severely limit your capabilities (and fun) with the format.

The wiki page for a device will show if a device is a recorder or just a player, and some manufacturers' model numbers also suggest a device's class or features. Model naming is rarely consistent or logical, and changed over time.

Among recorders, the 3 common ways to put audio on a disc are:

  • Dubbing (line-in or optical-in from another device playing the audio)
  • CD copying (common on bookshelf units or CD/MD dual decks)
  • USB via NetMD

Almost all recorders support real-time line-in recording (although some later model NetMD portables are USB-only), and very few (if any) devices support all 3 recording methods.

If you do not want to record in real time, you should buy a NetMD recorder.

Accessory compatibility between different equipment is confusing. There are several accessories that you may want to have with a (portable) device:

  • batteries
    • later models almost all consolidated on the “gumstick” battery or AA cells
    • earlier models used proprietary batteries that have since failed and need replacement or rebuild
  • battery chargers
    • AA batteries are easy to buy or recharge
    • gumsticks need an external charger or adapter
    • other batteries need to be charged inside the device using an AC adapter
  • battery sidecars
    • these screw into the side of a portable to allow one or more AA cells to be used
    • they are not always compatible between different models, even by the same manufacturer
    • many have severe damage from battery leakage
  • inline remotes
    • these are generally compatible between the same manufacturer, but not universally
    • players benefit from remotes more than recorders, as many players do not have screens or all features as buttons on the unit itself
  • AC adapters
    • useful, but not essential for most portables
    • aftermarket multi-voltage adapters are available, but be cautious of polarity and DC voltage
    • NetMD recorders do not charge via USB
    • modern replacements are available from some vendors, such as MyVolts

Portables are more common, cheaper to ship, and have no issues with different AC voltages. They can also be connected to any other audio setup using 3.5mm “aux” cables or a 3.5mm to RCA adapter. However they are more cumbersome to manage or title tracks with, and very few have digital audio output.

Sony created the MD format and were by far the largest manufacturer of devices, from the very first MZ-1 to the ultimate MZ-RH1.

Equipment from other manufacturers play the same discs often use the same batteries, but have different remotes from Sony. The largest other manufacturers of MD equipment were Sharp, Panasonic, Pioneer, Kenwood, Victor (JVC), Onkyo, and Aiwa.

sony_mz-1_remake_final.jpg The Sony MZ-1, the very first MD recorder.

Outside of personal interest, there is little reason to buy a machine from the first 5 years of the format's life. They are bulkier, have worse audio recording quality, and much worse battery life (the original MZ-1 reports just 75 minutes of playback time, not even enough for a full 80 minute MD (though these were not available at the time of MZ-1's release)) than later models.

These early models do still support features like ToC editing and skip protection, and can play all SP discs.

r50_trifecta.jpg The Sony MZ-R50, a well received late 90s portable.

Models such as the Sony MZ-R30 and the Sharp MD-SS70 released in late 1996 have better industrial design, battery life, and recording quality than the earliest models. This is due to component integration, miniaturization, and improvements to the ATRAC encoding technology.

By 1999, the Sony MZ-R90, Panasonic SJ-MJ75, Sharp MD-MT831, and Victor XM-R70 recorders all offered 10 hours or more of playback battery life and were barely larger than MiniDiscs themselves (minus thickness)

MZ-R The Sony MZ-R909, a MDLP (but not NetMD) portable recorder.

Long Play (MDLP) was the first upgrade to the MD format and by far the most popular. We have already covered MDLP in the Getting Started guide. The first LP-compatible recorder was the Sony MZ-R900, released in September 2000. Sharp, Victor, Panasonic, and Aiwa soon after released their own MDLP models.

MDLP machines will play all previous discs and can record to the SP and mono formats, but audio recorded in the LP modes will not play on previous machines.

All MDLP decks include ATRAC1 Type-R encoding, but the first group of portables use ATRAC1 “4.5” encoding. Type-R is the last available SP encoder. An improved MDLP decoder called Type-S was introduced in 2002.

Outside of LP modes, these devices continue the trend of smaller portables with better battery life. Most equipment had standardized on two battery types, the slim Ni-MH “gumstick” or the (readily-available) AA cell. 20+ hours of playback time was achievable from a single gumstick battery, and even more with AA.

mz-n505.jpg The Sony MZ-N505, a recommended NetMD portable recorder and good first device.

NetMD was announced by Sony in September 2001 and made available with the MZ-N1 in December. NetMD did not change the MD(LP) format, but added USB connectivity to allow writing to discs from a PC over USB with Sony's SonicStage software. Although SonicStage was considered clunky and annoying even during its lifespan, new reverse-engineered software such as Web MiniDisc Pro and Platinum-MD are much more convenient and make NetMD the most convenient way to copy audio to discs, even today.

NetMD recorders competed with flash-memory based MP3 players and did see an uptick in commercial success in North America and Europe. Rewritable MiniDiscs were less expensive than flash memory cards such as CompactFlash and MMC.

Because the MD ecosystem was not as developed outside of Japan, almost all recorders used an internal AA battery rather than a gumstick, and some of the best selling models were lower-cost “download only” models such as the MZ-N420D that cannot record in real-time with a line input or microphone.

NetMD portables are the “sweet spot” of price, convenience, availability, and battery life. For this reason, they are the default recommendation for anyone's first MD equipment. A recorder such as MZ-N505 or MZ-S1 in working order should not cost more than US$100, and often as low as US$40 with some patience.

sony_mz-n920_d.jpg The Sony MZ-N920, one of the most recommended MD portables.

ATRAC Type-S is an improvement to MDLP playback quality, starting with the Sony MDS-JE780 deck and MZ-N10 portable in 2002. The differences between Type-R and Type-S are not significant enough to dismiss earlier Type-R equipment, but as of time of writing Type-S portables support more reverse-engineered exploits such as downloading tracks from a MiniDisc to PC using Web MiniDisc Pro.

As with original Type-R MDLP, not all Type-S equipment supports NetMD.

The MZ-N910 and MZ-N920 portable NetMD recorders are highly recommended, although were only sold in Japan. The MZ-N520 was released worldwide and is also recommended.

sony_mz-rh1_2.jpg The Sony MZ-RH1, a flawed but sought-after Hi-MD portable.

The final iteration of MiniDisc, Hi-MD was also the largest upgrade to the format. As with MDLP, the basics of Hi-MD have already been covered in the Getting Started guide.

Although very capable devices with backwards (and some forwards) compatibility with earlier MD equipment, Hi-MD is rarer and much more expensive.

NetMD was extended to include Hi-MD, although Hi-MD modes (whether on Hi-MD formatted original MDs or newer 1GB Hi-MD discs) are not supported by Web Minidisc. Platinum MD and Minidisc-FFWD support Hi-MD mode discs. In original MD mode, the new software is compatible.

Because of its high price and limited compatibility with other MD equipment, Hi-MD is not a recommended purchase for all but the most dedicated MiniDisc fans.

The Sony MZ-RH1 Hi-MD portable is considered the definitive MD device, however it is even more expensive than other Hi-MD equipment and has early OLED displays that are all but guaranteed to fail. The “killer feature” of the RH1, being able to natively export audio from discs over USB, is now less relevant with the download feature in Web MiniDisc Pro on Type-S portables.

MiniDisc was most used as a portable format, but larger audio components were also quite common. The Wiki distinguishes between decks (audio components to be used in a larger hi-fi), bookshelf units (which have their own speaker amplifier and other inputs such as CD, cassette, and radio), and boomboxes (semi-portable devices with built-in speakers).

mds-jb890.jpg The Sony MDS-JB980, One of the nicest MD decks, including NetMD support.

Sony and other manufacturers produced decks throughout MD's lifespan (with the exception of Hi-MD, for which only Onkyo made decks.)

Sony model naming

For many Sony models, the number at the end of the name distinguishes the market position and generation. For example, the MDS-JB940 is an older but higher-end model than the MDS-JE480. Sadly this convention is not universal, so consult the wiki pages for more detail.

Generations

Like with portables, decks added new features like MDLP support and Type-S decoding. But size and battery life are less important for equipment in a hi-fi stack that receives AC power.

The primary deciding factor for a deck (or bookshelf) should be if you need MDLP support or not.

Inputs and outputs

Nearly all decks support at least a single RCA input and output for receiving analog audio in and sending audio to an amplifier. Most also include digital audio (either optical or coaxial), although digital input is more common than output.

Only a small number of Sony decks support NetMD. Others have different connectivity (labeled “Control” on the wiki) such as a PS/2 keyboard port for titling or proprietary intra-system control like Sony's Control-A1.

334505156_1_.jpg The Panasonic SC-PM50MD, a stylish bookshelf unit with CD and MD.

Very popular in the 90s and 00s, these are combined units that can be used standalone with just speakers. MiniDisc's small size made it a natural inclusion in these systems, which are almost always smaller than a full hi-fi stack.

Speakers

The original speakers bundled with a bookshelf unit were of varying quality between models. They are also expensive to ship and some countries (most notably Japan) have shipping restrictions on speakers.

It is unrealistic to expect a listing including speakers to discard them, so keep this in mind before purchasing.

Most units have standard speaker wire clips to use your own speakers; however some models such as the Sony LAM series have proprietary speaker connections that could require the use of the original speakers or modification to use your own.

Other inputs

A bookshelf unit will have other audio sources than just MD. CD was almost universal, as was FM radio (see notes on radio below.) Cassette was slightly less common, and later models (notably by Panasonic) had a USB port for playing MP3 files. What may be most important is a 3.5mm or RCA “auxiliary” input for devices like an iPod(!), phone, or even a Bluetooth adapter.

Although not as iconic as cassette boomboxes of the 1980s, the small size, skip protection, and low power consumption of MD made it an obvious inclusion on boomboxes.

However, most (but not all) MD boomboxes were only released in Japan. You need to be aware of the shipping restrictions some sellers or proxy services have on speakers, as well as AC voltage and FM radio bands covered below. Some boomboxes support C or D cell batteries, but these quickly become expensive to run.

Unlike portable equipment which uses universal batteries; decks, bookshelves, and boomboxes use AC power that has a different voltage in different parts of the world.

Japan uses 100V at either 50 or 60Hz. As a result, all Japanese equipment is multi-frequency, but usually only at 100V. Take the price of a step-down power transformer into account when importing AC equipment from Japan.

FM radio in Japan goes to 90MHz instead of 108MHz in the rest of the world. This means that most equipment with a radio (bookshelf, boombox, or auto) from Japan will likely not pickup all radio stations in your area.

There are many MD-capable car audio decks available, both OEM and aftermarket. See the wiki listings for more details.

Japanese auction sites sometimes list large lots of dozens, if not hundreds, of untested MD equipment. These are commonly simple players, but may also include recorders or even Hi-MD equipment.

Because they have been featured on the YouTube channel Techmoan, the community calls these “Techmoan lots” and they are a fun exercise for MD fans to explore and test various different devices and find diamonds in the rough. But the high shipping cost and no guarantee that even a single device will work means that they are for fanatics rather than newcomers to the hobby.

Because MD was so successful in Japan, there are many more devices and discs available there than elsewhere in the world.

Buying from Japanese sites such as Yahoo Auctions and Rakuten is possible via a proxy service. Although additional processing, shipping, and customs charges can make an order much more expensive than the upfront price.

We have a guide on purchasing MD from Japan.

As 20+ year old technology, MiniDisc equipment can have issues that are easily fixed, or that render a device unusable. We have a page for repairing common errors, but here are some things to watch out for:

TOC ERROR” is often a generic error when inserting a disc. It means that the Table of Contents cannot be read and the disc cannot be played.

Unless you have the skill and time to open a device (which is small and delicate inside), the device should be considered broken and kept for parts (or not purchased.) Some Sharp models have a small plastic gear inside that breaks, but replacements are available from online sellers if you want to attempt a repair.

Batteries left in a device for a long time can leak and cause damage to the device they're in.

Surface-level corrosion blocking a battery connection can be removed with a mild acid. See our repair guide here. But a severely damaged device will need more significant repairs or an external power source.

If a disc spins up but the player just keeps searching, this means that there is either a problem with the laser or with the drive sled. Very gently cleaning the read head with isopropyl alcohol may help, otherwise the unit will need repair.

The easier repair is lubricating the drive sled with white lithium grease to help the mechanism move. This lubricant dries up over time.

Much harder is adjusting the voltage on the laser. Only some models have publicized ways of adjusting the laser voltage, and this is an expert repair that needs specialized knowledge and tools.

This is a known issue with some models of Sony deck, and a well-documented fix. This should not be a deal breaker and instead a simple project and a way to get a deck at a good price.

Unlike portables, decks use a belt to eject the disc from the mechanism. This should also be a simple fix, and we have one such repair documented.

Because MD stores the ToC in RAM while editing, a track write or layout change can appear successful until ejecting the disc, when the changes revert. Unless the device has lost power before writing the ToC at the end of the process, this implies an issue with the write head. If it still works for playback, worst case scenario is that the recorder is now functionally a player instead.

  • guides/buying-guide.txt
  • Last modified: 2 months ago
  • by specialk