Saturday, 21 May 2011

Before there was iPod

In 1992 Sony launched the MiniDisc (MD) as an attempt to replace audio cassette technologies. The MiniDisc was developed based on magneto-optical storage media that allowed for writing and rewriting of stored information. The fact that the data could be quickly accessed without the need to scroll through an entire tape made this technology very promising for ease of use over the cassette. The data compression format known as ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding) was used to allow the audio files to fit on the MiniDisc. In fact, at the SP compression ratio of 292kbps, 60 to 80 minutes of music could be stored on a single disk. Even at CD quality, 20 to 28 minutes of music could be stored on the MiniDisc.

The first MiniDisc based machine was the MZ-1 recorder. The problem with this machine was mainly that it had a cost of more than $750.00. It had an optical line input, audio line input, and microphone input jack. It had an audio output. Some of the earliest versions had an optical line output, but this feature was discontinued. Sony licensed MiniDisc tecnhology to a variety of companies such as Sharp, Panasonic, and Kenwood. It was only a matter of time before all of these companies had released their own lines of MiniDisc players and recorders. MiniDisc players were also developed by Sony for use in the home and car in 1994. All of these efforts yielded no results in North America and Europe, where people seemed content with cassettes for recording and CDs for music purchases. But in East Asia, the MiniDisc took hold and reigned as the top audio format medium through the rest of the 1990s.

In 2000, Sony launched the MiniDisc Long Play (MDLP) format. In the form of LP2, the MiniDisc player could compress audio at 132kbps for up to 80 to 160 minutes per disc. In the LP4 format, the audio could be compressed at 66kbps for up to 320 minutes of audio per disc. But a big difference existed in how the stereo channels were recorded between these two MiniDisc Long Play formats. The LP2 used the same discrete left and right audio channels as the original MiniDisc SP format, while the LP4 began the use of joint stereo encoding.

To keep up with the new MP3 players hitting the market, Sony developed its NetMD for launch in 2002. The NetMD featured a USB connector for exchanging music files with a personal computer. However, in order to use NetMD on your computer, you would have to install their SonicStage (SS) software. Many people found that SonicStage was problematic. In some cases, it froze their computer systems. In other cases it used up a lot of system resources, had file transfer errors, and put restrictions on how often files could be transferred. Though Sony quickly came up with an update called SonicStage CP (SSCP), which was more usable. Their reputation was so tarnished by the original SonicStage that many former NetMD users still won't purchase Sony products.

Other people don't use Sony products anymore because of deceptive claims Sony made about NetMD on the NetMD product boxes and on the Sony NetMD website. Sony claimed the NetMD would be able to play MP3 files. What they didn't bother to mention was that the MP3 files would not be played natively but would have to be re-encoded by SonicStage into ATRAC format during the file transfer process. This not only meant that the sound quality of the MP3 files would be tarnished, but also that file transfers to the NetMD could take several hours.

It didn't help that Sony did not provide good product information to NetMD retailers. All during this time NetMD retailers were telling their customers that files could be transferred from the NetMD to their personal computers. Many people ended up deleting their original files on their computers after transfer only to find out later that they couldn't copy their NetMD files back onto their computers.

In 2004, Sony made a variety of fixes and upgrades to their MiniDisc product line with the release of the Hi-MD. Things such as USB two-way file transfers could now be done.  For the first time, recordings could be uploaded from the recorder to the computer but only files that were recorded in the Hi-MD format.  But for many former MiniDisc customers it was too late, as too much damage had been done to Sony's credibility. In addition to Sony, only Onkyo even bothered to make mini-component systems and home stereos using Hi-MD. But Kenwood, Teac, and Marantz still have MDLP systems on the market, even though Hi-MD is backwards compatible with the previous MiniDisc formats. Hi-MD contains 1 gigabyte of memory and records  in PCM, otherwise known as WAV.

In April 2006, Sony came out with the MZ-RH1 portable Hi-MD recorder. This recorder went the extra step, not only could Hi-MD recordings be uploaded but also recordings made prior to the introduction of Hi-MD could be uploaded.  Without blatantly admitting it, Sony was giving MD users the chance to upload all their MD recordings to computer so the files could be transferred to other formats as the MD-age was now coming to a close.

A whole generation in East Asia has now grown up using the MiniDisc formats. Many people have become hardcore fans. Many people haven't found a viable alternative for making real-time copies of music for replay without requiring the clunky intervention and use of a computer. Many people now collect MiniDisc systems just as a hobby. But the MiniDisc systems live on in popular usage because many people just want to be able to grab whatever they hear to hear again later.

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