MiniDisc arrived on the scene in 1992 and struggled to find its feet. The need for a recordable digital format was clear, and although DAT had found a home in the professional audio market, it was too expensive an option for most consumers. Sony's MiniDisc soon found itself competing with Philips' Digital Compact Cassette, but MiniDisc had the undeniable advantage of instant track access and skipping that had already proved so popular on Compact Discs.
MiniDiscs made use of the Serial Copy Management System, which allowed a single digital copy of a CD to be made, but ensuring that the subsequent copy could not be replicated again. The MiniDisc was a magneto-optical format that allowed not only writing, but also re-writing just like the Compact Cassette. Although unlike the cassette, you could delete tracks in the middle of your line-up, and the songs would just resequence automatically.
Another major advantage that MiniDisc had over CD was size - in fact MiniDiscs were even smaller than the Compact Cassette, paving the way for a new generation of smaller personal stereos. Of course the smaller physical size of the MiniDisc meant that it offered less physical storage than a CD - around 177MB compared to around 650MB. Despite the smaller capacity, a MiniDisc could store approximately 80 minutes of digital music, much like a CD and to achieve this feat, that music was encoded in a compressed format.
MiniDisc purported to offer "near" CD quality music by employing Sony's proprietary ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Codec) compression codec, and to this day I maintain that ATRAC is one of the best quality codecs out there. Of course audiophiles dismissed MiniDisc, insisting that the quality degradation was too great compared to the original CD, but they were missing the point. Basically you had a format whereby you could not only copy entire CDs, but also make compilations, just like on an old analogue tape, which made it a very compelling proposition in the personal stereo arena.
Unfortunately the general consumer was still more than happy with the quality and convenience of the Compact Cassette, and despite the first MiniDisc player/recorder hitting the streets in 1992, cassette decks and Walkmans continued to dominate. But towards the end of the 90s, MiniDisc (which was already a roaring success in Japan) started to gain some ground in Europe. Early adopters and tech junkies, started to see the benefit of MiniDisc as a recordable format. In fact, back in 1998 both myself and my recently departed (as in left TR for pastures new, not deceased) Deputy Editor, Benny were big MiniDisc supporters. We both invested in home recording decks for our Hi-Fi setups, and MiniDisc Walkmans (yes Sony was smart enough to keep the Walkman brand for MD) for our journeys to and from the office every day.
Even though both the MiniDisc format and the ATRAC codec were Sony inventions, the company was more than happy to license the technology to other manufacturers. This resulted in a plethora of MiniDisc hardware from all the big names in consumer electronics, although the level of choice in Europe was still tiny compared to the model line-up available in the Far East.
In 2004 Sony announced the Hi-MD format, which was essentially a MiniDisc with a capacity of 1GB. With this extra storage came the ability to record in linear PCM, allowing for perfect copies of your CDs, with no loss of audio quality whatsoever. It also meant that if you were still happy to encode your music using ATRAC, you could fit a massive amount of songs on a single disc. Hi-MD discs could also be used for data storage, and you could even store a mix of data and music on the same disc.
Unfortunately for Sony and the Hi-MD format, the market had moved on by this time and MP3 players had already pretty much put MiniDisc in its grave.